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Socioeconomic Status

Socioeconomic Status




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 persons 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 (18981970), 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.


The first large-scale study of the stratification of an entire city was carried out by Robert S. Lynd (18921970) and Helen Lynd (18961982) 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 (18721947) 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 (19071980) and Frederick Redlich (19102004) 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 (18781961) and Paul K. Hatt (19141953) 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 dont 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 (19212004) 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 (19222006), 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 dimensionsoccupational prestige, education, and estimated incomeare 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 consistencywith 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 1963was 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.


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 (18181883), 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 (19161962) 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 Webers 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 breaksperhaps resembling a ladderrather 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.

SEE ALSO Blau, Peter M.; Blue Collar and White Collar; Class; Duncan, Otis Dudley; Education, Unequal; Hierarchy; Lynd, Robert and Helen; Marx, Karl; Middle Class; Occupational Status; Social Status; Social Theory; Stratification; Weber, Max>; Working Class


Edwards, Alba M., and U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1943. Sixteenth Census of the United States: 1940. Population: Comparative Occupational Statistics, 1870 to 1940. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Gilbert, Dennis, and Joseph A. Kahl. 1982. The American Class Structure: A New Synthesis. Homewood, IL: Dorsey.

Hodge, Robert, Paul Siegel, and Peter Rossi. 1966. Occupational Prestige in the United States. In Class, Status, and Power: Social Stratification in Comparative Perspective, ed. Reinhardt Bendix and Seymour Martin Lipset, 322334. 2nd ed. New York: Free Press.

Hodge, Robert, Donald Treiman, and Peter Rossi. 1966. A Comparative Study of Occupational Prestige. In Class, Status, and Power: Social Stratification in Comparative Perspective, ed. Reinhardt Bendix and Seymour Martin Lipset, 309321. 2nd ed. New York: Free Press.

Hollingshead, August B., and Fredrick C. Redlich. 1958. Social Class and Mental Illness: A Community Study. New York: Wiley.

Kerbo, Harold R. 2006. Social Stratification and Inequality: Class Conflict in Historical, Comparative, and Global Perspective. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Krauss, Irving. 1976. Stratification, Class, and Conflict. New York: Free Press.

Landry, Bart. 2007. Race, Gender, and Class: Theory and Methods of Analysis. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice-Hall.

Lynd, Robert, and Helen Lynd. 1929. Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture. New York: Harcourt.

Lynd, Robert, and Helen Lynd. 1937. Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts. New York: Harcourt.

Miller, Delbert. 1977. Handbook of Research Design and Social Measurement. 3rd ed. New York: McKay.

Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nakao, Keiko, and Judith Treas. 1994. Updating Occupational Prestige and Socioeconomic Scores: How the New Measures Measure Up. Sociological Methodology 24: 172.

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Kenneth N. Eslinger

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"Socioeconomic Status." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

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Socioeconomic Status

Socioeconomic Status

Social inequality is a fundamental characteristic of the fabric of society. Rich or poor; advantaged or disadvantaged; privileged or underprivileged: each contrast speaks to differences among people that are consequential for the lives they lead.

Whether in describing patterns of inequality or examining the consequences of inequality, the results depend upon how inequality is conceptualized and measured. Socioeconomic status is among the most prominent concepts in inequality research. The term socioeconomic status refers to the relative hierarchical placement of a unit (e.g., an individual, a community) along a gradient stratified by social and economic resources.

Theoretical Background

The sociologist Max Weber (1958) conceptualized inequality along three related tracks—class, status, and party. Each was understood as a basis for power and influence. Whereas class focused on economic resources and partly referred to political clout, status was understood as honor and prestige. For Weber, status groups were hierarchically arrayed on the basis of distinctive lifestyles, consumption patterns, and modes of conduct or action.

In North America, the sociologist Talcott Parsons (1970) has been most influential in delineating the theoretical underpinnings of socioeconomic status. First, Parsons understood the idea of status as a position in the social structure, as part of the social differentiation in society (different occupations, different family positions). Although Parsons associated status with position (a status is occupied, such as accountant, and a role is performed, as in financial auditing), the concept carries with it a hierarchical referent as in Weber's notion of honor and prestige.

