“Particularly impressive progress towards greater equality of opportunities in the world has not been identified yet”
Sociologist Gordey Yastrebov on how social mobility is changing in Russia and the world
“Social origin determines the fate of a person quite strongly almost everywhere. There are no significant differences between countries in this dependence. Only one group of countries stands out — the Scandinavian one, where it is actually less pronounced. Why? Social scientists continue to struggle to solve this problem," sociologist Gordey Yastrebov notes. In the interview with Realnoe Vremya, he spoke about how the “upward mobility” in Russia has changed over the post-Soviet period, what hinders social elevators in the United States and whether the domestic elite is completely closed to people “from the outside”.
“Upward mobility in the post-Soviet period has increased in many ways”
Could you explain in clear language what social mobility is?
I think many people have heard this concept in one way or another, but there is no clarity in its definition. I will tell you that even sociologists have a problem with this. Perhaps, the simplest definition of mobility is status change, its change from one to another. But then it is important to determine what is meant by the status and what is considered a reference point and what a destination point is. The status can be described in different ways, for example, income level, occupation... Education, because this is also an important, fundamental indicator of social success.
Although more complex concepts of mobility in sociology rely on the concept of social classes. You have probably heard about the simple division into classes according to Marx — workers and capitalists. There are also slightly more complex interpretations, such as Weber's, which suggest a more refined nomenclature of classes. But all the basic concepts are more or less based on the fact that the social class is tied to the place occupied by a person in the social division of labour. Occupation, to put it simply.
Knowing who a person works with, we know approximately their education, social circle, income level, consumer basket, lifestyle, and so on.
And what is the “reference point” and “what is the “point of destination”?
The reference point can be, for example, the beginning of the labour path, and the destination point — the status by a certain age. In this case, we are talking about intra-generational mobility.
But most often sociologists are interested, perhaps, in intergenerational mobility. In this case, the reference point is the social position of the parents, and the destination point is the position of children. Accordingly, the level of intergenerational mobility measures the direction and extent to which children have progressed up the social ladder relative to the level reached by their parents.
Specifically, I once worked on intergenerational social and class mobility in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, based on data from representative sociological surveys containing information about the life paths of respondents.
Are children who grew up in Russia more successful than their parents who came from the USSR?
In general, if we compare the late Soviet period with the post-Soviet period of the 2000s, it is clear, upward mobility increased in many parameters: for example, in terms of education level — due to the expansion of access to universities in principle, as well as due to the increased need for people with higher education. In terms of income and consumption — due to the economic recovery and further economic growth since the 2000s. These are all obvious facts.
But it is important to make a reservation here — inequality has also grown significantly in Russia after the collapse of the USSR. Unfortunately, there are people who live worse than the poorest in the USSR lived. But this is a separate topic.
Roughly speaking, on average, people have certainly started to live better, even if only slightly.
“The dependence of children's life chances on social origin is almost everywhere the same. Only in Scandinavia it is weaker”
To what extent does social origin determine the fate of a person?
Let's just say, significantly enough. It is difficult to give an exact answer to this question — everything will depend on the specific definitions and methodology of analysis. But, interestingly, there are no significant differences between countries in this dependence, that is, the dependence of children's life chances on their social origin. Only one group of countries stands out — the Scandinavian one, where it is actually less pronounced.
If we talk about Russia, then, of course, it is interesting whether this dependence has changed during the transition from a socialist society to a post-socialist, market-oriented one. What is even more interesting, about 15 years ago, the answer to this question seems to have already been formulated by a group of American sociologists who showed (using strictly scientific methods, based on data from representative sociological surveys) that social mobility in post-Soviet Russia has significantly decreased. They attributed this to the transition to a market society, increased competition for places, and material inequality, which in these circumstances could easily be converted into social inequality. At the same time, as you know, much was done in the Soviet Union to reduce material inequality and equalize opportunities for various groups of the population.
But, as often happens in science, previously published facts were refuted. First of all, I have shown this in my own works published in the scientific journal Mir Rossii — no special changes were observed in the dependence of children's chances on social origin during the transition from the late Soviet society to the post-Soviet one. Second, the work of British colleagues has been published relatively recently, and they have shown the same thing on alternative data. I also know of attempts to reproduce the American result from a series of sources by other researchers (though not published), which support the same conclusion — that there are no significant changes.
“Even if the education system is reformed in order to deprive privileged groups of advantages, they quickly regain them”
Is social mobility growing in Western society?
