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Education is not the answer

Lessons from social mobility research on Britain
Camilla Borgna
p. 121-129

Abstract

Education is often seen as the key instrument to promote social mobility. Yet, sociological research has shown the ambivalent nature of education in social stratification processes. In Social Mobility and Education in Britain (2019), Erzsébet Bukodi and John H. Goldthorpe address some misrepresentations of intergenerational mobility common in the British political debate. The book effectively conveys to a non-specialist readership some of the key insights of mobility research: notably, that, without a significant expansion of the class structure, equality of opportunity is a zero-sum game. However, this article argues that the authors fail to appreciate the subjective understanding of socio-economic progress and the political salience of declining upward mobility. While concurring with the thesis that excessive expectations have been put on educational policy to readdress societal problems, this article additionally warns against the risks of disinvesting in educational policy and undermining the usage of qualifications in human resources management.

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Testo integrale

Education is not the answer. Lessons from social mobility research on Britain

1«Education is the key instrument to promote equality of opportunity»: instances of this argument abound in both the public and the academic discourse. Yet, what are the empirical groundings for such statement? In their recent book Social Mobility and Education in Britain. Research, Politics and Policy (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2019), Nuffield-based sociologists Erzsébet Bukodi and John H. Goldthorpe address this question and the reasons why it is so seldom asked. The book moves from the observation that ever since Tony Blair’s New Labour, British governments – no matter if progressive or conservative – have put forward an alleged decline of intergenerational social mobility as central political concern and have pushed for a political agenda that relies on educational policy as main instrument to counter such decline. In so doing – the authors claim – British politics has (conveniently) ignored 40 years of sociological research on social mobility. In fact, in light of the historical evidence, we should acknowledge that education is not particularly effective in equalizing mobility chances.

2To substantiate this argument, Bukodi and Goldthorpe report on a number of recent studies of their own: these are mostly (but not exclusively) based on British birth cohort data (1946, 1958, 1970), which trace representative samples of individuals born in a given year throughout their entire lives. Beyond containing relevant information on individual childhood, upbringing, and early characteristics (e.g. cognitive and non-cognitive traits), these data allow researchers to analyze individual “destinations” not only in terms of first jobs, but also of subsequent job mobility trajectories. Far from being a summary of already published articles, the book makes a considerable effort in embedding the research conducted by the authors and their collaborators in the larger body of national and international literature on social mobility. While not sparing sharp critique to data and operationalization choices that they deem inappropriate, the authors engage in a frank dialogue with both sociologists and economists in the field. For example, as one can expect, they vigorously defend social class – understood as ordered occupational groups – as the most important metric of advantage for social mobility studies (Chapter 1). However, throughout the book, one finds several references and acknowledgements to works that prefer to focus on income (Nicoletti and Ermisch, 2007; Jerrim, 2017a) and that, as such, (implicitly) opt for an attributional, rather than relational perspective on social inequality (Goldthorpe, 2010). As a matter of fact, in the past years several sociologists have gone even further, advocating a combination of income-based and occupation-based measures in the study of inequality (DiPrete, 2007). Such multidimensional approach, moving beyond the “measurement wars” that characterize much of social stratification and mobility research, holds the promise of offering new insights on the different mechanisms that come into play in the transmission of privilege from one generation to the next, as recently shown by the cross-country comparative endeavor coordinated by Bernardi and Ballarino (2016). Overall, Bukodi and Goldthorpe make a praiseworthy effort in integrating research traditions and methodologies that are not so common in the standard social mobility literature. Another example is the use of case-study boxes at several points of the book. These exemplary (and sometimes atypical) stories come from a qualitative add-on to the 1958 birth cohort study: in-depth interviews were conducted with 50-year-old survey respondents in order to collect subjective accounts of their life histories (Elliott et al., 2010). Such case studies put the quantitative findings into perspective and stimulate the imagination of the reader for possible micro-founded mechanisms of the macro-level regularities documented in each chapter.

  • 1 It seems fair to acknowledge that this lack of understanding also reflects a failure of communicat (...)