A status is evaluated, and this social evaluation is central to Parsons's contribution to the idea of socioeconomic status. Social status was, for him, the core notion of social stratification, or rank. This differential evaluation in terms of honor and prestige lay at the heart of inequality. In social relations with others, status distinctions affect how people interrelate. For Parsons, income and wealth were important, but secondary to social status or honor.

Second, Parsons understood family units as the key component of stratification. Families were assumed to be units of solidarity sharing similar interests. He also assumed that families had a single breadwinner. That is, the concept of the head of a family was central to his understanding of the family unit.

Although there is a tendency to interpret this idea of a single breadwinner as sexist, various reasons at the time gave some plausibility to the assumption. First, the inequities of domestic labor meant that most families had one principal wage earner, and this was typically the male head of the household. Second, many families had made investments in a single earner, either via decisions about geographic mobility or support for education (in both cases, women's careers typically were de-emphasized). Third, Parsons and others assumed that family members had a shared interest not only in their own well-being, but also in the well-being of their children. These ideas were the basis of the thinking that the family was the key unit of stratification and that the male head of the household was the principal determinant of the family's social status.

Finally, Parsons and his followers (Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore, in particular) developed the functional theory of stratification. The core premise of this theory was that society had to differentially evaluate positions so that members of society would be motivated both to pursue the training necessary for the most important positions and, once in those positions, to perform them as well as possible. Encouraging the most qualified and competent people in a society to perform the most important jobs required that jobs be differentially ranked. Differences in socioeconomic status were one way to understand this necessary hierarchy.


Socioeconomic implies at least two dimensions to inequality—social and economic. Although these two dimensions are understood as closely associated, they nevertheless incorporate two different aspects of stratification. The economic dimension is best represented by money or wealth as reflected in employment income, home ownership, and other financial assets (e.g., pension plans, property ownership). The social dimension incorporates education, occupational prestige, authority, and community standing.

The very earliest measures of socioeconomic status in North America relied on community reputation. A family's social standing as judged by others was used to differentiate between upper, middle, and lower classes. Although the term class was used, this was a very North American usage that understood classes as loose aggregates of families who shared similar social and economic traits. However, this early measurement tradition rested mainly in community studies. As social scientists started to focus more on entire societies, a different measurement technique was essential.

In 1947, Cecil North and Paul Hatt conducted a study in the United States in which they asked people to judge the prestige of different occupations. This study marked a watershed in the measurement of socioeconomic status. Prestige studies typically ask respondents to judge the social standing of about one hundred occupations. However, working independently, Bernard Blishen in Canada and Otis Dudley Duncan in the United States devised a way to combine the prestige scores of occupations with the typical incomes and educations of occupational incumbents. For example, Duncan's Socio-economic Index (SEI) was constructed by weighting an occupation's median education and income on the metric of occupational prestige (via a regression equation that can be simplified as follows: Prestige = a + B1[Income] + B2[Education] where each variable represents an occupational average). SEI scores were developed for all of the major occupations and allowed researchers to assign a person an SEI score based on one variable, occupation.

In the United States, prestige studies done in 1947, 1963, 1971, and 1989 have been used to generate SEI scores. Although the hierarchical placement of a few specific occupations has changed over time, the relative placement of most occupations is stable. This stability in the prestige hierarchy has meant that specific scales of socioeconomic status can be used with confidence long after they are first constructed.

More recently, scholars of inequality in North America, in particular, have moved away from single scales of socioeconomic status to amalgam measures. Rather than relying on a summary SEI score, contemporary researchers are often asking a set of questions related to socioeconomic status (SES). Thus, for example, many researchers now measure SES by combining (often through factor analysis or some analogous statistical method) measures of at least three of the following: an individual's education, earnings, home ownership, occupation, and net worth. In measuring the SES of a family, a frequent approach is to combine the education, earnings, and occupation of wives and husbands or communal partners (sometimes along with home ownership or net value of a family home).

However, researchers at times want to examine the relative effects of the separate components of SES. Therefore, measures of education and income (for example) are sometimes used separately and are not combined in a scale or index. Important information may be lost in combining education, income, occupation, and residential status. Summative family scales are also not appropriate when scholars seek to compare the relative influence of the SES of spouses or partners on, for example, the educational attainment of their children or the health status of family members.

