Status attainment research begun by sociologists in the United States more than three decades ago laid the foundation for the study of the transmission of socioeconomic advantage from one generation to the next (also called intergenerational social mobility). Status attainment research seeks to understand how characteristics of an individual’s family background (also called socioeconomic origins) relate to his or her educational attainment and occupational status in society. It developed a methodology -usually path analysis and multiple regression techniques with large survey data sets – to investigate the intergenerational transmission of status.
In the classic study, The American Occupational Structure (1967), Peter Blau and Otis Dudley Duncan used national level data obtained from the 1962 Current Population Survey from the US Census Bureau and presented a basic model of the stratification process in which father’s education and occupational status explain son’s educational attainment, and all three variables, in turn, explain son’s first job and subsequent occupational attainment. They found that the effect of son’s education on son’s occupational attainment was much larger than the effect of father’s occupation on son’s occupational attainment; thus they concluded that in the United States in the mid twentieth century, achievement was more important than ascription in determining occupational status.
David Featherman and Robert Hauser replicated the Blau and Duncan study in their book Opportunity and Change (1978), and found many of the same results. They found evidence of mobility both within generations (intragenerational mobility) and between generations (intergenerational mobility). Most mobility was rather short in distance and occurred primarily in the middle of the occupational hierarchy. They also found more upward mobility than downward mobility. Combining the findings of Blau and Duncan, Featherman and Hauser, and follow up studies, status attainment research has determined that there has been a long term decline in the importance of family background in deter mining an individual’s occupational status.
Around the same time that Blau and Duncan were writing The American Occupational Structure, William Sewell and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin began publishing papers that addressed questions regarding the relative impacts of family background and schooling on subsequent educational and occupational attainments (Sewell et al. 1969). A notable aspect of the ”Wisconsin model” of status attainment was its focus on social psychological factors, such as aspirations and motivation, in conjunction with family socioeconomic status in determining student achievement. In this regard, the Wisconsin model attempted to specify the mediating mechanisms by which family origins influenced individual educational and occupational out comes. The Wisconsin model of status attainment demonstrated that ”significant others,” including parents, friends, and teachers, strongly affect the educational and occupational expectations of male high school students. Subsequent research found that peers and parents help shape students’ ambitions and attitudes toward schooling, both of which are mediating factors in later educational attainment and achievement. Generally, parents are more influential as definers of behavior while peers are important as both modelers and definers of behavior. Most of these studies include controls for socioeconomic status, parental education, and the student’s academic ability or achievement, all of which have the effect of increasing aspirations. While Blau and Duncan specified father’s occupation and education as separate influences, the Wisconsin researchers usually combined these measures, along with mother’s education and family income, into a single measure of socioeconomic status. Despite these measurement differences, both models concluded that socioeconomic status strongly determined educational attainment.
The now classic research by Blau and Duncan and the Wisconsin model of status attainment established a framework for the study of family background on educational and occupational attainment in a wide range of contexts. By the early 1980s, more than 500 papers had attempted to replicate or extend their basic findings (Campbell 1983).
Human capital models in economics, in which family background and schooling decisions determined education and earnings out comes, also contributed to this growing field.
While some studies applied the status attainment model to nationally representative samples in the United States, others examined status attainment processes in very different countries and contexts. Building on the foundation laid by status attainment research in the United States, studies have examined the role of social origins in determining educational and occupational status and mobility in a range of countries; other research has investigated how intergenerational mobility changes over time with large societal changes, such as the expansion of formal schooling, the industrialization of society, or the transition from socialism to capitalism.
Some comparative status attainment research sought to examine another hypothesis offered by Blau and Duncan. On the basis of their findings from the United States, Blau and Duncan predicted that as societies industrialize, achievement processes become more important and ascriptive processes become less important in determining educational and occupational attainment. They tested this hypothesis for the United States by comparing the experiences of different birth cohorts but they found no clear trend over time. Donald Treiman (1970) expanded upon these ideas to provide a detailed explanation of the mechanisms by which industrialization should promote greater mobility. As societies develop, urbanization, mass communication, and industrialization should lead to greater social openness and a shift from particularistic to universalistic bases of achievement. As a result, the direct influence of father’s occupational status on son’s occupational status, as well as father’s educational and occupational status on son’s educational attainment, should decline, while the direct influence of son’s educational attainment on his occupational status should increase. During the 1970s and 1980s, researchers set out to test these propositions. Most studies examined historical or regional differences within a single society and few found support for the industrialism thesis. To date, the evidence regarding how the impact of social origins on educational and occupational attainment varies with industrialization remains inconclusive, largely due to the lack of cross national survey data for a wide range of countries.
