Social Psychology of Status Allocation

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The processes of status allocation are among the most important phenomena of societal stratification structures, along with the ways in which those structures vary over time and between societies and the causes and consequences of those variations (Haller 2000). Within these partly stable structures, these processes include the formation of individuals' status aspirations, the effect of those aspirations on attained statuses, and the causes of status aspirations (Haller 1982), including those describing a person's social origins (Alwin 1989). One's social status is defined in terms of both ascribed and achieved characteristics. Unless the value or meaning of ascribed characteristics changes, it is only through change in one's achieved characteristics that one's status in society can change. In modern society, occupation, income, and education are the most common achieved characteristics that are studied within the framework of status attainment.

People tend to see themselves and others as occupying positions along hierarchical continua, with evaluations being associated with a person's location in the hierarchy. One's plan, however vague, to strive for a particular place in a status hierarchy is defined as one's level of aspiration. As a mediator of achieved characteristics, and perhaps of ascribed characteristics as well, one's levels of aspiration affect one's levels of attainment (Haller 1982).

Status attainment research is concerned with the process by which people come to occupy their positions in life, some higher and some lower. Through social policy and social practice, the social system provides the opportunity structure for status attainment. The interface between sociology's study of stratification and psychology's study of individual motivation and achievement is dealt with by the field of the social psychology of status attainment.


From the 1960s to the early 1980s, the theory of status allocation developed vigorously, increasing its theoretical comprehensiveness while maintaining its conceptual parsimony and explanatory power (Sewell et al. 1969, 1970; Haller and Woelfel 1972; Haller and Portes 1973; Haller 1982). These developments were matched by similar improvements in methods for testing the hypotheses of the theory (Duncan 1968; Duncan et al. 1968; Van De Geer 1971; Hauser et al. 1983). The social psychological theory of status attainment is both coherent and comprehensive by current standards of social science theory. The theory emerged from two traditions: one sociological, focusing on social stratification research, and the other from social psychology, focusing on the self-concept and its formation.

The modern study of social stratification began with the work of Sorokin (1927) and was continued by Svaltastoga (1965), Duncan (1968), and Haller (1970), among others. Stratification theorists typically posit at least four classes of fundamental status variables, or status content dimensions. Those content dimensions reflect the societal rewards an individual receives and the means to obtain those rewards. Thus, they also may be seen as dimensions of power. Content dimensions are conceptualized as political status, economic status, social status, and informational status (Haller 2000). In status attainment research, educational attainment, occupational prestige, and income are examined as the main variables by which one can measure a person's positions on the content dimensions.

The social psychological tradition that influenced status attainment is based primarily on work by Mead (1934). Lewin (1939) and Heider (1958) influenced this tradition as well. This tradition suggests that status in open societies is earned as opposed to being bestowed by a person's lineage. Before persons assume their eventual statuses, they knowingly or unknowingly develop a level of aspiration for educational status, occupational status, income, and political influence. One's level of aspiration is formed in three ways: by the modeling of others who are present, by self-reflection, and by adopting the status expectations held for a person by others. One can model the behavior of another person whom one knows only through mediated communication (e.g., by learning about another person's behavior by reading about it in books, newspapers, or magazines or by observing that behavior on television or in movies). One also can learn about the status expectations that others hold for oneself through the media. There is evidence, however, that most sources of influence are not transmitted in this way but instead by the direct and indirect effects of "significant others" (Haller and Woelfel 1969, 1972; Haller et al. 1969).

Once formed, aspirations are difficult to change, and they guide the decisions one makes about life. Consequently, one's level of aspiration is a significant determinant of one's level of attainment (Haller 1982).

Since the early 1980s, much work on status attainment has not been systematic but instead directed by policy considerations (Haller 1982). Interestingly, in the last two decades, research on status attainment has grown more in other countries than it has in the United States. In the United States, approximately the same number of studies were conducted on status attainment in each year over the last two decades. However, studies in other countries have more than doubled, and for the first time since the inception of the field, more research is being conducted outside of the United States than within it.


