Work and social stratification

International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy

ISSN: 0144-333X

Article publication date: 20 June 2008


Blackburn, R.M. (2008), "Work and social stratification", International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Vol. 28 No. 5/6.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Work and social stratification

Article Type: Guest editorial From: International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Volume 28, Issue 5-6.

Work is central to the life of every society. The economic survival of every society, and of its people, depends on the economic activity of work. At the same time work is socially divisive. Within a society occupations are differentially rewarded in terms of pay, with huge differences between the poor who struggle to get by on their earnings and the rich who pay themselves in millions. Across countries the inequalities are no less stark, with the rich countries benefiting from the cheap labour of workers in the poor countries, where many struggle on the edge of starvation.

Money is important but the inequalities of work are even more fundamental than this. Occupations are crucial in defining people's social status and life-styles. Of course life-styles are related to income, but this is not the whole story. There are numerous aspects of an occupation which determine its (un)desirability. The concept of social stratification embraces the range of occupational inequality. However, the structure of social stratification varies from country to country. There is no systematic way of measuring social stratification which embraces the inequalities between people both within and across countries.

The papers of this volume address a number of issues relating to social stratification and work. It would be impossible in one volume to cover the range of potential issues. Nevertheless, the papers included here provide a diverse set of significant approaches. They also have an international approach, drawing on material from many nations or focussing more directly on Spain, The Netherlands, Malaysia or Britain. The collection arises (with one addition) from papers presented at the highly successful Social Stratification Conference at Clare College, Cambridge, in September 2006.

An important aspect of occupations is their technical complexity. This is a generally recognised feature of occupations which distinguishes the sort of work entailed. The paper by Jorge Rodriguez Menes faces the question of whether the technical aspects of occupations can be systematically measured in a single scale. Using the two criteria of skill and function, for Spanish data, an effective ordinal scale is constructed which relates well not only to the Spanish Prestige Scale (PRESCA) and the Cambridge scale of Occupational advantage (CAMSIS) for Spain but also to Treiman's International Prestige Scale (SIOPS). Thus it demonstrates the systematic importance of the technological complexity of occupations to social inequality.

In a cross-national comparative examination of stratification measures, Paul Lambert and colleagues consider the advantages of “specific” measurement approaches. That is, they assess measures which are designed to fit the occupational structure of the country, as it varies over time, and as it is structured by the gender composition of the labour force. The advantages of the specific approach are set against the advantages of the “universal” approach where one measure fits all (developed) countries. It emerges that the specific approach has significant advantages. The disadvantage of the specific approach is the greater work needed to establish measures, but the authors point out that the process is greatly assisted by the GEODE internet service which they have developed.

Jennifer Jarman and Parminder Singh Chopra address the interesting and unusual attempt of a society to significantly change its occupational structure, and hence the pattern of social stratification. The attempt by the Malaysian government to transform the economy by prioritising knowledge and innovation is shown to have fallen short of its objective. The emphasis on advanced, multimedia research, design and development was intended to transform the occupational structure and raise the standard of living to that of an economically developed country. So far, however, the outcome is the more modest achievement of an effective business support sector. The economic gap below the rich countries remains.

Social mobility, or more fundamentally the reproduction of a stratification structure of social inequality, is a well-established sociological concern, generally approached in terms of the association between fathers' and sons' occupational levels. There remain, however, important questions about how and why the pattern is influenced by changes over time in the nature of work. Richard Zijdeman addresses this by analysing changes throughout the nineteenth century in the municipalities of Zeeland. He finds that differences over time and district are substantially influenced by the varying growth of industrialism, urbanisation and forms of communication. The results support reproduction theory rather than the logic of industrialism.

Juliet Stone, Gopalakrishnan Netuveli and David Blane are also concerned with change over time, though their interest is in changes during the life course. They present a methodological analysis of an optimal matching approach to changing patterns of socio-economic status, for a sample of retired British workers. This treats life-course occupational trajectories as holistic units rather than sets of positions or events. The potential of optimal matching is demonstrated, with predicted findings and advantages from being able to examine whole trajectories.

Experience within the occupational structure tends to vary by ethnicity. By using sound national data over a thirty-four year period, Yaojun Li and Anthony Heath provide the most systematic, authoritative account of ethnic inequalities in Britain. They demonstrate how different ethnic groups have fared in the labour market, as the numbers in ethnic minorities have grown substantially. On the whole, they observe a trend of growing integration, particularly when they control for age and education. However, success within the class structure has varied considerably by ethnic group, with White Irish and Black Caribbeans gaining ground while Pakistani/Bangladeshi men remained disadvantaged.

Each of the papers makes a significant contribution to our understanding of social stratification and work. Taken together, they demonstrate the importance of social inequality and the various ways it shapes our societies and individual lives.

Robert M. BlackburnSocial Science Research Group, Social and Political Sciences, Cambridge, UK