What is socioeconomic status?
Socio-economic status (SES) refers to a specific configuration of material conditions that impact how people think and behave; those conditions are income, education, and occupational prestige.
In this post, we discuss how social scientists define and measure socioeconomic status (SES). We focus on surveys, but these can be adapted to other forms of data collection, such as experiments and qualitative research.
See also: What is a concept? How should we choose a concept?
At a glance
- What is socioeconomic status?
- Socioeconomic status is about economic conditions
- Measures of SES: Income, education, and occupational prestige
- Conceptual problems of socioeconomic status
- What about subjective indicators of SES?
- Best practices
Socioeconomic status is about economic conditions
Socioeconomic status, or SES, is a concept that, at root, is about the influence of economic conditions on thoughts and behaviors.
At a macro-level, the economic conditions are the type of economy, such as capitalism, or communism, or some hybrid of the two. Economic conditions may be attributes of individuals, such as income and wealth, and they can also be about occupations and position in the labor market.
At a micro-level, a person “has,” i.e. we characterize them by, a socioeconomic status. These attributes can also be aggregated into meso-level groups and, at the macro-level, administrative districts and whole nations.
Primarily, SES refers to characteristics of individuals and social scientists most often use them in surveys and other quantitative research designs.
- Basic Sociology Concepts: Social Stratification and Inequality
- Marxist and Neo-Marxist Theories of Social Stratification
- Max Weber’s Theory of Class, Status, and Power
Measures of SES: Income, education, and occupational prestige
The three main measurement components of SES are income, education, and occupational prestige.
Income is regular payment for work or investments. In surveys, social scientists can ask about income in various ways, for example as “what is your monthly income for this job?” For the European Social Survey, interviewers show respondents a card with income deciles, and asks the respondent to choose the income decile that they belong to. There are other means.
Important considerations are:
- Time frame: weekly, monthly, or yearly income.
- Source: Total or for main job? If a person has more than one job, they have more than one source of income. A “main job” is the job (of the individual) that brings in most of their income.
- Whose income? Individual or household income (household income per capita takes the entire income of the household and divides it by the number of people who live in the house).
Education can refer to the highest level of education achieved. For example, in the European Social Survey, interviewers ask: “What is the highest level of education you have successfully completed?” The interviewer shows the respondent a card based on the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED). The categories start at “completed primary education” and include very high levels of education, such as “doctoral degree.”
It can also refer to years of schooling. To know “years of education,” social scientists can ask, “How many years of full-time education have you completed?” This provides a continuous measure from 0 to 20+.
Both the “categorical” measure using ISCED and the “continuous” measure of years can be valid and reliable indicators of education for use in statistical models. They can also be used in the measurement of SES.
Occupational prestige is a perception of the respect, or “prestige,” of an occupation. Think of a doctor’s prestige vs. a nurse’s prestige, or a teacher’s prestige vs. a entrepreneur’s prestige, and so on. It is a measure of an occupation’s “social standing.” While an imprecise concept, it seems to tap into society’s perception of the income, worth, education, social standing, and power, without precisely measuring any of them specifically.
How can we know an occupation’s prestige? Here is a step-by-step guide to how survey interviewers from the US’s General Social Survey ask about occupational prestige:
“An occupational prestige ladder (actually a series of nine stacked boxes in a vertical column) was laid down in front of the respondent.
The boxes were labelled from 1 to 9 and box 1 was also labelled as “BOTTOM,” box 5 as “MIDDLE,” and box 9 as “TOP.”
Respondents then were given 90 small cards which each had a single occupational titles listed on it. Cards were in English or Spanish.
They were given one card at a time in the preordained order.
The interviewer then asked the respondent to “please put the card in the box at the top of the ladder if you think that occupation has the highest possible social standing. Put it in the box of the bottom of the ladder if you think it has the lowest possible social standing. If it belongs somewhere in between, just put it in the box that matches the social standing of the occupation.”
The survey researchers then aggregate the answers for each occupation and put them into a scale, where the higher the score, the greater the occupational prestige.
Combining income, education, and occupational prestige into SES
With these three indicators of socioeconomic status, you can combine them into a single SES scale. There are many ways to do this. For cross-national research, social scientists often use the ISEI (International Socio-economic Index), because other researchers have already collected and created this valid and reliable cross-national measure.
If your research is not cross-national, you can still use ISEI. If that is not feasible, you can consider alternatives. In considering alternatives, think about the relative weights of each (how much should “income” or “education” or “occupational prestige” contribute to the overall SES score?).
Conceptual problems of socioeconomic status
The term is a common yet problematic term because it has three inter-related concepts:
- socio, meaning of or related to society;
- economic, meaning of or related to the economy
- status, which can mean “position,” but it is usually connected to the degree of deference afforded in society, or “prestige.” Social status is the degree of deference (respect) accorded to an individual or group.
This conceptual confusion has led to overly broad definitions of socioeconomic status. For example, the American Psychological Association defines SES:
“Socioeconomic status is the position of an individual or group on the socioeconomic scale, which is determined by a combination of social and economic factors such as income, amount and kind of education, type and prestige of occupation, place of residence, and—in some societies or parts of society—ethnic origin or religious background.”
This definition has two major problems.
- It is circular: it defines socioeconomic status as the position on a socioeconomic scale.
- It unhelpfully broadens the term to “place of residence” and “ethnicity” and “religious background.”
For SES to be useful, it must be analytically distinct from other concepts. We can only know if SES impacts our thoughts and behaviors if we can isolate the effect of SES. In other words, how do we know if SES impacts our thoughts and behaviors if SES is also place of residence, ethnicity, and religion?
We should note that, historically, social scientists have not done a good job of precisely defining socioeconomic status. Instead, the study of SES has begun with its indicators, rather than starting with its definition.
What about subjective indicators of SES?
In this post, we discuss objective indicators of socioeconomic status. Even though interviewers ask respondents about their income and education, these “self-reports” are not about what they imagine their income and education to be.
Some surveys ask about their relative and subjective position in the social structure. For example, the Polish Panel Survey (1988 – 2018) asks:
When comparing various social groups in our country, people believe that some of them are located higher than others. Here is an example of a scale. [Scale from 0 to 10]
The bottom point on this scale, denoted by zero (0), refers to groups in the lowest social location, and the top point, denoted by ten (10), refers to groups in the highest.
Please indicate where on this scale you would locate yourself.
These “self-placement” items of surveys can be valid measures of socioeconomic status. However, social scientists should treat them as a specific form of SES. By including analytically distinct objective and subjective indicators of SES, we can understand the connections between these forms of SES.
We can avoid conceptual problems of the circularity and over-reach in the definition and measurement of socioeconomic status by narrowing it to material conditions that are
(a) Specifically about income, education, and occupational prestige
(b) Subjective locations in the social structure.
Conway, David I., Alex D. McMahon, Denise Brown, and Alastair H. Leyland. “Measuring socioeconomic status and inequalities.” Reducing social inequalities in cancer: evidence and priorities for research (2019).
Ganzeboom, Harry BG, Paul M. De Graaf, and Donald J. Treiman. “A standard international socio-economic index of occupational status.” Social science research 21, no. 1 (1992): 1-56.
Measuring Occupational Prestige on the 2012 General Social Survey by
Tom W. Smith and Jaesok Son.
Treiman, Donald J. Occupational prestige in comparative perspective. Elsevier, 2013.
Social Definition of Occupational Prestige by Olga Czeranowska.
What is a ‘Good’ Job? Cultural Logics of Occupational Prestige by Lauren Valentino
Joshua K. Dubrow is a PhD from The Ohio State University and a Professor of Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.
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