Occupational status is a fundamental measure of social standing that reflects the distribution of power, privilege, and prestige associated with positions in the occupational hierarchy, and is a key measure of socioeconomic status (SES). Occupational status is a popular measure of SES because it can be measured reliably in surveys, is more stable over time than economic measures of SES such as individual income, and better reflects social position over the life course than educational attainment, which typically is achieved in early adulthood (Hauser and Warren 1997). Occupations are defined in the United States by the Bureau of the Census, forming a classification of several hundred categories that is modified each decade to incorporate labor market changes. Various measures of occupational status generally are linked to these census occupation categories.
Key empirical measures of occupational status include occupational prestige scales and socioeconomic indices. Occupational prestige measures are generated from the rankings of occupations by survey respondents on the basis of their relative “prestige” or “social standing” and have shown high consensus among individuals from different social positions, across societal contexts, and over time (Blau and Duncan 1967; Hodge, Siegel, and Rossi 1964; Treiman 1977). An early occupational prestige scale was based on Cecil North and Paul Hatt’s National Opinion Research Center (NORC) survey in 1947, but it covered only ninety occupational titles. In 1971, Paul Siegel constructed a prestige scale for the entire U.S. Census occupational classification in 1960, based on surveys conducted between 1963 and 1965 by Peter Rossi and Robert Hodge. An international occupational prestige scale was developed by Donald Treiman (1977) several years later. The U.S. General Social Survey (GSS) used the Siegel prestige scale until a 1989 GSS module designed by Robert Hodge, Judith Treas, and Keiko Nakao was used to construct a new prestige scale for the 1980 census occupational classification (Nakao and Treas 1994).
The Duncan Socioeconomic Index (SEI) and later iterations of the SEI are in greater use today than occupational prestige scales because they are more highly correlated with other variables of interest and better describe socioeconomic differences between occupations (Featherman, Jones, and Hauser 1975). The initial SEI was constructed by Otis Dudley Duncan by regressing the percentage of “good” or “excellent” prestige ratings for forty-five of the 1947 NORC prestige scores on age-adjusted percentages of men in the occupation who completed high school or more and who reported at least $3,500 in 1949 income. Resulting regression coefficients were used as weights to construct an SEI score for each U.S. census-defined 1950 occupation category, with scores ranging from about 2 (ship- and boat-building laborers) to 96 (dentists). Updates to the original Duncan SEI have been constructed for the 1960 (Blau and Duncan 1967), 1970 (Stevens and Featherman 1981), 1980 (Nakao and Treas 1994), and 1990 census occupation categories (Hauser and Warren 1997), and a Standard International Socioeconomic Index of Occupational Status (ISEI) has been developed (Ganzeboom, de Graaf, and Treiman 1992).
Empirical research has shown that in general, race/ethnicity is a stronger determinant of occupational status than gender. Traditional women’s jobs have a lower average status than male-dominated jobs, but few women work in extremely low-prestige jobs, resulting in similar average prestige scores for men and women (Acker 1980). By contrast, while some Asian Americans meet or exceed average white SEI scores, African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians have significantly and persistently lower occupational status (Hirschman and Snipp 1999). Nonetheless, while men and women tend to be found in occupations throughout the occupational status hierarchy, there is more segregation between the occupations done by men and women than between the occupations done by blacks and nonblacks in the United States (Treiman and Hartmann 1981).
The use of continuous scales of occupational status to measure social standing has been criticized by social-class theorists, who classify individuals or households on the basis of their membership in one of a small number of discrete and broad social classes. The Marxist tradition divides individuals into classes based on their ownership of productive assets in the economic sphere, while Weberian approaches also incorporate dimensions of social honor within status groups and other aspects of lived experience outside the productive sphere, rather than viewing social standing as a product of one’s attained education and income. Social-class theorists from across these traditions argue that continuous occupational status scales do not capture the crucial sources of power and conflict that divide social classes (e.g., owners of factories and workers in those factories), or the sense of shared class membership that could lead to collective action (Parkin 1971; Poulantzas 1975). Modern social-class typologies such as Eric Olin Wright’s (1977) neo-Marxist model are used to assess how membership in a particular social class, determined on the basis of ownership of productive assets, authority on the job, and skill and training assets, influences key social outcomes such as earnings, attitudes, and life chances. However, recent research maintains that continuous and hierarchical measures of occupational status may be better predictors of these key outcomes than broad social classes in capitalist countries such as the United States and Japan (Schooler and Schoenback 1994). A further addition to the debate are the “new class maps” created by Grusky and his colleagues (Grusky and Sorenson 1998; Weeden and Grusky 2005) that employ disaggregated occupational groupings as a measure of social position preferable to either the traditional “big social classes” or continuous occupational status scales.
SEE ALSO Blue Collar and White Collar; Employment, White Collar; Occupational Score Index (OCCSCORE); Socioeconomic Status
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Sarah A. Burgard