Occupational Prestige

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Individuals have repeatedly demonstrated an ability to rank occupations according to their prestige, a relative social standing in a society. Occupational prestige is one of the most empirically studied aspects of stratification structure in modern societies. Social stratification theories, however, differ in their views of the concept of prestige. Wegener points out that theories vary primarily in their suppositions of the foundation on which prestige is based, that is, achievement, esteem, honor, or charisma. Wegener also distinguishes two types of stratification theories, one that views prestige as a hierarchy of positions and the other as an attribute of socially closed groups.

By and large, stratification theories that emphasize order in society (e.g., functionalist theories) conceive prestige as an attribute of individuals or of individual social positions that form a hierarchy. Stratification theories that emphasize conflict (e.g., Weber) think of prestige as designating social aggregates, or individuals within social aggregates, influenced by social closure processes. (Wegener 1992, p. 255)

Despite such variation in theoretical views, most empirical studies share the notion that occupational positions are hierarchically ordered along a single dimension as judged by the individuals in the society. Efforts to measure such a concept involve a reputational approach in which respondents are asked to evaluate occupations.

The modern study of occupational prestige dates to a landmark survey fielded in 1947 by the National Opinion Research Center under the direction of Cecil C. North and Paul K. Hatt (Reiss 1961). Although others had conducted earlier investigations in the United States. NORC's national sample and broad coverage of the occupational hierarchy became the model for later inquiries. Perhaps the best known product of the North-Hatt study was Duncan's Socioeconomic Index (SEI) (1961), which assigned to each detailed occupational category a predicted prestige score based on the age-standardized education and income characteristics of occupational incumbents reported by the 1950 Census of Population. Although this index proved to have somewhat different properties than prestige, it exploited the limited occupational titles evaluated by the North-Hatt study to construct the first metric scale of socioeconomic status for all occupations.

In the 1960s, a second generation of studies was carried out by NORC (Hodge et al. 1964). Piecing together surveys from 1963, 1964, and 1965, Siegel (1971) generated the first prestige scale for all Census occupations. This scale served for twenty years as the foundation of socioeconomic status scores, and it became the backbone of Treiman's International Prestige Scale (1977). In 1980, however, a major change in the occupational classification system employed by the U.S. Bureau of the Census called into question scores based on earlier classifications of occupational titles, since there was no sensible way to match old and new categories. In 1989, the NORC General Social Survey undertook another periodic sounding of Americans' evaluations of the general social standing of occupations (Nakao and Treas 1994). In the 1989 survey, a total of 740 occupational titles were selected to ensure reasonable coverage of the 503 detailed occupational categories of the 1980 census classification system. These titles were rated by a sample of 1,166 respondents, each of whom rated 110 occupations. The evaluation involved sorting cards, each bearing one occupational title, onto a sheet displaying a nine-rung ladder of social standing (from "1" for the lowest possible social standing to "9" for the highest possible). Based on their ratings, a score was calculated for each occupation and was converted to a scale so as to have a logical range from 0 (lowest) to 100 (highest) of prestige scores. For use in data analyses of most social surveys, in which occupations are coded according to occupational categories, scores assigned to categories, not titles, become necessary. Thus, using the scores for occupational titles in respective categories, a score was computed for each of the 503 detailed occupational categories of the 1980 census. The 1989 survey, which was the first to collect evaluations for all occupational categories at one time, yielded new prestige scores. These scores became the basis for updating the Socioeconomic Index (Hauser and Warren 1997).

Five generalizations may be drawn from the empirical research on occupational prestige.

First, very different methods for soliciting occupational evaluations yield very similar prestige hierarchies. Presenting respondents with an occupational title (e.g., electrician), the North-Hatt study asked them to "pick out the statement that best gives your personal opinion of the general standing that such a job has." Five response categories, ranging from "excellent standing" to "poor standing," were presented, along with a "don't know" option. One might readily fault the ambiguous instructions calling for both a "personal" opinion and a reading of "general" standing. Nonetheless, the results proved virtually identical to those of the 1964 and 1989 surveys, which asked respondents to sort cards bearing occupational titles onto a "ladder of social standing," the method that became the primary standard against which all other inquiries are evaluated (Nakao et al. 1990). The 1964 study went on to ask respondents to sort occupations onto a horizontal ruler according to another specific dimension (e.g., freedom and independence, perceived income, how interesting the work). However different the tasks, the correlation with social standing evaluations was over .90 for eight of nine dimensions.

