Social Mobility: Meaning and Types of Social Mobility!


The term social mobility refers to movement of individuals or groups from one position of a society’s stratification system to another. This is a situation where individuals or groups rise or fall from the stratum to which they have been assigned.

The rise of a person from a very poor background to the presidency (e.g., A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, President of India) or to some other position of great prestige, power or financial reward is an example of social mobility. Mobility runs both ways—up and down. Thus, it is a movement up or down in the social ladder or in social status.

Some people fail to maintain their social class rank into which they are born because of loss of wealth or income, acceptance of a lower-status occupation and adopt a lower-status pattern of life. These are the symptoms and processes of downward mobility.


In contrast to this, persons who gain in property, income, status or a change in the job of higher rank indicates upward mobility. Lipset and Bendix (1960) defined social mobility as “a process by which individuals move from one position to another between such hierarchical arrangements that are to be found in each society”.

Thus, “social mobility is a movement up or down the social class hierarchy” (Mike O’Donnell, 1997). It involves change of one’s position in the social status hierarchy but does not necessarily involve any structural change in the hierarchy itself. According to Anthony Giddens (2000), “social mobility refers to the movement of individuals and groups between different socio-economic positions”.

The amount of social mobility is often used as an indicator of the degree of openness and fluidity of a society. Stratification systems, which provide little opportunity for social mobility, is termed as ‘closed’ (caste system), whereas that with a relatively high rate of social mobility as ‘open’ (class system).

Types of Social Mobility:

Social mobility can be studied from many angles. It has many dimen­sions, viz., direction, time and place etc. From the point of view of direction, it can occur in any one of the directions: from lower to higher (upward mobility), from higher to lower (downward mobility), or between two positions at the same level (horizontal mobility).


In addition to the three directions in which movement can take place, there is dimension of time also. That is, changes can occur between generations (inter-generational mobility) or within one generation (intra-generational mobility). Geographical movement involves moving from one place or location to another (neigh­bourhood, towns or regions). This is known as lateral mobility.

1. Horizontal mobility:

It refers to the movement of a person from one social position to another of the same rank. “A man moving from one job to another but at much the same level of prestige or income is known as horizontal mobility” (Inkeles, 1965). In brief, moving from one job to another job of equal rank is called horizontal mobility.

2. Vertical Mobility:

It refers to the movement of a person from one social position to another of a different rank. It may involve moving upward (job of higher rank) or downward (job of lower rank) in a society’s stratification system. Each of these illustrates vertical mobility. Downward mobility is less common than upward mobility. According to Inkeles (1965), “movement from one stratum to another up or down any one of the possible strat­ification hierarchies is called vertical mobility”.

Most sociological analyses focus on vertical rather than horizontal mobility. The amount of vertical mobility in a society is a major index of the degree of its ‘openness’, indicating how far talented individuals born into lower strata can move up in socio-economic ladder. Many researchers have been conducted since the pioneering study of Pitirim Sorokin (Social Mobility, 1927).


To mention a few, the studies by David Glass (1949), Blau and Dunken (1967), Lipset and Bendix (1960), Erikson and Goldthrope (1993) and Featherman and Hauser (1978) are well known in this field. In India, social mobility (especially mobility in caste structure) studies were initiated by M.N. Srinivas (1950) and later on many other scholars like A.R. Desai (1961), Yogendra Singh (1977), K.L. Sharma (1976) and Andre Beteille (1965) carried on such researches.

Vertical mobility can take three forms:

(a) Inter-generational,

(b) Intra-generational, and


(c) Structured.

(a) Inter-Generational Mobility:

When changes occur from one generation to another, it is known as inter-generational mobility. This type of mobility involves changes in the social position of children relative to their parents. Thus, a bus conductor, whose father was an engineer, provides an example of downward inter-generational mobility. A film star, whose father was a farmer, illustrates upward inter-generational mobility.

(b) Intra-Generational Mobility:


When mobility occurs within one generation, it is called intra-generational or career mobility. It involves changes in person’s own social position within his or her adult life. Persons can move up or down the social scale in the course of their working life. A man who enters as a school teacher and eventually becomes an inspector of schools of a district is an example of intra-generational upward mobility. Downward intra-generational mobility is not much common.

(c) Structural/Stratum Mobility:

These terms refer to the vertical movement of a specific group, class or occupation relative to others in the stratification system. For example, modern infor­mation technology has made machines and computer technicians more important in society. They are receiving more respect previously reserved for lawyers and scientists. An influx of immigrants may also alter class alignments, especially if the new arrivals are disproportionately highly skilled or unskilled.

Even in the rigid caste system of India, we are witnessing this change through the process of sanskritisation (propagated by M.N. Srinivas), whereby a low-status group (the sub-caste) attempts to improve itself through structural mobility. Srinivas cited an example of Toddy tapper caste known as Nadars (South India), who have tried to improve their social standing through emulating the customs, values and style of life of higher castes.