By Geoff Payne, Newcastle University
A welcome first for the Government’s re-constituted Social Mobility Commission is the inclusion of a sociologist. Dr Sam Friedman (LSE), a leading figure in the younger generation of mobility researchers, has made a number of extensively-cited contributions to mobility analysis, using both quantitative and qualitative methods.
It is surprising that the Commission previously included no sociologists. Originally proposed in the Labour’s 2010 White Paper, the commission emerged under the Coalition Government as an independent statutory body to advise Government, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMCPC), before renaming as the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) in 2016. None of its commissioners were sociologists. Although it included an academic economist interested in intergenerational comparisons of income, and commissioned a few marginally sociological investigations, its members showed little interest in the sociological literature or drawing on the profession’s expertise.
The SMCPC failed to commission a baseline study to establish mobility rates, against which the SMCPC’s work could be benchmarked, until data eventually emerged in 2016 from the 2014 Labour Force Survey. Instead, it addressed other indicators of social inequality which, while plausibly correlated with social mobility, did not directly measure mobility. Consequently the commission’s reports on ‘social mobility’ (e.g. its ‘social mobility index’), however well-meaning and informative on other social inequalities, were not about social mobility as properly conceived. Its work was also notably silent on gender differences in mobility outcomes.
Almost all the new SMC commissioners come from business, charities and the media. While it would be unfair to pre-judge the direction of the new SMC, there is currently little sign that it will escape the individualistic modes of explanation which have increasingly dominated recent political discourse. As one among a dozen other voices, Sam Friedman faces a demanding task in advocating a sociological explanation of social mobility.
Professor Geoff Payne is Associate Researcher at Newcastle University and his recent books include The New Social Mobility: how the politicians got it wrong (2017 Policy Press).