The study of social mobility is finally coming in from the cold (or at least from the Frigidaire of university sociology departments). A couple of years ago three of America’s leading newspapers — the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times — all published, almost simultaneously, multi-part series on social mobility. All three papers focused on the same problem: Why is the American dream of limitless upward mobility fading? Why are people finding it harder to climb the social ladder? And why are so many people ending up on the same rung as their parents (or even several rungs lower down)? The assumption behind all this newsprint was that the “natural state” of a highly advanced society is a fluid and mobile one.
This essay tries to look at social mobility from the other end of the telescope. It looks back to an Anglo-American world where people started off with the opposite assumption from that of today’s journalists: not that we should be surprised that people follow their parents into their jobs but that we should accept that as the natural state of affairs. It focuses on a group of thinkers who tried to grapple with the emerging problem of social mobility — but whose first instinct was not to look at social forces but at individual characteristics. Why do some people climb up the social ladder while others stay put? What personal characteristics account for the fact that some people “get ahead” in life and others fall behind?
The purpose of this examination is threefold. The first is to remind people that there are two issues involved in any study of social mobility: the social forces that determine the shape of society and the individual qualities that determine the life chances of particular individuals. This is something that the Victorians instinctively understood but that their descendants, particularly since the 1960s, have tended to forget. The second is to remind people that explanations of individual social mobility have varied widely over the years, from individual character to individual intelligence to blind chance. And the third is to argue that the second of these theories — the one concerned with individual intelligence — is much the most interesting. This is the school of thought that flourished from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth and that helped to reshape educational systems from America (through the sats) to Britain (through the 11+) to India and Singapore. This school of thought has lost ground in recent years as social scientists have questioned the science of individual differences and policymakers have made equality rather than equality of opportunity the aim of social policy. This loss of ground, however, has led not to a more egalitarian society but, on the contrary, to the calcification of a once mobile society on the basis of social privilege.
“Work, boys, work”
By the mid-nineteenth century, Anglo-American thinkers had become obsessed by the spectacle of social mobility, regarding it as the thing that most distinguished their own era from those that had gone before. Under the old order, positions had been ascribed by birth and sanctified by tradition; under the new, men could rise and fall within a fluid social hierarchy. This burgeoning optimism was reflected in changes in linguistic conventions. The traditional static names for social divisions — “estates” or “orders” — gave way to names appropriate to a stratified society open to upward mobility: “classes,” “status groups,” and, most evocative of all, “elites.”
But why were men mobile? Why did some rise and others fall? Throughout most of the nineteenth century, commentators explained individual mobility in terms of individual character. Men rose up the social order as a result of work and thrift. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the natural sciences exercised a powerful influence over the social sciences, intellectuals increasingly ascribed individual mobility to personal ability. Men were endowed by nature with different amounts of intelligence and vigor and rose and fell within the social order accordingly. After the Second World War this argument lost popularity. Psychologists questioned the idea of innate abilities, and social researchers emphasized the gap between individual merit and social position. Explanations of social mobility in terms of character became even more unpopular. Discarding both the Victorian belief in character and the early twentieth-century belief in iq, many intellectuals began to argue that social mobility might be a matter of pure luck.
The liberal movement of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was determined, above all, to destroy artificial privileges and uproot vested interests. By removing restrictions on individual enterprise, it hoped to reward virtue and unleash energy. Its watchword was not equality but equality of opportunity. Social inequalities, its philosophers argued, should be welcomed, but only when they were rooted in individual character rather than social conventions. R.H. Tawney provided an eloquent summary of this philosophy in his 1931 classic Equality:
The inequalities of the old regime had been intolerable because they had been arbitrary, the result not of differences of personal capacity, but of social and political favoritism. The inequalities of industrial society were to be esteemed, for they were the expression of individual achievement or failure to achieve. They were twice blessed. They deserved moral approval, for they corresponded to merit. They were economically beneficial, for they offered a system of prizes and penalties.