If we look at absolute mobility, that is, how much better it has become for children to live in relation to their parents, then, perhaps, yes. Uniquely. It is clear that the economies of various countries are growing, the socio-professional structure of societies is changing, and the number of high-status professions is gradually increasing. For example, the service sector is growing, and the need for highly qualified specialists is increasing. There are becoming more and more of these specialists in our society. Thus, when we measure the social class of children and parents (defined by occupation), we get an average upward mobility in any case.
But if we are interested in the relative mobility, more precisely, whether the position of children depends on the position of parents, then, as I have already said, everything is more complicated. In general, there has not been much progress anywhere over the long historical period.
There are some minor differences between countries, short-term fluctuations over time, but there is no consistent pronounced trend, nor any clear explanation of what is associated with episodic (albeit minor) deviations.
If we look exclusively at mobility, there are still some positive developments in some countries. In this regard, I will mention again the Scandinavian countries, where we initially have a fairly low level of economic inequality, a strong social state, and where serious efforts are focused on the availability of the education system and its quality. But in general, I would say that no particularly impressive progress has been made in the world towards greater equality of opportunities.
We can see almost completely closed groups of politicians, bankers and other segments of society who have a lot of power and money, right?
Unfortunately, these groups are difficult to access for sociological study. It is obvious that they almost do not get into the sample representative surveys, so it is quite difficult to operate with convincing facts here. There are, of course, elite scientists who deal with them, but I'm afraid that not all information is available to them. There are definitely no statistics on this.
But I admit that I am not a great expert in this area — I prefer to work with large statistics. So I can only express my opinion.
My feeling is that the elite in Russia is not completely closed to people from the outside. But to get into it, a person must accept certain rules of the game, the system of values that prevails there.
Often for many, this means the need to compromise certain principles. Certainly, social origin affects this, but not 100 per cent.
You are living in Germany. How is social inequality reproduced in the German education system?
As I've said, many dependencies are universal, and this applies to German society as well. The German education system differs from the Russian one, but the mechanisms of social reproduction are the same as everywhere else.
Besides, there are a number of studies showing that even if the education system is reformed in order to deprive privileged groups of a number of advantages, these groups quickly adapt to the new rules of the game and regain their advantage.
“The United States is actually a country with a fairly low level of social mobility”
We know the stories of such famous people as Steven jobs, who, as we know, did not have a completed higher education, which did not prevent him from achieving outstanding success. In Western society, there is still a direct correlation between the level of income and the quality of education, or is this going to take a back seat?
The United States is actually a country with a fairly low level of social mobility, no matter what they say.
There is a well-known ideology that supports the belief in the possibility of social mobility, which the United States sells to the world and to the Americans themselves — the “American dream”. But ask the average American and they will tell you that this is a myth.
The high level of inequality, paid higher education, and the reluctance of the state to increase its presence in the social sphere — all this strongly hinders effective social elevators.
I can refer to another recent study that we have published together with our Italian and German colleagues. We have analyzed social mobility by education in the United States over the past 100 years and concluded that mobility in this country is slowing and is likely to continue to slow. It was high only in the post-war period (before that, it was also low). This is largely due to the dynamics of economic inequality and the dynamics of the costs that American families have to bear to provide higher education for their children.
Does it have relation to politics?
With educational policy, perhaps. With the fact that they hang on to this system so much. But let's be fair — they have something to brag about, the US has one of the best higher education systems in the world. The same applies to the health care system. Both are based on competitive market principles and both are very expensive. But the problem is that only a small number of people can get access to the services they produce. All of this, of course, contributes to increasing inequality.
What percentage of Americans have a higher education?
If we take the figure as a whole for the population, then about a third. But if we talk about those who were born in the 1980s and later, it is 40% and higher.
Where is the situation with equal opportunities better than in the United States? In Scandinavia?
Yes. But they are unique in their own way, although they have a similar economic and social system. Besides, they are also very rich countries with a low level of material inequality. For their case, it is quite appropriate to ask, what came first — the chicken or the egg? Was it the wealth of the Scandinavian countries that led them to build and maintain such a strong social state, or is it their strong social state, which may well be based on a cultural matrix that makes them so intolerant of social inequality, that is the reason for their wealth, their high standard of living? Social scientists continue to struggle to solve this problem. Anyway, nowhere in the world, except in the Scandinavian countries, such a model could not be reproduced.
In general, the situation with social mobility and inequality in Europe is, I would say, better than in the United States. In Europe, states are more social, and redistributive policies are more pronounced there, when the income of the rich classes is directed to benefits, allowances and subsidies to the poor.