The old assumption of the male breadwinner, whatever its historical validity, is highly problematic. Family forms have changed (e.g., single parents, gay and lesbian couples). Women's labor force participation and career commitment increased dramatically in the last decades of the twentieth century. The contributions of partners who are not in the paid labor force have been increasingly recognized. For all of these reasons, the use of a family SES measure based on information about a single family member is sometimes inadequate. However, it is also important not to exaggerate the force of this claim because the SES of spouses and partners are often similar. In the British sociological literature, there is a long-running debate on this very issue, although the referent is more often to social class than to SES (see Goldthrorpe 1983).

Individuals or families have their own SES, but they also live and work in contexts that may be defined by different levels of SES. In this sense, the SES context in which a person finds him or herself may be more or less powerful than his or her own individual SES when it comes to predicting outcomes (e.g., job satisfaction, psychological stress). This is often understood as the ecological setting or context of people or groups. For example, do children in school classrooms where the SES of their classmates is greater than their own do better academically than would be predicted simply from their own families' SES?

Today, there is no consensus upon exactly how SES should be measured. In modern research, the following considerations are important in devising one or more indicators to measure SES. First, is SES the relevant conceptual approach to inequality? Second, if SES is a core variable, how many indicators should be used, and should these be combined in a scale? Third, what is the validity and reliability of SES measures in comparison to alternatives? Fourth, will measures of SES provide the necessary comparability with other research studies in the area? Fifth, is SES applicable to all members of the population being studied? Especially in this last case, the SES of students, the unemployed, recent migrants, and the retired may be problematic.

When analyzing data, different scholars may or may not treat SES as an ordinal (i.e., ranked [beauty]) or interval (i.e., equal distance between categories [age]) measure. Often, when an ordinal measurement preference is chosen, SES is collapsed into groups, frequently with labels like upper class, middle class, and lower class. The boundaries between these groups are typically relatively arbitrary, there being no natural or theoretical cutting point in deciding at exactly what SES score the boundary should be drawn. Often, for this reason, others choose to assume SES has interval measurement properties, and they use more sophisticated statistical techniques.

In contrast to Europe where the idea of social class was more influential, in North America, seen as the land of opportunity and upward mobility, social status with its hierarchical stress was more prevalent. Among the more important studies in demonstrating the utility of socioeconomic status was the work of Otis Dudley Duncan and Peter Blau on social mobility. Using SEI scores as their basic measure, they were concerned with, among other things, the relative chances of upward mobility across generations for whites and blacks in the United States. More recently this tradition has prospered in North America and elsewhere in the guise of status attainment models, addressing a variety of research questions involving who achieves status and how they do it.

Socioeconomic status has been shown to be significantly, consistently, and universally correlated with a variety of measures of life chances (e.g., occupational attainment), lifestyles (e.g., health status), sociopolitical orientations (e.g., ideological leanings), and modes of action and association (e.g., association memberships). Why these correlations exist remains one of the central questions continuing to be pursued. Simply put, what is it about SES that creates a causal effect and why does this effect occur? It is now well understood that although economic resources are important, it is not so clear exactly why (e.g., is the effect due to access to better nutrition, better information, or more powerful networks?). Similarly, education is an important SES measure, again correlated with many diverse outcomes, but its precise role is often unclear (i.e., is it the cognitive dimension, is it the credential, is it the network of contacts?).

Finally, it is worth noting that although socioeconomic status is most frequently found in the academic literature, it is a term increasingly employed in research outside the academy. For example, the marketing firm A. C. Nielsen (which measures television audience share around the world) uses socioeconomic status as a core measure for differentiating types of viewers. Other marketing firms do likewise in reporting on voter preferences or consumer product choices.


Although its roots in the functional theory of stratification are now obscured, much of North American social science research continues to focus upon stratification (and socioeconomic status) as opposed to inequality. To a significant extent this is because stratification imagery focuses upon gradients, upon higher and lower status, whereas the conceptual perspectives that employ the imagery of inequality (e.g., class, gender differences) stress group conflict. Especially where this gradient approach makes theoretical sense, as in studies of status attainment, the idea of socioeconomic status has been used worldwide.

Debate continues as to whether class or SES is the stronger measure of inequality. Depending upon the theoretical framework and the research question being addressed, SES remains a viable concept. A significant amount of empirical research has demonstrated the power of SES in predicting life chances, lifestyles, sociopolitical orientations, and modes of action and association.

