Status Attainment

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Status attainment is the process by which individuals attain positions in the system of social stratification in a society. If one thinks of social stratification as referring to the rewards society offers and the resources individuals use to obtain those rewards, education, occupation, and income are the key factors. The amount and kind of education people attain determine the kinds of jobs they get. The kind of work people do is the main determinant of their income. Moreover, the education, occupation, and income of parents largely determine the kinds of advantages or disadvantages they create for their children. Sociologists usually think of education, occupation, and income as the main aspects of socioeconomic status, and the study of status attainment is therefore the study of how these attributes of people are related both within and across generations.


As a distinctive area of research, status-attainment research had its origins in the work of Otis Dudley Duncan in the 1960s. Duncan (1961) reconceptualized the study of intergenerational occupational mobility—which is concerned with the degree and pattern of association between the kinds of work done by parents and offspring (in practice, fathers and sons)—as the study of the factors that determine who gets what sort of job, with the father's occupation being only one of several determining factors. Other researchers extended Duncan's findings to take account of the factors that determine how much schooling people get and how much money they make.

Duncan's conceptual reformulation was accompanied by two important technical innovations. The first was the creation of a socioeconomic status scale for occupations. Unlike education and income, occupation has no intrinsic metric: No natural ordering of occupations exists in terms of relative status. For many kinds of research, however, especially the study of status attainment, it is desirable to arrange occupations into some sort of status hierarchy, that is, a hierarchy of the relative socioeconomic advantage enjoyed by people in different occupations. Duncan created such an ordering of occupations for the categories of the 1950 U.S. Census classification by taking the weighted average of the education and income of typical incumbents, with the weights chosen to maximize the association between the resulting socioeconomic status scale and the relative prestige of occupations as measured by popular evaluations. He was able to do this because prestige and socioeconomic status are very highly correlated: Occupations that have high socioeconomic status (that is, that require a great deal of education and pay well) also tend to have high prestige, and jobs that require little education and pay poorly tend to have low prestige.

Second, Duncan introduced path analysis into sociology. Path analysis is a way of statistically representing the relative strength of different relationships between variables, both direct and indirect. For example, it is known that educated people tend to earn more than do uneducated people, but it is not clear whether this is the case simply because they have jobs of higher status or whether, among those who have jobs of similar status, the better educated earn more than do the less well educated. Path analysis provides a way of answering this question: Even among people doing the same sort of work, the better educated tend to earn more.


Four central issues have dominated research on status attainment. The first issue is the extent of "social reproduction," the tendency for class and socioeconomic status position to be perpetuated, or "reproduced," from generation to generation. A value assumption underlies this question. "Open" societies, that is, societies with low rates of social reproduction or, to put it differently, high rates of intergenerational social mobility, are regarded as desirable since they are assumed to have relatively high equality of opportunity and to emphasize "achievement" rather than "ascription" as the basis for socioeconomic success.

The second issue is the factors other than the status of parents that affect education, occupation, and income. Of course, some factors may be correlated with the status of parents and also may have an independent effect. For example, there is a modest negative correlation between socioeconomic status and fertility—high-status people tend to have fewer children—and there is also a tendency for people from large families not to go as far in school as people from small families do. Thus, part of the reason the children of high-status people go further in school is that such people have smaller families. However, it is also true that at any given level of parental status (e.g., for families where both parents are college-educated professionals), people from smaller families go further in school. Therefore, the number of siblings has an independent effect on educational attainment apart from its correlation with parental status. Sorting out such effects is facilitated by the application of path analysis.

The third issue is the extent to which there are sex and racial (or ethnic) differences in patterns of status attainment. With respect to gender, the questions are: Do men and women from similar social origins go equally far in school? Do equally qualified men and women get jobs of equal status? Are women paid as well as men doing similar work? The same set of questions is asked with respect to differences between racial and ethnic groups.

The fourth issue is whether the process of status attainment operates the same way in different countries or in the same country in different historical periods. What follows is a summary of what is known about each of these four issues with respect to educational attainment, occupational attainment, and income attainment.


Reproduction. In regard to the extent of educational reproduction, the evidence in the United States in the late twentieth century is clear: America is an "open" society. Educational attainment (how far people go in school) is only weakly dependent on parental status. Only about 20 percent of the variability in years of school completed can be attributed to the level of education attained by one's father or mother. When several different family background characteristics are taken into account, the connection is not much stronger; at most, about one-third of the variability in educational attainment can be attributed to the status of the family one comes from. The rest is due to factors unrelated to social origins.