A complete model of the process of status attainment does not exist. However, many significant contributions to what is known about status attainment have come from just a few perspectives. The work of Blau and Duncan (1967) was significant for its careful operationalization of concepts and presentation of formal models subject to statistical analysis. Those authors presented an important model concerned with the effects of parents' status, one's own education, and one's first job, although their model had four flaws. First, it lacked indicators for wealth and power, two important status content dimensions. Second, it contained a relatively primitive theory of the mechanisms of status attainment. Third, it lacked a comprehensive set of exogenous variables, which were limited to the father's occupational and educational statuses. Fourth, much variance in educational and occupational statuses was not explained.

A more complete model of status attainment was introduced informally in 1967; a test of it appeared in Sewell et al. (1969). The conceptual system it embodied, however imperfectly, became known as the Wisconsin model. Path analyses emphasized the social psychological and social structural antecedents of educational and occupational attainment. This early form of the model assumes that all relationships between the key variables are linear and that social psychological variables mediate the process of status attainment. Status aspiration for education and occupation was found to be a powerful mediator of status attainment.

An important contribution of this research was the elaboration, both theoretical and methodological, of the concept of the significant other's influence. One's set of significant others is often larger than one's referent group of parents and peers. This set was defined to include all those who serve as definers and models. Definers are those who communicate their expectations, whereas models are those who provide illustrations of their statuses and related behaviors; an individual can serve in both capacities. The Wisconsin model changed the conception of social influence used in the study of status allocation from a list of individuals to a set of social processes by which the individuals in one's environment help determine one's status destination.

Sewell et al. (1969) found that the social structural and psychological factors of socioeconomic status and mental ability affect the academic performance of youths and that significant others have great influence in the status attainment process. However, the sample on which their original model was tested was limited, and this was a drawback for evaluating the internal and external validity of their model. The original sample consisted of 929 Wisconsin students who completed a survey as well as a follow-up group of males studied in 1964 whose fathers had been farmers in 1957 (Sewell et al. 1969).

The original form of the Wisconsin model was modified slightly in a study by Sewell et al. (1970), who proposed small changes that would make it applicable to boys with different residential backgrounds. As in the 1969 versions, one's ability and one's significant others were shown to affect one's educational and occupational aspirations. In turn, those aspirations affected one's educational and occupational status attainment (Sewell et al. 1970). Most significant was the finding that the Sewell et al. (1969) model could be used with minor modifications for young men from a variety of backgrounds.

The Wisconsin model was refined in two significant ways by Haller and Portes (1973). First, the model was modified by clarifying and completing the set of content dimensions of status. Second, it was shown that each content dimension of status also is manifested in both of two social psychological isomorphs (status "mirror" images): a status aspiration variable of each focal person and a corresponding variable describing the status orientation levels each of the focal person's significant others expects of him or her (definers) or illustrates to him or her (models). Third, the Wisconsin model incorporated structural dimensions of status. Two critical structural dimensions are status dispersion and status crystallization. Status attainment models were held to work best when status dispersion is wide, which means that inequality is great; there is little to learn about attainment in fairly homogeneous status systems. Status crystallization is the degree of correlation among status content dimensions (e.g., how one's wealth corresponds to one's power). When crystallization is high, a status attainment model is relatively simplified: It is as if the ultimate endogenous variable were an unobserved variable with many correlated indicators. In complex societies with moderate to high crystallization, status attainment models must be more complex, because the isomorphs of each status content dimension must be treated as separate endogenous variables in the model.

The Wisconsin model was retested in 1983 with more recently developed estimation procedures. It was found to be even more effective in explaining the process of educational and occupational attainment than it previously had been thought to be (Hauser et al. 1983). However, the model was not tested as a whole because not all the variables in the model were measured.

