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.

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by Richard E. Ocejo

I teach at CUNY, New York City’s public university system, so most of my students are from working-class and/or minority backgrounds. They’re very familiar with basic service jobs.  I often ask them to tell me what they do for work, and they name jobs like cashier, retail sales associate, food and beverage service, security, or some low- or entry-level office job like customer service or secretary.

I have learned that most of my students seem to have a strong work ethic, and they have internalized the received wisdom regarding these jobs: they’re “bad” as long-term jobs, but “good” for now, which is why they’re in college to ensure they don’t have to work these jobs for the rest of their lives. They want a stable job with decent pay and benefits, and they want to both enjoy and be respected for what they do.

During these conversations I often tell my students about my latest project and forthcoming book. For six years, I conducted ethnographic research on workers at four workplaces: bartenders at high-end craft cocktail bars, distillers at craft distilleries, barbers at upscale men’s barbershops, and butchers and counter workers at whole-animal butcher shops.

These jobs are all specialized, niche versions of their more common versions. Like everyone, my students are familiar with bartenders, barbers and butchers, and while they may not have ever encountered someone who makes hard alcohol, they certainly understand that someone has to do it.

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by Nathan Wilmers

In October 2016, after a month-long strike, 750 dining hall workers at Harvard University won an increase in their minimum annual salary to $35,000.  This wage boost seems to demonstrate the pay-offs to union activism.

But, for skeptics the link is not so clear.  The wage increase happened while the labor market tightened for low-skilled workers, as the Massachusetts unemployment dropped to 3.6%.  Maybe Harvard would have struggled to retain good dining hall workers at a lower salary.

And Harvard is rich.  Absent union pressure, the University would probably still pay dining hall workers more than its less well-funded peer institutions.  Maybe the observed 10% to 25% national union wage premium comes from unions organizing employers, like Harvard, that would have paid higher wages with or without a union.

For these reasons, recent research has been skeptical about unions’ capacity to increase workers’ wages.  Since the early 1980s, labor union membership density has been cut in half, from around 1 in 5 workers to 1 in 10 today.  If product markets are getting more and more competitive, employers’ margins should narrow, and there might be scant room for unions to bargain.  Studies of close union representation elections show that when a union barely wins, wages do not increase more than when a union barely loses.

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by Geraint Harvey, Carl Rhodes, Sheena Vachhani and Karen Williams

The ranks of the self-employed in the U.K. have increased considerably in recent years. Currently, around 15 per cent of working people declare themselves to be self-employed. But this image of a self-employed workforce needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Recent research by Citizens Advice Bureau that around 460,000 people might be ‘bogusly self-employed’.

It is reported that this bogus self-employment means that firms hire people as contractors rather than employees so as to avoid paying the minimum wage, National Insurance, sick pay, holiday pay and pension contributions.

The result? Workers suffer because money that was previously was paid to them is transferred to the coffers of the business. Society suffers because business pays less tax. The UK authority for income tax collection, HM Revenue and Customs, estimates that that it lost £430 million as a result of unpaid tax related directly to ambiguity in employment status. In the Republic of Ireland the figure is estimated to be €650 million in the construction sector alone.

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Tenement Museumby Robin Bartram

How does a left-leaning social history museum with progressive intentions end up obscuring structural inequality? My recent study answers this question using observations and archival research at New York City’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

If you visit the Tenement Museum, docents show you around recreated living spaces of 18th and 19th century immigrant families. These apartments are full of objects that docents use as props to tell stories about the lives of their former inhabitants.

Take the example of the restored apartment of the German-Jewish immigrant Gumpertz family who lived in the building in the 1870s. Climbing a narrow staircase, docents tell visitors to imagine Natalia Gumpertz carrying heavy buckets of water up these steps. Inside the apartment, docents pass around an iron so visitors can feel the weight Natalia would have had to endure, and point to a sewing machine to explain that Natalia worked as a seamstress to provide for her children after being deserted by her husband during an economic depression.

Natalia’s hard work paid off, visitors learn, as she was eventually able to move her family to a New York suburb.

Over and over, docents use props to tell stories about Natalia’s hard work, resilience, and eventual triumph in the face of adversity. As such, Natalia is an example of what I came to call a “historic role model” because of the way the museum stresses her endurance and ultimate success.

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by Gunn Elisabeth Birkelund, Kristian Heggebø, and Jon Rogstad

People who are unemployed often have difficulties getting back into the labor market, particularly if the unemployment spell is long-lasting. This penalty is called the “scarring effect” of unemployment.

We also know that employers discriminate against ethnic minorities when they apply for a job. It is therefore important to examine how employers react to job applications from unemployed minorities. Long-term unemployment rose in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, and we wanted to explore if the scarring effects of unemployment were more harmful to ethnic minorities than for the majority.

Our new research explores how employers react to job applications from long-term unemployed ethnic minorities. We compared employers’ response to unemployed minority job applicants with their response to three other groups: employed majority job applicants, unemployed majority job applicants, and employed minority job applicants.

We found that unemployed ethnic minorities received the lowest response of all four groups, whereas majority applicants already at work received the highest callbacks. But our results from a field experiment in Norway show that the penalty for being unemployed was similar for both the majority and the minority group.

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by Donald Tomaskovic-Devey and Dustin Avent-Holt

Once upon a time, Jim Baron and Bill Bielby told us to bring the firm back in to the study of stratification. After editing a special issue in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility on organizational stratification, we are here to report mission accomplished: the firm is back in.

Increasingly processes assumed on the theoretical level to generate and shape inequality, such as categorization, status expectations, social closure, exploitation, organizational habitus, and social networks, are examined empirically within organizational contexts. The relational turn in sociology has reinforced this move by its insistence on embedding action in relational context.

Using a variety of tools the authors of these pieces illustrate several ways in which organizations shape inequality processes and mechanisms. Authors take up classic stratification questions on declining gender job segregation, growing income inequality, distributive justice, job mobility, and the link between education and income.  However, they each situate the theoretical story underlying these processes within organizations and then examine them with organizational data.

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