But for many liberals this outlook was combined with a belief in the equality of human endowments. Men were born with equal mental abilities: They could make of their lives what they willed. Human differences were essentially differences of character. Men were responsible for shaping their own lives: Failure was a failure of morality. The complex of beliefs which made up this theory is best studied in one of the classic texts of the time, Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help (1859).
Smiles believed that industrialization was replacing an aristocracy of birth (sometimes infused by talent from below but usually decadent) with an aristocracy of character in the form of “Industrial Heroes.” Hard work, shrewd intelligence and unwearying persistence were bringing returns which an older status-ridden society had denied to all but the fortunate few. He argued that the engine of social mobility lay in individual habits. The nation was only an aggregate of individual conditions, the success or failure of the community only a reflection of the success or failure of individual citizens. Men were the active agents of their own well-being and well-doing, and the key to success lay in moral character. Self-control, self-reliance, and self-denial were the most powerful engines of social mobility.
The things that most interested Smiles were ordinary virtues. He admitted that geniuses existed and that their achievements could not be emulated by ordinary men. But he added that self-improvement was open to anyone with sufficient grit. “The greatest results in life,” he wrote, “are usually attained by simple means, and the exercise of ordinary human qualities.” Industry and application might turn all things to gold. Indeed, the men who had most moved the world were not men of genius but men of mediocre abilities capable of perseverance. Furthermore, success in business was particularly open to common men with common virtues.
Smiles summed up the qualities which made for success in a single word: character. He hoped to see neither an aristocracy of blood nor an aristocracy of talent but an aristocracy of character:
Character is human nature in its best form. It is moral order embodied in the individual. Men of character are not only the conscience of society, but in every well-governed State they are its best motive power; for it is moral qualities in the main which rule the world.
Which is remarkably good news. Genius is a gift that is given to few. Character is open to us all. Smiles believed that the character of each person is susceptible to improvement by the vigorous exercise of conscience and the ceaseless cultivation of good habits. Self-respect, self-help, self-discipline could be learned; and once learned they led to social success.
This theory might strike most people today as hopelessly naïve, based on a selection of instructive examples rather than a dispassionate sifting of evidence. But it did embody a theory of social stratification. The social order was essentially a moral order, the outcome of innumerable moral decisions taken by the people. Success was a reward for moral restraint, failure a punishment for moral laxity. Furthermore, society was becoming increasingly moral as the hereditary aristocracy surrendered power to the self-made bourgeoisie. Social mobility was twice blessed: It rewarded the virtuous and punished the vicious, and it replaced a benighted and immoral social order with an enlightened and moralized one.
Smiles’s work was enormously popular on both sides of the Atlantic. By the end of the nineteenth century, it had sold nearly a quarter of a million copies. It appealed to a Puritan tradition which celebrated labor and held that worldly success was often an unintended consequence of religious duty. It also captured a mood of popular exhilaration as old restrictions disintegrated and economic horizons expanded. In England, industrial civilization seemed to bring only innumerable opportunities in its wake. As somebody who is known as “E.B.” put it in Songs for English Workmen to Sing in 1867:
Work, boys, work and be contented
So long as you’ve enough to buy a meal;
The man you may rely
Will be wealthy by and by
If he’ll only put his shoulder to the wheel.
In America, free land and the Western frontier multiplied the bounties offered by economic growth and confirmed a widespread belief that the New World was immune from the capricious distinctions of birth which so disfigured the Old World. Horatio Alger reinforced and expanded on Samuel Smiles’s optimistic view of things — and had no shortage of stories of boys who rose from rags to riches in America’s booming economy to illustrate his argument. In a period of unprecedented mobility and expanding opportunities, it seemed only natural to argue that people with “character” swam and those without it sank. Yet this argument was soon to be challenged by a theory which emphasized the importance not of acquired character but of innate ability.
