CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

This article aims to show how people experiencing sharp upward social mobility adjust to their new social status. The analysis draws on 150 interviews conducted in France, in the United States and in India among people from modest backgrounds who achieved prestigious positions in the civil service, in the private sector and in academia. In contrast to most of the research on the determinants of achievement, which runs counter to the false consciousness of common sense, the perspective chosen here consists of a comprehensive approach of the « indigenous » explanations of achievement. Four main repertoires of explanation are most frequently mobilized by our interviewees, regardless of the national context: the desire to « escape poverty, » luck, the valorization of education and the impression of being « gifted. » The types of explanations that are most often drawn on are thus the same in the three countries. However, a more detailed analysis shows very strong national specificities. American interviewees tend to resort more readily to repertoires that refer to market forces, Indian interviewees evidence a strong tendency to negate any agency in their achievement, and French interviewees find it difficult to say that their ambition played a role in their success. In general, explaining their achievement is not an easy task for the interviewees, and vague explanations that tend to naturalize achievement are often offered. Thus, more than explaining achievement, what really matters to them is considering that their achievement is explicable. This shows that justifying their mobility can be part of an effort to adjust to the new social status and to reduce the tension caused by moving from one social class to another.


  • upward social mobility
  • social success
  • international comparison
  • United States
  • India
  • France
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