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Measuring Socioeconomic Status

2. Introduction

Socioeconomic status is one of those terms typically learned in a seventh grade  social studies or civics class and then used in college term papers to subtly suggest a deep understanding of how society works, or perhaps how it should work. While it is understandable that few go beyond a cursory understanding of the construct, among social scientists the term is serious business because it connotes one’s position in the social hierarchy, how the hierarchy is structured, and very often one’s consequent life chances. In other words, socioeconomic status (hereinafter SES) indicates one’s access to collectively desired resources, be they material goods, money, power, friendship networks, healthcare, leisure time, or educational opportunities. And it is access to such resources that enable individuals and/or groups to prosper in the social world.

Social hierarchy, or stratification, appears to be intuitively recognized by most everyone everywhere (Smith et al. 2011). During social interactions various indicators are typically displayed or revealed in order to convey one’s SES to other members of the social group . Common indicators include professional titles, clothing, hairstyles, automobiles, residential addresses and so forth. All social animals, be they wolves, whales, monkeys, or humans, appear to appreciate, or at least recognize, social hierarchies and their position in them (Gesquiere et al. 2011; Sapolsky 2005). The level of sophistication of a hierarchy may be as simple as a pecking order based entirely on physical prowess, often with an alpha male atop.

Hierarchies may also be extremely multidimensional and complex, such as contemporary human societies, with innumerate subgroups and subcultures, and with stratification built along many lines including intelligence, appearance, talent, experience, age, pedigree, language accent, work ethic, and so forth. Relatedly, the level in inequality within and between dimensions of SES varies as well (Smith et al. 2011).