1 Teshura

Socio Economic Classification Definition Essay

A basic translation problem

Sociology has long wrestled with ways to define, evaluate and measure social inequality. Indeed, the consequences of equality and inequality are implicit to the writing of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, de Tocqueville and other enlightenment writers who highlighted the self-evident fact that relations between the ruled and rulers are inherently unequal. They wrote that despite there being few observable differences between humans with respect to reasoning capacity, wisdom, strength, or other differences underlying the many ideological justifications for the unequal distribution of honour, power, wealth and life chances.

One of the most important (and widely cited) essays for describing such social inequality is Max Weber’s essay “Class, Status, Party” as translated by Gerth and Mills (Weber, 1944, 1946, and German original Weber, 2001/1922: 248–272). In the essay, Weber emphasized that status groups (German: Stand/Stände) emerge from the most basic nature of society that is rooted in what Weber identifies as the “community” (Gemeinschaft). The Gemeinschaft for Weber is where honour, affection, scorn, privilege and morality are defined and apportioned by mechanisms unique to that particular community (that is, Gemeinschaft). And for Weber, this apportionment of honour is what is most elemental to understanding social stratification because it is where value rationality is found (see also Weber, 2015a/1922). Such Gemeinschaft values reflect an orientation to norms of honour that are expressed among other ways by acts of defence, acceptance and derogation (Lockwood, 1996: 527).

But what about social class, which Weber also writes about? In contrast to Stand, the inequalities of social classes (Klassen) for Weber emerge from rational marketplaces and bureaucracies where economic advantage is apportioned without reference to honour, affection, scorn, privilege or other pre-existing relationships. Weber defines this rational portion as “society” (Gesellschaft), which is the place where instrumental rationality is found. Thus while for Weber the Gemeinschaft defines value-embedded issues like citizenship, equality before the law, human rights, the extent of markets and trade laws, these values are then used to create the limits of the instrumentally rational Gesellschaft. Thus the Gemeinschaft always underpins the Gesellschaft for Weber, even in modern capitalist countries where market-based transactions can appear all-encompassing, particularly where instrumentally grounded meritocratic ideologies assert that life chances are distributed according to the blind market ethics of the typical Gessellschaft.

Unfortunately, because the English-speaking terms “community” and “society” are not distinct in the same way the German terms Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft are, something is lost as a result in the translations by Gerth and Mills. What is more, because the sharpness of this distinction is lost, Weber’s distinctions are also diminished. Such imprecise translation has been long noted (see, for example, Parsons, 1947: 9 no. 5; Wenger, 1980; Tribe, 2000: 209; Waters and Waters, 20101), and we think has resulted in English terms for social stratification that obscure Weber’s sharp analytical distinctions between value-based and instrumentally-based rationality in particular. Among the most important terms that obscure this distinction is “socio-economic status”, a combination that includes references to the marketplace (that is, economics, the “E” in SES), as well as honour (that is, socio and status, the “S” and “S” in SES). We think this results in what Weber calls a “a warped reasoning” (Weber, 2015a/1922: 46), particularly in modern capitalist societies.

Lockwood seemed to sense such a conflation when he wrote:

In capitalist societies, the ownership and non-ownership of the means of production only gives right to economic power relations within a context of formally equal legal rights of private property and free contract: that is, those civil rights defining the ‘economic’ activity of citizens. That is why Weber concluded that status, no less than class, is an expression of the distribution of power within a community. (Lockwood, 1996: 527)

This article is about why we think this is the case, and in particular why we think reintroducing the three German words to English-language sociology will sharpen understanding of social stratification.

The point is that there are, between class, status, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, irreducible dimensions of inequality (see, for example, Beteille, 1996).

Traditional English-language translations of Gemeinschaft, Gesellschaft and Stand

There is in modern English-speaking sociology widespread understanding that inequality is not solely a phenomenon of income or wealth—though clearly there is a high correlation.2 To remedy the tension between income, wealth and honour, English-speaking sociologists created categories for “inequality” that are typically assumed to be measurable by easily calculable monetary wealth or income. Such wealth and income is assumed to equate with cultural competency and culturally defined “success”, emerging from market relations. Perhaps the most ambitious effort to do this is through the invention of “socio-economic status”3, a social/economic category that asserts that status is a function of income/wealth, occupation and education. In turn, the dependent variable “SES” is then evaluated for its intersection with variables like race, class, gender, age, sexuality, language status, immigration status, occupation, residence and a wide range of other categories that explain unequal distribution of money, resources and power. What all of this has in common is an implicit assumption that “inequality” as a dependent variable is a function of monetary income and wealth, that is, products of the Gesellschaft and not the Gemeinschaft.

