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Measuring Socioeconomic Status

4. Why SES Matters

There are many reasons why the sound measurement of the SES of a person, group, era, or geographic region is fundamental to the social and health sciences. I offer five but surely these are among a larger set.

  1. Measures of SES, and statistics based on them such as variances, are necessary to quantify if not understand the level of stratification or inequality in or between societies. Mismeasure SES and you end up mismeasuring social stratification and social inequality; poor decisions often follow.
  2. Without sound measures of SES, it is impossible to capture and understand changes to the structure of a society, be it the rise of women in the workplace or the isolation of African Americans from opportunities for professional advancement. Societies are dynamic bodies and mismeasurement will (typically) mute the causes and effects of changing structures.
  3. Relatedly, without sound measurement of SES it is impossible to understand the intergenerational change of social status over time. A solid understanding of the intergenerational variance in SES is critical to understanding changes the reproduction of social structure and in the egalitarian ideal mentioned above.
  4. Without an understanding and sound measurement of SES, the relationship between other important social variables, such as race or sex, can be masked by the evident and often dominant relationship between outcomes and SES. In other words, SES matters because other variables matter and since most social variables are correlated one may misattribute effects to or from SES to such variables.
  5. Finally, SES matters because it has been related to health and life outcomes for as long as social groups existed. In short, the more status or higher-rank a person or group the better the chances it has for a long and healthy life.