Concerns with Current Status Attainment Models. Research on status attainment models has not advanced much since the early 1980s, and flaws in the models of that time remain. More recent research has focused mostly on status inheritance, but the inheritance models are incomplete. None of these models has included measures drawn from the power dimension; indeed, none has seriously attempted to cover the entire range of variables implied by each of the four general status content dimensions (Haller 2000). In the models that have been tested, about 25 to 35 percent of the variance in attainment can be explained by parental status variables. The more nearly complete models explain much more than this.

The social psychological variables used in models today are virtually the same ones used twenty-five years ago. However, the world has changed drastically in the last twenty-five years, particularly with the advent of and pervasive use of communication technology. It is conceivable that mediated sources of influence play a greater role in status attainment process, but it is impossible to know whether this is true. More generally, it is quite possible that the relationship among status attainment variables has changed, and there may be additional variables to consider.

Concerns with Current Status Attainment Research. The initial fifteen years of research from 1967 through 1982 were significant in terms of formulating theory, defining variables, and enlarging the subject populations to which the attainment model applied. Haller (1982) described four avenues of study that would advance status attainment research greatly.

First, there has not been a longitudinal study that followed a cohort sample and observed the influence of the variables in the model on status attainments beyond mid-career. For example, what influences the selection of a second occupation? In addition, how do one's high school occupational, educational, and income aspirations affect one's position and income thirty years or more after those aspirations are formed? Second, most earlier attainment research was restricted to high school students and their first positions after school. The development of status orientations among young children needs to be explored. Third, it is important to understand how status definers emerge in young children. Fourth, the mechanisms that activate the status attainment process have to be explicated.

Above all, the full panoply of variables specified in Haller (1982) should be tested on today's youthful cohorts as they move through life.


In status attainment research, the key variables that are feasible today are educational attainment, occupational prestige, and income. What is known about those variables?

Educational Status Attainment in the United States. Young children and early teens. The first longitudinal study of educational attainment conducted with young children spanned the period from fall 1985 to spring 1987. Achievement in the first grade was studied for minority groups, including African-Americans and Hispanics. Parental involvement, mobility, and motivation all had a direct influence on first-graders' outcomes. Interestingly, at least two of the three variables—parental involvement and mobility—are under the direct control of the parents. Additionally, the cognitive readiness of children entering kindergarten was found to have an indirect effect on first-graders' outcomes. All the variables examined had a significant direct or indirect effects on those outcomes, including motivation, peer environment, parental involvement, readiness, and mobility (Reynolds 1989).

The second longitudinal study of educational attainment spanned a one-year period from fall 1987 to fall 1988, using a national sample of 3,116 youths. Data from this study were used to assess science achievement, attitude toward mathematics, and science and mathematics achievement in grades seven and eight. For young teenagers, prior achievement played a large mediating role in future mathematics and science achievement, but classroom context and parental involvement influenced their achievement as well (Reynolds 1991). Science achievement was directly affected by prior achievement, peer environment, and the amount and quality of instruction; mathematics achievement was most strongly influenced by prior achievement and the home environment (Reynolds and Walberg 1991, 1992).

Teenagers. Intelligence is a factor in predicting educational and occupational aspirations, but other variables appear to have a greater effect. There is a relatively small effect of parents' statuses on their children's but a relatively large effect of status aspirations and significant others' expectations on one's educational and occupational attainment. Thus, if one has significant others who expect one to go to college, it is more likely that one believes that going to college is possible and one is more likely to go.

Using annual data collected since 1975 for the Monitoring the Future survey, Morgan (1998) found that the educational aspirations of high school seniors increased between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. This effect was greater for white students than for African-American students. Morgan (1998) viewed aspirations as part of a cognitive process of continually calculating the costs and benefits of one's educational aspirations; this variable may influence the effects of significant others. The finding is consistent with the results of many early studies (Haller and Miller, 1963, Hypothesis 4,– pp. 31, 41–45, 96), and is an expression of the well-known Zeigarnik effect (Zeigarnik 1927, Lewin 1951).

