Xi Song: Studying Social Status Across Generations

Anjali Anand


Since the 2008 financial crisis, increased awareness of inequality has fueled public and political debate, with many questioning how to best gain traction on this complex issue, including its persistent influence on generations.


To better understand this transmission of social status across time, Xi Song, Assistant Professor of Sociology, is studying social inequality from a multigenerational perspective, moving beyond the traditional paradigm of studying only material and informational flows from parent to child. Instead, she looks back to grandparents, great-grandparents, and even more distant relatives to understand how social mobility plays out across time.


Song’s interest in the origins of social inequality can be further traced to her childhood in small town China. “I grew up during China’s economic transition from a communist regime to a market-oriented regime,” she describes. “I noticed changes in people’s life chances. However, people who were privileged before the transition were still those who got ahead after the transition. There was no discontinuity in their life chances despite the regime change.”


Song studied sociology in college and later pursued an MPhil at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, where she was exposed to American-style sociology, before earning her PhD at the University of California – Los Angeles. Due to her education in both China and the United States, she has access to multiple sources of data and pursues projects in both countries.


Among several current projects, she is studying generational mobility in the Chinese context using two datasets that span three centuries. The first comes from data collected by the Office of the Imperial Lineage during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). The data recorded Takeshi, the grandfather of the first emperor, and his four brothers as well as their male descendants down through 1936.   “Originally the data were just used to analyze demographic transition in China during the 19th and 20th century,” Song notes. “Later we realized that the data also recorded social status in great detail.” She cites a man who changed jobs nearly thirty times during his working life to illustrate how detailed the records are. For poorer Chinese families, she and her colleagues use household registers of farming populations living in northeast China, taken every three years during the imperial period, to follow the same families across time.


The timeframes that Song considers in her research allow her to study effects that only emerge over long periods. “One big component of my research that’s different from others’ approach to multigenerational research is demography,” Song explains. “Grandparents influence their children or grandchildren, but first they need to have children! Essentially people transmit their social status to the next generation but they also influence the next generation via their demographic behaviors. Parents may decide how many children they want and they may also interfere with their children’s marriages. So, for my research I really emphasize the interplay of demography and social mobility.”


Song has recently begun to incorporate life course perspectives into her work. Life course refers to the changes in a person’s social status, wealth, and prospects over the course of their individual lifetime. “An individual’s social status is not static. It is dynamic and time varying. So, a person’s social status may evolve from early adulthood to mid-career and then retirement. We cannot think of this as static or as just a snapshot measure of their social status.”


As an example, Song says a child born to a poor couple working their way up the social ladder faces different life chances than a child born to that same couple when they are wealthy. Such patterns can emerge when life course perspectives are married to Song’s demographic, multigenerational approach. “We need to be more specific at what stages this social status is measured. Instead of classifying people as just rich or poor, we think about whether they were always rich or always poor, or did they experience upward or downward mobility over their life course?”


Because Song’s research interests sit at the intersection of demography, social mobility studies, and quantitative methodology, she has found the University of Chicago’s interdisciplinary environment as well as its rich selection of seminars and working groups indispensable to furthering her own research. Song is currently working with a team of economists and sociologists to investigate social mobility in the United States from 1850 to the present. One finding of their work to date is that social mobility does not seem to correlate with social inequality over time. “We show the pattern of social mobility is not very sensitive to changing social inequality. It’s actually more related to structural changes, like industrialization or the decline of the agricultural population.”


Song hopes her work can speak to enduring concerns about how to make societies more meritocratic and help to provide insights on how the advantages that accrue to families in one generation last across time and their implications for future generations. “Social inequality and mobility are such hot topics not only in the social sciences but also in the media and to policymakers. We are always concerned not only about how we’re doing in society but also whether our children will experience upward mobility.”