John Goldthorpe talks to Prospect's Jonathan Derbyshireby Jonathan Derbyshire / September 18, 2013 / Leave a comment
John Goldthorpe is a sociologist and emeritus fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford. He has worked on social mobility and class structure in Britain for more than three decades. In 2012, Goldthorpe published a significant paper entitled “Understanding—and misunderstanding—social mobility in Britain.” The paper argues that there is a consensus in political and media circles that social mobility in this country has been in decline. Goldthorpe rejects this view. I asked him to explain why.
Jonathan Derbyshire: You argue that the consensus on declining social mobility in this country is based on a single piece of research, by a group of economists rather than sociologists, which in your view is seriously flawed—empirically and conceptually. Let’s take the empirical point first.
John Goldthorpe: The consensus view rests on one comparison of just two birth cohorts, 1958 and 1970. There is a rather technical question about whether the measures of family income for the two cohorts are truly comparable. But my main point is that all you’ve got here is a comparison of two birth cohorts only 12 years apart. They’re not population estimates, they’re estimates just for people born in one year. I don’t think that’s an adequate basis for talking about population trends in mobility.
JD: The conceptual point you make is that when politicians have appealed to this research, they have unhelpfully conflated what you call “absolute” and “relative” social mobility. Can you explain that distinction?
JG: The basic difference is this: absolute mobility rates refer to the simple percentage of individuals who are found in the same or in a different class to that in which they originated—their parental class. Relative rates refer to the relative chances of individuals starting in two different classes of origin ending up in two different classes of destination. The crucial thing is that absolute mobility rates are primarily determined by changes in the shape of the class structure over time.
JD: So when defenders of the consensus position assert that there was a “Golden Age” of social mobility in the first three decades after the Second World War, they are actually referring to structural changes of the latter kind?
JG: Yes. What happened in this so-called Golden Age of social mobility was that you got a really marked change in the shape of the class structure through expansion of professional and managerial…