3Drawing on such a thorough review of intergenerational research, the book aims at demystifying some widespread misrepresentations and misunderstandings about social mobility processes and about the role that education can play therein. Indeed, the authors argue that the political neglect of sociological research is partly unintentional and can therefore be remedied: on the one hand, politicians have deliberately indulged in the reassuring slogan of “more opportunity for all” for fear of losing the support of the more well-off; but on the other hand, they have failed to understand some fundamental concepts, techniques, and established findings of social mobility research1. The first part of the book intends to clarify such key aspects.

  • 2 In fact, we know from previous studies most industrialized countries underwent developments of thi (...)

4The authors start with an examination of rates and patterns of absolute and relative social mobility in Britain over the period from the mid twentieth to the early twenty-first century (Chapters 2-4). The conceptual distinction between absolute and relative social mobility, often blurred in the public discourse, is crucial to understand such trends. Absolute mobility refers to the actual proportion of individuals switching their class position with respect to their parents; its upward- and downward components can be distinguished and are easily observed (and experienced, as I will argue below). Relative mobility (or fluidity), however, is the proper measure when one is interested in the degree of equal opportunity of a society: it refers to the relative chances of climbing up or falling down the social ladder faced by individuals from different social origins and it is inherently symmetrical. Clearly, the two are connected because fluidity affects the total amount of absolute mobility; yet the latter also depends on the distribution of available occupations. Hence, a mobile society is not necessarily an open one: a large number of intergenerational shifts could be merely the result of a class structure that is rapidly changing from the parents’ to the children’s generation. This is precisely what happened in Britain in the after-war period. Cohorts born in the 1940s enjoyed higher chances of upward mobility than those born in earlier decades. However, this change is not so much the result of an increase in social fluidity, which in this country has proven to be relatively stable over time; instead, the growth of upward mobility was mainly driven by an expansion of the salariat and a contraction of the working class, creating ever more “room at the top” for all2. The dark side of this “golden age” scenario is an increased risk of social demotion for the next generation: that is, the children of those who were able to secure a relatively advantaged position. This could be remedied by a sustained upgrading of the class structure, which however did not occur in Britain. Since the 1970s, the stability of the overall level of absolute mobility masks two opposing trends: downward mobility has been on the rise, while upward mobility has declined, to the point that for the individuals born in the early 1980s, social ascent and descent have become equally likely.

5Should education be held responsible for either the increase in upward mobility documented in the post-war years or its following decline starting from the 1970s? The lack of change in social fluidity (in both its degree and pattern) throughout the whole period considered is already a strong piece of evidence against this hypothesis. Not content with this, the authors directly address this widespread preconception in the second part of the book (Chapters 5-9). Once again, the starting point is a conceptual contribution from social mobility research: namely, the scheme known as OED triangle, which connects social origin (O) and social destination (D) through education (E) and independently from it. For education to be able to promote social mobility, the following conditions have to be met: first, inequality of educational opportunity (O→E) should decline; second, the direct effect of social origin (O→D|E, also known as DESO) should also decline or at least remain stable; third, crucially, returns to education (E→D) should increase. Only the first two conditions are met in the British case, while class returns to education have actually decreased. If we read the latter result as a consequence of credential inflation, then it is not surprising to discover that the association between origin and education is essentially stable over time when educational attainment is considered in relative terms. But the authors further show that the reduction of inequality of educational opportunity is also less evident once social origin is operationalized in a more comprehensive way, that is, including parental status and educational level besides class (Chapter 6). The subsequent chapters, although somehow disconnected from the rest of the book, deepen the analysis of the components of the OED triangle, by examining the role of social origin and educational attainment on work-life social mobility trajectories (Chapter 7), by exploring potential mechanisms behind the DESO (Chapter 8) and by asking whether certified lifelong learning contributes more to social mobility or immobility (Chapter 9). Chapter 10 broadens the scope of inquiry: in order to locate the British case in international perspective, it presents a cross-country comparative analysis of absolute and relative mobility rates based on recent waves of the European Social Survey (ESS). The conclusions – which directly address the politics and policies of social mobility – arguably constitute the most innovative portion of the book, and, despite the British focus, one that offers several interesting insights to an international audience, as I will discuss below.

