The Broken Promise of Meritocracy? German Middle-Class Perceptions of Upward Social Mobility in the Era of Rising Inequality

Saturday, 21 July 2018: 14:54
Oral Presentation
Sarah LENZ, Basel University, Switzerland
Patrick SACHWEH, Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany
In our paper, we study German upper- and lower middle-class perceptions of upward social mobility in the current era of rising inequality. Germany is a particularly interesting case because its traditional self-image as a “levelled middle-class” society has recently been challenged by increasing economic inequalities affecting the social fluidity of Germany’s social structure (e.g. polarized income distribution, income inequality, and risen poverty rates). Nevertheless, surveys show that there is still strong support for the idea that the prospects for upward social mobility are primarily based on achievement-related factors.

We try to elucidate this contradiction by using a mixed methods design. Based on representative survey data from the German General Social Survey (ALLBUS, 1976-2014), we ask how perceptions of upward social mobility have developed during the last forty years. Our findings show that while people attribute increasing importance to ascribed characteristics, achievement-based factors are rated as consistently more important. To understand this ambivalence, we analyze qualitative data of four focus group discussions with upper- and lower-middle class members, paying particular attention to the transformation of the effects of ascriptive- and achievement-characteristics in everyday practices.

These qualitative findings show that upward mobility in the era of rising inequality is a central topic in all group discussions. In line with the quantitative results, both ascribed and achieved characteristics are seen as important for working one’s way up the social hierarchy. This ambivalence, however, is solved through different moral interpretations which vary across social classes. While upper-middle class members formulate an individualized interpretation of upward mobility, members of the lower-middle class put forward an agonistic interpretation in which upward social mobility is reinterpreted as a “test”. Thereby, achievement and ascription both figure prominently in people’s everyday perceptions of social mobility, while the increasing importance of ascribed characteristics does not challenge the idea of meritocracy.