Recently, Ridgeway (2014), in her ASA presidential address, asked sociologists to step back a bit and reconsider Max Weber’s category “status group” as presented by Gerth and Mills (Weber, 1946). She claimed “status group” is an ignored remainder category in modern society with its more traditional measures of SES, and especially the more conventional race, class and gender categories.

In doing this, Ridgeway (2014) is writing in a pragmatic tradition that assumes that there is a evolutionary process that explains how and why systems of discrimination on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity and so on will logically disappear in the context of a modern rationalized social order. That is, systems of social immobility and fixed social position will give way to systems of mobility. And of course such an approach has long been taken by American sociologists going back to at least Davis (1949). Ridgeway is also, as Wenger (1980: 159) described, writing in the tradition of a “lucid summarization of a cohesive and ubiquitous tendency”, by reducing social stratification to linear models that focus on advantage and disadvantage, typically as measured by financial success, or its proxies.4 There is nothing wrong with this—still as Wenger notes, such a search for “ubiquitous tendency” is not the project Weber undertook.

But in bringing up this question about Weber’s categories, Ridgeway raises for us the question, “What would Max say?” And we think Weber said that, because status groups (that is, Stand pl. Stände) emerge from the Gemeinschaft, they are fundamentally a different type of inequality than that which emerges from the “classes” of the Gesellschaft. We think that Weber would look at a term like “socio-economic status” and point out that, given the nature of class and Stand, to mix the terms as is commonly done in the modern English literature, reflects a mixing of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. This is the practice Weber called “a warped reasoning” (Weber, 2015a/1922: 46).

And indeed, mixing honour-based Stände from the Gemeinschaft, with class-based inequality that emerges from the Gesellschaft is for Weber warped. This is because for Weber inequality generated by the otherwise blind marketplace is still ultimately rooted in the “positive and negative honours” (that is, Stände-like categories) of race, ethnicity, immigration status, profession, caste and so on. It is also rooted in the blind marketplaces and courts of rational law that emerged from the Gesellschaft. And clearly, although related, Stand and class are not equivalents. Rather, as Bendix (1974: 189) wrote, “in Weber’s view, groups are formed as readily from common ideas leading to common economic interests, as they are the other way around”. For this reason, terms like socio-economic status and “class status” (see Ridgeway, 2014: 1) are for Weber oxy-morons.

The problem is that, when you assume that inequality is a function of socio-economic status, or even intersectionalities, Stand becomes simply one more independent variable explaining economic inequality. In such formulae, class and status groups (Stände) are each one of several independent variables explaining inequalities emerging from class, race or gender (see, for example, Ridgeway, 2014: 2). This is perhaps fine for linear thinking as modelled well by a regression equation that is with a dependent variable “Socio-economic Status”, or “Income” (see Abbott, 1988). But this is not the type of reasoning Weber himself used. For Weber, inequality is rooted in abstract honour and privilege, not economics. And it is the inequality in abstract honour and privilege that has financial consequences. For Weber it is inequality in abstract honours and prestige of the Gemeinschaft that leads to economic inequality of the Gesellschaft, not the other way around.

So, defining Gemeinschaft and Stand in this fashion, Weber effectively describes social stratification as emerging from three (and only three) types of social stratification, that is, classes, Stände and parties. These three types of stratification emerge out of two (and only two) origins, that is, the Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft (see Fig. 1). And for Weber Stände with its roots in honour is the most basic type of inequality (Bourdieu, 1984: 3). The inequality of social classes for Weber are relevant, particularly in times of rapid social change (see below p. 5). But even in times of rapid social change, he writes, Stände-based stratification re-emerges as visible symbols again become important for defining privilege. This is why from Weber’s perspective it is important to highlight stratification based in honour (that is, Stand) as the most basic type of inequality, not the inequality of social classes. To understand how Weber saw this, it is necessary to return to the original German.