  • 3 By referring to loss aversion rather than to the more specific mechanism of “relative risk aversio (...)

6Although the main aim of the book is openly descriptive, one of its main merits is the continuous effort to put forward possible generative mechanisms at the micro level and, where possible, to empirically test their implications, in the spirit of previous work by Goldthorpe (2000). The agency of social actors is presented and understood in intentional terms, embracing a bounded notion of rationality. An example is the reference to some of the key mechanisms of prospect theory (Kahneman and Tversky, 1979), namely entitlement and loss aversion, according to which individuals are more sensitive to losses than to gains3. Bukodi and Goldthorpe evoke the loss aversion mechanism in the explanation of why the educational reforms of the 1960s and 1970s have had no equalizing effect in terms of social mobility chances (although they might have proven effective in widening educational opportunities). Loss aversion implies that individuals from all social classes are more concerned to avoid social demotion than to attain social promotion. Hence, we can expect that – besides the different kind of resources which they can rely upon – the efforts that individuals from the upper class make in resisting, undermining, and circumventing the equalizing policies will be greater than the efforts made by individuals from lower classes to take advantage of them. The generative mechanism proposed by the authors is fundamentally in line with the theory of “effectively maintained inequality” (EMI), which foresees that upper-class parents will individually exploit, and collectively push for, a qualitative differentiation of educational systems, especially when access to a given educational level becomes more equal (Lucas, 2001). Over the last decades, the EMI hypothesis has received large empirical support by studies in the sociology of education; among the possible parental strategies of differentiation, recent scholarship has documented the usage of private schooling and shadow education (Jerrim, 2017b for the Anglo-Saxon world; Torche, 2005 for Chile; Lee and Shuouse, 2011 for South Korea).

7In my view, a second important merit of the book is its capacity to communicate in a way that is accessible to a non-specialist readership, although it is not always clear what its intended audience is. In particular, the book nicely explains some of the key insights of social mobility research, namely that: (i) education is a tool of both social mobility and immobility and the idea of “education-based meritocracy” (Bell, 1972) is therefore ill-advised; (ii) when concerned about the role that education can play for social mobility, and more generally about its labor-market value, education is best conceived as a positional good (Sørensen, 1979); (iii) unless significant changes occur in the class structure, social mobility is a zero-sum game: an increase in social fluidity will increase upward and downward mobility in the same way. Moreover, the book conveys compelling empirical evidence that, contrary to widespread views: (i) Britain is not a distinctively low-mobility society; (ii) neither absolute nor relative mobility are in decline; (iii) endogenous mobility regimes are powerfully resistant to change.

  • 4 Note that this trend is not exclusive to Britain. For the US case, Chetty et al., 2016.
  • 5 The analyses reported in Chapter 4 reveal a major divide between the white-collar and the blue-col (...)

8What I find less persuasive is the argument that these findings necessarily imply that politicians are in the wrong when pursuing a discourse of declining equal opportunities. In particular, the authors state that «the abiding concern in political circles with change in social mobility – that is, with a supposed decline – is misdirected. The focus of attention should not be on change, in any direction, but, to the contrary, on its absence» (p. 86, italics original). Yet, politics cannot ignore the mundane experience of its citizens, which is undeniably one of less favorable mobility prospects4. The decline of upward mobility, although not reflecting rising levels of inequality of opportunity in a strict sense, has de facto constrained the chances of individuals coming from disadvantaged backgrounds to attain social positions that, from their perspective, appear increasingly closed. The authors are perfectly aware that this is a key element in the subjective understanding of socio-economic progress (ivi, 122, but also Goldthorpe, 1987). However, they seem to presume that politicians are (or should be) able to set the agenda more or less independently from the demands of the electorate, if not of the business elite, based on empirically-grounded and sensible arguments. This technocratic dream – if ever real – is certainly quite far from today’s world, where the direct engagement of a larger share of citizens mistrusting traditional institutions and parties requires a straightforward political communication, also on inequality issues (Grusky, 2017). In fact, within the rapidly growing stream of literature on populism, it has been suggested that, at least in the US, the loss of belief in upward intergenerational mobility and the fear of social demotion are important determinants of political discontent (Przeworski, 2019). This might be true in Britain and in other European countries too (including Italy), where the rise of right-wing populism is most evident not so much in poorer constituencies, but rather in territories in economic decline, where citizens experience an increasing “fear of being left behind and of having no future” (Rodríguez-Pose, 2018, 196). A political discourse centered, however imprecisely, on declining social mobility might therefore prove effective in mobilizing the support of the least well-off in favor of an agenda addressing the actual mobility problems of present-day Britain, namely the persisting inequality of opportunity5 and the decline of upward absolute mobility.

