The majority of individuals have an opinion on the concept of social mobility, the idea that an individual can, regardless of his or her status at birth, move up in American society with a bit of hard work and dedication (CNN Money, 2013). Excerpts from President Obama’s speech on social mobility in America, provided by CNN Money (2013) allow for the exploration of the President’s views on the twin issues of social mobility and income inequality. A review of these perspectives through conflict theory and functionalist theory can work to explain the plight of the poor in America, according to the speech excerpts.
Looking first to conflict theory, it is necessary to recall what conflict theory is, before exploring its applications within the context of the Obama speech excerpts. Conflict theory, credited to Karl Marx, argues that society is in a continual state of conflict due to limited resources and the subsequent competition for those resources (Marx, 1977). President Obama stated that, when it comes to America, the potential for upward movement within society by those within the lower 20% of the population, those who are living in poverty, is equivalent to that of many developing nations, far behind other developed nations (CNN Money, 2013). Under conflict theory, such a perspective is easy to understand due to the increasing population as compared to a stable amount of available resources, thus increasing the scarcity of those resources, increasing their costs, and in turn decreasing their accessibility to those who are unable to afford the rising costs of the same. As Obama stated, “We know that there are airport workers…and retail sales people who work their tails off who are still living at or above poverty” (CNN Money, 2013, 2:26). Within this framework, the application of an increased minimum wage would work to combat issues associated with resource acquisition, at least in terms of tangible resources (CNN Money, 2013). However, when it comes to the intangible resources, such as education, an increase to minimum wage would not result in increased accessibility of these resources, suggesting the need for an alternative course of action designed to improve both the education system and access to the education system itself.
Looking next to functionalist theory, again, it is first necessary to present the definition of functionalism before exploring its application within the context of the speech excerpts. Functionalism utilizes the perspective that society is a complex system with its interconnected parts working to promote stability and solidarity within a given society (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017). Under functionalist theory, the idea that improvements must be made within one aspect of society, in this case increases to minimum wage, if improvements are to occur within other aspects of society, the chance for upward mobility, improved education, and greater equality, is in alignment with the theory itself (CNN Money, 2013; Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017). Under functionalist theory, improving one area will result in decreased societal issues in other areas due to the interconnected nature of society, or, as Obama stated, “With a little hard work you can improve your situation over time” (CNN Money, 2013, 0:13). The idea, in this instance, could be presented as, if parents are making higher minimum wage, they will have to work less, and thus will be able to devote increased time and attention to the education of their children, which will result in educational improvements within society as a whole.
Understanding the different applications of sociology within the context of a given speech or the presentation of a given idea designed to create societal improvements allows for the identification of how and why someone may expect a given idea to work, and can shed additional insight into the areas in which the presentation of such information may not be as effective as desired. In reviewing the excerpts from Obama’s speech (CNN Money, 2013), it becomes possible to gain a better understanding of how and why such actions are proposed or suggested. Five years later, it is possible to see the changes that have occurred in areas that took Obama’s speech to heart versus the rest of the country.
- CNN Money. 2013. Obama on Social Mobility in America. YouTube: CNN Money. Retrieved April 19, 2018. (https://youtu.be/sSBNxpUe2ks)
- Marx, Karl. 1977. “Economic Manuscripts: Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy with Some Notes by R. Rojas.” Marxists.org. Retrieved April 19, 2018 (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm).
- Ritzer, George, and Jeffrey Stepnisky. 2018. Modern Sociological Theory. 8th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.