Other Factors. Apart from the social status of parents, the main factors that affect educational attainment are intelligence, the number of siblings (as was noted above, all else being equal, people from large families get less schooling), family stability (those from nonintact families, people whose parents have divorced or died—one or both—go less far in school), the influence of "significant others" (family members, friends, and teachers), and academic performance (the better people do in school, the longer they continue to go to school).

The question naturally arises as to why and how origin status and these other factors affect educational attainment. In a country such as the United States, where education up to the college level is free, parental wealth has relatively little effect on whether people stay in school. This claim is supported by the observation that the effect of social origins on educational attainment declines with each successive educational transition. That is, social origins have a stronger influence on whether people graduate from high school than on whether high school graduates go on to college and an even weaker influence on the graduation chances of those who begin college. If parental wealth is not important, what is?

There are two underlying factors: "Human capital" (sometimes called "cultural capital") is the most important, but "social capital" is involved as well. Human capital refers to the knowledge, skills, and motivations of individuals. The basic argument here is that growing up in a high-status family enhances one's human capital and that those with high human capital do better in school and therefore gain more education, which of course further enhances their human capital. The idea is that children who grow up in well-educated families or professional families learn the kinds of skills and acquire the kinds of motivations that enable them to do well in school. There are many books in such houses, and there are often computers. Schoolwork is familiar to these children because it is the same sort of thing they find at home.

Social capital refers to the social connections people have with others. Here the idea is that people are strongly influenced by the company they keep. Young people whose friends drop out of high school are more likely to drop out of high school themselves than are others whose friends have a social background and academic performance level that encourage educational attainment. Similarly, those whose friends go to college are more likely to go themselves than are others whose friends go to work after high school, and those whose teachers encourage them to continue their education are more likely to do so than are others whose records are just as good. Since people with high-status origins tend to live in neighborhoods with others of similar origins, they tend to have greater social capital than do those with low-status origins.

Sex and Racial Differences. In the United States, there is little difference in the average amount of education attained by men and women, but more men than women tend to be very well educated or very poorly educated; that is, more men than women graduate from college, but more men than women drop out of high school. However, the effect of social origins and other factors on educational attainment is very similar for men and women. Race and ethnicity are a different story. Blacks are substantially less well educated than are whites and those of other races. In part, this is the case because the parents of blacks are poorly educated. However, blacks are also less able to convert whatever advantage they do have into a corresponding advantage for their children. In particular, blacks do not go as far in school as would be predicted from their parents' status. The sharp difference between blacks and other groups is a continuing legacy of slavery. While there are differences in the educational attainment levels of other ethnic groups, those differences are largely the result of differences among those groups in the average status of parents.

In nations such as South Africa, where until 1994 racial distinctions were embedded in law and social institutions (as in the American South before 1964), racial differences in educational attainment are much larger than they are in the United States. Whereas in the United States in 1990 whites averaged 13.1 years of schooling and blacks averaged 12.3 years, a difference of 0.8 year in South Africa in 1991 whites averaged 10.0 years of schooling and blacks averaged 4.5 years, a difference of 5.5 years, with the other racial groups falling between these values This was a direct consequence of government policies that created separate and unequal school systems for South Africa's four "official" racial groups.

Cross-Cultural and Cross-Temporal Variations. Differences between countries in the educational attainment process are due both to general factors such as the level of industrialization and to specific differences in the way education is organized. In general, in places were the level of educational inequality in the parents' generation is high, educational attainment is more dependent on social origins than it is in countries where the level of educational inequality in the parents' generation is low. This is a consequence of the effect of human capital acquired at home. In a country such as the United States, where janitors have about ten years of school and high school teachers have about sixteen, the son of a janitor will be able to compete in school much more effectively with the son of a high school teacher than is the case in a society such as India where high school teachers also have about sixteen years of schooling but janitors have no schooling at all and are illiterate. Second, in highly industrialized countries schooling is less dependent on social origins than it is in less industrialized countries, in part because schooling tends to be free in industrialized countries. Third, in countries where the state provides not only free education but financial subsidies to students, as has been done in eastern Europe and in some western European countries, education tends to be less dependent on social origins than it is in countries without such subsidies.

