HYPOTHESIS, THEORIES, AND STATISTICS ON SOCIAL MOBILITY
The concept of widespread social circulation of social class fluidity may be emphasized, defended, or propagated. Or it may be doubted, denied, and attacked. The foregoing critical survey of history has led to the conclusion that during almost all of human history there has been no appreciable amount of social class mobility. This is, of course, a belief, but one is in a stronger position if he says that he believes than if he says he knows, "for if we set on the assumption that we know, there is a chance we may be wrong . . . " 1 as Fairchild has logically explained.Next Page
Many students and writers have reflected upon and pondered over this theme, and it is appropriate that the conclusions and statistics of other authorities be reviewed here.
Throughout the foregoing many citations and extensive comments about the theoretical aspects of social mobility have been given. Some of these authorities have seen much mobility and opportunity for individual advancement on the social scale, others little, at each step.
To bring the attention of the reader a series of generalized interpretations and statistical analyses touching upon social mobility either as a universal phenomenon or as limited in space and time is the purpose of the present chapter.
Generalized interpretations. All social theorists are inclined to commit themselves to a belief or disbelief in the opportunities for advancement in the societies they describe. It is a mathematical certainty that where there is social ascent, there must also be social descent, although it has been characteristic of some writers to commit the sin of omission, inferring, instead, that the upper classes receive large numbers from beneath but without stating that they release somewhat corresponding numbers to the classes below them. A part of this confusion, in the United States at least, came about as a result of the construction of hundreds of thousands of box-like frame houses which gave the superficial impression that almost all of the population of some towns had attained middle class affiliation. The same conclusion arises from the almost universal use of the modern automobile: to some families it is one of many sources of display and pleasure, to others it is almost the only one.
Extreme social mobility, as a generalized interpretation, has been asserted by several writers, among them the chief publicizers of the American Dream. Others have taken a similar stand with regard to European societies. Sorokin, for instance, says: 2
Whether we take the richest families or the prominent families which occupied the upper classes of European societies at the beginning of the nineteenth century, we find that their offspring now either do not exist, or are degraded, or compose only quite an insignificant part of the total of the upper classes. The composition of the occupational, financial, and political aristocracy now changes probably with a greater rapidity than one century ago. During the last 60 or 80 years, European societies have been "digging" their upper strata in an extensive proportion from the middle classes. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, we see that they have gone still deeper and begun to dig from the classes of the proletariat and peasantry.
This statement is typical of one kind of generalized interpretation -- it belongs to the school of thought which sees much degradation on the part of older family lines and much circulation of the elite. This same author, as has been shown, reported the extermination of the eighteenth century mobility in a wave of revolutions at the end of that century.
North, unlike Sorokin, gives an interpretation that leans toward a belief in the fixity of social classes. Hereditary privileges are evident in the social processes; upon these the social ranks are built. In this connection he says: 3
Individuals have always, as individuals, shown themselves stronger than the prevailing system, and have broken through it . . . But it is the system that we have been describing, and these exceptions have been negligible in comparison with the millions who have conformed to it.
This thought that individuals have, albeit infrequently, risen in spite of the prevailing social order can find its counterpart in the strength of individuals and families to maintain their effectiveness even after the social order which had always handed privileges to them on a silver platter gives way. That is to say, when the lower classes dispossess the upper classes, they destroy the old order, but this same "strength of the individual" causes many of the dispossessed to maintain their status, even in a modified form and under new rules of transmitted privilege. There is, then, social class percolation at all times; there is also social class rigidity even in times of upheaval and apparent social chaos.
Another of North's penetrating generalizations concerns the tendency of social classes to become rigid, through the nature of family life: 4
Social differences once established tend to become more or less permanent. The status, the occupation, the culture of the father are found clinging to his children, and his children's children. The influences that created the differences may long since cease to operate, while the distinctions themselves are handed down successive lines from one generation to another.
But this is not merely in the handing down of property that the institution of the family tends to perpetuate social differences. The family is the instrument of society through which the advantages of wealth or the disadvantages of its lack are felt during the training period of the child; and it is also the agency which furnished the principal part of the mental environment for the most plastic period of the person's life. Thus not only are differences in the advantages which ome from wealth present in family life, but differences in the whole mental and moral acquisitions of the parents are necessarily transmitted through the home life. The parents' financial resources and their habits, their points of view, their types of reactions to established situations -- all constitute the medium in which the child acquires the foundation of his mental and moral life. For this reason the status, the mind, the character, the occupational trend of the parent all are woven into the very fiber of the child's life.
1. Henry Pratt Fairchild, The Foundations of Social Life (New York, 1927) p. 149.
2. Pitirim Sorokin, Social Mobility (New York, 1927) p. 496.
3. C. C. North, Social differentiation (New York, 1926) p. 225.
4. Ibid., pp. 254 and 256.