The Wisconsin model from the 1970s worked well for the group of white males but not as well for others. With the addition of identity theory (Burke 1989) to the Wisconsin model, that model was found to work not only for white males but for African-American and white females as well. Identity theory suggests that one's identity originates from one's social interactions with others. When one's identity is established, one acts in ways that maintain and confirm that identity. White males and females and African-American females constructed an academic identity that directly influenced their college plans. In other words, if they constructed the meaning of going to college in terms of job-related reasons ("Going to college will help me get the kind of job I want"), they were more likely to go to college. However, the model's predictive ability for African-American males has been minimal. Preliminary research has indicated that one of the reasons for this may be that in that group there is insufficient correspondence between the constructs used in the modified Wisconsin model and the processes associated with African-American male attainment (Burke 1989; Burke and Hoelter 1988).

Education Outside the United States. Australia. In Australia, education is required for those aged 6–15. Thus, required education ends after the tenth year of school; however, students may elect to stay in the system for two more years. Students who left school after the tenth year earned less than did those who stayed the additional two years. Importantly, socioeconomic background, type of school attended, and career orientations appeared to be unrelated to the decision to leave school after the tenth year (Saha 1985).

Australian research sought to determine whether attending a private Catholic high school influenced attendance at college and the receipt of a college degree. Approximately two-thirds of those from public schools and two-thirds of those from private schools eventually obtain a college degree. However, only approximately 58 percent of those who receive a secondary degree from a Catholic school obtain a college degree (Williams and Carpenter 1990). Thus, receiving a private education results in the same chance of obtaining a college degree as does receiving a public school education, but receiving a Catholic school education gives one a relatively lesser chance to obtain a college degree.

Young adult unemployment in Australia varied between 27 percent and 52 percent from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. One might assume that most youths were encouraged to obtain further education, but that was not always the case. A revision of the Ajzen–Fishbein model of attitude–behavior relations (Carpenter et al. 1989) was used to assess youths' intentions toward entering the workforce immediately after high school; the influence of economic conditions also was considered in this model. Parental and peer influence played a powerful role in molding a youth's intentions; however, the youth's decision to transform the intention into action was mediated by his or her self-perception of past academic performance.

Greece. A Greek study (Kostakis 1992) examined information and occupational demands in terms of the specific sources Greek students might use to influence their decisions about the future. How and from whom one gains information was considered a socially determined process. An individual's significant others, consisting of friends and relatives, appeared to be the most important source of information for all groups; however, significant others were more available to higher-status individuals. Considered as an information source for vocational occupations, schooling was relied on by lower-status youths, rural youths, and girls.

Israel. In many studies, teachers were viewed as significant others, but their influence on status attainment did not appear to be large. However, little was known about a teacher's long-term influence on status attainment. A national representative sample of 834 Israeli adults aged 21–65 was studied to ascertain the effect of the influence of a former teacher (Enoch et al. 1992). The group was divided into two cohort groups: older (ages 40–65) and younger (ages 21–39). Perceived teacher influence was found to be a determining factor in respect to occupation only for the older group. Furthermore, it was found that the Oriental (Sephardic) older group perceived teacher influence as being greater than did any of the other groups in terms of occupational attainment, whereas the older Ashkenazic group identified perceived teacher influence as a significant variable in educational attainment.

Occupational Status Attainment in the United States: The Role of Gender. Typical status attainment models account for more variance in male occupational attainment than in female occupational attainment. A possible reason is that typical occupational status attainment models view occupations as discrete categorical variables as opposed to preferences along a continuum. When occupational titles were measured as a continuous variable, as was done by the Wisconsin researchers, it was found that a student's gender and a family's socioeconomic status were related to occupational choice. Additionally, significant others' expectations for a student played a role in determining aspirations. Significant others' expectations appeared to be affected most by gender as opposed to aptitude or ability. Thus, males and females may have their aspirations influenced by significant others who seem to choose traditional gender occupations for them (Saltiel 1988).

