Upward Social Mobility: Definition & Factors

Instructor: David White
Everyone changes social position at some point in their lives, some in a more positive direction than others. Through this lesson, you will learn what defines upward social mobility and explore some of the factors through examples.

What Is Social Mobility?

When you think about the most famous or powerful people in the world, do you ever wonder how they became so famous or powerful? The Prime Minister of Canada, for example, didn't start his life as Prime Minister, so how did he make his way to that position?

In sociology, moving from one social position to another, like ordinary citizen to Prime Minister, is referred to as social mobility. This term is used to describe a phenomenon in which a person moves up, down, or across the social hierarchy. For example, we all start our lives as children (a very low social position) and become educated, establish a career, participate in our community, and reach varying levels of success, all of which dictates our individual social status.

Moving from our low social position as children into increasingly more valuable social positions as we age is what's known as upward social mobility. Theoretically, during this process each social position is going to be more valuable and well-respected than the last, but it's not exactly as natural and smooth as you might think. In fact, there are many different things that affect a person's social status and mobility, some of which are well beyond our control.

Social Capital

As individuals and members of a group, our social positions are heavily influenced by the extent to which we possess the things that societies deem valuable. For example, in western countries, doctors occupy a valuable social position because they possess knowledge and skills that keep people healthy and support social stability. Moreover, doctors are also generally well paid and tend to accumulate wealth over the course of their lives, which is something else that many societies view favorably.

Our friends and family can play a big role in successful upward social mobility.

Money and material possessions tend to be perceived as a sign of success and power, but they aren't solely responsible for a person's social position. In fact, social capital is an equally important factor in determining a person's social position. Social capital refers to a person's relationships and social circles. Although we don't usually think about our friends and family as social assets, the people you know and to whom you have access can be very valuable. For instance, if you showed up at a restaurant for lunch, you'd probably be treated like anyone else in the restaurant. But if you showed up for lunch with the President of the United States, you'd likely be treated much differently because people would associate you with a very powerful and important person, thus raising your social position.

Factors in Upward Social Mobility

When it comes to social position and social mobility, the most important thing to keep in mind is that they are not a reflection of our individual value as human beings; rather, they are generally determined by the dominant culture's perception of social value. As such, social positions and successful upward social mobility rely on many different factors that can be unfair and are often beyond our control.

One of the most important factors in upward social mobility, family, can be seen fairly easily in the earlier example of someone moving from ordinary citizen to Prime Minister of Canada. The current Prime Minister, a man named Justin Trudeau, reached this highly valuable social position in part because he was well-liked, but also because he had many important social and political connections and is the son of a popular political figure who served two terms as the Prime Minister in the late 1970's and early 80's. In this case, Trudeau's successful upward social mobility was possible in part due to his hard work, but also because of considerable social capital that came as the result of being from a well-known and well-respected political family.

Our family background can play a critical role in upward social mobility, particularly if that family already possesses wealth that contributes to a higher social position. More importantly, though, it dictates another important factor in upward social mobility: race.

Race plays a critical role in our financial and social lives, ultimately influencing our social mobility.
race income

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