See also:Academic Achievement; Acculturation; Cohabitation; Housing; Intergenerational Transmission; Migration; Names for Children; Single-Parent Families


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"Socioeconomic Status." International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family. . 18 Jan. 2018 <>.

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Class, Social


CLASS, SOCIAL. Social class or social stratification is defined by unequal access to desirable resources (such as money, goods, and services) or personal gratification (such as prestige or respect). The sociologist Max Weber argued that social class was a function of differential wealth, political power, and status. The various dimensions of social class have different influences on food consumption and its consequences. Income and wealth provide access to food or constrain food purchases. Education provides knowledge, skills, and beliefs that shape food desires and place constraints on food choices by means of information acquisition and food preparation. Occupation not only represents prestige but also structures time and constrains the attention that can be given to food. Occupation-generated work hours and lifestyle choices affect what is eaten as well as where and with whom food is eaten.

Distinctions are made between classes. The lower class (often referred to as "working class" or blue-collar workers) is generally associated with people with low levels of education, unskilled or semiskilled occupations, and low income. Middle-class people (often seen as "white-collar" workers) generally have more education, usually having graduated from high school or college, hold technical or mid-level managerial positions, and earn average to above average incomes. Upper-class people tend to have high education, the highest salaries, and the most prestigious occupational positions.

The whole notion of taste, as refined food sensibilities, is class-based. Members of lower classes often strive to emulate the taste and taste practices of higher classes, who in turn attempt to change their notions of taste and eating behavior to maintain the distinction between themselves and those perceived as of lower status. Thus, what, where, and when food is eaten is shaped by social class in many societies. Historically, members of the lower class have found many of the foods of the wealthy to be strange if not disgusting. (Such stereotyping, however, applies equally to both groups: while the so-called lower classes might find raw oysters disgusting, the middle or upper classes might find roast goat equally unpalatable. These kinds of tastesor distastesevolve over time and cultures and are not fixed.) Members of higher classes have come to identify certain foods with impoverished status. For instance, after World War II, chicken became associated with low income and was eschewed by the wealthy because of this association. Currently whole-wheat or brown bread tends to be consumed more by people of middle-or upper-class background; by contrast, bread prepared with processed wheat (white bread), which is less expensive, is more often the choice of working-class consumers. The reason for this difference is a historical reversal of fortune. The white flour was once that of the elites, who would even color it with alum. The highly refined flour was reserved for those with great status, whereas the whole-grain flours were those of the poor. Beer is the alcoholic beverage of the working classthe exception being pricey imported beers, microbrews, and gourmet beers that are popular with "yuppies"while wine, particularly wines with a lineage, tend to be the choice of individuals of upper-middle and upper-class backgrounds.

Restaurants were once a place where only the upper class would dine, while today persons of all classes eat in restaurants. However, the choice of type of restaurant and the frequency of eating meals out varies by social class. Part of this difference is a function of income. Those with higher salaries or greater wealth can afford to eat out more frequently and to visit more expensive restaurants. Use of restaurants, however, is also a function of attitudes, which themselves vary by social class. Those in blue-collar positions are more likely than those in white-collar jobs to perceive eating outin restaurants, that is, not fast-food establishmentsas something that is done for pleasure. Those with higher incomes, university degrees, and white-collar positions seek more variety in restaurant fare. Interest in eating a variety of ethnic foods, an indication of cultural cosmopolitanism, is also more frequent among those with greater education, income, and occupational prestige.

The desire to imitate those of higher social class background is practiced by some individuals, and restaurants play a role in this phenomenon. Restaurants with expensive dishes with a cosmopolitan atmosphere are sometimes the choice of people who wish to exhibit the consumption of the upper class. At the same time, differences in consumption represent a routine form of social dominance exercised by upper-middle and upper-class members. Thus, efforts of the lower-middle class to imitate upper-class behavior are met by changing behavior among the upper class. New, more exclusive restaurants are often sought in attempts to maintain a class distinction in restaurant patronage.

Class background is also associated with the use of meals as a form of entertaining friends. As income and education rise, so does the likelihood of entertaining friends by feeding them a main meal. Those with white-collar positions are more likely to entertain friends by having them over for a main meal, though this generalization may apply more to urbanites; poor folk in the country often have big dinners, where everyone brings something potluck-style. Low-income families not only lack the money to provide such entertainment but may also inhabit housing that lacks the space to feed many people at one time. Among the very low-income, space may be so limited that the family itself cannot sit down to a meal together. Eating in the homes of kin is not a function of class, but eating with friends and coworkers is: professional and managerial classes are more likely to eat in the homes of friends than those in working-class occupations. When it comes to cooking, those with more education and income are more likely to be willing to experiment with new dishes or dishes of their own creation than are those with less income and education.