After the 1960s and 1970s, occupational status attainment research in the United States focused on gender differences in attainment, perhaps because changes in gender roles accelerated at that time. More women have chosen to pursue higher education and enter male-dominated careers than ever before. How will the increasing diversity of occupations open to women affect women's aspirations and eventual occupational attainment?

There were no significant differences in levels of occupational aspiration between boys and girls and in different high school grades in the early 1960s (Haller et al. 1974). However, little research examining gender differences was conducted in the 1970s and the early to middle 1980s to determine whether aspirations affected occupational attainment.

Consistent with the Wisconsin model, women in the 1980s who pursued male-dominated careers such as business, engineering, and law were found to be subjected to a network of influences, as opposed to a single influence. Parents' educational level was acknowledged as an influence in typical status attainment research, but until the late 1980s, the specific effect of parents' possession of a college degree on their children was not considered. For both African-American and white women, parental income was found to have a significant indirect effect on women's educational attainment. Furthermore, for white women only, the father's and mother's education proved to have significant indirect effects (Gruca et al. 1988).

Women recently have been receiving approximately 50 percent of the bachelor's degrees in life sciences and mathematics, but they are significantly underrepresented in science and mathematics occupations (National Research Council 1991). If women are attaining initial degrees in the same numbers as men, why are they not represented equally in the fields to which those degrees lead?

For women, significant factors associated with persistence in scientific and mathematical careers after college include receiving encouragement from teachers and parents, particularly the mother (Rayman and Brett 1995). Those who stay in science and mathematics careers after graduation do not necessarily believe that their current occupation is compatible with family life; however, the majority of these women have not been affected by family needs. Those who changed careers from a mathematics- or science-related occupation to one not oriented in those directions were more likely to believe that family need plays a role in occupational attainment. Over 50 percent of this group had taken time off from work, refused promotions, reduced their work schedules to part-time, or changed location because of family need. Grades in science and mathematics courses did not significantly affect attitude and achievement in science and mathematics. Additionally, self-esteem and perceived self-confidence did not play a role in deciding who stayed with scientific and mathematical careers and who did not (Rayman and Brett 1995).

Occupational Status Attainment outside the United States. Canada. The Canadian Mobility Study (Boyd et al. 1995) was directly influenced by the 1962 Occupational Change in a Generation Study in the United States. Using data from the early 1970s, this study showed that great inequalities exist in income, assets, and educational attainment between genders and among those with various ethnic origins (Porter 1995, p. 61). Preliminary research indicated that motherhood, as opposed to or in addition to being married, was the most significant variable determining the occupational status attainment of native-born Canadian women (Boyd 1995a, p. 284). This finding makes sense, as motherhood, as opposed to marriage, generally requires time off from work. Some women choose to stay at home to raise a child; even if this time off from work is brief, by affecting continuity of employment, it affects one's advancement potential.

Interestingly, occupation and status seem to be consistent from generation to generation (McRoberts 1995, p. 98). One of the reasons for this is that the advantages of background often are passed on to children. For example, wealthy parents are more likely to have received higher education and are better able to afford to have their children receive higher education. Although it is not impossible for a child from a lower-income family to attend an institution of higher education, it is not as likely. This conclusion comes from a study of Canadian-born males in 1973 whose occupations were compared with those of their fathers.

Also of interest is the role of immigrants in status attainment levels in Canada. Native-born Canadian men have an average occupational status lower than that of American-born, German-born, and United Kingdom–born male immigrants and an average occupational status higher than that of immigrants from Poland, Italy, Greece, and Portugal (Boyd 1995b, p. 440). Much of the inequality between the Canadian-born and non-Canadian-born men results from differences in family origin and education.

Similarly, non-Canadian-born women tend to have an average occupational status lower than that of Canadian-born women, but non-Canadian status seems to have less of an impact on female immigrants from the Unites States and the United Kingdom. As in the United States, females have a lower average occupational status than do males (Boyd 1995b, p. 441).