Chip off the block
Self-Help was published the same year as a book which was to be used to support a very different explanation of social mobility: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The essence of Darwin’s argument is that the natural world is dominated by a ruthless and relentless struggle for existence. He argued that individuals within species displayed numerous variations; that preservation by the environment of well-adapted variations led to natural selection; and that natural selection led to the transmutation of species — that is, to evolution. The motor of biological change lay in the competitive struggle for life:
Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relation to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring.
Darwin devoted only one cryptic paragraph of Origin to “the origin of man and his history.” But some of his followers, later christened Social Darwinists, eagerly abolished the distinction between the natural and the social sciences, applying the notion of the “survival of the fittest” to human society. Social Darwinists disagreed over fundamentals — their works were a bundle of prejudices rather than a coherent body of doctrine — but they all implied that the able rose to the summit of human societies and the feeble sank to the bottom.
In particular, Herbert Spencer turned Social Darwinism into a celebration of laissez-faire capitalism. He argued that competition for the means of subsistence put a premium upon individual ability; that the fittest survived and the unfit went under (the phrase “the survival of the fittest” was coined by Spencer, not Darwin); and that the Captains of Industry were the lords of nature. Social mobility was simply natural selection: The able rose and the feeble fell. Animal vigor thus replaced individual character as the motor of advancement.
Spencer’s theory of social mobility was never very sophisticated. His definition of ability was circular — the fittest were those who survived and those who survived were the fittest — and his remarks upon examples of mobility were uninspired. But fortunately there were more sophisticated minds at work trying to apply the theory of natural selection to the human species. Darwin’s insights were first used to generate a sophisticated biological theory of social mobility by one of his cousins, Francis Galton. In Hereditary Genius (1869), Galton argued that individuals differed in their inherited mental capacities:
I have no patience with the hypothesis, occasionally expressed, and often implied, especially in tales written to teach children to be good, that babies are born pretty much alike. . . . It is in the most unqualified way that I object to pretensions of natural equality. The experience of the nursery, the school, the University, and of professional careers, are a chain of proofs to the contrary.
The range of these differences is enormous, he said, “reaching from one knows not what heights, and descending to one can hardly say what depth.” Not only were men created unequal, but the extent of the inequality surpassed anything before conjectured. He felt that these innate differences determined people’s future careers. English history provided numerous examples of able men, born in humble circumstances, rising in the social hierarchy; and the dissolution of inherited privileges was making such mobility ever more commonplace. The wider diffusion of economic opportunities, characteristic of advanced society, secured, through a social analogue of the biological struggle, the selection of individuals according to their native capacities. Instead of the class into which he was born determining, as in the past, the position of the individual, the quality of the individual determined his position and therefore his class. Able individuals and stocks seized the growing opportunities available and forced themselves to the top of the social hierarchy. As a consequence of such mobility, different social classes possessed different levels of “civic worth” — a quality Galton defined as a combination of ability and virtue — with the professionals and employers at the upper end of the distribution of civic worth, the respectable working class bunched around the mean, and criminals and paupers at the bottom end.
This was not a complacent defense of the Victorian social order — or not quite. The biological theory of social selection had radical implications. Galton noted that giants do not become more gigantic, nor dwarfs more dwarfish, in each successive generation: Variations have a constant tendency to regress to the mean. “The filial centre [mean] is not the same as the parental centre, but is nearer to mediocrity; it regresses towards the racial centre. In other words, the filial centre . . . is always nearer, on the average, to the racial centre than the parental centre was.” This law ensured that the children of the gifted were, on average, less gifted than their parents, although still well above the average, and the children of dunces were, on average, brighter than their parents, although still duller than the average. The chip might be better or worse than the block. The facts of biology dictated that social positions ought to be re-allocated in each generation. In consequence, Galton urged that every child should be given a chance of showing his abilities and, if highly gifted, enabled to achieve a first-class education and an entrance into professional life through the liberal help of scholarships. He argued that such mobility would seldom be drastic — promotion or demotion from the top to bottom of the system would be unusual in the extreme — but he insisted that competition would ensure a constant circulation of elites.
