Social Construction of Socioeconomic Difference

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
How does socioeconomic difference influence how a person lives? This lesson will define the concept of socioeconomic status (SES), provide the characteristics of SES, and show how the metric has evolved from an individual statistic to a social one.

Losing Status

The apartment George occupied with his parents was homey, but also dingy. The hominess was related to the doilies on the tables, the bright pictures, and the nice furniture that dominated the rooms. It was dingy because the apartment complex itself was dingy. The people who lived in these apartments had problems bigger than peeling paint or weeds in the courtyard.

In the past, George's family had been well off. They had lived in a nice house, had people come in to clean twice a week, and always had enough food. Unfortunately, George's dad was an artist who did not handle financial matters well. He'd made some poor investment choices which drained the family bank accounts, and he also would not accept help from extended family. Over time, the family slowly lost its socioeconomic standing. Eventually, they found themselves at the bottom of the socioeconomic status (SES) ladder, looking for a way to climb back up.

What is Socioeconomic Status (SES)?

Socioeconomic status (SES) is one's access to financial, social, cultural, and human capital resources. The difficulty with a construct like socioeconomic status is that it is not so much a tangible concept as it is a statistic. Much like earned run average (ERA) and pitcher wins (WINS) in baseball, a statistic sometimes defies definition due to the number of variables involved. The variables involved in assessing an individual's SES largely depend upon the study and what researchers are looking to uncover.

A recent (2012) panel of experts from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) was tasked with determining a better set of criteria by which socioeconomic status could be measured. Before making measurements, the experts realized that they needed to have a definition of socioeconomic status. In other words, they had to understand what they were measuring. After an exhaustive historical study they defined SES as 'one's access to financial, social, cultural, and human capital resources.' This description emphasizes access to resources rather than acquisition of resources. Thus, the problem becomes a social construct rather than an individual failing.

Variables Associated with SES

Socioeconomic status has long been associated with three measures:

  • Occupation
  • Level of educational achievement
  • Income

By using these three measures, social scientists can generally parse a society into those people who are high, middle, and low SES. These variables are generalizations (meaning that some individuals defy them and either rise above or sink below their appropriate level of SES), but the assumptions scientists make regarding these variables hold true in many cases.

For example, greater educational attainment leads to higher income and better job opportunities. However, an individual can have high SES if they were born into it, or they have a talent (such as ability as an artist or athlete) that is in demand. Many athletes, actors, and singers achieve high SES due to the demand for their talent. However, the ability to move up the SES hierarchy is generally achieved through education.

Viewing SES as a social construct also takes into account other variables that give rise to greater access to resources. The community an individual lives within may not be able to provide the means to advance. This lack of resources will likely be felt most heavily within the school system. It may be difficult for the community to attract qualified teachers, pay for updated books and other educational resources, or physically maintain the school. This lack of educational resources can impact the neighborhood, which in turn creates a downward spiral that the community may have difficulty recovering from.

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