Social class background makes a difference in the food-related lifestyles practiced by many people. In addition, people's life chances are affected by their social class. The poor tend to devote high percentages of their household budgets, after paying rent, to food, yet generally have to settle for lower-quality food items and a more monotonous diet. Obesity is far more likely among persons of low income than persons in higher income groups. In more economically developed countries, the poor are more likely to experience food insecurity or food insufficiency, and in less economically developed countries, the poor are more likely to experience various nutrient deficiency diseases.

See also Cost of Food ; Fast Food ; Food Pantries ; Food Politics: United States ; Food Stamps ; Food Supply, Food Shortages ; Hunger Strikes ; Malnutrition ; Obesity ; Places of Consumption ; Poverty ; Restaurants ; School Meals ; Sociology ; Soup Kitchens ; WIC (Women, Infants, and Children's) Program .


Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Calnan, M. "Food and Health: A Comparison of Beliefs and Practices in Middle-Class and Working Class Households." In Readings in Medical Sociology, edited by S. Cunningham-Barley and N. P. McKegany, pp. 936. New York: Tavistock/Routledge, 1990.

Charles, N., and N. Kerr. Women, Food, and Families. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1988.

DeVault, M. J. Feeding the Family: The Social Organization of Caring as Gendered Work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Dubois, L., and M. Girard. "Social Position and Nutrition: A Gradient Relationship in Canada and the USA." European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 55 (2001): 366373.

Erickson, Bonnie H. "What Is Good Taste For?" Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 28 (1991): 255278.

McIntosh, William A. Sociologies of Food and Nutrition. New York: Plenum, 1996.

Sobal, J. "Obesity and Socioeconomic Status: A Framework for Examining Relationships between Physical and Social Variables." Medical Anthropology 13, no. 3 (1991): 231247.

Warde, A., and L. Martens. Eating Out: Social Differentiation, Consumption, and Pleasure. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Wm. Alex McIntosh Jeffery Sobal

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Social Class


Since prehistory, all societies have perceived hierarchy among their members. Leaders and followers, strong and weak, rich and poor: social classifications are universal. Humans have invented numerous ways to classify peopleby wealth, power, or prestige; by ability, education, or occupation; even by where they live. The term "social class" originally referred to groups of people holding similar roles in the economic processes of production and exchange, such as landowner or tenant, employer or employee. Such positions correspond to different levels of status, prestige, and access to political power, but social class eventually took on a more generic meaning and came to refer to all aspects of a person's rank in the social hierarchy.

Belonging to a social class is not merely an objective fact, but is generally accompanied by a perception of class identity. In this sense, social class is not merely a personal attribute, but also a contextual variable that characterizes a group of people. The shared culture of a particular class influences, and is influenced by, people's attitudes and lifestyle. Social class, therefore, influences health. Centuries of observations have linked social class to patterns of disease (see Krieger, Williams, and Moss, 1997). Accordingly, epidemiologists frequently present statistics on mortality and morbidity tabulated by social class, as shown in Figures 1 and 2. However, social class is an abstract and complex concept whose influence is blended with many others in predicting disease. Both Figures 1 and 2, for example, show how the effects of social class (here, indicated by family income and educational level) interact with racial or ethnic factors. However, classifications by age, religion, race, or sex lack the implication of hierarchy and are not normally considered under the heading of social class.

Social class may be ascribed at birth, as with royalty or nobility, or with castes in Hindu societies. More commonly, however, a person's position at birth is modified by his or her achievements, typically through education, occupation, or income. Class cannot be measured directly. Instead, indicators of socioeconomic status, typically based on educational attainment, income, wealth, or occupation, are used. While few would consider these to be ideal indicators of social class, they nonetheless show consistent associations with health status, such that poorer or less educated people die younger and experience more illness and disability than richer or more educated people. These indicators each have strengths and shortcomings.

