How culture facilitates social mobility

Laddersby Jessi Streib

How do upward and downward mobility occur? And, what role, if any, does culture play?

These are core sociological questions, but sociologists struggle to answer them. Rather, cultural sociologists have thrown their intellectual weight behind studying the opposite of mobility – class reproduction. From cultural Marxism, to the culture of poverty, to Bourdieu’s theory of habitus and capital, sociologists have articulated many ways that culture leads people to stay in the class to which they were born.

Yet, not everyone remains in their class of birth. In fact, even in this age of inequality, most Americans move through the class structure at some point in their lives. Of children born into the middle income quintile between 1980 and 1982, only 22% stayed there as adults; 18% entered the top income quintile and 18% entered the bottom income quintile.

Among children born in the lowest income quintile in those same years, 38% made it into one of the top three. Of those born in the top income quintile, about the same number fell down into the bottom three quintiles. Mobility is with us, but cultural sociologists have mostly ignored it.

We need better theories of how culture facilitates mobility. If we are prepared to say that culture matters for class reproduction, we should at least entertain the idea that it also matters for mobility.

In a recently published article, I theorize how culture facilitates upward and downward mobility. I identify three cultural mechanisms of how youth born in poverty and the working-class launch into the middle-class, and three cultural mechanisms about how youth born into the upper-classes fall.

Upward mobility

Culture alone is unlikely to lead to upward mobility, but in situations in which youth are already credentialed, it can add an extra boost. This can work through cultural complements, person-institution-matches, and narratives of disadvantages-as-advantages.

Cultural complements

Sometimes we like people who are different from us in ways that can help us solve our own problems.  There are problems that our own classed socialization makes us poorly equipped to handle. In these cases, people who grew up in other classes and developed other skills are well situated to help us. I call the idea that people from one social class are well prepared to correct another social classes’ weaknesses “cultural complements.”

When you start to look for them, it’s easy to identify cultural complements. For example, people who grow up in poverty tend to be good at dealing with uncertainty, handling setbacks, and being aware of external constraints. Middle-class people’s privilege allows them to avoid uncertainty, setbacks, and external constraints, but not indefinitely. When they do face these issues, they may appreciate and reward poor and working-class-origin individuals who can help them solve their problems. In another example, poor and working-class people tend to need to rely on others to get by. They develop teamwork skills and the ability to read others’ emotions. Middle-class people will also find themselves in situations that call for teamwork, but they tend to grow up with a more individualistic ethos. When they struggle to make a team function, they may turn to, appreciate, and promote working-class-origin people who can solve their problems.

Person-institution matches

Some jobs – even professional ones – rely on skills that are acquired by growing up in poverty or in the working-class. For instance, social workers, human resource managers, and sales associates must interact with people from a variety of social classes. People who grew up in poverty and the working-class who then went to college will have many years of experience interacting with people from different classes. Their personal attributes then match what professional organizations look for in applicants.

Or, think of doctors. While medical schools are known for being class reproduction machines, once getting their MD, doctors have to rely on skills that schools don’t teach well but that people with working-class-origins often acquire through their upbringings: using your hands. Think about it: who would you rather have as a doctor – the mechanic’s kid who grew up using her hands to identify and fix problems, or the philosophy professor’s kid who intellectualizes problems and isn’t as comfortable feeling patients’ bodies to find medical problems? Both skill sets have uses, but at times it will be the mechanic’s kid who identifies the problems that the professor’s kid missed. These matches of people’s skills to institutional demands may help people born into poverty and the working-class further their upward mobility.

Narratives of disadvantages-as-advantages

We are all suckers for a good story, and people born into poverty and the working-class can tell some stories that people born into privilege honestly can’t. Stories of rags to riches, working-class heroes, and lifting as I climb are part of the American fabric. Some gatekeepers appreciate the people that can tell these stories and offer them new opportunities. It can make them feel that the American they imagine has a firm reality.

Downward mobility

Cultural mechanisms are particularly relevant for understanding how privileged kids lose their privilege. With many structural factors in their favor, internalizing the “wrong” frames, scripts, and strategies can lead those who start at the top to fall closer to the bottom.

Frames that are too distant from necessity

In our era of inequality, the upper-middle-class and upper-classes have become more affluent than ever. Yet, their affluence may lead some to forget that resources are still limited, schools still have immovable policies, and labor markets still impose constraints. Instead, youth born into the highest classes may be too focused on fun, identity, and status.  For instance, there is growing evidence that upper-middle-class college students who frame college as about fun and identity-building struggle to find professional jobs. Laid-off professionals, taken by the mantra of finding your passion, take longer to find employment when searching for jobs that match their identities but for which they are unqualified. Upper-middle-class youth create large gaps in their résumés if they take too much time to travel and find themselves. Employers, focused on bottom lines and measurable results, may be less inclined to take chances on people who prioritized fun and identity over building skills. These upper-middle-class ideas may backfire and increase individuals’ odds of downward mobility.

Undetailed scripts

Scripts are “cultural templates for the sequencing of behaviors or actions over time” (Harding, 2007:346). They tell us how to apply to a job, introduce two friends, or talk to a teller at a bank. However, not all scripts offer step-by-step instructions. Some scripts omit key elements, leaving us floundering. When middle-class people hold undetailed scripts, their chances of downward mobility go up. Think of a script that tells upper-middle-class people what to do if they want a career change: take a break and engage in deep self-reflection. Yet, this script misses a key piece: How do you match your interests and skills to a job? Without this step, upper-middle-class individuals may know they are good at talking to people and enjoy social engagements but not know how to find a job that uses those skills. Not having a plan to move forward, they may miss opportunities to stay in their social class.

Contingent culture

The culture that middle-class people use to succeed in one life stage might be penalized in the next. Yet, it’s not easy to suddenly switch from doing one thing that has long been rewarded to doing an entirely different thing. Middle-class people who can’t make this switch increase their odds of downward mobility.

Think here of the middle-class student who was raised treating adults as equals, asking many questions, and asking for institutional rules to be bent in her favor. These cultural strategies are often effective in succeeding in school, but they may not be so valued in the workplace. The young professional who is overly friendly with the boss, asks time-consuming questions rather than figuring out problems on her own, and demands that the organization changes their protocols to meet her needs may be viewed more as an immature nuisance than a valued co-worker. Being fired may be more likely than being promoted.


This is just a start – a way to show that cultural processes have great potential to explain social mobility. We now just need cultural scholars to address mobility with the same vigor with which they’ve addressed reproduction. With that, we can build a more balanced understanding of stratification and better understand a majority of Americans’ lives.

Jessi Streib is an Assistant Professor at Duke University.

This article summarizes findings from “The unbalanced theoretical toolkit: Problems and partial solutions to studying culture and reproduction but not culture and mobility” in The American Journal of Cultural Sociology. For a free, pre-publication version of the article, click here.

Image: Bridget McKenzie via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

1 comment
  1. Vincent Roscigno said:

    Excellent piece!! Go Jessi Streib!!!

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