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Social mobility redux… November 29, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Economy, The Left.

Just a quick one, I’ve referenced a piece in Prospect some while back in relation to the broader issue of social mobility which has now achieved a certain prominence in contemporary socio-political debates. But there’s another piece in the most recent edition which I think takes a significantly muddled approach to the topic, arguing for example a piece by lecturer Jill Boucher.

I do, however, pay attention to, and get irritated by, much of the discussion of social mobility. This is something I do know a bit about from my own research into neurodevelopmental disorders, learning abilities and disabilities; and which I have reasons to feel strongly about from my experience of adopting two children.


In the case of the nature versus nurture debate relating to social mobility, I find it hard to understand why a substantial group of people, including many influential educationalists and sociologists, fail to accept the overwhelming evidence that genes contribute to academic achievement and thereby social mobility.

And leads to the fair enough question ‘Still on the subject of language: why is it that “social mobility” is almost invariably assumed to refer to upward mobility? Is downward mobility so undesirable, even shameful, as to be unmentionable?’. That’s fair enough, but note where she herself positions herself.

…is life really so dreadful in the middle echelons that we want to escape it? Personally, I don’t want to be a tycoon, over-paid celebrity or member of the landed gentry. And suppose that Tim-nice-but-dim, having benefitted from the small classes and intensive coaching provided by a modest independent school, nevertheless drops down the social scale in comparison with his parents; but works hard, pays his taxes, and is a model husband and father. Is this so deplorable?

But that’s not quite the point. And consider too the following:

Certainly we need wealth creators, potential Nobel Prize winners, and probably very many more computer whizz kids than our education system is producing at present. But we also need good lorry drivers (my older son is one), chefs (my younger son is one), care workers, cleaners, gardeners, bricklayers. And would we not all want our adult children first and foremost to be happy, well-liked and respected, people to be proud of, whether they clean windows for a living or work as a surgeon or barrister?

Boucher isn’t unthinking, and despite some once-modish, but now anything but, tilts at ‘political correctness’ she raises some fair points. But the problem with that is the set of assumptions that underly it, not so much the concept of downward mobility, which is in fact actually quite sensible but the unspoken idea that class structures rests upon genetic inheritance, as distinct from much more proximate and contingent causes.

The first comment under it by Marc Latham is the one which most neatly engages with the argument…

I think it’s okay to think that genes affect intelligence, just not to suppose that those genes always belong to certain people: such as the higher classes with regard to class.
Lower class parents might possess great ‘academic’ genes, which have never had the opportunity.
The duty of schools is to provide an environment for genes to find their potential, and shine in their specialties.

And that’s it.

No one is arguing that there are no genetic factors, though environmental factors appear to be more important. But what is deeply and profoundly in question is the idea that somehow these are intrinsic to classes – that for example implicitly the current class structure is as it is due to genetic factors, that as a group the working class is working class due to some genetic aspects, the middle classes likewise and so on. I’ve already mentioned that Ireland as a whole proves how difficult it is to sustain that thesis given the massive churn in the society and class structure across the last two hundred years. In passing it’s probably worth noting that she places more faith in IQ tests than I would.

Again the set of assumptions is worth parsing. Precisely how does a genetic aptitude for lorry driving (given the example that Boucher gives) manifest itself as distinct from – say – middle management, social worker, business start-up or academia – and while in fairness while she’s not unwilling to consider which is socially most valuable how can these as such be indicative of some greater genetic attributes? Moreover, if one’s parents are same what then of offspring? It’s far from a myth that company development where families are involved tend to operate with those who create the company offering the greatest inspiration, the next generation consolidating and the next again failing – that failure is caused by many factors, but how does that fit into any schema of genetic influence?

Or is it the banal truth that genetic differentiation across classes is not an issue and that it really only operates on the level of the individual – and even then from what some quoted in the above pieces argue on a marginal level.

Which, ironically, though predictably leaves us in exactly the same place as we have always been, needing to foster both collective and individual talent. Or to put it another way, there are no short cuts for the right (or anyone) to some point where a social class – as a whole – can be treated as if they should not all equally have the same opportunities as any other, even if individual outcomes will, obviously be different. And what holds for a social class holds for individuals too.


1. CL - November 29, 2013

One way to increase IQ is by substantial government investment in education. And the earlier the investment in the child’s development the greater the increase. Reference: the scientific, empirical work by Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman.


