Socioeconomic status (SES) reflects one’s position in the social structure. Research clearly demonstrates that SES associates with individual behavioral, social, and psychological characteristics. Links between SES and individual mental and physical health outcomes often involve individual psychosocial and behavioral characteristics, including antisocial and health risk behaviors; marital, parental, and social relationships; and psychological resources. Health research findings show that decreases in SES associate with increases in health problems in a monotonic manner, producing an “SES-Health Gradient.” Research also suggests that the influence of SES on individual characteristics and health outcomes is not only contemporaneous, but also persistent and cumulative over the life course. However, SES influences vary depending on the outcomes and life stages under consideration.
Several theoretical perspectives suggest ways to operationally define SES. For example, Marx’s view sees SES as determined by social classes based on class production relations (e.g., the working class and the bourgeois). Alternatively, a Weberian perspective views SES as based on social stratification or employment relations. Accordingly, researchers typically define SES using markers that involve employment, income, and education and often employ these conventional markers either separately or jointly as indices of SES.
The validity and utility of any SES measure depends on whether the measure is predictive in relation to the outcomes of interest. Recent theoretical and empirical developments in this area suggest that operational definitions of SES should take into account both economic factors and other social and individual factors that influence individual functioning in the social system. For example, James S. coleman defines one’s SES as access to different types of capital. According to coleman, SES is a function of material capital (e.g., income and property), human capital (e.g., skills and knowledge), and social capital (e.g., social status, social support, and power). Because of these important developments, recent research often uses composite measures or latent constructs of SES to combine multiple measures of SES dimensions.
SES is not limited to an individual characteristic. Rather, one can define and measure SES at different levels, including individual, family, and community. Research suggests that SES at multiple levels uniquely influences individual outcomes. For example, community research shows that community SES influences resident net health of individual or family SES. in addition, findings generally indicate intergenerational transmission of SES from parents to children in many societies. However, other limitations on social mobility to cross SES categories may exist. Empirical research has yet to explain completely the influence of race/ethnicity on individual outcomes of interest, suggesting the need to consider other potential markers of SES.
- Coleman, James S. 1998. Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, Belknap Press.
- Oakes, J. Michael and Peter H. Rossi. 2003. “The Measurement of SES in Health Research: Current Practice and Steps toward a New Approach.” Social Science & Medicine 56:769-84.
- Wickrama, K. A. S., Rand D. Conger, and W. Todd Abraham. 2005. “Early Adversity and Later Health: The Intergenerational Transmission of Adversity through Mental Disorder and Physical Illness.” Special Issue II of Journals of Gerontology, Series B, 60B:125-29.
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