Socioeconomic Status Research Paper

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As social scientists in the twentieth century became more aware of and interested in social stratification and social class as a basis for understanding large areas of human behavior, interest grew in finding direct and useful ways of measuring socioeconomic status when conducting empirical research. Socioeconomic status had been taken into account in early American sociology, and seems to have been conceived as an indicator of social class itself. During the 1920s, the highly influential Chicago school of sociology had developed several creative research techniques in relation to the ecological theories of urban structure and process. Most of their research was carried out in the Chicago area and used a residential approach to social characteristics of the urban population of the Chicago area. This research was predicated on the assumption that physical distance was correlated with social distance, and that people from different ethnic groups and social classes live in different areas or zones of the city. By implication, a person’s social class location was at least indirectly indicated by the area of residence, or zone of the city. This approach was part of a larger ecological orientation to the study of urban communities and posited a close correspondence between the utilization of physical space and the overall urban structure, with tendencies to place the social structure on a broad theoretical map of the city. Social stratification was regarded by these scholars as an ancillary aspect of social structure.

As a measure of socioeconomic status, the residential approach had severe limitations. Type of residence is an imperfect indicator of social-class position, as is residential location. Comparison across cities with different areal patterns of distribution of social and economic activities, including residential patterns, would also be difficult.

Interest on the part of social scientists in social class qua class itself grew during the economic depression of the 1930s. A social anthropologist, William Lloyd Warner (1898-1970), studied a northern East Coast community in the United States and used a reputational method applied to individuals. Warner and his research staff employed extensive observations in this small community where most adults had knowledge of the reputations of others residing in the community. These investigators relied extensively on the judgments and relative rankings of the status of community members by others in the small community. The application of the reputational method to Yankee City, the pseudonym accorded to the community, resulted in the designating of six social classes on the basis of reputational rankings of status.

The reputational approach to socioeconomic status applied by Warner has been found to have several problems. As a methodology, it is confined to quite small communities, a serious limitation during this last century of accelerated urbanization. This approach does not enable facile comparisons across communities and hence is limited in contributing to discussions of a national class structure. Also, as other social scientists studied other North American communities and found different numbers of social classes or strata in the other communities, questions were raised regarding reliability. The numbers of classes found in other studies ranged from two to as many as eleven or more, indicating serious problems in comparability. These various difficulties in using the reputational method for studying socioeconomic status pointed toward the need for measures with greater simplicity and precision that could be applied to larger communities, or the nation or a national sample, than was possible with the reputational method.

Development Of Measures Of Social Class And Socioeconomic Status

The first large-scale study of the stratification of an entire city was carried out by Robert S. Lynd (1892-1970) and Helen Lynd (1896-1982) during the 1920s and published in 1929. Middletown, the title of their resulting book, was also a pseudonym for a city of 35,000 people in Indiana. Their research method involved the detached observation techniques of social anthropology. Middletown was to be the first of two books on the social class structure and its consequences for the life of the citizens of this middle-sized city in Indiana.

The research by the Lynds made an important contribution to the study of socioeconomic status due to the simple, direct measures they used to indicate the social class position of the residents of the city of Middletown. To measure social class itself, the basic distinction the Lynds used was between people who work with people in selling and promoting consumer goods, ideas, or services, on the one hand, and people who work with things, often using tools in making products or performing services. The first category of occupations was referred to as the business class; the second broad category was designated as the working class. In Middletown, there were twice as many people in the working class as in the business class. The Lynds found that membership in one class in contrast to the other had large consequences in regard to many areas of life, including whom one married, opportunity for and likelihood of attending a college or university, club memberships, access to bank credit, recreational patterns, and even whether one owned an automobile and, if so, what sort of car was driven.

The Lynds found in their second study of the same city that by the middle 1930s they needed a more complex set of distinctions, and so they used six categories of people in their analysis of social class. These were reported in 1937 in Middletown in Transition. The observation of greater complexity in the class structure of Middletown was significant and seems to have revealed subtleties in social stratification that would influence others to follow in later research on social stratification.