2. 6to5against - November 29, 2013

Am I alone in reading quite a bit of personal torment and confusion into these quotes.

I note she refers to her experience as an adoptive parent in arguing about learning abilities and disabilities and then goes on to seemingly eqaute social mobility with academic ability.

She refers to Mr nice-but-dim in quite a disparaging way, but then goes onto defend his right to some respect, even if she does so in a condescending manner. We later learn that her own – presumably adopted – children are not working in jobs we would generally associate with academic achievement. Is she lumping them into the nice-but-dim category? While subtly letting us know that their lack of academic success is probably down to genetic inheritance rather than her own parenting.

I am an adoptive parent myself, so I am possibly being over sensitive to this, but I suspect that Ms Boucher conflates social status with academic achievement and with high pay, and mixes this all in with her understanding of social mobility.

as WBS infers, any discussion of social mobility which assumes that the shared aim of all humanity is to high pay and high status jobs (and which equates the two) is doomed to trash about within its own narrow and mis-shapen walls..


CMK - November 29, 2013

I think the hundreds (thousands?) of thirty and forty somethings in the trenches of the Irish academic precariat will have a bitter chuckle at the whole academic success = high pay, high status etc.

On your last point 6to5 against: if you see people as utility maximizing rational self interest chasers then high pay and high status are the only rational approaches to take, I suppose.


WorldbyStorm - November 29, 2013

That thought struck me that there was a degree of confusion there 6to5. And I was a bit concerned that she thinks that lack of say teaching in third level = something that doesn’t seem to be entirely optimal intellectually. Or to put it another way that somehow if you drive a truck you can’t have an enquiring mind. That seems loaded with expectations, or lack of same.

I think your point about her conflating social status with academic achievement and high pay really is where she’s making a significant error.


WorldbyStorm - November 29, 2013

That’s true CMK that the more precarious of those in academia will indeed feel that way (having some experience of that myself over the years), but I imagine she’s writing from a position of stability and relative security. Though that points up how there’s a significant divide between the two which some on one side just aren’t conscious of.


dmfod - November 30, 2013

What got me was the totally unquestioned assumption that ‘clever’, more qualified people should be better off and have a higher social status and that people who do care work or gardening are of course going to be poorer. I’ve yet to hear a convincing justification for that.


WorldbyStorm - November 30, 2013

What worries me is that that sort of attitude you describe that has largely been unspoken publicly – but clearly has been extant colloquially – is now beginning to find a voice as with the ‘discussions’ around social mobility as we see here.


dmfod - November 30, 2013

Inequality of outcome is embedded in the whole concept of social mobility though. At bottom, it’s an inherently reactionary framework based on co-opting elements of subordinate classes, with the ultimate function of preserving the existing class structure but allowing a way out for some particularly motivated or lucky individuals.

In its own way, it’s no less reinforcing of existing power structures than charity or a caste system, which is why Gramsci recognises it as a unique hegemonic feature of capitalism compared to previous social orders where membership of the ruling class was more hereditary.

Of course everyone should have equal access to educational opportunities etc. but framing of this in terms of social mobility should be strongly opposed by the left, especially as parties like Labour routinely substitute promoting social mobility for an actual left agenda.


WorldbyStorm - November 30, 2013

Yeah, it’s functionally reactionary. And in a reactionary time no wonder it’s being voiced more openly. In a way it’s as much a substitution for even mildly left policies by contemporary social democracy as the emphasis on social liberalism.


CL - November 30, 2013

‘But if New York City’s new mayor succeeds, he will advance an idea that has mostly gone out of fashion: that cities can play a significant role in creating an urban middle class by providing the kinds of resources necessary for upward mobility. Those resources are basic and obvious: security, education, transportation, health, and shelter. Expanding access to those kinds of municipal goods will create a more equal city. And it may teach us that a progressive city is still possible. ‘

Not exactly a reactionary vision. But i suppose ‘upward mobility’ is being used here not to mean facilitating the exit upwards from the working class of a few individuals but of providing basic public goods for the working class generally.


3. Tomboktu - November 30, 2013
4. Class essentialism | The Cedar Lounge Revolution - January 17, 2014

[…] I’ve noted previously how this line of thinking is coming into vogue. Only recently Prospect had a most confused article on same where a sort of class essentialism was reflected in a belief […]


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