by 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.