Occupational prestige can be viewed as a hierarchical social structure of an aggregate of jobs or as a form of social closure practiced by individuals who hold prestigious positions. Most of the general public can easily identify which occupations hold the most prestige. The North-Hatt prestige study and Duncan's Socioeconomic Index are the foundational studies for occupational prestige. However, these studies neglected to consider the intersection of gender in their prestige studies; concentrating only on the occupational prestige of white males. This article also discusses the benefits conferred via occupational prestige and the impact of familial status on the future occupational prestige of children.
Keywords Census; Continuous Scale; Culture; Elite; Job Attributes; Organizational Hierarchy; Occupational Prestige; Occupational Status; Quantify; Social Capital; Socioeconomic Status; Socioeconomic Index
What do you do for a living? How much prestige does your job have? Occupational prestige is seldom discussed in school or in the society at large. Everyone seems to know which jobs have high, and which have low, prestige but may have difficulty describing it. Occupational prestige varies greatly even within a position (e.g. Who has more prestige: the Dean of Harvard University or the Dean of Kansas University?), making it very difficult to quantify. What is it? Where does it come from? Does it really even matter? What factors affect it?
What is Occupational Prestige?
Prestige. You know what it is when you see it. It isn't just who makes the most money. Occupations may be similar but sometimes the actual underlying job will determine whether prestige is conferred (or not conferred) on the position. For example, you meet two managers; one is a bank manager and the other is a sewage company manager. You would most likely view the banker as holding the most prestigious position. Yet, it is probably the sewer company manager who makes the most money. Occupational prestige is usually determined by factoring a variety of job attributes and socioeconomic variables. The variables include:
• The income the position generates;
• The power and resources available to the position holder;
• The value placed on activities of the position;
• The respect commanded by the position;
• The amount of formal and scientific knowledge required by the position;
• The physical work environment; and
• How insulated the position is compared to other jobs within the organization (Burgard & Stewart, 2000; Hodge, Siegel, & Rossi, 1964; Scott, 1973; Treiman, 1977; Zhou, 2005).
These factors work together to maintain the stability of the hierarchy and to preserve organizational perceptions regarding prestige.
Highly prestigious positions are difficult, if not impossible, for most people to attain. A person in a prestigious position can usually be identified by: 1) expensive clothing and shoes; 2) lofty educational achievements or wealthy ancestors; 3) an aloof (and sometimes unapproachable) demeanor; and 4) whether other people treat that person with respect (Hodge, Siegel, & Rossi, 1964). Although prestige is related to how much money and power a position wields, it is something more - it is a social honor. It is a social distinction based on persistent differences in social positions. And it is sometimes a way for people to keep others out of their tight-knit circles: an activity best known as social closure (Weber, 1947; Zhou, 2005). People in prestigious positions generally earn more money than rank and file employees. This means they can afford the physical trappings of prestige more than other company employees and will often have come from wealthier families who help provide access to better educations at prestigious colleges and universities. They hold a lot of power and influence in the workplace (and often within the community). This means they can usually make things happen when other people cannot (Burgard & Stewart, 2000).
People holding prestigious positions typically have the power to work on what interests them rather than being assigned work by a higher entity. These are the people who are hired to do what is mainly interesting to them without apparent regard for the current daily needs of the organization (Scott, 1973). They typically work Monday through Friday on a regular daytime schedule (i.e., 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and can most usually take half a day off to play golf or pursue other interests without having to ask permission or use personal leave. Those holding prestigious positions are treated respectfully by others based on their position in the organization (rather than on whether or not other employees respect the person). They are usually viewed as the people who are protecting and maintaining the organizational values and culture. Rank and file employees may revere them or aspire to personally secure a similar prestigious position (Bethune, 2008; Hodge, Siegel, & Rossi, 1964). This respect is granted by the position itself and is tied to the notion of Social Capital (meaning, the person in the position is believed to have the power and resources to help or hurt others in the organization). People in prestigious positions are seldom required to interact with other employees and rarely interact with organizational customers.
Where Does it Come From?
The North-Hatt Survey
Prestige is socially constructed and is based on the perceptions and value judgments of people located within the social structure (Zhou, 2005). These measures were not fully developed until C. C. North and Paul Hatt created the first survey which could consistently measure the prestige of certain occupations. They asked a large number of study participants to rank 88 occupations on a five-point scale based on what the participants believed to be the best occupation for an "outstanding young man." It also required the participants to rank these positions according to what a "young man" should consider for employment when "choosing his life's work" (Cumming, 1997). Their survey instrument was highly successful in creating a ranking of prestige among the occupations for those times. The North-Hatt survey results and the 1950 U.S. Census data were incorporated into a Socioeconomic Index scale create by Otis Dudley Duncan. His seminal work was the first to present levels of occupational prestige on a continuous scale, making occupational prestige a topic more easily used in social research. The prestige scores are derived from the indices of education and income levels which have been weighted to refine the outcomes. Statistical analyses showed education and income were strong predictors of the occupational prestige for the jobs used in the North-Hatt studies.
Duncan's Socioeconomic Index
Duncan's resulting Socioeconomic Index has also become known as the most comprehensive indicator of socioeconomic status (SES) for Americans and is used in most studies of occupational prestige and job mobility (Burgard & Stewart, 2000; Nakao, 1992). During the 1960s, a second set of occupational prestige surveys were conducted by the National Opinion Research Center. These surveys served as the foundation for SES Indices for the next two decades. In 1989, Hodge, Treas, and Nakao replicated the earlier study and extended the model to include 740 rated occupations (Cumming, 1997; Occupational Prestige Studies/Summary). However, it is important to remember these highly successful instruments do not consider the inherent differences that occur when the original questions are altered in order to ask what the best occupation for an outstanding young woman is, and what a young woman should consider for employment when choosing her life's work. The bias in these studies went unrecognized at the time because there were very few women in the workforce during the 1950-60s. However, the current workforce is composed of both men and women, thus invalidating the prestige scales for half of the workforce (Nesbit, 2006).
Nevertheless, occupational prestige structures appear to be stable across countries and subgroups and are very slow to change. (The questions have still not changed to include women in the structural equation). In fact, measures of occupational prestige remained fairly intact in the structure of American occupations back when America experienced sea changes during and after the industrialization period (Nakao, 1992). Although the actual prestige hierarchy did not experience any appreciable change during industrialization; the disparity between white collar and blue collar workers grew. White collar workers (i.e., professionals) gained in amounts of prestige while blue collar workers (i.e., working class workers) were viewed as holding lower levels of prestige. White collar workers continue to preserve the prestige of their positions by using achievement, career, seniority, and occupational mobility (Hodge, Siegel, & Rossi, 1964; Wegener, 1992).
How is Occupational Prestige Maintained?
The social system continues to uphold the occupational prestige hierarchy from both ends of the structure. People in non-prestigious positions ascribe honor to those with high prestige, and view their activities as valuable and legitimate functions in the workforce. In fact, many people view the functions of prestigious positions to be superior to other functions in their workplace. They tend to see prestige as the top of an organizational hierarchy and hope to one day attain a similar...
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