Social Mobility and Marriage

Frank Holl - Despair 1881

Despair (1881).  Frank Holl.

Societies consist of various classes each with a socially and historical relationship to the means of production. The more complex a society the higher the level of its technology and mode of production, the more complex will be the network of social relationships within that society. However, between the exploiting class or classes, there remain the major antagonisms and conflicting interests.

Mobility in social terms refers to the movement of an individual or group of individuals from one part of the system of social stratification to another – whether upwards or downwards. Problems arise when the system of stratification requires or demands definition.  In essence, social stratification refers to the organisation of people in society into economically determined classes or strata. In general terms, the relationship between members of a class are of an equal nature, whereas between classes the relations can be unequal, hierarchical and antagonistic. For example, the relationship between the working class and the bourgeoisie is one of struggle and exploitation by the capitalist of the workers.

The relationship between social strata are described in terms of super-ordination and subordination and exist in a network of prestige and power considerations, influence, preferences  and other secondary factors of a psychological and ideological nature. Social strata, however like classes, can only be understood by reference to their position with regard to the means of production and its ownership. We can examine the various types of strata and the interconnections between them, there being for this purpose – caste, estate, and class.

Castes are endogamous, hereditary and occupational strata that possess a hierarchical organisation that maintains is strictly determined from the topmost to the lowest caste. Estate involves a hierarchical organisation that revolves around the rights and duties derived from the ownership of land. Estate considerations can be found in all unequal class societies, whether they are feudal or capitalist, caste organised or not. In terms of Weberian social analysis sections of classes that allegedly share a common relationship to the ‘means of consumption’ and on this basis are assumed to possess a hierarchy of life-styles, prestige differentials and social ideology. Such an analysis can counterpose status to class – but in the last analysis it is class relationships that determine the nature of status preoccupations – because status is best understood in terms of ideology which itself depends upon the socio-economic and class basis of society.

Social mobility has been considered in terms of the family as well as of in larger units – for example when whole strata or castes have assumed higher positions in society. Models have been constructed in sociological analyses to describe social mobility – especially when considering intra-generational and inter-generational movement. Again, such mobility exists in time because an individual does not live as long as his family or his or her class.

Most studies of social mobility have been occupied with individual and occupational considerations, thereby, attempting to measure movement between social ‘classes’ that are subjective rather than objective. This bourgeois sociology often fails to achieve anything but a mechanical model due to its failure to appreciate what defines a social class in reality. Bourgeois sociology claims that occupations and/or incomes act as primary determinants of class and status, as well as involving ‘variables’ such as education, personal ‘attitudes’, styles and the whole gamut of superficial secondary characteristics of social relations. It has to be stressed that occupational mobility within a class is not the same as social mobility within a class.

One study by D. V. Glass (Social Mobility in Britain) specified that rigid conditions of social heredity with regards to jobs and status existed in the upper echelons of society. Another study by Bendix and Lipset (Social Mobility in Industrial Society) attempted to measure social mobility along a manual to non-manual line, arriving at the conclusion that in many industrial countries there was an upward and downward trend of approximately one third – but this is in our terms, occupational mobility, not social mobility. The manual to on-manual line implies movement within a class (the working class) not between classes. It needs to be remembered that the working class itself is stratified. Glass, however, pointed out that a rather high stability pattern over time was actually the case.

The data from the Oxford Study by Kuchemann and others verified these conclusions. The trend is to a lessening of mobility rather than an increase. Movement downward is more pronounced, despite the claims of the ‘bulge in the middle’ or ‘we are all middle class now’ mythology and this is exemplified by the decreasing size of the bourgeoisie, the existence of a transient and disunited strata (replacing the middle class), plus a larger, changing and more complex working class. Class structures reflect technological developments not an ‘evening out’ of social positions or opportunities.

Another study in Oxford by G. A. Harrison et al (Social mobility, assortative marriage and their inter-relationships with marital distance and age in Oxford City. Annals of Human Biology, 1 (2), 1974), set out to analyse exchanges between social classes via the mechanisms of marriage and social mobility. An attempt was also made to analyse social movement in relation to geographical marital distance and correlate this with age at marriage. Using the same set of parish registers the conclusion was drawn  that there had existed channels that permitted the rapid development of a relatedness and genetic class similarity – this as a result of social flow. These exchanges were alleged to be greater through mobility rather than through marital unions. Further from this they concluded there was little difference between the 19th and 20th centuries. The analysis concluded that the marital age of the groom, as well his distance from his bride, were determined by his social class. Furthermore, the groom was independently affected by the social class of his father and his bride. True evidence does exist to show that in general sons tend to remain in the same social class as their fathers. However, the concern here is with social mobility with regard to inter-class mating patterns.

Firstly, social classes in the study were seen as ‘units’ of population, and not primarily as determining factors in social movement. Secondly, the movement between these ‘units’ took place in two ways  – by social mobility and by non-assortative marriage. These two channels were regarded as functioning as routes whereby ‘genetic flow’ took place between classes. Again, we can look at this in terms of class analysis that is more definite and reclassify the five categories of the Registrar-General combined into  three main classes based on production relations. We must bear in mind the internal structural changes of classes in the period from 1837 to 1970. Likewise it is useful to divide the time-line into early and late.

In both early and late periods the majority of working class grooms have working class fathers. There is a restricted occupational flow upwards, but the data does not show the downward trend. In the early period of 17% of upper class grooms had working class fathers, 37% of middle class grooms had workers for fathers, and 86% working class grooms had working class fathers. This means that the total number of grooms of 4077 had 73% of working class fathers. What of the later period? The figures expressed as percentages appear to point to social mobility that is upward in direction. A closer look however proves this not to be the case.

From 1900 to 1970 there were 5672 grooms of which 84% had working class fathers; middle class grooms had a total of 45% working class fathers, whereas the upper class grooms had also increased to a total of 30% with working class fathers.  But the total of 5672 grooms still gives a 73% figure for those with working class fathers. In essence the class relationships expressed as percentages had remained constant. It can be concluded that social mobility downwards is the case because of the increasing number of working class grooms with upper class or middle class fathers. In the early period 14.4% of working class grooms had upper or middle class fathers. In the later period this had increased to 15.4% – a downward trend of 1%. Small, but significant enough to militate against theories claiming social movement in the upward direction.

The study figures as a whole do not show large changes. The population did not ‘become middle class’ but had in its marital behaviour remained relatively immobile. There has occurred individual interchange but on an overall class basis mobility has not demonstrated any marked upward trend. In fact the proof is for a downward trend of at least 1% – and this despite a number of individuals who have risen above their own class origins. Certainly it can be concluded that, by recognising that the social changes affecting the working class in the later period (with special notice of changes in the position of the middle class) – that these social changes have been far too rapid a process to be affected by any genetic flow of biological determinants of social processes.


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