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

Student Opportunities

Undergraduate and graduate students will receive cross-training in both the social mobility research and data catalog, as well as the theory and empirical research behind the design of effective visual information displays. The undergraduate team members will also form project teams where they will take different, complementary roles and work with the graduate student project manager to ensure timely completion of projects.

Up to ten undergraduates from different disciplines will gain a nuanced understanding of social mobility and their chosen country, acquiring close relationships with a set of organizations and individuals within their selected country. There will be two graduate students—one from Public Policy (Sarah Nolan) who will serve as the project manager, and another who will serve as the data visualization teaching assistant. This graduate student should have visualization design experience or aptitude, possibly from a program such as Statistical Science, Computer Science or Art, Art History and Visual Studies, and will share team meeting leadership, in particular leading undergraduates through the data visualization and website development. Graduate students will also gain in-depth topic knowledge of social mobility and data visualization, with potential applicability to their dissertations and later work. In addition, they will learn fundamental research, leadership and teaching skills. They will help with instruction, syllabus creation and project management, and they will learn dynamic guidance and problem-solving as the undergraduates work through common research and data visualization challenges.

Fall semester progress will be evaluated based on a complete country paper containing a clear and informative visual depiction of the main trends and results. Spring semester outcomes will be oriented on the completion of the project website.

Based on how far their research has advanced, and based on the advantages of doing additional research in the country concerned, some students may be offered an opportunity to travel to their selected country.


Summer 2017 – Spring 2018

Team meetings are tentatively scheduled for Tuesday (or Friday) afternoons, but the time can be adjusted to meet the group’s separate schedules.

  • 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


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding for graduate students

Faculty/Staff Team Members

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

Graduate Team Members

Sarah Nolan, Sanford School - PhD in Public Policy

* denotes team leader


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