In Galton’s formulation, this argument was riddled with intellectual contradictions. But Charles Spearman’s work on general intelligence and R.A. Fisher’s reworking of Mendel’s theory of inheritance solved some of its more evident problems and gave the theory a new lease on life. Spearman replaced Galton’s ill-defined notion of “natural ability” with the concept of “general intelligence,” pervading all mental acts and present in different people to different degrees. Fisher clarified Galton’s assumptions about regression in his path-breaking paper of 1918 on “The Correlation Between Relatives on the Supposition of Mendelian Inheritance,” in which he demonstrated that a Mendelian model could account for the existence of normally distributed characters and for regression between relatives in respect to those characters. Differences in graded characteristics such as height or intelligence, he argued, are the effect of polygenic or “multifactorial” inheritance — that is, of a large number of genes, inherited equally from each parent, whose effects are small, similar, and cumulative.
Cyril Burt’s work on occupation and ability was a sophisticated synthesis of the ideas of Spearman and Fisher, in which a modified version of Galton’s vision of English society was preserved. Civic worth became iq; regression became a Mendelian process; and social mobility within a stratified occupational hierarchy became the product of the working of genetic laws. A degree of social mobility was thus the product of inevitable biological laws, but the same laws put strict limits on the amount of that mobility and certainly prevented any general egalitarian reconstruction of English society.
Burt argued that the pyramidical structure of advanced societies results mainly from inherited differences in mental ability. In traditional societies, the ruling class had been formed on the basis of physical prowess or inherited property; but in industrial society, the ruling elite is recruited overwhelmingly on the basis of mental efficiency; an intellectual aristocracy replaces a landed aristocracy. He insisted that the laws of population genetics — most notably regression to the mean — explained social mobility as well as social inequality. In each new generation, the recombination of the parental genes tends to give children at the bottom end of society more, and at the upper end fewer, capabilities than their parents, creating a discrepancy between inherited positions and individual abilities. Since the correlation between the intelligence of fathers and sons is only about 0.50, the mean intelligence of the children belonging to each class exhibits a marked regression towards the mean of the population as a whole, and the intelligence of the children within each class varies over a far wider range than that of their fathers. The average intelligence of the children in the higher groups falls almost halfway to the general mean, and that of the children in the lower groups rises in a similar proportion; at the same time, there is a marked tendency for bright children to be born to dull parents at the bottom of the social scale and for dull children to be born to intelligent parents at the top. Without social mobility, the differences between class means in iq would virtually vanish in about five generations.
Burt believed that intelligence tests would allow the re-allocation of social position in each new generation to be both scientific and precise. Psychologists could diagnose a child’s mental level at an early age, allocate him to the type of education most appropriate to his level, and then guide him into the career for which his measure of intelligence has marked him out.
Ability-based explanations of social mobility rest on two assumptions: that iq tests measure innate abilities and that schools can alter life chances. By allocating individuals to occupations on the basis of iq scores rather than family background, education can break the connection between social origins and social destinations and make intellectual ability a key variable in social selection. One of the most influential studies of education and social mobility, Christopher Jencks’s Inequality (1972), challenged both these assumptions and produced a radically new explanation of social mobility.
Unlike many other contemporary observers, Jencks accepted the traditional liberal assumption that America is a mobile society. He found that the role of a father’s family background in determining his son’s status is surprisingly small. The correlation between a father’s occupational status and his son’s status is less than 0.50. He insisted that “there does not seem to be any mechanism available to most upper-middle class parents for maintaining their children’s privileged economic position”: Most upper-middle-class children ended up worse-off than their parents. Downward as well as upward mobility was an inescapable fact of American life. He noted very considerable mobility over several generations: Rags-to-riches and riches-to-rags stories had some substance. Affluent families often had at least one relatively poor grandparent, and poor families (other than blacks and recent immigrants) often had at least one prosperous grandparent. He also found enormous differences in the incomes of brothers. “There is nearly as much variation in status between brothers,” he argued, “as in the larger population.” But he found that neither schooling nor innate ability has a marked impact on occupational destination.