German translation problem 1: Gemeinschaft and Stand

Stand (plural Stände), as Weber uses the word, is a medieval term that reflects the fact that stratification systems are ultimately rooted in the symbols of honour, and the traditional rights and responsibilities individuals have to groups and vice versa (see Poggi, 1988). Furthermore this meaning is in tension with the forces emerging from the anonymous market place in which traditional rights are not recognized.5

In English there are indeed linguistic cognates to the German Stand, that is, in the sense of a plaintiff who has “standing” in court, and the group carries a “standard” into battle. English speakers are also well aware of the symbols—the standards—of Stand-based stratification, be it uniforms, badges, coats of arms, licences and other forms of “symbolic capital” that signify standing in society, and commitment to particular moral standards. And, as described above by Weber’s definition, Stände only emerge from the value-rational Gemeinschaft.

There are, although, some problems with traditional translations of Stand as “status group”, which Weber scholars such as Bendix (1960: 85), Dahrendorff (1959: 7), Wenger (1980), Beteille (1996), Tribe (2000: 209–210), Swedberg (2005: 268–270), Wallerstein (2004: 97), Roth (1978: 300 n. 4), and others have noted. Furthermore, in Weber’s formulation (as well as the German language), Stand itself is the umbrella term that explains how negative and positive privileges associated with loci of inequality like profession, class, race, legal status and gender work. To wit, Weber’s two other categories, classes and parties, interact with the pre-existing Stände and take on saliency in specific contrast to the Stände, and then primarily in the context of capitalist markets (in the case of social class) and the modern bureaucratic state (in the case of political parties). So, for Weber, Stände, with their roots in the “house of honour” is most fundamental. Furthermore, Weber’s point in the essay “Classes, Stände and Parties” is that Stände ideologies of honour and privilege are of both a positive or negative sort. This is in contrast to the materialism of Marx and Engels and the economic factors used in measures of socio-economic status.

Thus, we argue that the umbrella term Stand/status (plural Stände) should be re-introduced to the sociological lexicon, consistent with the three-form stratification system as described by Weber in Economy and Society (1922/1978) and in particular his essay “The Distribution of Power Within the Gemeinschaft: Classes, Stände, Parties” (see Weber, 2015a/1922: 41–58). This term of course makes the most sense in the context of Gemeinschaft, a term we think also needs to be reintroduced into English if Weber’s understandings are to be understood.6

German translation problem 2: social class and Gesellschaft

Stände are from the house of honour for Weber, but social class, as Weber defines it, emerges only out of market activity and naked economic power generated when people meet competitively in anonymous marketplaces for purposes of exchange. The markets can be those of the rationalized labour, commodity or be capital markets (Weber, 2015a/1922: 42–43). Weber succinctly reduces such class situation to the “typical probability of

  1. procuring the goods you need to exist socially;

  2. belonging to a Stand position in society; and

  3. acceptance of fate” (our translation of Weber, 1922/1956/1964: 223).

This definition is in contrast to the equally succinct definition of status (that is, ständische Lage) that is an effective claim to social esteem in terms of positive or negative privileges and typically based on

  1. manner of living your life, hence

  2. training for the conventions via formal training and socialization, and

  3. the prestige of ancestors and profession (Weber, 1922/1956/1964: 226; our translation).7

Implicitly, the routinized transactions in the market are made without reference to specific assessments of visible honour (that is, Stand), be they positive or negative (Weber, 2015a/1922: 48–49), which is why “mere economic acquisition … still bears a stigma” within the Stände as “Money and entrepreneurial position are not in themselves status qualifications” (Weber, 2015a/1922: 37). And here of course is the central problem with using income, wealth, resource access and other financial means to calculate status or Stand: Stand for Weber is an “anti-financial” category of social inequality, even though it is often very costly to maintain the markers of Stand. This is why the ultra-wealthy businessman Donald Trump or heiress Paris Hilton has much lesser raw standing (Stand) among Blue Bloods, than did, say, an impoverished Mother Theresa of Calcutta who took vows of poverty. For that matter, impoverished Brahmins and impoverished European nobility receive the respect due their Stand, despite their lack of wealth (Parkin, 1982: 96).

