Ambition, which is usually understood as a psychological attribute and so either a virtue or a vice, can also be understood as an inevitable social process, and that shows how enlightening sociology can be.
Ambition can be considered either the desire or the process of moving through your work career so that you wind up better off socially, financially and in terms of accomplishment than when you started out. Most people are, in this sense, ambitious, though we sometimes reserve that as an adjective for people who are particularly ambitious, like Richard II and Macbeth, and do not consider as ambitious those who are ordinarily ambitious, which is to succeed at their jobs or in their careers. Being ambitious is an all but inevitable feeling for people employed or functioning in a society with an even rudimentary division of labor and a social hierarchy that is age graded in that people in such societies enter into their work lives and do things which either move them up or not and so I can say that ambition is not a feeling but a process. You have to show your mettle as a warrior before becoming an Indian chief and people without any ambition are generally regarded as social misfits rather than as people who have chosen not to compete in a race.
Ambition as career movement is different from upward mobility, which refers to changing social class in the course of a career. Two sons of different medical doctors can fulfill their ambitions and become successful doctors without the need of comparing the two so as to notice that one has become significantly more wealthy than his father or his colleague. Not everyone is interested in upward mobility but everyone is interested in career advancement, which may mean building up seniority at a factory or becoming managing partner at a law firm. That is what I mean by ambition.
A first cut at understanding ambition is to point out that people in different social classes have different ambitions. A poor person may think a worthwhile ambition is not to ever spend time in jail, while a working class person at one time may have thought ambition was satisfied if one had been the breadwinner for a family for a long time without a break, and a middle class person may think his or her ambitions satisfied by having paid off a mortgage and having raised children that turned out well and having over a lifetime had some memorable European vacations (or, for a European, some memorable American vacations). A professional person can think ambition satisfied consists of having collected a number of awards for achievements, although people self-stratify and so some professionals would say they have satisfied their limited ambitions by, let us say, being teachers rather than recognized scholars or by having regularly presented at professional meetings even if having rarely broken into the professional journals.
Reducing ambition to or confusing it with upward mobility is to vastly misunderstand the nature of ambition. People in social classes are largely out to sustain themselves. The poor want to sustain a life that is not thwarted by untoward events such as an arrest. A working class person wants to live as long as possible with the same way of life, watching children grow up, a life not fractured by a divorce or an affair or being too long without an income. Life is good when nothing much happens. Middle class people, who are often excoriated for always being on the climb to a higher social class, are in fact interested also in sustaining their lives, the upward climb just part of that and often not really a climb, just arriving at a higher salary and more power because they get promoted within their social class. It is the professional classes that include in their life view that they have signal achievements or what we might call events built into their ambitions, though even there we might speak of the routine nature of most such achievements. Most everybody gets a good conduct medal or gets to make an impressive presentation. Being better off than your parents is what happens to most of the people within an ethnic group during the generation of assimilation and so less of a big deal than it seems to be to those who feel that they have had to learn to swim in a much bigger and different pond and did it “on their own”. Everyone is a hero of upward mobility even if only in that they work in different or cleaner industries than did their parents.
Another cut at understanding or appreciating or describing ambition comes from considering how ambition changes over time and not just between classes. So the young people I knew when I was of college age wanted to be doctors and lawyers and academics. I didn’t know any Ivy League or Seven Sisters students who wanted to go into business. Times changed, as they had for women who in my generation wanted jobs while their grandmothers wanted home appliances to make their housekeeping easier. It wasn’t too much later, in the Seventies and the Eighties, that the MBA became the all but essential degree, ambition driving students to become corporate executives. And ten years later ambition drove upper middle class children to become investment bankers even though that was very intensive and challenging work because that was where the real money lay-- not in law or being vice-president of a company. And recently, or so it has been reported, young people on the make want to become start up entrepreneurs, perhaps because all you need is an idea for an ap that will, for example, allow you to call for a taxi on your cell phone, and after that it is up to your financial and organizational skills to make work the service or product secured via the ap. So technology may make possible new forms of ambition but it is also that the ambitious will invent new ways of being so, and so the poor will be dismissed as not having the ambition or the talent to alter their situations very much, which is to beg the question of why people can become stunted from having so natural a thing as ambition and whether keeping out of jail in some neighborhoods may be no mean feat. Again, upward mobility is not the object of ambition for the poor any more than it is for the rich, who are already there and so want to replicate their elders not improve upon them.
The previous remarks have been statistical in that there are some poor or middle class people or young people of this decade who do not fit the types I have defined. My hunch is that a lot of those who fit into the categories do act that way and whether that is true or not can be demonstrated. I want to take note of a peculiarity of professional life that is true of every profession and professional worth calling that. Professions and professionals want to orient themselves to the history of the profession. Business men don’t do that even if they may know enough to cite Henry Ford or Bill Gates as icons worthy of emulation. Certainly, a man who owns a grocery store or a supermarket does not place himself within the long list of great grocers of the past. He is just trying to make a living.
But George C. Marshall, who served at a number of army posts before the First World War. found himself absorbed by the heroism of the men who had Fort Kearney or Fort Orr named after them. Marshall saw himself, according to his memoir of his early life, as stepping into the river of a great tradition on which he might leave his own mark even though his own talents lay in rationalizing the system for writing orders that would direct the disposition of troops, a talent that became important, in fact, when he was chief of staff to the Rainbow Division in the First World War. Marshall made his mark by organizing war rather than by leading men in battle, and that was why FDR selected him rather than any number of men with more seniority to be Chief of Staff of the Army, knowing that sooner or later the United States would be at war with Germany and Japan.
It is the same with doctors who know that they follow in the footprints of Osler even of they are not surgeons and of lawyers who know of the achievements of Brandeis and Holmes even if they practice different kinds of law. And so we say of professionals that they form a community not because the state has authorized them to be self policing but because they share an identity with those people who are the most ambitious or successful of their colleagues.
Calling ambition a social process rather than an emotion is liberating because it situates the feelings attendant to it as a part of the natural human social condition rather than as something we are called upon to approve or disapprove. It lifts ambition off of our backs as a moral or ethical matter even if there is still such a thing as too much ambition, which can now be attributed to other motives such as the sublimation of sexual desires. Rather, ambition is just what people do to get on with their lives. The same is true of the term “deviance”, which also lifts the collection of feelings having to do with hatred or strangeness or discomfort off the backs of people who feel that way or might feel that way and makes of it a social entity that is there, as when we for so long thought that gays were deviant, and turns it into a social process whereby people were made or recognized as different kinds of people rather than as embodiments of what was to be reproached. People schooled in sociology might find it much easier to rid themselves of one or another prejudice, even if sociology is not given credit for having performed this task for both gays and blacks. Ambition, for its part, is even more difficult to be rid of as either a pejorative or a positive designation because it is not part of some strange world, as is the world of gays and blacks, but part of the ordinary everyday world in which we live and so it is taken for granted as a quality to judge rather than to either expunge, which is not the case, or to accept, which is very much the case. Marx talked about the fetishness of capitalism, whereby he meant that the accumulation of wealth had no practical end other than allowing you to gaze at the numbers on your balance sheet and so that was only a characteristic of capitalist society not of human nature. But we are reconceptualizing even the ambition of capitalists as no more than setting out an ambition, which is a very human thing to do, however much it might also be satisfied by other goals or achievements. There is no need to be free of ambition, only particular ambitions. Such clarifications help make the world a better place but, more than that, I would say, they make us a little bit freer or more comprehensive in our thinking about the world.