Published in November 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
Which of the following statements is true? “The chances of social mobility in the UK match those in the United States and Japan.” “British society is no more open now than it was at the time of the first world war.” “Education plays a similar role in linking class origins to class destinations in both Germany and Britain.”
The answer is that they are all true. These remarkable findings have emerged during the past 20 years from an intensive programme of research organised by the International Sociological Association. The researchers, scattered across several continents, form an academic network based on a shared interest in class mobility within industrialised societies. Until recently their discussions featured a good deal of disagreement-mainly about methods and techniques. Now, however, there are signs of an emerging consensus about results that will overturn much of what we thought we knew about social class in the UK and elsewhere.
Social mobility can be looked at in two ways. First, it is possible to think in terms of career mobility, viewing movement between social classes as a work-history-from, say, first job to present job. Second, someone’s current class may be considered in relation to that of his or her parents.
How is class itself defined? The classical definitions based on property ownership are no longer very useful. But the same can be said of some of the contemporary status and occupation-based definitions. Most international mobility researchers have settled for the categories devised by John Goldthorpe in the 1970s, which are based on relative advantage in employment conditions. The various categories in this occupational schema may not always correspond with our common sense and cultural understandings of class, but they have been subjected to intensive scrutiny by researchers in several countries and found to be effective for cross-national comparisons. This alone has been an important achievement of the research programme.