But, significantly, Weber (2015a/1922: 41–42) defines the nature of social classes and Stände in relationship to each other. In other words, both Stand and class presuppose the existence of a community/Gemeinschaft rooted in shared understandings of both a consensual and coercive nature.8 Thus, for Weber, it is only in the context of a particular Gemeinschaft (Weber, 2015a/1922: 45) that values emerge and become important in the rationalized marketplace and modern bureaucratic government (that is, that of the Gesellschaft) where decisions are made “without scorn or partiality” (Weber, 2015c/1922: 157). Notably, Weber’s definition of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft is slightly different from those of Ferdinand Tönnies with which English-speaking sociologists are perhaps most familiar (see Weber, 1922/1978: 4, 40–43, Tönnies, 1888/1958: 37–102, Waters, 2016). Still for the same reason, Tönnies’ translator did not translate Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft as “community” and “society”, and we do not think they should be either. This becomes most relevant when the difference between the German gerunds that Weber introduced Vergemeinschaftung (roughly translated as “Gemeinschaft-ing”) and Vergesellschaftung (roughly translated as Vergesellschaft-ing) are contrasted with Tönnies’ definitions. And this is a big part of Weber’s effort to contrast his approach with that of Tönnies. By adding the gerunds, Weber is emphasizing that the Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft are always pushing and pulling against each other, and for this reason have “amorphous” boundaries, as Parsons (1947: 9) in particular emphasized in his translation of Weber.

By introducing the two gerunds, Weber explicitly stepped away from Tönnies dichotomy by introducing a sense of amorphous fluidity to the relationship between the two abstractions (see Waters and Waters, 2015: 33–34, 39). By doing this, Weber provides an explanation for how Class and Stände groups coexist, albeit in tension with each other. This co-existence is always behind social change (see also Weber, 1922/1978: 303–304). However, unlike in Tönnies, there is never a resolution in favour of one or the other. The tension-filled co-existence of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft is Weber’s main point. One of the main consequences in modern society is that Stände are most closely related to class groups rooted in sociality:

The “commercial class” is the farthest away [from the Stand]; nevertheless Stände are often created by such commercial classes, depending on their interests. Every “class with sociality requirements” which is a Stand, has a life-style which is well-regulated, and thereby poses economically speaking, irrational requirements for consumption. Through monopolistic appropriation, and by eliminating the free mandate over their own marketing, such Stände hinder the development of free markets. (Our translation of Weber, 1922/1956/1964: 226–227. See also Weber, 1922/1978: 307)9,10

Thus, for Weber, the drive to seek honour underpins Stand-based privileges whether they start in the house of honour (Stand) or marketplace (class). Such a drive for honour is undertaken with both the scorn and partiality of the Stand behind it. This is why mixing class and Stand for Weber is “warped”. Indeed, in “Classes, Stände, Parties”, Weber emphasizes that classes, Stand/status groups, and political parties are relative categories that define each other. They are also the categories used to distribute power within a community that is a “Gemeinschaft”, as the whole title of Weber’s essay “The Distribution of the Power within the Gemeinschaft: Classes, Stände, Parties” indicates (see also Lichtbau, 2012).

The Goldthorpe Class schema[5][5] The use of the word ‘schema’ by Goldthorpe is advised....

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The best-known and most widely used sociological class schema is that of Goldthorpe and his associates (see figure 3). While operationally similar to the RGSC and SEG (i.e. requiring information on occupation and employment status and in some cases size of establishment in order to allocate people to classes) class analysts regard the Goldthorpe schema as having a far more satisfactory theoretical and conceptual basis. The Goldthorpe schema was originally conceived as bringing together into classes individuals who shared similar work and market situations (see below and see Lockwood 1958/1989 ; Goldthorpe 1980). More recently Goldthorpe has modified this conception (Erikson and Goldthorpe 1992). He and Erikson now prefer the concept of employment relations in the context of occupations in order to emphasise the idea of a class structure of ‘empty places’ that individuals fill (Erikson and Goldthorpe 1992 ; Rose et al 2001). The Goldthorpe schema has been profitably used in many ways : international studies of social mobility (Erikson and Goldthorpe 1992) ; a major study of class in Britain (Marshall et al 1988) ; international studies of social justice (Marshall et al 1997) and of health inequalities (Kunst et al 1998a and b) ; and, in revised form, in recent British Election Studies (e.g. Heath et al 1985). In addition, a series of studies have endorsed the basic validity of the Goldthorpe schema (e.g. Evans 1992,1996 ; Birkelund et al 1996 ; O’Reilly and Rose 1998 ; Evans and Mills 1998 and 2000).

