Department of Political Science


Social Justice, Social Mobility, Education and the Family

Course Code


Course Tutor

Professor Adam Swift (Department of Political Science)


One 3,000 word essay (100%)

About this Course

Social mobility is a hot political topic because it is seen as a key indicator of equality of opportunity and social justice. Informed by reflection on and discussion of our personal trajectories from our own social origins to our current social position, we begin by examining the empirical evidence about patterns of social mobility and consider to what extent they might reflect meritocratic processes. Particular attention is given to the UK but students are welcome to draw on resources concerning other societies.

We then consider and evaluate various candidate principles of justice to govern the distribution of education: equality (both of outcome and of opportunity), adequacy (what matters is that everybody's education is good enough), and benefiting the least advantaged (education should be distributed in ways that best serve the worst off).

Attention then turns to the arguments for and against allowing parents to choose elite private schools for their children, before broadening and deepening the agenda to cover the full range of mechanisms by which parents confer advantage, and disadvantage, on their children, from bedtime stories to private tutors.

The module aims to:

  • encourage students to reflect on their personal social mobility trajectories to date
  • expose students to a variety of scholarly debates about the relation between social justice and social mobility
  • help them understand how to combine empirical and normative considerations in the assessment of social mobility patterns
  • provide them with an informed understanding of how social scientists conceive, measure, and explain social mobility while enabling them to interrogate the key critiques and defences of current levels of social mobility from a social justice perspective
  • promote their understanding of (i) what would count as a just distribution of education, (ii) the role of the family in reproducing inequality across generations, and (iii) the basis and limits on parents’ rights to confer advantage on their children
  • develop students' capacity to reason rigorously and critically, and present their views persuasively and clearly – both orally and on paper - on these topics.