Social mobility versus social climbing

I’ve recently written and submitted a research proposal on social mobility amongst the Indian female underclass (mostly plantation workers and their descendants) in pre and post-independence Malaya. Despite the predominating narrative that the life potential of the Indian underclass is impeded by caste inequality, ethnicity, and by being female, I was nonetheless interested in channels that facilitate degrees of social mobility; marriage to a higher caste/class individual/family, the (inverse) number of children a woman bore, level of education, opportunities to other kinds of paid employment and migration to other towns and cities. Social mobility, understood here as an upward movement (though there is such thing as a downward trend) towards a higher station in life, is a positive venture towards greater equality in society.

By contrast, social climbing, though also understood as the deliberate advancement up the rungs of society’s ladder, is perceived as a negative thing. Social climbing implies the manipulation of people/resources and self-aggrandising in order to arrive at a desired rank of social prestige. The problem with this rank of social prestige is that it is precarious, especially for those insecure in their personal disposition. Precariousness notwithstanding, the social climber jockeys for position, whilst discarding people who have helped them on their way. There are critics, however, who question the negative connotations of social climbing and wish to recuperate it into something positive, even necessary, for social groups that are historically disadvantaged.

On a more personal note, my own experiences of befriending social climbers have tended to come to a sticky end and occur in spaces where hierarchy, status, and distinction (Bourdieu, 1979) define the tenor of community dynamics; privileged and highly-qualified middle class Malaysian society, and more often than not, female-dominated spaces. Perhaps other factors that intersect with gender may play a more significant role for reasons why I find myself being the stepping stone of a female social climber. But at the moment, I don’t know what those factors are.

So social mobility is about economic uplift while status accrued from social climbing is not necessarily for monetary ends. If I can conclude without being annoyingly tautological: social climbing is distinguished simply by its social dimension and operates through the social climber’s self-differentiation from those who are, in the climber’s eyes, ‘inferior’ in status.


Bourdieu, Pierre (1979) La Distinction, Routledge.

Categorized as Malaysia

By Angry Malay Woman

I like plants.

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