Only a short time later the U.S. Bureau of the Census attempted a classification of occupations that reflects the recognition of growing complexity in the way people in the United States earn their living. The classification scheme developed by Alba Edwards (1872-1947) for the U.S. Census moved away from the Lynds’ original classification between businesspeople and workers and attempted to designate greater distinctions within categories of business owners, managers, and various categories of workers.

The classification of occupations developed by Edwards in 1943 had the following major categories:

  1. Professional, technical, and kindred workers
  2. Managers and administrators
  3. Sales workers
  4. Clerical workers
  5. Craftsmen
  6. Operatives
  7. Laborers, except farmers
  8. Farmworkers

The Edwards scale did represent an attempt at the development of a scale of occupations by a ranking method that correlates with income, education, and prestige. Later research in sociology and economics showed that these correlates existed, in a general sort of way. Nonetheless, earnings overlapped considerably across such categories as professionals and managers, with managers outearning professionals, though the latter is a higher category; also the classification of skilled craftsmen contained many who earned more than clerical and sales workers. The categories are actually quite heterogeneous and cover a large number of occupations that are not very similar within a category, as for example, laboratory technicians, nurses, and public educators who are classified with physicians and lawyers, within the highest broad category of professional, technical, and kindred workers.

Edwards had attempted to develop a classification of occupations within the existing census categories, and his effort sought to separate occupations that clustered by similarity of work, educational requirements, and income. The heterogeneity within his major categories prevented him from fully achieving his goal of a national occupational system of categories of jobs based on occupations recorded by the Bureau of Census.

During the late 1950s, August B. Hollingshead (1907-1980) and Frederick Redlich (1910-2004) conducted a major study of social class and its linkages to mental illness. They used a combination of the Edwards classification scheme combined with reported educational levels of respondents that progressed from grade school through graduate education. They also utilized a series of measures of the urban ecology of the community studied. Hollingshead and Redlich not only uncovered clear relationships between social class position and mental health status, but also contributed a measure of socioeconomic status, now sometimes referred to in handbooks on social measurement as the Hollingshead two-factor index of social position. The main features of occupational type and educational achievement were retained and the measures of residence and neighborhood used in the original project were dropped to make it a two-factor index.

The first attempt to do research on the national ranking of the prestige of particular occupations resulted in significant advances in 1947. This research was conducted on ninety occupations, with each receiving an estimate of its prestige rather than being categorized into a set of similar occupations represented as a class of one sort or another. This research on occupational prestige was carried out on a national sample by Cecil C. North (1878- 1961) and Paul K. Hatt (1914-1953) through the National Opinion Research Center.

A national and representative sample of the entire adult population for the United States was interviewed. This first effort to create a scale of occupational prestige at the national level included 2,920 persons.

Each person was asked to select one of six alternative statements representing their opinion of the “general standing” of a job. The alternatives were:

  1. Excellent standing
  2. Good standing
  3. Average standing
  4. Somewhat below-average standing
  5. Poor standing
  6. Do not know where to place that one

A list of ninety occupations was read to each respondent, with opinions recorded. There was a low proportion of “don’t know” responses. Numerical weights were given by assigning a score of 100 for “excellent” and 20 for “poor,” and then averaging answers to develop a composite score. The highest-ranking scores ranged from 96 for U.S. Supreme Court Justice and 93 for physicians and state governors, down to a low of 34 for street sweeper and 33 for shoe shiner. In general, professional and managerial occupations ranked the highest and unskilled manual laboring occupations the lowest, with many office and sales positions, as well as more highly skilled blue-collar occupations, in the middle and lower-middle levels.

The respondents were asked the main reason they had ranked the occupations as they did, and income was the most commonly given reason, followed by service to humanity and education. None of these reasons was given by more than 18 percent of the sample, indicating no broad uniformity in bases for rankings.

