READING GUIDE TO SELECTIONS FROM: Hopper, E.  (1981) Social Mobility.  A Study of Social Control and Insatiability, Oxford: Basil Blackwell


[The subtitle is just as important as the main title in understanding this study, and explains the focus on status and social anxiety as consequences of different kinds of mobility.  Hopper is normally seen as a functionalist, but he is an unusual and critical one, in the style of Merton. 

The other interesting thing about reading these notes again, after a gap of 20 years or so, is to consider how relevant it is to the contemporary situation.  I attended a session on the recent work on the knowledge economy at the British Sociological Association annual conference 2009, and was interested to hear the researchers argue that: first, the strategy of producing highly skilled workers for the new knowledge economy was probably finally bankrupt, since the so called developing world were producing highly skilled graduates of their own, who were able to work at considerably less cost; and thus that a major role for schools in universities in the future might well be to regulate the ambition of graduates, call the amount, get them to adjust their ambitions, and accept work in non- graduate occupations.  This is exactly the terrain of Hopper’s sociology of education, and it is the concluding sentiment in this piece as well].

There are different levels of status and of status rigidity in different societies.  There also different educational routes.  Together these affect mobility [in the social psychological sense], rather than occupational change.  Mobility itself is not really the issue here, but levels of anxiety are, and these levels can serve to measure the degree of status rigidity. 

Industrial societies face a major problem in that they have no system of stable expectations and rewards, and thus status.  People can experience relative deprivation even after having experience social mobility.  There are structural sources of ‘insatiability’ [as a kind of anomie], a failure to set clear boundaries and limits.  Insatiability is both a cause and a consequence of social mobility.  However, insatiability is social rather than just psychological, although personal perceptions and actions do mediate social events.  Social properties are the independent variables, though and personality factors the dependent ones: social properties here refer to properties of the education system and the social system.  Social mobility does contribute to changes in personality variables [as one of those mediating processes].

Chapter one

It is possible to draw from Turner’s work on types of social mobility [see file here] .  Contest mobility is the most likely to produce social problems, since aspirations are not equal to achievements, competition can be excessive, individuals can experience difficulties with their personal values and with a sense of isolation.  What school should do is to regulate ambitions [the theme in Hopper’s work elsewhere -- see file] The problems have been described in structural terms in the work of Merton [see the file on social disorganization here].  Merton’s typology needs modification, however, since types of mobility and educational routes had developed, and there have been changes in the stratification system, especially in the degree of status rigidity.  Educational experiences themselves have pathogenic effects, for example.  Occupational roles pursued after school were also important.  Further, there are different types and patterns of anxiety, and different types of goals [not just the official ones discussed by Merton].

Chapter two

We need a theory to explain the outcomes, or dependent variables, which in this case are patterns of anxiety.  We need to explain feelings of relative deprivation in terms of obtaining economic and status goals.  We should also explain levels of discontent, usually expressed in terms of anomie, alienation or powerlessness.

We need to explain these outcomes in terms of intervening variables such as personality types.  These might be further specified as achievement orientations and goal orientations: pathogenic goal orientations can produce relative deprivation, a product of unobtainable or unrealistic goals when compared with actual achievements.  There seem to be three types of pathogenic goals: (1) anomic types where insatiability is permanent in the face of rising normative expectations; (2) blocked pathogenic goals where people need a raised level of achievement in order to gain satiability (here, initial achievement in itself can be a trigger); (3) comparative pathogenic goal, which is like (2), but arises because expectations change rather than achievement levels.

The social structure can be anomogenic, offering blocking, or chances for reference groups to adversely compare each other.  The first case relates to community norms and their decline.  Blocking can arise from the demand that the actor possesses new skills, which in some cases can lead to a sense of powerlessness if the demands are excessive.  Comparative problems arise when new reference groups appear for people to compare themselves with—although identification with reference groups can vary.  These factors can interact, for example comparative problems persist because blockages persist.

Thus the independent variables are best considered as social structures and patterns of experience.  Social structures offer different combinations of mobility and non mobility.  These vary according to the existence or nonexistence of routes between the initial social class, the adult social class, the educational route, and amount of education.  [This is the stuff of the usual UK work on social mobility, but Hopper points out that occupations can vary in terms of situs as well as status]. 

Patterns of experience include the degree and type of status rigidity – whether there are different and distinct lifestyles, whether newcomers are accepted or rejected, whether there is considerable social distance between initial an adult social classes, and between core and peripheral groups.  Educational experience can also vary in terms of whether it provides career training or status training.  There are also different kinds of organization of ‘authority structures in which the work role is embedded’, giving different patterns of authority, such as those of the professional or those of the bureaucrat.

Taken together, a number of interacting patterns are possible.  Sometimes there is overlap, for example between status rigidity and educational experiences.  Some patterns combine to be decidedly pathogenic—for example high status rigidity, and low status of training.  Hopper points out that status rigidity is supportive for the non-mobile [that is, they practice class closure to use different terms, using matters of status, such as lifestyle].

Generally speaking, those who have travelled a long way in mobility terms are better off, since the higher status groups are often less rigid than adjacent ones, and there are fewer cross pressures.  [This is another major Hopper finding, and it might help to explain Goldthorpe’s data, that long range mobile people tend to be relatively easily accepted by the service class, while the intermediate class is the one of volatility and uncertainty].

