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Status attainment research begun by sociologists in the USA in the 1970s 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 USA in the mid-twentieth century, achievement was more important than ascription in determining occupational status.
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.
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.
- Campbell, R. (1983) Status attainment research: end of the beginning or beginning of the end.? Sociology of Education 56: 47—62.
- Sewell, W. H., Haller, A. O., & Portes, A. (1969) The educational and early occupational attainment process. American Sociological Review 34: 82—92.