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Measuring Social Class
STRATIFICATION BY SOCIAL CLASS
One male college student lives in a small and rather barren apartment. His single room has little furniture, apart from a faded couch and a mattress on the floor. Few possessions are evident in the room; there is a portable radio, a poster of a popular football star, and a bookcase filled with used paperbacks. A second male college student lives in a carpeted three-room apartment in a luxurious building. He owns an elegant set of matching living room furnishings, a color television, and a four-speaker stereo. This young man also has an impressive collection of classical records and art books. What do we assume from these rooms? While we cannot be sure, it seems likely that the second student is from a higher social class.
In everyday life, Americans are continually judging relative amounts of wealth and income by assessing the cars people drive, the neighborhoods in which they live, the clothing that they wear, and so forth. Yet it is not so easy to locate an individual within our social hierarchies as it would be in caste or estate systems of stratification, where placement is determined by religious dogma or legal documents. In order to determine someone's social class position, sociologists generally rely on one of three techniques: the subjective method, the reputational method, or the objective method.
Subjective MethodThe subjective methodof measuring social class permits individuals to locate themselves within a system of social ranking. Class is viewed as a social rather than a statistical category. The subjective method assumes that people can identify their membership in a social class just as they would their race, gender, or age—other types of social differentiation. In a sense, this method measures the class consciousness discussed by Karl Marx.
While easy to use, the subjective method has several shortcomings. In defining their own social class positions, people may reveal their aspirations rather than their actual positions, thus responding with a type of false consciousness. For example, many persons say they are "middle-class" when in fact their earnings and savings are too limited for this classification. In addition, there is a tendency for Americans to label themselves as "middle-class" or "working-class"— perhaps as a reflection of the importance of equality as a value in our society—and thereby avoid identifying with the elitist upper class or the disadvantaged lower class. This was apparent in a 1986 national survey in which 89 percent of Americans defined themselves as middle- or working-class. Thus, the subjective method may convey a false impression that there is little class differentiation in the United States (NORC, 1987; Vanneman and Cannon, 1987). Reputational MethodWith the reputational method of measuring social class, class membership depends on the evaluation of selected observers. Consequently, you can be considered a member of a social class if others see you that way. Like the subjective method, the reputational method views class as a social category.
Sociologists using the reputational method call upon a group of "judges"—who are familiar with a community and all its members—to rate the positions of various individuals within the stratification system. W. Lloyd Warner employed this technique in his detailed study of a community he called Yankee City; he determined a person's social class by asking others how the person ranked within the community (Kerbo, 1983:127-128; Warner and Lunt, 1942). Of course, this procedure limits use of the reputational method to studies of small communities or small groups.
Objective MethodThe objective method of measuring social class views class largely as a statistical category. Individuals are assigned to social classes on the basis of criteria such as occupation, education, income, and residence. The key to the objective method is that the researcher makes a determination about an individual's class position.
The term objective method may be a bit misleading, since it suggests that this approach is more scientific than others. It is objective in that external criteria are established for the placement of individuals. Once these criteria are selected, researchers should ideally come to the same conclusions in determining someone's class position.
Social scientists have used the objective method in studies of the prestige of occupations. The term prestige refers to the respect with which an occupation is regarded by society. "My daughter the physicist" has a very different connotation from "my daughter the waitress." Prestige is independent of the particular individual who occupies a job, a characteristic which distinguishes it from esteem. Esteem refers to the reputation that a specific person has within an occupation. Therefore, one can say that the position of president of the United States has high prestige, even though it has been occupied by persons with varying degrees of esteem.
Table 8-2 illustrates the results of an effort to assign prestige to a number of well-known occupations. In a series of national surveys from 1972 through 1987, sociologists drawing upon earlier survey responses assigned prestige rankings to about 500 occupations, ranging from physician and judge to shoe shiner. The highest possible score in terms of prestige was 90, while the lowest was 10. As the data indicate, physician, lawyer, and airline pilot were among the most highly regarded occupations. Sociologists have used such data to assign prestige rankings to virtually all jobs and have found stability in rankings over time (NORC, 1987; Hodge and Rossi, 1964).
How do the views of Americans on the prestige of various occupations compare with those held in other societies? In an effort to study stratification from a cross-cultural perspective, sociologist Donald Treiman (1977) examined the reputation that certain jobs had in 53 different nations. People were asked to rate occupations, and the results were tabulated along a scale ranging from 0 to 100, with higher scores being more prestigious. Treiman found a high degree of correlation or similarity in all contemporary societies, including both industrialized and nonindustrialized nations. Sociologists have become increasingly aware that studies of social class tend to ignore the occupations and incomes of women as determinants of social rank. In an exhaustive study of 589 occupations, sociologists Mary Powers and Joan Holmberg (1978) examined the impact of women's participation in the paid labor force on occupational status scores. Since women tend to dominate the relatively lower-paying occupations, such as bookkeepers and secretaries, their participation in the work force leads to a general upgrading of the status of most male-dominated occupations.
The objective method of measuring social class has traditionally focused on the occupation and education of the husband in measuring the class position of two-income families. With more than half of all married women now working outside the home, this represents a serious omission. Furthermore, how is class or status to be judged in dual-career families—by the occupation regarded as having greater prestige, the average, or some other combination of the two occupations? Research in the area of women and social class is just beginning, since, until recently, few sociologists had raised such methodological questions (Bernard, 1981:230-256; J.Jacobs and Powell, 1984, 1985; Powell and Jacobs, 1984; Tyree and Hicks, 1987).
Advances in statistical methods and computer technology have also multiplied the factors used to define class under the objective method. No longer are sociologists limited to annual income and education in evaluating a person's social class position. Today, studies are published which use as criteria the value of homes, sources of income, assets, years in present occupations, neighborhoods, and considerations regarding dual careers. While the addition of these variables will not necessarily lead to a different picture of class differentiation in the United States, it does allow sociologists to measure class in a more complex and multidimensional way.
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