Social Mobility vs. Social Change

In my further research into the nature of organizational silos I’ve been reading some interesting academic studies on intergroup conflict (Thank you Julian Simpson!) and I came across description of two different core belief systems about how we relate as individuals to the groups we belong to. The two belief systems are called “social mobility” and “social change” (from Henri Tajfel, Integrative Theory of Intergroup Conflict). Like much academic literature the ideas are good, but the writing is downright awful!

Basically, the theories work like this: if you believe in “social mobility”, then you are the kind of person who believes that social status is dynamic and that through discipline, dedication, and good old-fashioned hard work, you can change your status within a given hierarchy. You believe that you can leave your current social group and join a higher status group. This belief system is described by Tajfel as being very much the American ideal of success. It’s very oriented to the success of the individual and not the group. In fact, the group gets left behind.

On the other hand, if you subscribe to the theory of “social change”, then you tend to believe that social groups are quite fixed and one can’t leave or dissociate oneself from the group you are a part of. Tajfel ascribes this belief system to those who are in highly stratified, “underprivileged or stigmatized groups.” Think of the unemployed, caste systems and other such examples. The theory is that people in this fixed hierarchy tend to behave more as groups than as individuals when confronted with intergroup conflict.

Tajfel then goes on to argue that it is harder for those who subscribe to the stratified “social change” model to deal with intergroup conflict – simply because they have no way out. They are trapped. They have no escape, no safety valve to allow for the creative reorganization of the group dynamic. The folks who subscribe to the “social mobility” model are less likely to be threatened by intergroup conflict, because they can always leave, reorganize, or otherwise change their situation.

So, what does this theory of “social mobility” vs. “social change” tell us about silos? I think it suggests a few interesting things to look out for:

  1. Are there differences in the status of the two silos? Are people more highly paid in one silo than the other? Are they more educated in one silo than the other? Or are they similar?
  2. Are the silos cross cultural? Do those in one silo deal with social strata that do not exist at all for the other silo?

Understanding the answers to these questions can help you to potentially recognize the mindset of the group(s) that you are working with. Their mindset will determine how they approach conflict with another group – what they consider to be possible or impossible.

As a postscript, this all reminds me of Linda Rising’s keynote at Agile2011 where she contrasted the “fixed” and the “flexible” attitudes toward talent. I read echos of that wonderful comparison in the “social mobility” vs. “social change” theories. Do agile teams lean toward one theory over the other?

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