Visualising Social Mobility: A Mountain to Climb?

Broadly-speaking, the underlying idea here is to both make the study of social mobility slightly less dull and to replace a somewhat hackneyed, not-to-say, highly misleading visualisation of mobility (“a ladder”) with something a little more dynamic and visually thought-provoking (“climbing a mountain”).

Although this post could be more accurately described as a “Lesson Suggestion” rather than a “Lesson Plan”, I’ve included some ideas for how you might be able to turn it into the latter.

One of the most common ways to visualise social mobility – movement up or down a class structure – is to think in terms of “a ladder”. It’s an analogy that’s not just embedded in the Sociology classroom but arguably in everyday political discourse too.

And while it’s relatively easy to understand, evocative and in some ways self-explanatory, it’s also deeply flawed, even as a simple visual guide to understanding the mechanics of social mobility, for a number of reasons:

• It’s overly-individualistic in the sense of representing mobility as the product of individual effort, grit and determination. While these qualities may (or may not) be important, they present a one-dimensional view, focused solely on the individual that ignores both wider social factors involved in mobility (family, education…) and any sense of a problematic class structure that actively militates against mobility for some social groups.

• The ladder is presented as a neutral tool, one that simply facilitates social mobility.

• The ladder exists independently of those who use it. It is equally available to all and the most able will utilise it most successfully to climb to the higher levels of the class structure.

• The class structure itself is akin to something like a pyramid, smooth and increasingly elevated.

• It encourages students to focus on upward mobility – the ability to climb, rung-by-rung, to “the top”.

There are, of course, many more reasons for rejecting the ladder analogy as a way of visualising and teaching social mobility, but you probably get the idea.

Teaching Mobility

An arguably more-robust, realistic and evocative way to visualise social mobility is to think in terms of a mountain to climb. This has the twin advantage of:

• keeping the idea of social structure (the mountain) at the forefront of student’s minds.

• presenting social mobility as a range of problems that have to be overcome in order to achieve upward social mobility and things to avoid – such as falling down a great big gap – if you are not to experience downward mobility.

A different way to introduce social mobility, therefore, is to ask students to visualise a massive mountain that needs to be climbed.

To help with this visualisation, set the scene with a short slide show featuring different mountains and the various challenges they present to the climber. These might include:

• Snow and ice fields
• Lush flat plains
• Scree fields
• Waterfalls
• Deep, fast-flowing, rivers
• Sheer crevasses
• Chasms
• Vertical cliff faces
• Changeable weather patterns
• Increasingly thin air.

This represents a way of familiarising students with the different “obstacles to upward mobility” involved in climbing a mountain and leads into thinking about how these obstacles can be successfully overcome (having the right equipment, knowing the right people and so forth) – or not, as the case may be.

This, in turn, lends itself to introducing a more-sociological set of ideas involving different kinds of capital (among other things). For example, you can relate different kinds of capital to various aspects of mountain climbing and, by extension, the problems and pitfalls of social mobility:

Economic capital: examples here might include: being able to buy the right equipment to help tackle different challenging terrains and being in a position to employ people to carry all the extra equipment and supplies you will need to reach the summit.

If you can afford the right equipment – snow shoes to cross ice fields, mountaineering gear to climb vertical rock faces etc. – this is going to give you a huge advantage over those who cannot afford these things.

At the very least it will get you to the top faster than your peers.
At the very most it will allow you to climb to places they will never be able to reach.

Social capital: if people in your family have already “made the climb” (i.e. they have experienced upward social mobility) they can offer valuable help and guidance: which paths to take, which tracks to avoid, what to do when things get rough and the weather closes in. In addition, you may be in a position to use experienced guides to show you how to find the quickest route to the top.

Cultural capital: examples here might include whether you’ve learnt how to climb, the safest places to build a camp and how to construct a bridge to cross an otherwise impassable crevasse.

If you want to be really creative, you can suggest how it’s possible to combine these three kinds of capital to gain a serious mobility advantage:

• Your parents own a private plane (economic)
• They know someone willing to teach you how to parachute jump (social)
• You learn how to parachute from a moving plane onto a mountain top (cultural).

Once you’ve introduced and covered these general ideas – there’s plenty of space within the analogy for students to suggest and explore their own ideas – you can, if you wish, move the discussion on to how the analogy could be applied to different areas of the social world, such as family, education or work, to explain different aspects of social mobility.


I made reference above to the idea of creating a set of PowerPoint slides to show to students if you wanted to familiarise them with a range of mountaineering ideas – the need for equipment, skills and the like – that could then be translated into various forms of economic, social and cultural capital.

If you want to do this, I’ve created a short “Visualising Social Mobility” Presentation you might like to use or adapt as you see fit.

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