Restarting social mobility by looking at the past
FOCUS |

Restarting social mobility by looking at the past

A STUDY FUNDED BY THE EUROPEAN RESEARCH CUNCIL HIGHLIGHTS HOW SOCIAL MOBILITY IN THE PREINDUSTRIAL AGE UNDERWENT VERY SIGNIFICANT FLUCTUATIONS. IN A SITUATION OF IMMOBILITY AND GROWING INEQUALITY IN THE WESTERN WORLD, MORE AND MORE SOCIAL SCIENTISTS ARE NOW STUDYING THE PHENOMENON TO UNDERSTAND ITS CAUSES AND IDENTIFY POSSIBLE ANSWERS. THE HOPE IS THAT THE ONGOING CRISIS WILL LEAD TO A BREAK WITH THE RECENT PAST

In the last few years social mobility has been the object of intense research, mainly because there are signals that western societies are becoming more immobile, in a context of growing inequalities. This impression is widespread also in the civil society and it contributes to foster unease and political and social instability. As usual, worries about the present lead to look at the past for some possible lessons. After all, our judgement about today levels of social mobility tends to change according to what we believe is the “normal” mobility of human societies and what are the historical factors that determine it. Not by chance, Pitirim Sorokin, the scholar who contributed more than anybody else to give systematicity to social mobility studies, placed among the key questions that we should strive to answer that concerning the tendencies of mobility in the very long run (has social mobility remained about constant across time, or did it change and if did, in which direction and why?).

However, differently from economic inequality for which we now have good reconstructions of the long-run tendencies, very few studies have been able to produce reliable information about social mobility in the past. This, also due to some significant technical obstacles to its measurement based on the available historical sources.

""""

A view quite widespread in recent historical studies is that in preindustrial Europe, the opportunities for upward social mobility were greater than it was previously believed. Individuals with high skills (artists, engineers, scholars or scientists) were often able to improve their social status and to accumulate sizeable patrimonies. Also the Church offered to individuals with relatively humble origins good opportunities of social promotion. Finally, in many parts of Europe merchants and entrepreneurs could join the local political patriciate, usually after the disbursement of a conspicuous sum.

In the opposite direction, the American economic historian Gregory Clark has recently argued, mostly based on data for England and Sweden, that across history upward mobility rates were very low and basically stable in time. Furthermore, social-economic status would be transferred from one generation to the next in ways similar to the transmission of genetically-determined traits. “Nature”, then, would prevail over education in determining status, which would appear to challenge the prevailing view among social sciences. Clark has been much criticized, including for the method that he has introduced to measure mobility in the very long run based on the persistence of status among individuals carrying rare surnames and whose descendants can be identified with relative ease.

Analyses such as Clark’s, which use quite indirect methods to roughly estimate social mobility, require to be checked with more traditional and “direct” approaches, based on the observation of tendencies characterizing individuals and families, generation after generation, in different contexts and historical epochs. These approaches, however, require large-scale campaigns of data collection (usually from manuscript sources) and consequently need large-scale funding: as is the case for the project SMITE - Social Mobility and Inequality across Italy and Europe 1300-1800 (www.dondena.unibocconi.it/SMITE), funded by the European Research Council. Such project has already allowed to identify historical phases of higher or lower mobility and is exploring systematically the underlying causes. A first important conclusion is that, far from being stable across time, preindustrial social mobility was subject to very significant fluctuations: as in the period following the Black Death of 1347-51, which established across Europe conditions exceptionally favourable to the rise of new protagonists (in a context of relatively low economic inequality, after the levelling that had been caused by the plague itself).

However, after two or three generations social mobility started to converge towards more modest levels. In southern Europe, the process of decreasing social mobility continued during the early modern period, a fact which became particularly apparent during the seventeenth century when not even the terrible plagues of 1630 and 1656-57 could invert the tendency. In Italy, in particular, in the mid-century a combination of difficult upward mobility, stagnant economy and growing economy inequality had become enrooted – a particularly undesirable combination, which is entirely analogous to that which characterized the country on the eve of Covid-19. From this point of view, we can only hope that the current crisis leads to a break with the past.

by Guido Alfani, Full Professor of Economic History

Latest Articles Focus

Go to archive
  • Covid after Covid

    We all want to forget the darkness of the last two years, but we cannot let our guard down, also because the data tells us that vaccination campaigns, worldwide, are far still far from targets. The virus is still evolving and our perspective to tackle it must remain global

  • Twenty fifth of November, a day that is tinged with red

    From research on the impact of gender violence, to a specific bibliographic guide on the subject, to the activities of students, teachers, alumni standing against it. On the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the Bocconi community talks about its commitment to promoting the culture of equality

  • The era of renewable sources

    The road to the development of renewables is sown with economic, technical, environmental and social hurdles that need to be overcome through continuous commitment rather than bold proclamations

Browse the magazine in digital format.

View previous issues of Via Sarfatti 25

BROWSE THE MAGAZINE

Events

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun
      1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29 30 31