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The primary distinctions made in Goldthorpe’s approach are those between : (1) employers, who buy the labour of others and assume some degree of authority and control over them ; (2) self employed (or ‘own account’) workers who neither buy labour nor sell their own to an employer ; and (3) employees, who sell their labour to employers and thus place themselves under the authority of their employer. Thus any class schema based on employment relations, i.e. that defines positions in terms of social relationships at work, must include these three basic class positions. Why these basic positions exist should be obvious for any society based on the institutions of private property and a labour market. However, we can immediately note that Goldthorpe’s distinctions separately identify the self-employed, a category that was egregiously absent from RGSC.

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Employees account for anything up to 90% of the active working population. Clearly, they do not all hold similar class positions. That is, employers do not treat all employees alike in respect of their relations with them as defined by the explicit and implicit terms of employment contracts. There is differentiation in employers’ relations with employees. Thus, crucial to Goldthorpe’s conception is a further level of distinction within the employment relations of employees. To observe that there are quite diverse employment relations and conditions among employees is another way of saying that they occupy different labour market situations and work situations (Lockwood 1958/1989) as expressed through employment contracts. Labour market situation equates to issues such as source of income, economic security and prospects of economic advancement. Work situation refers primarily to location in systems of authority and control at work, although degree of autonomy at work is a secondary aspect. Hence, in this conceptual construction, variation in employment contracts provides the main basis for establishing its construct validity (see Rose and O’Reilly 1998 : Appendix 10). That is, ‘membership of the classes it distinguishes, as well as having differing sources and levels of income, also have differing degrees of stability of both income and employment and differing expectations as to their economic futures that together condition both their life chances and many aspects of their attitudes and patterns of action’ (Goldthorpe 2000a : 1578-9). The Goldthorpe schema thus distinguishes broadly different positionsnot persons) as defined by social relationships in the work place – i.e. by how employees are regulated by employers through employment contracts (Goldthorpe 2000b). Three forms of employment regulation are distinguished.

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First, there is the ‘service relationship’in which the employee renders ‘service’ to the employer in return for ‘compensation’ in terms of both immediate rewards (e.g. salary) and long-term or prospective benefits (e.g. assurances of security and career opportunities). This relationship ‘is likely to be found where it is required of employees that they exercise delegated authority or specialized knowledge and expertise in the interests of their employing organization’ (Erikson and Goldthorpe 1992 : 42 – emphasis in the original). Hence, within this relationship, employers must allow a certain amount of autonomy and discretion to the employee. Hence, also, employees must be encouraged to make a moral commitment to the employing organization. The service relationship is designed to create and sustain this type of commitment. The service relationship typifies higher professional, senior administrative and senior management occupations. This is where ‘the largest responsibilities in decision-making attach and which will in turn offer the fullest range of beneficial conditions associated with the service relationship’ ( ibid : 43). However, the service relationship is also found in a more restricted or attenuated form in the lower professional and managerial occupations, as well as in higher technical occupations.

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In contrast with the service relationship, the ‘labour contract’entails a relatively short-term exchange of money for effort. Employees are closely supervised and give discrete amounts of labour in return for a wage (or nowadays even a ‘salary’ in the limited sense of a direct payment to a bank account). Payment is calculated on or related to the amount of work done or required or by the actual amount of time worked. The labour contract is typical of ‘working class’ occupations, but again is found in attenuated forms, for example for supervisors and ‘skilled’workers. That is, these occupations have slightly more favourable employment terms than others in the ‘working class’ where external controls can be fully effective.

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Intermediate or mixed forms of employment regulation combine aspects from both the service relationship and the labour contract. These are typical for clerical occupations, as well as for some technical, sales and service occupations. They are especially prevalent in large, bureaucratic organizations.

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The contrast between the service relationship and the labour contract is idealtypical. In the real world, actual employment relations may only approximate these types. Goldthorpe (2000b) discusses the reasons why these forms of employment regulation exist and are common across countries with developed market economies. Briefly, two factors are implicated in determining the form of employment regulation : (1) the degree to which work may be monitored by the employer (external controls) and (2) the specificity of human capital used by employees in their jobs. Thus, where employers have difficulty in monitoring the work of employees and employee human capital is high, a service relationship will exist. Where work is easily monitored and controlled and where human capital of employees is low, a labour contract will exist.

