Social Mobility: A Smokescreen for Stasis?

Jocey Quinn

The concept of social mobility is ubiquitous in government rhetoric and in some parts of the educational academic community. In theory social mobility can mean horizontal or downward movement of groups or individuals across society, but it is dominantly employed to denote escape from unfortunate origins. Social mobility presents what seems like an uncontentious and desirable good: that those at the bottom of society should be allowed and facilitated to move up, and that education is a key lever in this process. Many worthwhile activities are organised under the name of social mobility: challenging this discourse risks being positioned as a “feminist killjoy” (Ahmed, 2017) who does not appreciate positive change and does not want disadvantaged young people to progress. Nevertheless, if we look beneath its smooth surface it is apparent that social mobility is fundamentally conservative: making pathways for the ‘exceptional’ and the ‘talented’ minority but leaving the status quo unchanged. It accepts that there will always be inequality and implies that the ‘top’ is where value lies.

“Circumstances” is an interesting term suggesting chance or random effects that might be magically overturned. It has an Oliver Twist ring about it.

The government’s Social Mobility Commission seeks “to create a United Kingdom where the circumstances of birth do not determine outcomes in life”. “Circumstances” is an interesting term suggesting chance or random effects that might be magically overturned. It has an Oliver Twist ring about it. The Commission focuses its attention on raising the achievement of those who have the bad luck to be born poor, whilst paying no attention to the structures that ensure those born privileged will remain so. It leaves the instruments of social division, such as private schools, firmly in place.
There are numerous studies that show how even the apparently socially mobile are still stratified and marginalised. For example, a recent large-scale study of those working in elite jobs in accounting, television, architecture and acting (Friedman and Laurison, 2020) showed how those from a privileged background were automatically assumed to have ‘talent’ because of their classed self- presentation and were promoted by work cultures and informal networking shaped by the privileged. Those without these “circumstances of birth” experienced a “class ceiling”. Some pieces are redistributed on the chessboard, but the rules remain the same. Instead of mobility, with supports given to help a minority across the lumpy social terrain, we need a fundamental transformation of the landscape. The pandemic has challenged accepted notions of value and worth, whilst revealing how deep social division goes. Social mobility is a weak response to this crisis. The tools for social transformation do not come from government bodies positioned at the top of the pyramid, they come from ground level social movements such as feminism and Black Lives Matter. Here the roots of oppression and inequality can be uncovered and with them other ways of organising and understanding society. It is not only about learning to read but what you read and what you learn. Director Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series on BBC brings this to life in the episode Education. Here supplementary schools founded by activists not only provide literacy support for black children unfairly removed from the mainstream, but also access to hidden black history.

A university … may reproduce social norms and buy into the myth of social mobility; but it also provides space where they can be challenged

A university has a double role in this shifting ground between mobility and transformation. It may reproduce social norms and buy into the myth of social mobility; but it also provides space where they can be challenged: it is what Gillian Rose calls a “paradoxical space” (1993, p.159). Part of our role as educators is to interrogate comfortable catch phrases like ‘diversity’ and ‘social mobility’ to uncover the work they are doing. For all the good intentions of very many involved, the work of social mobility is ultimately to provide a smokescreen for stasis. In response to ‘social mobility’, I am developing the concept of ‘future mutabilities’. This posits the human and the world as perpetually moving and changing in multiple forms of relations, not simply in a hierarchical or linear way. It allows for much more fundamental transformation of inequalities and recognizes that these are not just changes to the social order but cultural, imaginative, digital, as well as material. However, potential changes are subject to systemic constraints, so the nature of future mutabilities remains under question and is not free; unlike social mobility, which assumes that with education everything is possible.

I will be exploring these issues and others in a forthcoming book for Routledge: Jocey Quinn, Beyond Formal Education: A Critical Posthumanist Approach to New Learning Worlds, which draws on many of my research projects in learning outside formal education.

For those who want to follow this up …

Ahmed, S. (2017) Living a Feminist Life, Durham: Duke University Press

See, also, Sara Ahmed’s website: https://www.saranahmed.com/

Friedman, S. and Laurison, D. (2020) The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged, Bristol: Policy Press
McQueen, S. (2020) Small Axe, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p08vxt33
Rose, G. (1993) Feminism and Geography, Cambridge: Polity
Social Mobility Commission-Gov UK https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/social-mobility-commission

1 Comment

  1. Wonderfully written. This resonates with John Porter’s concept of vertical mosaic, which he used in the Canadian context to argue that there is the presence of a strong hierarchical patchwork/mosaic of classes and ethnic communities in the society with the British placed on the top. This challenges the belief that Canada is an egalitarian society.

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