International studies of social mobility have contributed greatly to our understanding of how family socioeconomic status shapes educational and occupational outcomes. The influence of the Blau-Duncan model is clearly evident in this international research; most studies conceptualize socioeconomic status as either father’s education and occupation or a composite measure of these and other family background factors. Some researchers have had to alter this approach due to data limitations or considerations of the local context, but still, the systematic approach to the measurement of family background is striking. As a result of these efforts, status attainment models now exist for many nations in all regions of the world.
In status attainment research, occupational status is typically measured via scales that have been developed to generalize the prestige associated with occupations across a wide range of societies. The earliest of these was the Socio economic Index (SEI) scale formulated by Duncan for the United States and subsequently modified by other researchers for other countries. Comparative stratification researchers have devoted considerable effort to developing inter nationally comparative scales of occupational prestige and testing their reliability cross culturally. Two of these scales, the Standard International Occupational Prestige (SIOP) scale and the International Socioeconomic Index (ISEI) of occupational status, have been used extensively in international research. Although most prior research relied on paternal occupational status in constructing this measure, recent empirical evidence indicates that mother’s occupational status has a strong impact on educational outcomes, independent of father’s education and occupational status. Such findings, combined with the increasing prevalence of women’s full time labor force participation throughout the world, suggest that mother’s occupational status should be included as a measure of family background in future status attainment research. The inclusion of mother’s education has been more common, perhaps because early status attainment research indicated that mother’s education had positive effects on children’s schooling, net of father’s education and occupational status. In many cases, maternal and paternal education are highly correlated and researchers use one or the other as a measure of parental education. In contexts where mothers spend more time with their children or where males are typically absent from the household, it is reasonable to expect that mother’s education should have a stronger impact than father’s education, and researchers have used mother’s education as the measure for parental education. Another strategy has been to use the sum of both parents’ schooling.
As in the case of occupational status, scales have been developed for measuring educational attainment with the goal of ensuring comparability cross nationally. CASMIN and ISCED are two such scales. The International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) was origin ally developed by UNESCO and is regularly used by UNESCO and other international organizations for reporting national education statistics. The CASMIN categories were developed as part of a project known as ”Comparative Analysis of Social Mobility in Industrial Nations.” Walter Mueller and his colleagues at the University of Mannheim, Germany developed CASMIN with the express purpose of facilitating comparative research on social stratification and mobility. ISCED and CASMIN are similar in that they focus on the levels of education completed: elementary, secondary, and tertiary education, and specify some subdivisions at each level. The CASMIN scale goes a step further to distinguish general or academic credentials from vocational credentials. These scales have facilitated international comparisons of educational systems and educational stratification.
Status attainment research constitutes one of the largest bodies of empirical research in the study of social stratification. It reshaped the study of social mobility by focusing attention on how aspects of individuals’ socioeconomic origins relate to their educational attainment and occupational status in society. Nonetheless, critics have noted several limitations with this line of research. First, status attainment research does a better job of explaining the social mobility for white males than females or minorities. Second, this line of research has limited explanatory power because, even for white males, status attainment models can explain only about half of the variance in occupational attainment. This indicates that even the most complex status attainment models still do not get very close to approximating the even more complex reality of the attainment process. Third, in its focus on individual characteristics, status attainment research has tended to neglect the role of structural factors in determining individual educational and occupational outcomes. Changes in the economy or changes in the opportunity structure of occupations caused by large scale policy changes (e.g., equal employment opportunity policies) are just two examples of factors that create societal shifts that can impact status attainment processes at the individual level. Since the 1990s, more research has expanded status attainment research to account for such social structural or organizational factors that may play a role in individual mobility.
- Blau, P. M. & Duncan, O. D. (1967) The American Occupational Structure. Wiley, New York.
- Campbell, R. (1983) Status Attainment Research: End of the Beginning or Beginning of the End? Sociology of Education 56: 47-62.
- Featherman, D. L. & Hauser, R. M. (1978) Opportunity and Change. Academic Press, New York.
- Sewell, W. H., Haller, A. O., & Portes, A. (1969) The Educational and Early Occupational Attainment Process. American Sociological Review 34: 82-92.
- Treiman, D. J. (1970) Industrialization and Social Stratification. In: Laumann, E. (Ed.), Social Stratification: Research and Theory for the 1970s. Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, pp. 207-34.