Microclass mobility (and its critics)

A few weeks ago I blogged about the idea of looking at class inequality in terms of ‘microclasses’ – that is, instead of looking at ‘big class’ inequality (e.g.  professionals vs. manual workers), we look at ‘microclass’ inequality (e.g. welders vs. politicians). In this post I continue my tour of the microclass debates by looking at the role of microclasses in intergenerational mobility, how this compares across countries.

Microclass mobility

The use of microclasses to study intergenerational mobility comes from yet another American Journal of Sociology paper involving David Grusky, although this time first-authored by Jan Jonsson (Jonsson et al 2009) – who coincidentally shares a Nuffield College, Oxford affiliation with Goldthorpe (see below).

Like last week (see the details there), they discuss three models of inequality: big class, gradational, and microclass.  Applying this logic to mobility rather than inequality per se, they argue that microclass influences have been neglected:

“The children of carpenters, for example, may be especially likely to become carpenters because they are exposed to carpentry skills at home, socialized in ways that render them especially appreciative of carpentry as a vocation, and embedded in social networks that provide them with information about how to become carpenters and how to secure jobs in carpentry.”

[Jan Jonsson kindly got in touch after my last post to point out that there’s a more detailed discussion about microclass mobility and international comparisons in this Russell Sage Foundation book – I’ve ordered a copy!].

While not explicitly about microclasses, it’s also interesting to note here Corak & Piraino 2011‘s result that I’ve previously mentioned on the blog, that “about 40% of a cohort of young Canadian men have been employed at some time with an employer for which their father also worked, and 6%–9% have the same employer in adulthood. “

So just how important is microclass mobility?

To see how much microclasses matter, though, they look at the extent of intergenerational (im)mobility in four different countries: Germany and the US (which they see as ‘the home ground of occupatioanlization’), Sweden‘s more ‘big-class’ society, and Japan‘s more family/firm based form of stratification.

We’ll come back to the country differences below – but looking across all these countries, just how important is microclass mobility?

A visual way of looking at this is shown below.  Each column is a given occupation, and the peaks show how the occupation of origin relates to the destination occupation. The main part of the figure is to show just how localised the peaks are – you’re a bit more likely to end up in an occupation in the same big class as your father (compared to people whose father’s are in different occupations), but MUCH more likely to end up in the same microclass.

The contours of class reproduction for men

Another way of looking at this is to see whether big classes look less important after we take into account microclasses (MCs), and this is shown below. This quite clearly shows that big class mobility looks much less important after you’ve taken microclass mobility into account (other than if you’re just looking at the manual vs. non-manual comparison, which stays strong).

Big classes vs microclasses

Jonsson et al sum this up by claiming that, “much of what shows up as big-class reproduction in conventional mobility analyses is in fact occupational reproduction in disguise” – a strong claim!  They temper this slightly by showing that there are still strong gradational class impacts outside of microclasses – i.e. rather than ‘balkanized’ class groups being important, your father’s social status influences your own social status – but the tenor of their argument is unmistakeable.

Comparing countries

Perhaps the simplest way of looking at mobility is to look at the overall rates of immobility in different countries, looking at different levels of analysis. The table below shows that microclass immobility is less common that big-class immobility – unsurprisingly, given that you’re much more likely to end up as a professional in general than you are to end up a sociologist! But it’s striking that 10-25% of men end up in the same narrow occupation as their father across the four countries.

Absolute levels of immobility

Jonsson et al look more formally at whether your chances of ending up in the same microclass vary in the four countries – you can see this in Table 7, which is sufficiently complicated that I don’t produce it here. But their basic findings are that (i) the countries differ in the relative importance of different types (gradational vs. class-defined) and different levels (mesoclass vs. macroclass vs. manual-nonmanual vs. microclassess) of immobility; but (ii) microclass effects are strong everywhere, particularly outside of the US.

They conclude, “Although microlevel inheritance is somewhat suppressed in Sweden and large-firm Japan, it remains a prominent source of rigidity even in these labor markets.” 

To be continued…

Last week I showed that a lot inequality at a given point in time seems to be between microclasses, and this week I’ve shown that a lot of social immobility is down to microclasses.

In the final post on microclasses (next week), I look at the critique of the whole idea of microclasses made by some stalwarts of sociology, John Goldthorpe and Robert Erikson (alongside Martin Hallsten) – as well as my own thoughts in response to the comments underneath the post last week!

About Ben Baumberg Geiger

I am a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where (after a long break) I am again blogging about inequality-related policy & research. I have a wide range of research interests, at the moment focusing on the role of social science, disability, inequality, deservingness, and the future of the benefits system, and I co-lead the Welfare at a (Social) Distance project (on the benefits system during Covid-19). You can find out more about me at http://www.benbgeiger.co.uk
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3 Responses to Microclass mobility (and its critics)

  1. Pingback: Austerity, Microclasses and Self-Employment: Top 5 blogs you might have missed this week | British Politics and Policy at LSE

  2. Pingback: So should we bother with ‘microclasses’? | Inequalities

  3. Ben Baumberg says:

    One of the authors of this paper (Janne Jonsson at Nuffield) got in touch with a nice email after this post, which just flagged that there’s a book chapter that goes into more detail on this (‘taking several dimensions of the social structure into account simultaneously’, which sounds fascinating). The reference is:
    Jan O. Jonsson, David Grusky, Reinhard Pollak, Matthew di Carlo, and Carina Mood. 2011. “Occupations and Social Mobility: Gradational, Big-Class, and Micro-Class Reproduction in Comparative Perspective”, Chapter 5, pp. 138-171 in Timothy Smeeding, Robert Erikson, and Markus Jäntti (eds.), Persistence, Privilege, and Parenting. The Comparative Study of Intergenerational Mobility. New York: Russell Sage..

    And on a personal level, it’s always really nice (if sometimes slightly scary!) to hear from people when we blog about their work.

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