In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Class and Social Status

  • Introduction
  • Definitions
  • Environmental Conditions and Psychological Functioning and Behavior
  • Psychological Functioning Before Adulthood
  • Physical Health and Psychological Processes
  • Mental Health in “Normal” Individuals
  • Mental Illness
  • Effect of Status and Role Differences
  • Cross-cultural Psychology, Social Structure, and Psychological Functioning

Psychology Social Class and Social Status
Carmi Schooler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0085


This article provides a selection of articles and books that deal with social class or social status from perspectives that are directly germane to empirically oriented psychology and sociological social psychology. “Social class” and “social status” are terms that appear in a range of theoretical and empirical research literatures that are too broad to encompass in one article. Consequently, although a certain number of particularly relevant books and articles from other fields are referenced, the central focus of this review will be on papers appearing in the psychology literature, including sociological social psychology. In addition, the concentration will be more on articles than on books. It will also be more on works and reviews that relate empirical findings to theories than on those primarily presenting, on the one hand, theoretical formulations or, on the other, “raw” empirical findings. To clarify what is being covered this article begins with a set of definitions of systematically interrelated terms directly developed from the writing and class lectures of the noted sociologist Robert Merton (Schooler 1994, cited under Definitions). A major advantage of this set of definitions is that it is theoretically and substantively neutral. Consequently, the definitions impose little constraint on the types of “causal” interrelationships among variables that can be described and tested.


The term “status” is a position in a social system occupied by designated actors (i.e., individuals or social organizations) that consists of a set of roles that define the incumbents’ expected patterns of interrelationships with incumbents of related statuses. Statuses may be ranked hierarchically in terms of the interrelated concepts of (1) prestige, (2) unequal distribution of relatively scarce social resources and unequal opportunity for acquiring them, and (3) power, i.e., the ability to induce others to fulfill one’s goals. When statuses are considered with such a hierarchical perspective, the term “social status” is frequently used. The term “social class” is often used almost interchangeably with the term “social status.” Most sociologists who deal with stratification empirically, however, distinguish between the two. They reserve the use of “social class” to reflect the types of societal divisions envisaged by Marx. Thus, Kohn and Słomczyński 1990 describes social classes as “groups defined in terms of their relationship to ownership and control over the means of production, and their control over the labor power of others” (p. 2). This definition can be amended to also include ownership and control over the means of distribution. The focus of the present review will be on the more general concept—social status. A further important distinction between the formal usage of “social class” and “social status” is that in many usages, including here, the former is categorical and the latter is linear. Consequently, in most formal sociological usages the characteristics that make up a class are categorical (e.g., controls the labor power of others) and not measured by points along a linear continuum (e.g., annual income, years of education). More generally, social class is commonly considered an ordered categorical variable with a limited number of classes (frequently five) in which part of a class’s definition is its relationship to other classes. Social status, on the other hand, is generally a more finally graded, essentially linear variable with many possible scores. “Social structure” is the patterned interrelationships among a set of individual and organizational statuses, as defined by the nature of their interacting roles. “Culture” is a historically determined set of denotative (what is), normative (what should be), and stylistic (how done) beliefs, shared by a group of individuals who have undergone a common historical experience and participate in an interrelated set of social structures. In a more expansive form the definition could include the institutional, instrumental, and material embodiments of these beliefs. And finally, a “society or sociocultural system” is a set of persons and social positions that possesses both a culture and a social structure.

  • Kohn, Melvin, and Kazimierz Słomczyński. 1990. Social structure and self direction: A comparative analysis of the United States and Poland. Oxford: Blackwell.

    In their presentation and discussion of their findings about differences between “socialist” Poland and the capitalist United States, the authors provide clear and lucid definitions of social class and social status and of the conceptual difference between the two measures.

  • Schooler, Carmi. 1994. A working conceptualization of social structure: Mertonian roots and psychological and sociocultural relationships. Social Psychology Quarterly 57:262–273.

    DOI: 10.2307/2786880

    Based on the class notes of both Carmi and Nina Schooler, this paper includes probably the only reasonably full description of Robert Merton’s conceptualization of social structure. The paper was approved by Merton not long before his death.

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