Downward Social Mobility: Definition & Factors

Instructor: David White
For various reasons, a person's social position can change dramatically over the course of their life. Through this lesson, you will explore the concept of downward social mobility and some factors that cause a person to lose their social position.

Understanding Social Position

When you think about your community, how do you perceive your position within the ranks of friends, neighbors, and associates? Perhaps you are very active in your community, well-known, and well thought of by peers and those around you. Maybe you associate with wealthy people or are active in state or local politics, taking advantage of all the opportunities afforded to you.

The position you occupy in society is referred to as your social status, which is most broadly understood as the ways in which you compare with others in your city, state, or nation. A person's social status is not a reflection of their value or potential as an individual; rather, it is usually defined by the extent to which they possess the things that a particular culture deems valuable. For example, Americans place a high value on wealth, fame, and power, which is why millionaires, actors, and politicians tend to occupy the highest rung on the social ladder.

Social hierarchies organize people or groups in a society, often by social status and value.

All societies operate on what are known as hierarchies, or systems in which people or groups are ranked in terms of their importance or power. For example, if you think of American society as a ladder, you would put people like the President or the CEO of a major corporation at the top and under them you would place people of lesser importance as you worked your way toward the bottom.

Social Mobility

People who are at the top of the social food chain have nearly unrestricted access to opportunities that most of us could never dream of, but these positions aren't fixed. In fact, a person's social status can fluctuate from low to high, or vice-versa. A change in social status is the result of social mobility, which is a person's ability to move up or down the social hierarchy.

If you think of the President of the United States, you know that he didn't start his life as the president. He started as an ordinary American kid who, by taking advantage of opportunities, moved up through the social hierarchy by attending top-tier universities, establishing a career, and eventually getting involved in politics. This is what's known as upward social mobility, which is possible because a person works hard, applies themselves, and takes advantage of the opportunities to advance to a higher social position.

Downward Social Mobility

Most people desire to move up the social ladder, which is theoretically possible by working hard, applying oneself, and making connections with others. There are, however, times when a person moves down the social ladder, due to a phenomenon known as downward social mobility.

Theoretically, a person can move up or down on the social hierarchy depending on whether or not they are perceived as socially valuable.

You'll recall that a person's social position has a lot to do with the extent to which they possess the things their culture finds valuable and the opportunities to acquire those things. Given that, it probably comes as no surprise that downward social mobility is largely due to a loss of those things or a major shift in what society feels is valuable.

Factors in Downward Social Mobility

Downward social mobility is an undesirable occurrence, which is why you hear far less about it than its upward counterpart. Nevertheless, it happens all the time to people on all levels of the social hierarchy. A prominent example is the former football player and actor O.J. Simpson. Through the 1970's and 80's, Simpson built an impressive career in sports and entertainment and was highly respected and loved by the public. During this time, Simpson demonstrated upward social mobility as he ascended the social hierarchy, but that came to an end in 1994 when he was accused of killing his ex-wife and her friend.

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