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How new information is changing our understanding of social mobility

“I’m tackling one of the oldest questions we have in Sociology”, says Postdoctoral Research Fellow Per Engzell. He’s investigating the age-old question of why it is that the children of rich people grow up to be rich, and the children of poor parents stay that way. “We’ve been asking it for centuries, and you might think we’d know all about it by now – but that’s not the case.”

Dr Engzell’s interest in the field was sparked during his time studying abroad. He noticed the different opportunities available to people growing up with different systems. While a Visiting Scholar at Stanford, he noticed his fellow students referring to themselves as ‘first-gen’, meaning the first in their family to go to university. “This surprised me, because we don’t have that in Sweden – having more social mobility, that would be nothing remarkable.”

Countless arguments have been put forward already regarding inequality. For Dr Engzell, however, it’s an exciting time to be investigating the issue. Access to new data provides an opportunity to disrupt the field, changing our understanding of social mobility throughout history. Population and census data, available for the first time, is providing unexpected insights.

“It’s remarkable,” he says. “Where previous studies drew on small samples and used this to determine overall trends, we now have access to entire populations.” As such, Dr Engzell can localise his research – for example, comparing specific neighborhoods across a city to analyse how poverty manifests among each community.

At the same time, this data makes it possible to extend the observation window, following those changes over longer periods of time. This provides advantages when examining periods of upheaval, such as the industrial revolution and founding of the welfare state. By tracking social mobility following these events, he hopes to understand the mechanisms underlying any changes.

Using this historical data, Dr Engzell aims to improve our understanding of changes taking place today.

He points to the example of industrial robots, which sees job losses predicted as machines gain the ability to take on increasing numbers of tasks. By applying the lessons of previous upheavals, he aims to gain insights into the effect that will have on the children of displaced workers. Similarly, the use of localised data allows him to examine the communities at the forefront of those changes today.

That method is revealing some unexpected results. “I think if you’re not surprised by something every day, you’re in the wrong job,” he laughs. “For example, we often compare countries as monolithic units, but we’ve come to realise that there’s as much variation within countries as there is between them.”

It was while studying data on inequality levels across the USA that he and coauthor Thor Berger came across a particularly striking example. Despite the time that had passed since they were first colonised, the areas they were looking at still demonstrated similar characteristics to the home countries of their original settlers. Those settled by the British exhibited similar levels of social mobility to today’s UK; those settled by Scandinavians were similar to Scandinavia.

Now based here at the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, Dr Engzell relishes its collaborative, interdisciplinary nature: “I have always found it very hard to stay within narrow disciplinary borders. As much as I’m an out and proud sociologist, I find it vital to work with others to transcend our own knowledge, and I’m looking forward to benefitting from others.”

“The other thing that I find great about the Leverhulme Centre is that researchers are encouraged to take risks. It’s a place where that is an asset and not a liability – that’s a big difference in mentality.”

Selected publications by Dr Engzell

· Engzell, P., and Tropf, F. (2019). “Heritability of Education Rises with Intergenerational Mobility.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

· Berger, T., and Engzell, P. (2019). “American Geography of Opportunity Reveals European Origins.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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