This scale has become known as the North-Hatt scale. The scale was replicated in 1963 with a national sample of 651 adults and showed strong consistency in the prestige ratings of the occupations used in the original North-Hatt scale sixteen years earlier. These scales then began to be widely used in empirical research on social stratification.

It remained for the demographer-sociologist Otis D. Duncan (1921-2004) to expand the original scale with its ninety occupations to a more complete listing. By a weighting of income levels and education of people in various occupations, Duncan was able to construct a list of 425 occupations with composite rankings known as the Duncan socioeconomic index. This index was published in a larger work titled Occupations and Social Status (1961) by Albert J. Reiss (1922-2006), Otis Duncan, Paul Hatt, and Cecil North.

The question arises as to the benefits and advantages of the various measures of occupational prestige utilized in scales that attempt to measure socioeconomic status. In answer, it can be said that occupation is utilized by large sectors of the public in modern developed societies as an indicator of social position, and hence has some significant meaning in regard to general social status and class position. Second, occupation is clearly an imperfect indicator but nonetheless correlated to some degree with other dimensions of social stratification, such as educational level and income. It is probable that these three dimensions— occupational prestige, education, and estimated income— are utilized in a simplified manner by adult members of modern societies in placing individuals in day-to-day social interaction. A third advantage is that occupation, as scaled in measures of socioeconomic status, can be ascertained directly and without great difficulty. Connected to this third advantage is the inarguable degree of objectivity in the determination of occupation. A fourth advantage of scales that indicate occupational prestige is their ease in use in comparative and international research. This is in stark contrast to the familiarity required with community standards in the studies of status rankings and stratification in smaller cities and towns. Finally, the use of occupational rankings as a socioeconomic index can and has been successfully applied in research on national levels of stratification, as well as in research on smaller communities.

In summary, measures of socioeconomic status that are based on occupation are to be seen most strongly as a methodological index of social stratification with the limitations that an index entails. As will be discussed below, this is greatly preferred over the widespread tendency to utilize occupational rankings as a synonym, or single indicator, of social class. Some scholars have used the scores on socioeconomic status measures as an alternative to making a theoretical statement about their own position on the nature of social classes, with the effect of limiting the degree of investigation of the character and impact of social classes in social life.

There is another methodological limitation in the use of socioeconomic scales. They are widely used in correlation and regression analysis and treated as interval and ratio scales of measurement. These statistical applications utilize the arithmetic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and even division. The assumption of equal-appearing intervals between the score values of the prestige ratings is a dubious assumption, as is that of an absolute zero point on the scale. No occupation has been scaled with zero prestige. The effect is the violation of some of the basic assumptions of parametric statistics used in the research on stratification.

The interest that social scientists have shown in measures of socioeconomic status is considerable, and scholars in the social sciences and neighboring disciplines have been willing to borrow these measurement scales and use them in correlation analysis with a range of variables in their fields. Perhaps this popularity of the concept of socioeconomic status, and its measurement, is a product of the interest in “status” and “status attainment” in American studies of social stratification. These concepts are most consonant with North American beliefs in personal achievement and recognizable social location or position in a community, and even ideals regarding democratic consensus. Status in popular imagery is contained within the reality of individual influence and control. An emphasis on status and status aspirations is linked with occupation, and features personal achievement and success rather than family heritage, the importance and accident of birth, much less the influence of aristocratic advantage or the more distant, structural, and superindividual effects of “class.” Status achievement and status “attainment” can also be analyzed with facility through the use of occupational rating scales that seem to quantify the prestige of occupations and their relative social standing.

The updating of the North-Hatt scale sixteen years later in 1963 by Robert Hodge, Paul Siegel, and Peter Rossi demonstrated longer-range similarity in patterns of prestige evaluations. This consistency—with a few notable exceptional occupations such as nuclear physicist, recognized by only around half of the sample in 1947 in contrast to 90 percent in 1963—was so strong that the expanded lists, along with the Duncan socioeconomic index, established the reliability of these measures. Overall, these studies have demonstrated that large sectors of the American public agree on the prestige ranking of occupations in the United States and that most of these rankings are similar across a large number of industrial societies of the world. The effect was that one or another scale for the measure of socioeconomic status has frequently been used in the interim in sociological and social-psychological research.