Jencks insisted that schools have little impact on life chances. Differences between schools fail to explain differences between the careers of their alumni. Indeed, schools, whether good or bad, do little to alter the characteristics of their alumni: Pupils leave school with the advantages and disadvantages they had on entering them.
Like many postwar social scientists, Jencks was skeptical of claims made on behalf of intelligence tests. He argued that iqs are determined at least as much by the environment as by the genes — in technical language, that about 55 percent of variance in iq scores in a population is explained by environmental factors; that estimates of the heritability of intelligence refer only to populations and tell us almost nothing about differences between specific individuals; and that changes in the environment can produce changes in test scores. On this assumption, rewards for “ability” are as much rewards for environmental privileges as for innate qualities.
This argument was neither new nor particularly interesting. Indeed, Jencks apologized to his readers for conceding as much as he did to the hereditarian case. The importance of Jencks’s work lay in a subsequent claim: that genetic inequality explains only a fraction of cognitive inequality and that cognitive inequality explains only a small fraction of the social and economic inequality among adults. He argued that “there is almost as much economic inequality among those who score high on standardized tests as in the general population.” Even if it was inherited, “ability” did not explain success or failure in later life.
Having eliminated popular explanations of social mobility, Jencks went on to make a startling claim: “[E]conomic success seems to depend on varieties of luck and on-the-job competence that are only moderately related to family background, schooling, or scores in standardized tests.” Incomes often depend on such unpredictable personal qualities as the ability to hit a ball thrown at high speed, the ability to type a letter quickly and accurately, the ability to persuade a customer that he wants a larger car than he thought he wanted, or the ability to look a man in the eye without seeming to stare. Income also depends on random fortune:
. . . chance acquaintances who steer you to one line of work rather than another, the range of jobs that happen to be available in a particular community when you are job hunting, the amount of overtime work in your particular plant, whether bad weather destroys your strawberry crop, whether the new superhighway has an exit near your restaurant, and a hundred other unpredictable accidents.
The policy implications of this argument were radical. If success rewarded luck, then it had little justification. The rules of the competitive game needed to be changed so as to reduce the rewards of success and the costs of failure.
Regression to the mean
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, three highly distinct theories of social mobility captivated the imaginations of successive generations of commentators — one based on character; one based on ability, by which psychologists increasingly meant native intelligence; and one based on luck. What general conclusions can be drawn from such dramatic changes in intellectual fashion?
First, the intelligentsia has become increasingly reluctant to argue that individuals are equally responsible for their own destinies. Explanations of mobility in terms of character were at once egalitarian and voluntarist. All men were capable of success: Their fates were determined by their willpower. Explanations of mobility in terms of ability were anti-egalitarian and determinist. Individuals differed in their innate abilities, and no amount of effort could make a genius of a dunce. However, such explanations did leave a limited space for self-determination. Nature furnished capacities, not skills: It was up to the individual, through the exercise of his will, to realize his potential. Explanations of mobility in terms of luck leave no space whatsoever for the exercise of individual control over destiny. The social world has seemed increasingly impervious to the exercise of individual will. Biologists have emphasized the genetic influences which limit men’s control over their destinies, while sociologists have questioned the logic of even the most sophisticated processes of social selection.
