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Talking the Talk of Social Mobility: the political performance of a misguided agenda

Ingram, Nicola; Gamsu, Sol

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Nicola Ingram


Since 2010 the language of social mobility has been increasingly utilised by UK politicians from across the political spectrum to denote a commitment to 'fair access' to opportunity in both education and the professions. Within this policy discourse the default understanding of inequality is premised on a narrow notion of access to elite education and employment positions, where a deeper understanding of the politics of social reproduction and inequality, or any meaningful emphasis on redistribution, is absent. The social mobility agenda is axiomatically an equality of opportunity agenda where the focus is on ‘levelling up’ those who are considered to be falling behind. Its focus on opportunity to the detriment of outcome thus rules out considerations of structural solutions to inequalities. In this paper, we unpack the discourses of social mobility that are prevalent in recent UK government papers and political talk, with a specific focus on the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) in order to consider how these shape policy approaches to education and labour market participation. We argue that the presiding 'race to the top' mentality undermines the very equality that the social mobility agenda claims to be seeking to achieve, and in doing so we implicate the SMC in purveying contradictory understandings of mobility that compound and conceal existing inequalities. Through a focus on graduate employment we problematise the role of Higher Education in the promotion of social mobility. We consider the role of employers participating in the Social Mobility Employers’ Index, and expose the contradictions between the performance of social mobility and the reality of corporate practices that entrench social inequalities. Our work underscores the need for a new political conversation about social mobility, and a redirection of attendant education and employment policy to focus on dismantling rather than reinforcing social hierarchies.


Ingram, N., & Gamsu, S. (2022). Talking the Talk of Social Mobility: the political performance of a misguided agenda. Sociological Research Online, 27(1), 189-206.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Sep 14, 2021
Online Publication Date Jan 28, 2022
Publication Date Mar 1, 2022
Deposit Date Sep 14, 2021
Publicly Available Date Sep 24, 2021
Journal Sociological Research Online
Publisher SAGE Publications
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 27
Issue 1
Pages 189-206
Public URL


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