The rest of the book attempts to go out and test these propositions, choosing to examine a wide range of patterns [not a random sample].  Hopper wants to test especially the effects of different educational routes.  He chose a sample of men who were aged 30 or 31 in January 1965.  500 men were selected, but only 200 were interviewed.  Educational routes were defined in terms of levels.  Hopper used the Hall- Jones System to define social classes.  Hopper admits there are problems in generalising from his data, and he further discusses problems of defining anxiety (especially in chapters three, four and five).

Chapter seven

This chapter offers examples of blocking, comparative, and anomogenic [anomie-producing]  patterns.

Structural and societal blocking factors include skills (usually measured in terms of formal qualifications), but also other technical and diffuse qualities, which may be both ascribed and achieved.  Comparative factors, enabling reference group comparisons, include the interaction system, the normative system, the types of contact between different groups that are common and the norms of individuals.  Anamogenic factors can be any of the above, including any new or disturbed interaction systems [hints of Merton on social disorganization here].  Much depends on the level of ignorance or incomprehension of other groups, and these can also be affected by various sanctions, structures of power and authority.  Hopper discusses the split between egoism and altruism here too.

Chapter eight

This chapter considers empirical examples from the data.

Comparisons with the social class of siblings is quite important, and thus status and situs of friends.  Interestingly, comparisons seem to follow an M-shaped curve in terms of their production of anxiety [see diagram].  In essence, people do not compare themselves with those groups who are socially remote, and thus do not experience any tension: it is comparisons with close or equal groups that provide most anxiety.


Position relative to the position of a sibling



Patterns of anxiety
















 (join the crosses to get the M-shape)

 Irregular work patterns, especially the absence of a sense of career, produce less experience of social constraints and therefore a greater sense of anomie.  Anomie is increased by an absence of friends, residential mobility, the absence of leisure, no integration into the family, the quantity and quality of social contacts (for example whether they are reciprocated, whether people turn to friends for help).  So the evidence seems to provide further material on Durkheim’s theory of anomie.

Chapter nine

Chapter 12

This chapter discusses patterns of mobility and non-mobility. 

Status incongruence increases anxiety.  Incongruence between economic position and status can produce the classic M-shaped pattern of relative anxiety.  Incongruence between personal income and the kind of amount of education has the same effects.  Incongruence between occupation and amount and kind of education produces a lesser effect.  Taking all these factors together, it is possible to see a variation between American and British systems, with the latter showing more status rigidity.

Hopper found diverse results from examining patterns of mobility and non-mobility.  For example, university graduates have lower levels of anxiety, since they have followed a high status route [Goldthorpe’s study found that going to university had about the same pay off in occupational terms as working your way up through the firm—again, Hopper points to a possible status distinction, however].  Those who are not mobile have the highest anxiety scores, especially if they happen to be members of the lower working classes.  The upwardly mobile vary: distance travelled is one difference, as we saw.  Social tensions and paradoxes return in the finding that status rigidity comforts the non-mobile but threatens the mobile.

Chapter 14

How do the anxious or relatively deprived people actually adjust again?  There are complex patterns revealed, in the structural sources of feelings, and in feelings themselves.  There is no determinism here: some people in very strongly anxiety producing structures did not feel relative deprivation.  They managed to adjust.  There are different types of adjustment on offer: people can adjust their feelings, responsible factors, personal or structural, and they do so with sometimes contradictory and inefficient results.  In some ways, such adjustment could still qualify as a form of alienation [this reminds me of some of the classic old studies of deferential workers—were they really deferential, content with their lot, unwilling to let all sorts of knobs rule them, or was this just a rational tactical adjustment to their powerlessness?].  Some succeeded in reconciling their selves to their lot, but not all.

We need to modify Merton’s famous five responses to social strain, by adding two more. 

Merton's typology of responses to strain

Modes of  adaptation Culture/goals
Institutionalised means

+ means people accept the goal or means, - means they reject it

We need to split innovation into legal and illegal types, for example.  Ritualism also needs to be split into ‘mechanisation’ [in the sense of mechanically performing the task], and actual emotional or cognitive withdrawal.  Hopper finds lot of examples of all seven types of response, and discusses some possible connections between their occurrence and different structural sources of relative deprivation.  He seems to be arguing that the social structure itself can influence the choice and availability of the response [compare this with Cloward and Ohlin on the distribution of criminal responses to social strain].

Chapter 15

There is a link between feelings and structural sources.  There are a number of important blocking factors which affect patterns of social mobility and status rigidity.  Anxiety commonly follows an M-shaped curve, and is at its maximum with large negative discrepancies between ourselves and our reference groups.  This is not because we are still hoping to identify ourselves with those reference groups, however.  Nor do we classically embrace fatalism or the notion of luck.  Instead, we attempt an instrumental adjustment – we become retreatists, innovators, or rebels.  We can choose alternative goals, although these tend to be very unstable.  Small amounts of mobility often produce embarrassment, but large amounts produce social distance.

The major sociological implication is that the stability of the system depends on normative expectations, not actual material redistributions of income.