Taiwan. Taiwan consists primarily of three ethnic groups: the aborigines, the Taiwanese, and the mainlanders. Although the Taiwanese account for slightly more than 85 percent of the population, the mainlanders, who account for approximately 12 percent, hold the political power. A study involving 3,924 men from the three ethnic groups determined that the mainlanders had an average occupational status higher than that of the Taiwanese or the aborigines (Tsai 1992).

The father's occupation was found to be the determining factor for first occupation among aborigines over 35 years old. However, for those under 35 years of age, residence and educational attainment were found to be significant influences on the first occupation. This result was different for the Taiwanese and the mainlanders, for whom the most important determinant of first occupation was their level of educational attainment (Tsai 1992).

Israel. In Israel, a better education does not necessarily predict better occupational attainment (Semyonov and Yuchtmahn-Yaar 1992). It once was believed that as Arabs became increasingly integrated into the general Jewish population in Israel, educational attainment and status attainment would become more equal between those two groups. From 1972 through 1983, the Arab population increased its average educational attainment level; however, its average occupational attainment declined. Market discrimination was estimated to account for 6.5 percent of the occupational gap between Jews and Arabs in the highest age group (ages 54–65), but its effect increased to nearly 25 percent in the youngest age group (ages 25–36). Clearly, there are social variables at work here that are not included in traditional status attainment models.

Political and Economic Status. Little research has been conducted in the areas of political and economic status. The link of economic status to the prior generation is much weaker than are educational and occupational links that generation. There are a number of reasons why economic status is much more difficult to study than are the educational or occupational variables. Many studies rely on participants to report information for their parents, and although occupational and educational attainments generally are known to family members, specific income information, particularly over a life span, is not. Also, the fluctuating rate of inflation makes it difficult to compare incomes directly across generations. Additionally, an economy's supplies and demands vacillate and ultimately determine an occupation's worth at a given moment. Thus, although the prestige of occupations may not change much, the income associated with those positions may change a great deal, in part as a result of market forces. Finally, the range of incomes today is greater than ever before. Chief executive officers, entertainment performers, and professional athletes command high incomes. With more income "outliers" today, reliably measuring income and incorporating it into status attainment models are difficult. As a result of these factors, less is known about income status attainment than about educational or occupational attainment.

Similarly, little is known about political status attainment. Political status originally was defined as influence, authority, coercion, and power. Unlike occupational and educational achievement, which have been relatively well defined, there is little agreement on a person's political status.

In a study involving sports teams across cultures, age, experience, and performance were deemed to be the most significant factors in defining status in Canada and India ( Jacob and Carron 1996). Both cultures gave more importance to achieved sources of status, such as experience and performance level, than to ascribed status, such as religion, race, and parental occupation. Surprisingly, age was found to be a significant determinant of status, apparently because it serves as an indicator of experience.


Some analysts, including Breiger (1995) and Ganzeboom et al. (1991), believe that theory formulation has become very narrow in social attainment research. However, there are several directions future research can take. First, status allocation research can increasingly feature the systematic incorporation of societal factors considered from the perspective of the individual. For example, advances in network analysis will allow measurement of extended networks and the influences of their members (Wasserman and Faust 1994). Similarly, simulation can provide a method to test models of social influence posited in status allocation models, allowing the investigation of the stability, equilibrium, rate of change, and other qualitative features of status dynamics in a social group (see Gilbert and Doran 1994; Jacobsen and Bronson 1995; Latané 1996). Finally, more extensive measurement of the multidimensional features of occupations and the related variables will allow the creation of models of greater complexity, for example, reflecting nonprestige or nonhierarchical features of status allocation (see Woelfel and Fink 1980).

This article makes it evident that researchers need to focus anew on conceptual clarity and theoretical parsimony. In the future, it is important that new research be executed with variables that include all that have been specified as crucial, along with the causal lines that were so specified, as elements of the theory referred to as the Wisconsin model (Haller 1982). As implied here, this should be done for both males and females in different decades and in societies with differing stratification structures.


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Archibald O. Haller
Edward L. Fink
Laura Janusik

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Social Psychology of Status Allocation

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