Even when respondents are instructed to cluster occupations according to their similarity (rather than to rank them by social standing), multidimensional scaling methods reveal that one of the organizing principles behind judged similarity is a prestige hierarchy. Burton (1972) first demonstrated this with a nonrandom subsample of volunteers solicited from an advertisement in the Harvard student newspaper. Kraus et al. (1978) achieved similar results with a representative sample of 463 urban Israelis. To confirm that people view occupations in terms of an up/down classification scheme, Schwartz (1981) showed that ranking occupations according to "vertical" paired adjectives (e.g., top/bottom) yields results highly correlated with prestige scores, while rankings based on evaluative (e.g., kind/cruel), potency (e.g., big/little), and activity (e.g., slow/fast) dimensions fail to replicate prestige orderings. Studies that directly asked the respondents on what basis they rated occupations, or that asked them to rate occupations on selected dimensions such as "value to the society" or "power," did not culminate in conclusive results. Individuals' evaluations seem to be based on their judgments of the "overall desirability" of occupations (Goldthorpe and Hope 1974; Hauser and Featherman 1977). In short, the prestige hierarchy is so central to how we evaluate occupations that it emerges from virtually any reasonable effort to elicit it.

Second, overall prestige rankings are very stable over time. Hodge et al. (1964) reported a correlation of .99 between the 1947 North-Hatt study and their own in the mid-1960s. Nakao and Treas (1994) found a correlation of .96 between the mid-1960s and 1989. This stability is not surprising. First, the relative income and education levels associated with various occupations are quite stable over time (Treiman and Terrell 1975). Second, to the extent that prestige is fixed by the division of labor and workplace authority, we do not expect the prestige of flight attendants to soar above that of pilots.

This is not to say that prestige never changes. Hodge et al. (1964) noted modest gains for blue-collar occupations, an upswing in scientific occupations and the "free" professions (e.g., "physician"), and a downturn in artistic, cultural, and communication occupations. Nakao and Treas (1994) compared the scores for 160 occupational titles evaluated in both 1964 and 1989 and found that the mean score moved up from 45.2 to 47.5 while the standard deviation declined from 17.3 to 15.8. They noted especially that the bottom of the American occupational prestige distribution shifted upward between 1964 and 1989. Low-status service and farming occupations especially came to be more favorably evaluated (see Table 1). This may be, in part, due to changes in the occupation itself. Farmers, for example, have undergone changes and have come to be seen as "agribusiness" owners. Thus, change in prestige may occur not only because of the succession of new generations who hold different views, but also because all age groups change their thinking about the relative standing of occupations. Changes in the general public's familiarity with an occupation can also affect its rating, as demonstrated for "nuclear physicist" between 1947 and 1963 (Hodge et al. 1964). Thus, individual occupations change even though the overall ranking of occupations remains quite stable over time. The growing prestige of low-status occupational titles warrants further study, especially because it is inconsistent with socioeconomic trends observed in the workforce and in the workplace-the growing inequality in earnings, the decline of unionized blue-collar employment, the influx of traditionally devalued workers like women and immigrants, and the absence of systematic skill upgrading for blue-collar workers (Nakao and Treas 1994).

Third, prestige evaluations are surprisingly comparable from one society to another. Arguing that industrialization everywhere demands a similar organization and reward of work, Treiman

Table 1
Prestige Scores for Selected Occupations in the United States, 1964 and 1989 (1980 Census Major Occupational Categories)
Occupational Title19641989
source: Nakoa and Treas (1994); Siegel (1971).
Managerial and Professional Specialty Occupations  
Department head in a state government8076
General manager of a manufacturing plant6462
Lunchroom operator3127
Public grade school teacher6064
Musician in a symphony orchestra5959
Technical, Sales, and Administrative Support Occupations  
Medical technician6168
Manager of a supermarket4748
Insurance agent4746
Travel agent4341
Cashier in a supermarket3133
Telephone solicitor2622
Post office clerk4342
Shipping clerk2933
Bill collector2624
Bank teller5043
Service Occupations  
Housekeeper in a private home2534
Cook in a restaurant2634
Farming, Forestry, and Fishing Occupations  
Farm owner and operator4453
Precision Production, Craft, and Repair Occupations  
Airplane mechanic4853
Superintendent of a construction job5157
House painter3034
Operators, Fabricators, and Laborers  
Saw sharpener1923
Assembly line worker2735
Bus driver3232
Locomotive engineer4848
Filling station attendant2221

(1977) assembled eighty-five prestige studies of sixty nations, tribal societies, and territories. Comparing the United States with fifty-nine other societies yielded an average intercorrelation of .837; in other words, about 70 percent of the variation in U.S. prestige evaluations is shared in common with the "average" society available to Treiman. To be sure, the correlations ranged from .98 for Canada to .54 for Zaire. Prestige hierarchies are similar, but not identical. Notable differences relate to level of economic development (Treiman 1977) and the greater appreciation of manual labor in socialist societies (Penn 1975; for a Chinese exception, see Lin and Xie 1988).