9But what should such agenda comprise? As anticipated, the conclusive section of the book takes this question seriously and discusses a number of possible policy strategies. Not surprisingly, the first and foremost area of intervention suggested by the authors involves policies aimed at creating room for upward mobility by promoting a growth of high and of intermediate positions. The authors favor a demand-driven approach to the creation of such jobs and concentrate on three areas of (renewed) public investment: innovation, manufacturing, and welfare. This section is especially thought-provoking in that it introduces the concern for social mobility in the economic policy debate. Secondly, if the loss aversion mechanism is correct, policies favoring an upgrading of the class structure could have positive spillover effects on social fluidity too, because as the risk of downward mobility decreases, resistance against equalizing reforms should decrease. In addition, inequality of opportunity could be challenged by policies restricting, offsetting, or counterbalancing the defensive strategies of upper-class parents. However, the authors are quite pessimistic about the effectiveness of any kind of policy favoring social fluidity. In societies with capitalist market economies, nuclear families, and liberal democracies – they argue – fluidity might have reached its lowest limit. While this appears plausible in light of the existing evidence for Britain and other industrialized countries, I would stress that the historical period covered by social mobility studies is relatively short. Thus, any prediction about future developments of this phenomenon is subject to a large amount of uncertainty. The third set of policies concerns human resources management: given that educational attainment simultaneously works as equality-enabler and inequality-reproducer, the authors argue that the social closure mechanisms based on credentials should be minimized, wherever possible. As an example, they suggest the introduction of rules or incentives for employers to make internal promotion tracks less based on educational qualifications and more based on tested abilities and effort. From my perspective, this type of policies is extremely problematic, because it might unintentionally promote and legitimize discriminatory and nepotistic behaviors.

10What is then left for educational policy to accomplish? The conclusion of the authors is that, instead of charging it with unrealistic expectations about societal problems whose roots lie outside schools, governments should set the conditions for teachers and other educational professionals to focus on the intrinsic – rather than instrumental – value of education, ensuring that children (of all social origin) are able to fully realize their academic potential. I am prone to second this call and in fact I believe that it applies well beyond the British case: in many European countries, partly due to the impulse coming from the EU and other international organizations, educational policy is increasingly seen as the key strategy to tackle social risks such as unemployment and poverty (European Commission, 2016; Hemerijk, 2017), neglecting the inequality-reproducing role of education and the fact that qualifications cannot be simply equated with human capital. My note of caution in this respect is that the recognition that too much is being asked to educational policy should not lead to a disinvestment in equalizing efforts in this area. Indeed, precisely because of the psychological asymmetry implied by the loss aversion mechanism, reforms that pursue a greater decommodification or differentiation of the educational system will probably meet only limited opposition from the larger public; in contrast, parents in advantageous positions will most likely exploit the opportunities provided by the reformed system to secure the relative position of their children.

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Bibliografia

Bell D. (1972), On Meritocracy and Equality, «The Public Interest», 29, pp. 29-68.

Bernardi F. and Ballarino G. (eds.) (2016), Education, Occupation and Social Origin, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.

