Visualizing Social Mobility in the Developing World (2017-2018)


Equality of opportunity holds a central place in society’s conception of a just world. Notions of justice, which hold that success should depend more on hard work and talent and less on the circumstances of one’s birth, are central to the agenda of social mobility. The extent to which this is true varies a great deal across countries and time periods, and the study of these differences is in its infancy. Particularly in the developing world, these knowledge gaps are vast, limiting policymakers’ ability to foster greater social mobility.

Conventionally, researchers have measured social mobility using longitudinal datasets, comparing the careers or the earnings of parents and their children. Measuring such differences requires collecting data across generations—comparing fathers and sons, for instance, at similar stages in their careers. Such data are not available for developing countries, and generating such data takes decades. Meanwhile, inequality is growing across large parts of the developing world, and demands for greater equality of opportunity have become prominent on policymakers’ agendas. Seized by these concerns, a number of organizations have emerged in diverse countries. NGOs, cooperatives, corporate bodies and others are seeking to promote social mobility. But there has been no effort to bring these disparate bodies of work together—and no effort to relate their work to the overall status of social mobility in any particular country.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project will synthesize disparate indicators into a complex understanding of social mobility, and will apply best practices in visualization and information design to ensure that the results of this research are accessible to a global audience.

The project team will collect data from disparate sources and create a visual, accessible social mobility data hub for developing nations. This hub will provide a living resource for researchers, policy practitioners, media and the general public to learn more about social mobility in multiple countries.

The project will help fill gaps in knowledge by constructing measures of social mobility for specific countries in new and unconventional ways, using a variety of indices, and by compiling, classifying and assessing the work of social mobility-promoting organizations in each of these countries.

By looking at individuals’ achievements in a few selected walks of life, and by examining the socioeconomic origins and career paths of these individuals, the project will generate new knowledge about who makes it (and who doesn’t) and the factors associated with achievements (and nonachievements). Building on prior work done by Professor Krishna in India, the methodology will be refined and extended.

Each student team member will look within one country that s/he selects in consultation with the project team, and will scour a variety of sources for potentially useful data. For instance, a student may look at the composition of CEOs (or legislators) in a country, or new entrants into elite (and nonelite) educational institutions, or members of the national football team, and undertake supplementary searches (including individual interviews) to uncover evidence of significant social mobility. Do people who were born in slums or in poor rural families also find representation? What is the relative share of people with advantaged and disadvantaged upbringings? What mechanisms enabled the rise to high positions of individuals who were disadvantaged? What was the role played by government policies and other organizations? Each of these country-specific findings will be visualized in simple-to-read yet analytically powerful messages.

Anticipated Outcomes

Compiled datasets, white papers on social mobility in individual countries, website and additional communication products (visualizations, infographics, multimedia content) that translate research results for a broad audience


Summer 2017 – Spring 2018

  • Summer 2017: Hold initial meetings and assign background readings and summer assignment; graduate students and faculty develop a structure and syllabus for the undergraduate project team; graduate students undergo cross-training in both subjects (public policy and data visualization), as well as in project management techniques
  • Fall 2017: Project team meets biweekly to discuss assigned readings, country choice and data analysis; first module: Introduction to Social Mobility and Country Exploration; second module: Data Visualization
  • Spring 2018: Continue meeting biweekly with greater emphasis on collaboration and public communication of science; third module: Data Communication and Website Development

Team Outcomes to Date

Visualizing Social Mobility in the Developing World (talk by Casey Pettiford and Hannah Wang), EHDx, April 19, 2018

Addressing Challenges in Social Mobility Research (poster by Anirudh Krishna, Angela Zoss, Sarah Nolan, Luke LeGrand, Victoria Nneji, Casey Pettiford, Hannah Wang, Maddie Keyes, Mumbi Kanyogo, Sanjeev Dasgupta, Varun Prasad), presented at Bass Connections Showcase, April 18, 2018, and EHDx, April 19, 2018

Project team website

This Team in the News

Top Student Scholars: Independent Studies of Neutrinos, Medicaid Policy and African Feminism

/faculty/staff Team Members

  • Anirudh Krishna, Sanford School of Public Policy*
  • Angela Zoss, Duke Libraries*

/graduate Team Members

  • Victoria Nneji, Mech Engg/Materials Sci-PHD
  • Sarah Nolan, Public Policy Studies-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Sanjeev Dasgupta, Political Science (AB)
  • Mumbi Kanyogo, Gender Sexuality & Fem St(AB), Public Policy Studies (AB2)
  • Madeline Keyes, Economics (AB)
  • Casey Pettiford, Int Comparative Studies (AB)
  • Varun Prasad, Economics (BS), Statistical Science (BS2)
  • Hannah Wang, Political Science (AB)