FIGURE 3  - THE GOLDTHORPE CLASSES ( SEVEN - CATEGORY UK VERSION )

FIGURE 3 : THE GOLDTHORPE CLASSES ( SEVEN - CATEGORY UK VERSION ) I Service class (higher grade) II Service class (lower grade) III Routine non-manual employees IV Small proprietors V Lower grade technicians and supervisors VI Skilled manual workers VII Semi- and unskilled manual workers

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Erikson and Goldthorpe (1992 : 42) have noted that the distinction between the service relationship and the labour contract is similar to some conventional distinctions made in several European countries. France, of course, distinguishes between cadres or employ é s and ouvriers; Germany between Beamte or Angestellte and Arbeiter ; and the UK between staff and workers.

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The Goldthorpe schema also separately identifies categories for the other two basic class positions : employers and the self-employed. Employers are divided between ‘large’ and ‘small’. The distinction here is between employers who delegate at least some managerial tasks (‘large’) and those who tend to undertake these tasks themselves (‘small’). The former occupations are allocated to Class I and the latter to Class IV. Similarly, because of their different market and work situations, Goldthorpe distinguishes between professional and non-professional small employers, in Classes I and IV respectively. The latter consideration also applies to the self-employed.

Occupational scales

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Apart from Goldthorpe’s class schema, a number of occupational scales have also been derived by British academics for use in studies of social inequality. These are the Hall-Jones scale, the Hope-Goldthorpe scale and the Cambridge scale.

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The Hall-Jones scale (H-J – Hall and Jones 1950) graded occupations according to their prestige and was used by Glass (1954) in his pioneering study of social mobility. While this scale was used in some important studies, for example the Affluent Worker project (Goldthorpe et al 1969) and Townsend’s (1979) study of poverty, there were never any clear guidelines published which showed how occupations were coded to the scale by Glass ; and the degree to which different uses of the scale were truly comparable is uncertain.

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The Hope-Goldthorpe scale (H-G – Goldthorpe and Hope 1974) was consciously produced to remedy the validity and reliability problems of the H-J scale and was the first step in the Oxford mobility project before Goldthorpe abandoned it in favour of his class schema. The H-G scale is derived from a survey of the social standing of occupations so that jobs are ranked in terms of their social desirability. In that sense, H-G is not a prestige scale but a cognitive judgement about the desirability of different occupations. As Goldthorpe (1981 : 9) has noted, the H-G scale can be regarded as a synthetic one which projects occupations on to the one dimension of ‘general desirability’, but with respect to a range of attributes whose selection and weighting is effectively a matter of popular opinion.

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Whereas the H-G scale is an evaluation of desirability, the Cambridge Scale (CS – Stewart et al 1980 ; Prandy 1990) is an associative one. Based on the scaling of survey respondents’ occupational friendship and marriage scores, the CS is regarded by its originators as a broad measure of social stratification and social inequality. Ultimately the scale measures the market outcomes of different jobs and the lifestyle associated with them. It is not an attempt to measure the social structure and the way this creates different market capacities in different sections of the population. Indeed, the theoretical position of the authors of the CS is one that rejects class analysis on the grounds that it is a static approach to what are fundamentally problems relating to social dynamics. Nor is CS a status scale. It is a measure of lifestyle determined by social experience and, ultimately therefore, significant social processes. It is designed to unite key features of both the social and the economic ; and it raises questions about any attempt to analyse social inequality in terms of categorical measures.

Competing claims : the boat race and variable races

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Gershuny (2000) has likened the considerable, and on-going, dispute between the proponents of the Cambridge Scale and the supporters of the Goldthorpe class schema to the annual Oxford versus Cambridge boat race on the Thames. Quite rightly, he is wary of entering the turbulent waters of this particular debate but, as we shall see, the constructors of the NS-SEC have not had that luxury.

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In a series of articles over the last decade the authors of the Cambridge Scale have argued against the theoretical basis and empirical usefulness of the Goldthorpe class schema and its offspring (Blackburn and Prandy 1997 ; Prandy 1990,1998a, 1999 ; Prandy and Blackburn 1997). The programme of validating the Goldthorpe schema undertaken by Evans and Mills (Evans 1992,1996 ; Evans and Mills 1998, 2000) has attracted particular critical attention ( cf. Prandy and Blackburn 1997). In response, this invoked a detailed critique of the Cambridge Scale from Evans (1998). Neither has the NS-SEC escaped the attention of the Cambridge scholars, with pointed critiques to be found in Blackburn (1998) and Prandy (1998b) followed by a response from Rose (1998).