Breen R. and Goldthorpe J.H. (1997), Explaining Educational Differentials towards a Formal Rational Action Theory, «Rationality and Society», 9, 3, pp. 275-305.

Breen R. and Luijx R. (2004), Social Mobility in Europe between 1970 and 2000 in Breen R. (ed.), Social Mobility in Europe, Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 37-76.

Chetty R., Grusky D., Hell M., Hendren N., Manduca R. and Narang J. (2016), The fading American dream: trends in absolute income mobility since 1940, «NBER Working Papers», 22910 (December).

DiPrete T. (2007), What has sociology to contribute to the study of inequality trends? An historical and comparative perspective, «American Behavioral Scientist», 50, 5, pp. 603-618.

Elliott J., Miles A., Parsons S. and Savage M. (2010), The Design and Content of the Social Participation Study (BCS70), «Centre for Longitudinal Studies Working Papers», 2010, 3.

Erikson R. and Goldthorpe J.H. (1992), The Constant Flux: A Study of Class Mobility in Industrial Societies, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

European Commission (2016), A New Skills Agenda for Europe, Brussels COM(2016) 381 final.

Goldthorpe J.H. (1987), Social Mobility and Class Structure in Modern Britain, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Goldthorpe J.H. (2000), On Sociology. Numbers, Narratives and the Integration of Research and Theory, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Goldthorpe J.H. (2010), Analysing Social Inequality: A Critique of Two Recent Contributions from Economics and Epidemiology, «European Sociological Review», 26, 6, pp. 731-744.

Grusky D.B. (2017), Reducing Inequality in a Populist World, «Revue Française de Sociologie», 58, 2, pp. 199-205.

Hemerijck A. (ed.) (2017), The Uses of Social Investment, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Jerrim J. (2017a), The Link between Family Background and Later Lifetime Income: How does the UK Compare with Other Countries? «Fiscal Studies», 38, 1, pp. 49-79.

Jerrim J. (2017b), Extra Time: Private Tuition and Out-of-School Study, New International Evidence, London, Sutton Trust.

Kahneman D. and Tversky A. (1979), Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk, «Econometrica», 47, 2, pp. 263-291.

Lee S. and Shouse R.C. (2011), The impact of prestige orientation on shadow education in South Korea, «Sociology of Education», 84, 3, pp. 212-224.

Lucas S.R. (2001), Effectively Maintained Inequality: Education Transitions, Track Mobility, and Social Background Effects, «American Journal of Sociology», 106, 6, pp. 1642-1690.

Nicoletti C. and Ermisch J. (2007), Intergenerational Earnings Mobility: Changes across Cohorts in Britain, «Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy», 7, 2, pp. 1-36.

Przeworski A. (2019), Crises of democracy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Rodríguez-Pose A. (2018), The revenge of the places that don’t matter (and what to do about it), «Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society», 11, 1, pp. 189-209.

Sørensen A. B. (1979), A model and a metric for the analysis of the intragenerational status attainment process, «American Journal of Sociology», 85, 2, pp. 361-384.

Torche F. (2005), Privatization reform and inequality of educational opportunity: the case of Chile, «Sociology of Education», 78, pp. 316-343.

Bell D. (1972), On Meritocracy and Equality, «The Public Interest», 29, pp. 29-68.

Bernardi F. and Ballarino G. (eds.) (2016), Education, Occupation and Social Origin, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar.

Breen R. and Goldthorpe J.H. (1997), Explaining Educational Differentials towards a Formal Rational Action Theory, «Rationality and Society», 9, 3, pp. 275-305.

Breen R. and Luijx R. (2004), Social Mobility in Europe between 1970 and 2000 in Breen R. (ed.), Social Mobility in Europe, Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 37-76.

Chetty R., Grusky D., Hell M., Hendren N., Manduca R. and Narang J. (2016), The fading American dream: trends in absolute income mobility since 1940, «NBER Working Papers», 22910 (December).

DiPrete T. (2007), What has sociology to contribute to the study of inequality trends? An historical and comparative perspective, «American Behavioral Scientist», 50, 5, pp. 603-618.