There is a worldwide trend for educational attainment to become less "ascriptive" over time. That is, in almost all countries-educational attainment has become less and less dependent on social origins throughout most of the twentieth century. The reason for this is straightforward. As was mentioned above, the effect of social origins on the probability that people will move from one level of education to the next declines with each higher level of education. Therefore, since the average level of educational attainment has been steadily increasing in most countries, it follows that more and more people are in educational categories where social origins matter relatively little.

An important distinction in educational systems is that between divided and unitary systems. In the United States, there is, with only modest exceptions, a single path to educational attainment: primary school, to secondary school, to college or university, to graduate or professional school. Students achieve a certain level of education and then leave school to take up other pursuits. Thus, years of schooling is a very good indicator of educational attainment. In Europe and elsewhere, schooling tends to be divided into parallel tracks. In particular, a distinction is made between academic and vocational tracks, beginning in secondary school. Thus, in Europe, educational attainment must be measured not only by the amount of schooling but by the type of schooling a student has. In general, academic credentials have more value in the labor market than do vocational credentials in that they lead to jobs with higher status and higher income.

Among nations at a similar level of economic development, there often are substantial variations in the dependence of education on social origins. For example, in the 1970—the latest period for which there are systematic comparative data—55 percent of French male university graduates were the sons of managers or professionals, while in Great Britain this was true of only 35 percent. In general, at every selection point, social origins mattered more in France than they in Great Britain. In this sense, one can say that the British educational system was (and probably still is) substantially more egalitarian than the French system.

Finally, particular historical events can have a major impact on educational attainment. For example, the 1966–1977 Cultural Revolution in China caused massive disruptions in almost all aspects of social life. Secondary schools were closed from 1966 to 1968; universities were closed until 1972 and, when they reopened, accepted students on the basis of political status rather than academic merit until 1977. The results were twofold. First, the educational advantage of high-status origins—particularly growing up in a professional family—were very reduced substantially for those who would have entered secondary school or university during that period. Second, the quality of education declined because even when the schools remained open, they were devoted largely to political indoctrination rather than conventional studies. The evidence indicates that those educated during the Cultural Revolution read less well than do those with the same amount of schooling who were educated before or after the Cultural Revolution.


Reproduction. Like educational status, occupational status is only weakly related to social origins. However, it is somewhat harder to pin this down than is true for education since, unlike education, which is completed by most people early in life, occupational status may vary over the life course, as people change jobs. The convention in most research on occupational attainment therefore is to restrict the analysis to men (since women not only change jobs but move in and out of the labor force for marriage or childbearing) and to compare the occupations held by men at the time they are interviewed with the occupations of their fathers when the interviewed men were teenagers, usually age 14. The relationship between fathers' and sons' occupational statuses turns out to be even weaker than the relationship between parents' and offspring's educational attainment. Thus, with respect to occupational statuses as well as educational attainment, America is an open society.

Other Factors. In the analysis of occupational attainment, an important issue has been to assess the relative importance of social origins (measured by the father's occupational status) and education as determinants of men's occupational status. The ratio of these two effects has been taken as an indicator of the degree of societal openness. In the United States and most industrial societies, education is by far the most important determinant of occupational status, while the direct effect of a father's occupational status is very limited. In the past, many people directly inherited their occupational position from their parents (for example, the sons of farmers were likely to take over their fathers' farms, the sons of shopkeepers to take over their fathers' shops, and so on), but in modern societies such as the United States, where people tend to work in large organizations, most jobs cannot be inherited directly. Instead, occupational status inheritance, insofar as it occurs at all, results mainly from the children of high-status people going further in school and those going further in school attaining better jobs. However, since, as was shown above, education is largely independent of social origins, the results is that education serves mainly as a vehicle of social mobility rather than a mechanism of social reproduction or status inheritance.

Sex and Racial Differences. The most striking difference between men and women is that most men work most of the time once they complete their schooling, whereas the work lives of many women are interrupted for childbearing and child rearing. However, the labor-force participation rates or women and men are converging in the United States as more women remain in the labor force even when their children are very young. In general, men and women work at jobs of equal status, although the specific jobs held by men and women are very different. Most managers, skilled and unskilled manual workers, and farm workers are men; most clerical and service workers are women; and professional, sales, and semiskilled manual jobs tend to be performed by both men and women. The sex segregation of the labor force has important implications for income differences between men and women, as is discussed below.

