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Measuring Socioeconomic Status

5. How SES is Measured

Socioeconomic status is a latent variable in the sense that, like mood or well-being, it cannot be directly measured (Oakes and Rossi 2003). Unlike height or weight, there is no mechanical device that permits direct and relatively precise measurement of SES. Instead, SES is a complicated construct that summarizes a person or group’s access to culturally relevant resources useful for succeeding in if not moving up the social hierarchy. As such, to have teeth, SES measures must be tied to particular cultures, eras, and even geographic places. It is hard to imagine a universal measure of SES that would be helpful in all research. The roots of power may be similar among all human societies but the nuances of social stratification and social mobility seem to different and important enough require differentiation in SES measure for many research problems (Henrich et al. 2005; Smith et al. 2011; Spilerman 2000; Van Leeuwen and Maas 2010).

A principal goal of modern social science has been to measure the SES of persons (and families) and estimate how such measures changed over time. The history of such efforts, especially in post-World War II America, has been already explicated (Galobardes et al. 2006; Krieger 1997; Oakes and Rossi 2003; Van Leeuwen and Maas 2010). Suffice it to say that until recently the central focus of such research was on occupational prestige and status, and the big debate was whether corresponding measures should be subjective or objective. The focus on occupational prestige, and its derivatives, is understandable since persons (typically males) often had one lifetime career and the system was rather static. One’s occupation was often set by the age of twenty five and there was little change thereafter. Measuring prestige or status resulted in a useful measure of SES.

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Henrich, J., Boyd, R., Bowles, S., Camerer, C., Fehr, E., & Gintis, H. (Eds.). (2005). Foundations of human sociality: economic experiments and ethnographic evidence from fifteen small societies. New York: Oxford University Press.
Spilerman, S. (2000). Wealth and Stratification Processes. Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 497-524.
Van Leeuwen, M. H. D., & Maas, I. (2010). Historical Studies of Social Mobility and Stratification. Annual Review of Sociology, 36, 429-451.
Galobardes, B., Shaw, M., Lawlor, D., Smith, G. D., & Lynch, J. (2006). Indicators of Socioeconomic Position. In J. M. Oakes & J. S. Kaufman (Eds.), Methods in Social Epidemiology (pp. 47-85). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass / Wiley.
Van Leeuwen, M. H. D., & Maas, I. (2010). Historical Studies of Social Mobility and Stratification. Annual Review of Sociology, 36, 429-451.