Elliott J., Miles A., Parsons S. and Savage M. (2010), The Design and Content of the Social Participation Study (BCS70), «Centre for Longitudinal Studies Working Papers», 2010, 3.

Erikson R. and Goldthorpe J.H. (1992), The Constant Flux: A Study of Class Mobility in Industrial Societies, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

European Commission (2016), A New Skills Agenda for Europe, Brussels COM(2016) 381 final.

Goldthorpe J.H. (1987), Social Mobility and Class Structure in Modern Britain, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Goldthorpe J.H. (2000), On Sociology. Numbers, Narratives and the Integration of Research and Theory, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Goldthorpe J.H. (2010), Analysing Social Inequality: A Critique of Two Recent Contributions from Economics and Epidemiology, «European Sociological Review», 26, 6, pp. 731-744.

Grusky D.B. (2017), Reducing Inequality in a Populist World, «Revue Française de Sociologie», 58, 2, pp. 199-205.

Hemerijck A. (ed.) (2017), The Uses of Social Investment, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Jerrim J. (2017a), The Link between Family Background and Later Lifetime Income: How does the UK Compare with Other Countries? «Fiscal Studies», 38, 1, pp. 49-79.

Jerrim J. (2017b), Extra Time: Private Tuition and Out-of-School Study, New International Evidence, London, Sutton Trust.

Kahneman D. and Tversky A. (1979), Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk, «Econometrica», 47, 2, pp. 263-291.

Lee S. and Shouse R.C. (2011), The impact of prestige orientation on shadow education in South Korea, «Sociology of Education», 84, 3, pp. 212-224.

Lucas S.R. (2001), Effectively Maintained Inequality: Education Transitions, Track Mobility, and Social Background Effects, «American Journal of Sociology», 106, 6, pp. 1642-1690.

Nicoletti C. and Ermisch J. (2007), Intergenerational Earnings Mobility: Changes across Cohorts in Britain, «Journal of Economic Analysis and Policy», 7, 2, pp. 1-36.

Przeworski A. (2019), Crises of democracy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Rodríguez-Pose A. (2018), The revenge of the places that don’t matter (and what to do about it), «Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society», 11, 1, pp. 189-209.

Sørensen A. B. (1979), A model and a metric for the analysis of the intragenerational status attainment process, «American Journal of Sociology», 85, 2, pp. 361-384.

Torche F. (2005), Privatization reform and inequality of educational opportunity: the case of Chile, «Sociology of Education», 78, pp. 316-343.

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Note

1 It seems fair to acknowledge that this lack of understanding also reflects a failure of communication on the side of sociologists, who have been far less effective than economists in conveying their findings to the political arena.

2 In fact, we know from previous studies most industrialized countries underwent developments of this kind at different times during the second half of the twentieth century (Erikson and Goldthorpe, 1992; Breen and Luijx, 2004). However, for some of them (Sweden and, to a lesser extent, the Netherlands and France) social fluidity seems to be partially responsible for the increase of upward mobility (Breen and Luijx, 2004).

3 By referring to loss aversion rather than to the more specific mechanism of “relative risk aversion”, theorized in Breen and Goldthorpe (1997), the authors are seemingly willing to a reach a larger audience.

4 Note that this trend is not exclusive to Britain. For the US case, Chetty et al., 2016.

5 The analyses reported in Chapter 4 reveal a major divide between the white-collar and the blue-collar world: men born in a salariat family are 20 times more likely to stay in their origin class than to be demoted to the working class compared to men originating from the working class.

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Per citare questo articolo

Notizia bibliografica

Camilla Borgna, « Education is not the answer »Quaderni di Sociologia, 81- LXIII | 2019, 121-129.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Camilla Borgna, « Education is not the answer »Quaderni di Sociologia [Online], 81- LXIII | 2019, online dal 01 juin 2020, consultato il 28 septembre 2020. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/qds/3538; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/qds.3538

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Autore

Camilla Borgna

Collegio Carlo Alberto – Torino

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