Blacks tend to work at lower-status occupations than do whites and others. In part this is due to their lower levels of educational attainment, but in part it is due to the fact that black are not able to obtain jobs as good as those which can be obtained by equally well-educated members of other groups. Again, as in the case of education, differences in occupational status among nonblack ethnic groups are largely attributable to differences in educational attainment.

Cross-Cultural and Cross-Temporal Variations. In highly industrialized societies and in relatively egalitarian societies, there is little direct transmission of occupational status from one generation to the next; in those societies, occupational transmission is largely indirect, occurring through education. In less industrialized and less egalitarian societies, the importance of the father's occupation as a determinant of occupational status increases and the importance of education decreases, although education always remains more important than the father's occupation even in the least-developed societies.

Although the association between father's and son's occupational statuses has been declining over time and is weaker in industrialized societies, the pattern of intergenerational occupational mobility appears to be largely invariant, with only minor variations across societies caused by specific historical circumstances, at least in industrialized societies and probably in nonindustrialized societies as well. That is, the relative chances that, say, the son of a professional and the son of a laborer will become professionals, rather than skilled workers, appear to be essentially similar in all societies.

Despite the commonality in intergenerational mobility patterns, there are substantial national variations in the strength of the linkage between schooling and career beginnings. In general, there is a tighter connection between education and the status of one's first job in countries, such as Germany and Switzerland, where there are separate vocational and academic tracks and assignment to one or the other is made early and where vocational secondary education provides occupation-specific skills than there is in countries, such as Great Britain, Japan, and the United States, where neither condition holds. Japan is, however, a special case. Japanese secondary schools and universities are highly stratified on the basis of prestige. Schools have close connections with large business firms and are able to place their students there. Students from the best schools go to the best firms, where they are trained by being rotated through a series of jobs. Thus, there is very tight schooling–first job connection in Japan, but of a kind not well captured by the association between the amount of schooling and the prestige of the first job.

There are also national differences in the sensitivity of career opportunities to the expansion or contraction of the economy, depending on institutional differences, particularly in welfare state policies and labor market structures. In the United States, for example, rates of job mobility show great sensitivity to structural change and to the labor market resources of individual workers, whereas in the Netherlands, jobs are largely insulated from structural forces.

Finally, careers can be strongly affected by specific historical events. The collapse of communism in eastern Europe in 1989 forced many political officials and administrators into early retirement. However, since the political transformation was accompanied by an economic collapse, with the economies of many former communist countries shrinking by about one-third in the early 1990s, unemployment increased and many women and older workers left the labor force. At the same time, there were substantial new opportunities, particularly in the newly emerging private sector of the economy. Thus, there was a substantial increase in occupational mobility, at least in the short run.

As with education, the extent of reproduction of occupational status has been systematically decreasing over time in almost all societies. The reasons for this are not clear. There may be a worldwide shift toward an emphasis on achievement as opposed to ascription, although the likelihood that a shift in value orientations could have such a large and systematic effect does not seem great. More likely, the systematic increase in the average level of education in almost all countries is responsible, since it is known that the association between fathers' and sons' occupational statuses decreases for those who have obtained higher levels of education.


Reproduction. Little is known about the extent of income reproduction because it is very difficult to measure income in the parents' generation. Most data used in intergenerational analyses are obtained by asking people to report on their parent's characteristics. While people tend to know how much schooling their parents had and what sort of work their fathers were doing when the respondents were teenagers, few people have a very good idea of what their parents' income were. However, one major study has obtained such information: a study of the graduating class of 1957 from Wisconsin high schools conducted by Sewell and Hauser (1975). This cohort of graduates has been followed up in a number of surveys over the years, so that information has become available about its members' occupations and incomes at various stages after completing school. In addition, with careful arrangements to guard confidentiality, the researchers were able to obtain information from the Wisconsin Department of Taxation and the Social Security Administration regarding the incomes of the parents at the time the students were in high school. These data suggest that the intergenerational transmission of income is even weaker than is true for education or occupation. Other ways of indirectly estimating this relationship yield similar results.

