Social mobility is defined as a transition of individuals or groups from one position in the social hierarchy to another. The concept of social mobility is closely linked to the concept of stratification. As hierarchical patterns evolve in the society, a tendency of shifting these patterns at individual and structural level also evolves. Mobility can be at an individual level or at collective level termed as structural mobility. Functionalists like Parsons believed that mobility is a result of the process of differentiation in society and role filling by those who suit them the most. Marx on the other hand believed that the high rate of social mobility, embourgeoisement will weaken class solidarity. He foresees downward mobility in capitalism when petite bourgeoisie will sink down into the proletariat class. Frank Parkin and Dahrendorf believe that social mobility also acts as a safety valve in the society as the built up frustrations are vented through the route of social mobility. Andre Beteille in his Caste, Class and Power, 1971 has shown how mobility in a closed and stratified caste system is difficult. MN Srinivas in his study of Coorgs showed that in such a system alternate methods like sanskritization are evolved to move up socially but it affects only the cultural aspects and not the structural aspects.
A distinction is made between horizontal and vertical social mobility. The former refers to change of occupational position or role of an individual or a group without involving any change in its position in the social hierarchy, the latter refers essentially to changes in the position of an individual or a group along the social hierarchy.
When a rural laborer comes to the city and becomes an industrial worker or a manager takes a position in another company there are no significant changes in their position in the hierarchy.
Those are the examples of horizontal mobility. Horizontal mobility is a change in position without the change in statue. It indicates a change in position within the range of the same status.
It is a movement from one status to its equivalent. But if an industrial worker becomes a businessman or lawyer he has radically changed his position in the stratification system. This is an example of vertical mobility. Vertical mobility refers to a movement of an individual or people or groups from one status to another. It involves change within the lifetime of an individual to a higher or lower status than the person had to begin with.
The vertical mobility can take place in two ways - individuals and groups may improve their position in the hierarchy by moving upwards or their position might worsen and they may fall down the hierarchy. When individuals get into seats of political position; acquire money and exert influence over others because of their new status they are said to have achieved individual mobility. Like individuals even groups also attain high social mobility. When a Dalit from a village becomes an important official it is a case of upward mobility. On the other hand an aristocrat or a member of an upper class may be dispossessed of his wealth and he is forced to enter a manual occupation. This is an example of downward mobility.
Time factor is an important element in social mobility. On the basis of the time factor involved in social mobility there is another type of inter-generational mobility. It is a change in status from that which a child began within the parents, household to that of the child upon reaching adulthood. It refers to a change in the status of family members from one generation to the next. For example a farmer's son becoming an officer. It is important because the amount of this mobility in a society tells us to what extent inequalities are passed on from one generation to the next. If there is very little inter-generational mobility, Inequality is clearly deeply built into the society for people' life chances are being determined at the moment of birth. When there is a mobility people are clearly able to achieve new statuses through their own efforts, regardless of the circumstances of their birth.
Mobility taking place in personal terms within the lifespan of the same person is called intra-generational mobility. It refers to the advancement in one's social level during the course of one's lifetime. It may also be understood as a change in social status that occurs within a person's adult career. For example a person working as a supervisor in a factory becoming its assistant manager after getting promotion.
Structural mobility is a kind of vertical mobility. Structural mobility refers to mobility that is brought about by changes in stratification hierarchy itself. It is a vertical movement of a specific group, class or occupation relative to others in the stratification system. It is a type of forced mobility for it takes place because of the structural changes and not because of individual attempts. For example historical circumstances or labor market changes may lead to the rise of decline of an occupational group within the social hierarchy. An influx of immigrants may also alter class alignments -especially if the new arrivals are disproportionately highly skilled or unskilled.
Individual mobility is a micro view of social mobility. Individual characteristics such as race, ethnicity, gender, religion, level of education, skills, determination, occupation, place of residence and health determine individual mobility. Opportunity for individual mobility can be restricted by several factors. For example women, certain ethnic groups or disabled person, opportunities for upward mobility are limited.
Absolute mobility measures whether and by how much living standards in a society have increased or decreased, often measured by what percentage of people have higher or lower income or social well being than their parents. The more the absolute mobility the better off the population is than their parents.
Relative mobility refers to the fluidity of a society where if one person moves up in relative terms another by definition must have moved down i.e it is zero sum proposition. In contrast absolute mobility is a zero sum game.