Where Do Opportunity Beliefs Come From?

Implications of Intergenerational Social Mobility for Beliefs About the Distribution System in China

Image credit: University of Bath


People’s understanding of the drivers of inequality is a function of their position in the social structure. Nevertheless, the ways in which intergenerational social mobility is associated with opportunity beliefs remains under researched. Recent findings in cultural sociology suggest that individuals seldom update their beliefs, and that settled dispositions lead people to reproduce their beliefs in their adulthood. This study used a probabilistic and representative survey of Chinese citizens to explore how intergenerational social mobility relates to opportunity beliefs. China presents an interesting context to explore this question, since Chinese society is considered to be highly unequal yet highly tolerant of social inequalities. Our results indicate a U-shaped relationship between social class and opportunity beliefs. The upper class and farmers exhibit stronger meritocratic beliefs than middle-classes. Moreover, upwardly and downwardly mobile individuals show greater weights for origin and destination, respectively. Thus, opportunity beliefs are explained by the social class where they rank lower. These findings suggest that when beliefs are updated through social mobility, they interact with the mobility trajectory. In addition, the stronger meritocratic beliefs of the farmers’ class and the greater weight of social origin for upwardly mobile individuals could help explain the dormant social volcano in China.

Research in Social Stratitification and Mobility, Forthcoming