One possible reason for this is that income (measured in real dollars, that is, adjusted for inflation) is highly variable over the life cycle and, for some workers—particularly those who are self-employed or whose jobs are dependent on the weather—even from year to year. Moreover, age differences in earnings vary systematically for different occupational groups. The earnings of professionals tend to increase steadily over the course of their careers, while at the other extreme, the earnings of unskilled laborers do not change at all. Thus, when they first start working, unskilled laborers earn as much as or more than do professionals just beginning their careers, but by the time they near retirement, professionals earn several times as much as laborers of the same age earn. Incomes are also highly variable from place to palace, reflecting differences in the cost of living, and even within cities, different firms pay different wages or salaries for the same job. All these factors make individual variations in income rather unpredictable.

Other Factors. Unlike parental education and occupational status, which affect educational attainment but have little direct effect on occupational attainment or income, parental income directly affects the income of offspring even when education and occupational attainment are taken into account. In fact, parental income is nearly as important as occupational status in determining income and is more important than education. Apparently, there is a propensity to earn money, and this propensity is transmitted from generation to generation. Whether this reflects differences in values that transmitted from parents to their children—with some people choosing jobs on the basis of how well they pay and others choosing jobs on the basis of their intrinsic interest, how secure they are, and so on—or in another factor is not known.

Other factors that affect income even when parental education and the respondent's own education and occupational status are taken into account include ability, the quality of the college attended, and the kind of work people do. Doctors earn more than professors do even though the jobs are of similar status, and garbage collectors earn more than ditch diggers earn. There is an extensive, although inconclusive, literature on differences in earnings across industrial sectors, and there is some evidence that earnings are higher in more strongly unionized occupations and industries.

Sex and Racial Differences. Gender is the big story here. In the United States, among full-time year-round workers, women earn about 60 percent of what men earn, and this ratio has remained essentially unchanged since the 1950s. Of the 40 percent gender difference, about 20 percent can be accounted for by the greater work experience of men, differences in the kinds of education received, and similar factors. The other 20 percent is due in part to the fact that the jobs performed mainly by women tend to pay less than do the jobs performed mainly by men even though many of these jobs are similar with respect to the skill required, the effort involved, and the responsibility entailed, and in part to the fact that women tend to earn less than do men in the same occupations. This state of affairs is possible because of the extreme gender segregation of the labor force. Most jobs tend to be performed either mostly by men or mostly by women, with relatively few jobs open to both sexes.

One consequence of this is that, at least in the United States, poverty is concentrated in female-headed households, especially where there are young children present. Not only do women in such situations find it difficult to work because of their child care responsibilities, even when they do work, their earnings tend to be low. Thus, the total income of such households is often below the poverty line.

In the United States, racial differences in income are somewhat smaller than gender differences and have been declining steadily for the last half century, as has occupational segregation by race. There is little evidence that the racial composition of jobs affects their pay levels. Instead, racial differences in income are attributable both to the fact that many blacks tend to be less educated and to work at lower-status jobs than most whites and others and to the fact that blacks get a lower return on their education and occupational status than do whites and others. Interestingly, there appears to be an across-the-board difference between the earnings of black and other males at any given level of education, occupational status, and so forth. However, the racial difference in the earnings of women is somewhat more complicated. At low levels of education and occupational status, black women earn much less than do other women, but at high levels of education and occupational status, there is little or no difference in earnings among women of all races.

Cross-Cultural and Cross-Temporal Variations. While international comparisons of the determinants of personal or family income are scarce, probably because of the difficulty in measuring income in a comparable way across countries, differences in the distribution of income across nations and over time are well established. Income inequality is related to the level of economic development in a curvilinear way: It is low for the least developed nations, where most people are peasants; high for nations at medium levels of development, which often display large regional differences as a result of uneven economic development; and low for the most developed nations, where a combination of tax and welfare policies tends to ensure that most of the population enjoys at least a moderately adequate standard of living and constrains opportunities to become extremely rich. Because of restrictions on the accumulation of private property in communist regimes, income inequality tends to be smaller than it is in capitalist nations at a corresponding level of economic development. Finally, rampant inflation, such as that which occurred in eastern Europe after the collapse of communism, may cause dramatic reversals of fortune, impoverishing those on fixed incomes, such as government employees and pensioners, and enriching sellers of goods and services whose prices keep pace with inflation.


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