Social mobility is considered a hallmark of democratic, capitalist societies. Both democracy and capitalism are assumed to support meritocracy, a system that allows and encourages individuals to occupy social, professional, and political position based on intelligence, ability, and effort. However, structural inequalities such as racial and gender discrimination and the concentration of wealth and power among a small and insular elite can make social mobility extremely difficult for many groups. Sociologists study mobility myths, or widely accepted ideas about social mobility that contrast with the realistic possibilities for upward mobility in a society.
The American dream refers to the idea that the social and political systems of the United States provide all individuals with opportunities to become very successful or wealthy based on hard work and talent. Sociologists examine the concept of the American dream in American society and examine data in order to analyze how relevant or realistic this notion is. A belief that the United States is a country of unlimited opportunity for all people is rooted in America's colonial past and its patterns of expansion. The term American dream came into usage in the 1800s to refer to people who headed west to make their fortunes and to the new wave of European immigrants coming to the United States at that time. By the early 20th century the American dream was synonymous with the idea of upward social mobility. It continues to be a central thread in the American narrative, with many Americans and others believing that while there may be large disparities in income between the upper class and other classes in America, there is much more equality of economic opportunity in the United States than in any other country.
Sociologists look at data that reflect how and when social mobility truly occurs. For example, data show that in the late 19th century there was much greater social mobility in America than in Great Britain. On the other hand, sociologists note that most social mobility was experienced by white people, particularly white men. Furthermore, social mobility in the United States slowed down and stalled over the course of the 20th century but increased in Europe. As a result, social mobility is lower in the United States than in most of Europe. In the United States, the vast majority of people born into the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder never move into the middle class. Some of those born into the lowest rung move up slightly but still remain poor. Americans who are born into the middle class have slightly better chances of moving up into the highest economic level, but for the most part they remain middle class. Belief in the American dream, however, remains strong across most social groups in the United States. Sociologists investigate why that belief persists, what the American dream means to different people, and what data suggest about changes in social mobility over time.