Horizontal and Vertical Mobility Essay

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The notion that in contemporary highly industrialized societies persons may climb up or slide down the social ladder presupposed some scale with an upper end and a lower end and the possibility of ranking people on it. Individual income can be taken as such a scale, and if this is used it is possible to speak of upward and downward mobility and to quantify the extent to which a person is upwardly or downwardly mobile. Occupational status, as indicated by the prestige accorded to occupations in surveys involving representative samples from a country’s population, also makes it possible to ascertain mobility. In these cases a sociologist speaks of vertical mobility.

Sometimes sociologists also speak of horizontal mobility. In that case, they do not avail themselves of a scale allowing a full ranking of persons. A case in point are class schemas, for instance the one developed by Erikson and Goldthorpe (1992) for research on social mobility involving a comparison of countries. This schema has a top”: the persons belonging to what they call the service class. It has a bottom,” too: the unskilled and semi-skilled manual workers in industry, together with agricultural workers. However, the schema does not rank the intermediate categories, such as those for skilled manual workers, routine non-manual workers, farmers, and small proprietors. Movement from these categories to the service class is upward mobility, and movement to the class of unskilled manual workers is downward mobility, but movement from one of these intermediate categories to another of these intermediate categories is horizontal mobility.

Of course, it is possible to rank the various intermediate categories according to the average income of their members, but class schemas are not about income. They refer to the work relations of persons (and the hypothesis for further research is that work relations affect income). Persons in some jobs follow commands, persons in other jobs give commands, and some persons have a business all their own that involves neither supervision nor being commanded. The labor contract of some persons stipulates that they can be laid off immediately in slack periods, while other contracts do not allow for this. The output of some persons is easily monitored and of others not at all. This multiplicity of work relations makes for classes that can be ranked below other classes and above yet other classes, but not among each other.

According to Erikson and Goldthorpe, horizontal mobility is as interesting to study as vertical mobility. A case in point is the contraction of the agricultural sector in industrial societies. Farm laborers left their jobs, mainly going to unskilled manual jobs in the industrial sector, and farmers often became self-employed in small businesses connected to the agrarian sector. Thus, this sector-ial transformation of a country’s economy did not lead to upward mobility, as some theories of modernization have held, but only to horizontal mobility.


  • Erikson, R. & Goldthorpe, J. H. (1992) The Constant Flux. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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