Theories Of Social Class And Their Implications For Socioeconomic Status

As seen above, scholars who study socioeconomic status have conceived the inequality of socially stratified orders in complex societies as consisting of ranked statuses, with the ranks ordered on the basis of shared evaluations of the importance of the various positional ranks. An assumption of shared values is made in the approach. There is also an assumption of continuous gradations in socioeconomic status positions. Sharp breaks between status gradations are not envisioned, nor is there necessarily an individual consciousness of membership in the various status levels, nor group interactions based on status levels, nor interacting groups based on prestige of position, nor demarked social classes that possess distinctive boundaries and objectively measured social characteristics.

In the mid-nineteenth century, an earlier tradition in social theory developed. This tradition emphasized the reality of social classes as the primary dimension of social stratification. These ideas have European antecedents and are seen most clearly in the scholarly writings as well as political polemics of Karl Marx (1818-1883), a social thinker of German origin. Born to a generation following Marx, another German scholar, Max Weber (18641920), offered strong criticism of Marx, but refined certain aspects of this overall approach, which carried a much greater emphasis on conflict, power, and social change in human social life. Since approximately the middle of the twentieth century, American sociologists such as C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) have also been developing conceptual approaches and theoretically informed research projects that analyze the role of power and conflict in social life.

This research continues to the present. To these conflict theorists, social stratification and social classes are among the most important aspects of society and social life, with enormous consequences for society as well as for the individual. This group of thinkers is likely to retain Max Weber’s emphasis on social class as economic behavior with consequences for the life chances of individuals. These life chances include the likelihood of experiencing such important matters as living out the first year of life, marrying within a social stratum, attending a college or university, and engaging in certain forms of political activities.

In summary, scholars using these approaches that analyze conflict and power in social life view social classes as real, and as having boundaries. Social classes in this view also have strong consequences for individual members. The relations between classes are an important aspect of social processes in complex societies, and the various social classes and their relations are significant components of social organization, particularly in advanced, industrial societies. Persons may or may not be conscious of membership in a class, and may be confused regarding their status, but the consequences of class are real, nonetheless. In this view, class membership under some conditions can lead to heightened consciousness and organized political activity.

From the standpoint of the conflict approach, the emphasis on socioeconomic status in stratification research has taken the political fangs away from the concept of social class. In their place, the study of socioeconomic status has created an image of individuals who compete for occupations and occupational status in open markets, and through their individualistic actions pursue higher status, with the prestige of these statuses based on shared evaluation of the social import of occupations with their allied skills and contributions to the social life of the society. In much of the earlier American research on socioeconomic status, classes are nominalistic classifications, or exist in name rather than by being distinguishable through definable boundaries. Status gradations are seen as continuous, without sharp breaks—perhaps resembling a ladder—rather than as broken into class components with consequences for action in the politics of redistribution. Research that favors the analysis of socioeconomic status as a continuous line in a status hierarchy is likely to utilize concepts from structure-functional analysis and to emphasize order and integration in the stratification structures of societies. This integration of stratified orders is likely to be viewed as permeating various institutional spheres, such as the family, religion, education, and economy, and to contribute to the stability of the social order.

In conclusion, social scientists whose research and theoretical orientation have convinced them that social classes are real social entities that involve inequality on significant social goods assert that there are severe limitations with the typical use of measures of socioeconomic status. In their view, the research that applies these latter measures of inequality does not grapple with the reality of social classes within the social structure or their consequences for the life chances of individuals. The research that utilizes measures of socioeconomic status is also likely to overlook power in social life and the possibilities for political action that are implied in the historical usage of social classes in analyzing important aspects of social organization.


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