A simple occupational classification has been used in Britain throughout the twentieth century for analyses linking social class and health. The British Registrar General for Births and Deaths ranks occupations in six broad categories that reflect a judgment of the skill level and social prestige of each occupation. This has been followed by other, more complex classifications, such as the 100-point occupational scale of Tremain. This applies internationally and allows comparisons between developing and industrial countries. These categories have the advantage of capturing the notion of shared culture implicit in social class,

Figure 1

but they are limited because there is no adequate way to classify people who are not in the labor force, such as retired people, housewives, or students. Furthermore, the status of occupations changes with economic development, complicating comparisons across times and across cultures. Finally, occupation shares a limitation with income, in that reverse causality may occur whereby occupational status (or income) may be influenced by the level of health.

The advantages of education as an indicator of social status include simplicity and universality: educational level can be recorded for all adults, whether working or not, and it is less likely than occupation or income to be influenced by health. But education is generally finished in early adulthood, and may no longer reflect a person's status in later years. Care must also be taken when drawing comparisons of educational levels across generations, since educational attainment changes from generation to generation.

Income or wealth are also frequently used as indicators of social class, and hold the advantage of sensitivity to variations in a person's status over time. Wealth is not simple to record, however; data on income must be supplemented by information on the number of people supported by the income, and on other assets such as savings and property. Because of shortcomings in each of

Figure 2

these indicators, several authors have used indicators that combine education, occupation, and income.

While socioeconomic status is generally considered a characteristic of individuals, contextual measures of social class may also be relevant in explaining patterns of health. Thus, for a population we may record not only the average level of income or wealth, but also the extent of income disparities, or class divergence, in the society. Such indicators can indicate social class characteristics of the society, rather than summarizing patterns in the society.

Contemporary epidemiologic analyses assume that it is not so much social class per se that influences health, but characteristics associated with class. There are several channels through which class or socioeconomic position may influence health:

  • Certain health hazards may be directly associated with social position, such as exposure to hazardous substances or processes in the workplace.
  • Alternatively, social class may influence health via behaviors that follow social patterns, such as diet, cigarette smoking, or leisure-time physical activity.
  • Wealth can influence health directly, by providing access to safe and healthy housing, adequate food, and medical care and supplies when needed. Wealth also enhances educational attainment in a person's children, and so influences their subsequent earning capacity; in this manner the association between poverty and health tends to perpetuate itself across generations.
  • Education also facilitates access to information that can benefit health. More educated people are better able to communicate with their physicians and interact with the health care system, and make informed choices among treatment options.
  • Higher social status is associated with attitudes, such as positive self-esteem or a sense of being in control of one's life, that are positively associated with a range of indicators of health (especially mental health). Such feelings are difficult to maintain when a person is unemployed.

Contemporary analyses of social class in health research have evolved from using it as a simple classification toward using class as a starting point for a more complete analysis of possible channels of influence. The next stage, perhaps, will be to incorporate an understanding of social class dynamics into designing approaches to prevention and health promotion.

Ian McDowell

(see also: Cultural Factors; Economics of Health; Ethnicity and Health; Inequalities in Health; Social Determinants )


Berkman, L. F., and Macintyre, S. (1997). "The Measurement of Social Class in Health Studies: Old Measures and New Formulations." In Social Inequalities and Cancer. eds. M. Kogevinas, N. Pearce, M. Susser, and P. Boffetta. Lyon: International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Krieger, N.; Williams, D. R.; and Moss, N. E. (1997). "Measuring Social Class in U.S. Public Health; Research: Concepts, Methodologies, and Guidelines." Annual Review of Public Health 18:341378.

Smedley, B. D., and Syme, L. S., eds. (2000). Promoting Health: Strategies from Social and Behavioral Research. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Available at

Szretzer, R. S. (1984). "The Genesis of the Registrar General's Social Classification of Occupations." British Journal of Sociology 35:522546.

Tremain, D. J. (1977). Occupational Prestige in Comparative Perspective. New York: Academic Press.

Wilkinson, R. G. (1996). Unhealthy Societies: The Afflictions of Inequality. London: Routledge.

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socio-economic status

socio-economic status Any measure which attempts to classify individuals, families, or households in terms of indicators such as occupation, income, and education. One of the first major uses of socio-economic status can be found in the social class measures introduced by the British Registrar-General in 1911. See also STATUS ATTAINMENT.

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social class

social class See CLASS.

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