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The differences between the two camps could hardly be greater. Other than their common interest in social mobility and the consequences of social stratification for individuals, there is hardly any agreement whether theoretical, conceptual, or operational. At the most abstract level, the Goldthorpe schema draws on the idea that one of the most important structuring characteristics of modern societies is given by individuals’ occupational positions within the social relationships of employment (Goldthorpe 1997,2000a and b). This approach entails the a priori definition of classes that exist independently of individuals and then the assignment of individuals, through their occupation and employment status, to these ‘empty spaces’. Because of a lack of data relating to employment relations across all occupations, initial construction of the Goldthorpe schema invariably involved expert judgements in assigning occupations to particular classes. However, these judgements have been subjected to many criterion validation studies that have sought to investigate whether or not the schema actually measures what it purports to measure (Evans 1992,1996 ; Birkelund et al 1996 ; Evans and Mills 1998,2000 ; Rose and O’Reilly 1998 : Appendix 10).

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This deductive method stands in contrast to the inductive nature of the Cambridge scale. The authors of the CS go to some lengths to distance themselves from any theoretical or a priori assumptions and any theoretical basis for the scale appears to rest on ‘the reasoning that incumbents of occupations that are socially similar would tend to interact more than incumbents of those that are dissimilar’ (Prandy 1990 : 630). From a variety of data sources (see Prandy 1990 ; Evans 1998) the occupations of friends and spouses are scaled and found to be arranged along a single dimension. The authors assert that the scale actually measures ‘stratification arrangements’ or ‘generalised advantage’ (Prandy 1990 : 635) and more recently it has been compared with Bourdieu’s idea of the volume of global capital (Prandy 1999).

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Criticisms of the CS tend to be based on the lack of theoretical justification for friendship choices as a primary method of structuring society and why this should be so (Evans 1998) and also to the lack of any criterion validation work due to the inductive nature of the CS’s construction. Prandy (1998b) and Blackburn (1998) view the separation of the economic and social dimensions of social stratification embedded in the Goldthorpe schemas as fundamentally flawed. Along with others, they have produced studies that provide evidence of stronger associations between the outcomes of interest and the CS over that of other classifications. This has simply led to further disagreements over measurement issues.

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Thus, since the late 1990s a virtual cottage industry has been established surrounding the assessment of the competing claims of various social classifications (and other measures of socio-economic advantage such as car ownership and housing tenure) and how they relate to the outcomes of interest in each case (e.g. Bartley et al, 1999 ; Chandola, 1998,2000 – see Rose and Pevalin, 2000 for a reply – Prandy, 1999 ; Sacker et al, 2000). Breen and Goldthorpe (1999 : 7) have characterised this type of assessment, using independent variables with different metrics, as a ‘variable race’. They have noted that ‘assessing the relative importance of independent variables, whether in a regression context or otherwise, is a much more complex and difficult matter than has often been supposed’, especially when the comparisons are between categorical and continuous variables. Whatever the relative strengths of the associations and the care with which they are determined, the fundamental point remains that explaining variance in outcomes sheds little, if any, light on the validity of any schema or scale in terms of what it claims to measure. This can only be achieved through theoretical reasoning and criterion validity exercises (see also Evans, 1998 ; Rose, 1998).

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Naturally, there have been many other conceptual and methodological disputes between sociologists in the UK surrounding and arising from the issues discussed in this section. In particular the continuing relevance of class analysis has been challenged. Since these are not exclusively British debates, we shall not address them here, but for UK perspectives readers are referred to the work of Pahl (1989 and 1993), Goldthorpe and Marshall (1992), Savage et al (1992), Butler and Savage (1995), Lee and Turner (1996), Scott (1996), Marshall (1997 : Ch. 1), Halpin (1997 and 1999), Prandy (1998b), Blackburn (1998), Crompton (1998), Rose (1998) and Crompton et al (2000). Similarly, there is not space in this paper to address the recent debates on ‘meritocracy’ and social mobility, initially stimulated by the work of Saunders (1996). This has led to vigorous responses from Marshall et al (1997), Breen and Goldthorpe (1999) and Savage and Egerton (1997).

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We have discussed the two main traditions of socio-economic classification in the UK. We can now proceed to a discussion of the NS-SEC, the new UK government SEC that replaced both RGSC and SEG in April 2001. The intellectual origin of the NS-SEC is the Goldthorpe schema. The review that led to its creation was established by ONS as a result of recognition of the shortcomings of RGSC and SEG as already described above.

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