Individual success, collective failure?
The process and consequences of social (im)mobility in neo-liberal times
Public dialogue about social mobility in many countries has recently been dominated by the myth of meritocracy and uses a neo-liberal vocabulary of aspiration, ambition, and choice, considering mobility as an individual project of self-advancement involving moving up in the social hierarchy (Lawler & Payne, 2018; Friedman & Laurison, 2020). Meritocracy suggests that whatever your social position at birth, society ought to offer enough opportunity and mobility for ‘talent’, when combined with ‘effort’, to ‘rise to the top’. This idea is one of the most prevalent social and cultural tropes of our time (Littler, 2017).
In this discourse, social mobility is the new panacea for wider historic and social ills, and the answer to the increase in classed and racialised inequalities. This special issue aims to challenge this widespread public and political discourse by deploying the sociological perspectives of social mobility and asking how (upward but also downward) mobility works, how fluid our contemporary societies are, what mobility means for those experiencing it, and what the social implications are of ‘individual […] success at the cost of collective failure’ (Reay, 2018). As an educational sociologist and academic with a working-class background, Diane Reay (2013) argues that ‘[a]t the collective level, social mobility is no solution to either educational inequalities or wider social and economic injustices. But at the individual level it is also an inadequate solution, particularly for those of us whose social mobility was driven by a desire to “put things right” and “make things better” for the communities we came from and the people we left behind.’ (Reay, 2013, p. 674)
The papers in this issue are testimony to the theoretical stance that upward social mobility cannot be seen as an individual project but needs to be understood and analysed in the wider context of social inequalities (among others, Lawler & Payne, 2018; Friedman & Laurison, 2020; Bukodi & Goldthorpe, 2019). The authors tackle the topic of social mobility from two perspectives. The first group of the research papers measure and analyse social mobility processes using the conventional occupation and education indexes and the not-so-conventional ‘soft’ variables of the intergenerational transmission of parental capital(s) on mobility outcomes. Beyond these mainstream mobility studies, the second group of articles consists of ‘marginal research’ (Lawler & Payne, 2018), or small-scale investigations that provide readers with insights into how upwardly and downwardly mobile people experience mobility when they have to travel through social spaces, leaving behind one class and adjusting to life in another.
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