Fourth, subgroups within a society also tend to agree about the relative ranking of occupations. Efforts to discern differences between blacks and whites, between those employed in more versus less prestigious jobs, have typically found little effect of the respondent's social location on his or her view of the occupational hierarchy (e.g., Goldthorpe and Hope, 1972; Kraus et al. 1978). To be sure, higher-status groups assign somewhat higher absolute rankings to high-status jobs than do lower-status groups, who tend to boost lower-status jobs somewhat (Hodge and Rossi 1978). Apparently, this phenomenon does not arise because groups hold self-serving views of the social order. Instead, high-status individuals agree more among themselves and, thus, avoid random ranking errors that move both high- and low-status occupations toward the middle of the distribution. In comparison to the differences among individuals in their ratings (i.e., reported interrater correlations range from .42 to .745), the variation between groups is smaller than the variation within groups (Hodge et al. 1982). Since location in the social structure has been shown to influence so many other attitudes, it is surprising that groups agree so closely on the order of occupations. The mechanisms leading to this consensus are not well understood. By early adolescence, however, children can agree on how jobs rank (Gunn 1964).

Fifth, the main factors associated with an occupation's prestige are its education and income levels, the basic logic behind the original construction of the Socioeconomic Index (Duncan 1961). Socioeconomic scores based on these two factors account for about 80 percent of the variation in prestige attributed to different occupations (Hodge 1981). Based on the 1989 prestige scores and the occupational data from the 1990 U.S. Census, Hauser and Warren (1997) also reported that in several models they used, between 70 and 80 percent of the variance in occupational prestige was accounted for by occupational education and earnings.

In the studies of status attainment models, socioeconomic status scores were demonstrated to be superior to prestige scores in accounting for a son's occupational achievement using his father's status (Featherman et al. 1975; Featherman and Hauser 1976; Treas and Tyree 1979). It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss occupational prestige. Subgroups of raters agree not only on the prestige of an occupation, but also on how prestige differs from the occupation's socioeconomic location (Hodge 1981). Furthermore, a more recent study by Kerckhoff et al. (1989) showed in a comparative study of status attainment in the United States and Great Britain, that differences between the two countries were illuminated in the models using prestige scores, but not in the models using the Socioeconomic Index. The British data yielded stronger intergenerational effect on the respondents' occupations than did the United States data when prestige scores were used. This implies that the prestige scale captures different aspects of the status attainment process than the Socioeconomic Index does.

However important the educational requirements and economic rewards of occupations, they are not alone in determining the prestige accorded occupations. The racial or age composition of jobs may also figure in their public evaluation. Even controlling for education and occupation, a higher proportion of nonwhites in an occupation is associated with a lower prestige rating (Siegel 1971). Occupations dominated by the very young or the very old are similarly disadvantaged (Siegel 1971). However, the proportion of women in an occupation was shown to have no or little effect on prestige (England 1979; Bose and Rossi 1983; Fox and Suschnigg 1989).

There is no conclusive evidence that American respondents consistently downgrade the status of female-gendered occupational titles (e.g., policewoman) as compared with male titles (e.g., policeman). However, male (but not female) respondents do downgrade the standing of occupations in which women find employment—a relation that holds after the income and education levels of workers are taken into account (Meyer 1978). Further studies are warranted investigating systematic associations between gender and occupational evaluation.

Empirical studies of occupational prestige are based on the notion that prestige represents a hierarchy of social standing of individuals or aggregates based on their occupations. This notion is widely used in analyses of social survey data as a variable indicating an individual's social status. While it is a useful index, the assumption behind its application as a measure of social status is that individuals' social positions are manifested by the occupations they hold. This assumption is rooted in the fact that occupation is a means through which social and economic resources are distributed. Furthermore, occupation is salient in one's life, providing not only economic needs, but also social relations that establish one's role in a society. This assumption may hold true in most industrialized countries, yet it perhaps deserves a further consideration in future research. As to what measure is appropriate as an index of social status in what context (for example, socioeconomic scale versus prestige scale), further research is called for that would lead us to a more thorough understanding of the stratification system and the process of individuals' attainment of social positions within it.


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Keiko Nakao

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Occupational Prestige