Second, the intelligentsia has become increasingly reluctant to ascribe moral significance to success or failure. Ability-based theories played down the importance of morality, arguing that individuals had no control over their biological makeup and implying that those who failed did so through lack of biological resources. Luck-based theories rendered ethical considerations irrelevant. Success and failure were random events, not rewards or punishment for certain types of behavior. You don’t have to imagine what Samuel Smiles would have said about this argument — he wrote about it volubly:
Fortune has often been blamed for her blindness; but fortune is not so blind as men are. Those who look into practical life will find that fortune is usually on the side of the industrious, as the winds and waves are on the side of the best navigators.
Finally, the post-war intelligentsia progressively lost confidence in the mechanisms of social selection. Character-based theories reflected and reinforced a buoyant confidence in Anglo-American society. Social inequality was not only useful as a spur to effort and a motor of innovation; it was ethically desirable. Ability-based theories equally insisted that social selection — and therefore social inequality — was useful. By allocating individuals to positions within a highly differentiated social structure on the basis of their capacities, selection ensured that the work of the world was done with maximum efficiency. But such theories also sounded a note of warning about celebrating inequalities too crudely: They suggested that individuals inherited their abilities in a biological lottery. It could hardly be just to punish people for their lack of ability. Luck-based theories reflected and reinforced this lack of confidence in social inequality. They undermined both ethical and utilitarian defenses of social selection, presenting it as capricious and unjust. Once regarded as a reward for character or a recognition of ability, social success was transformed into a caprice of fortune.
Jencks’s study of inequality provided an eloquent summary of the orthodoxy of the 1960s. Yet even before its publication, fashion was changing. Already several intellectuals had expressed vigorous opposition to the egalitarian consensus, and in doing so they emphasized the importance of ability and character in individual life chances. In 1971, Richard Herrnstein revived the case for ability. He argued that social status reflected inherited ability; that equality of opportunity allowed the able to rise and compelled the dull to fall within the social hierarchy; and that social mobility generated differences in the mean iqs of different social classes — a position he and Charles Murray elaborated in 1994 in The Bell Curve (Free Press), one of the most controversial books of recent decades. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s conservatives tried to revive the case for self-help. Worried that welfare services are eroding personal responsibility and convinced that many public problems are rooted in private vices, they once more insisted that social success should be treated as an index of individual character.
What can we make of these three contending theories of social mobility today? There is no doubt that they continue to influence social thinking and social policymaking. There is equally no doubt that they point to radically different social policies. If the great social conundrum of our time is the calcification of a class society into a caste society, with the simultaneous rise in social inequality and slowdown in social mobility, then the great policy problem is how we can encourage individual mobility.
The problem with the first argument is that it can lead to stick-in-the-mud conservatism. The notion of “character” is so vague — one man’s “good character” is another man’s sports oaf — that it allows various powerful groups to promote their own. The idea of character allows college admissions officers to indulge their predilection for treating university admissions like places at a vast dinner party — so many reserved for the children of the alumni and, to salve their consciences, so many reserved for ethnic minorities.
The problem with the third argument is that it is the intellectual equivalent of a white flag: a sign that you are willing to give up on the age-old attempt to balance ability with opportunity and equality with efficiency. Do we really believe that there are no natural differences in ability? Or that there is no connection whatsoever between talent and reward? Do we believe that current society is nothing more than a gigantic lottery? And do we really argue that the ideal society should be an equal one in which differences of reward are flattened because they reflect little more than luck? We might find that such a society would soon degenerate into an inefficient farce.
The second idea is much the most interesting. It is partly so because it provides a sophisticated explanation of social mobility (and why the notion of a “hereditary meritocracy” is a contradiction in terms). The phenomenon of regression to the mean means that society will have to redistribute social positions in each new generation if it is to make the fullest possible use of its human resources. But it is also interesting because it provides a technique for discovering hidden talent in the population at large. The psychometricians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries took a stratified and conservative society and constructed a ladder of opportunity by which bright children could be given the proper place in the social order; as our own society becomes more stratified and conservative — as the scribes of the New York Times et al. have laboriously demonstrated — we need to ask ourselves whether the psychometricians will have something to teach us once again.