Framing social class with sample selection

A lot of qualitative sociology makes comparisons across social class categories. Many researchers build class into their research designs by selecting subjects using broad criteria, most often education level, income level, or occupation. Depending on the set of questions at hand, the class selection categories will vary, focusing on, for example, upbringing and socialization, access to resources, or occupational outlook.

In the absence of a substantive review, here are a few arbitrarily selected examplar books from my areas of research:

This post was inspired by the question Caitlyn Collins asked the other day on Twitter:

She followed up by saying, “Social class is nebulous, but precision here matters to make meaningful claims. What do we mean when we say we’re talking to poor, working class, middle class, wealthy folks? I’m looking for specific demographic questions, categories, scales sociologists use as screeners.” The thread generated a lot of good ideas.

Income, education, occupation

Screening people for research can be costly and time consuming, so you want to maximize simplicity as well as clarity. So here’s a way of looking at some common screening variables, and what you might get or lose by relying on them in different combinations. This uses the 2018 American Community Survey, provided by IPUMS.org (Stata data file and code here).

  • I used income, education, and occupation to identify the status of individuals, and generated household class categories by the presence of absence of types of people in each. That means everyone in each household is in the same class category (a choice you might or might not want to make).
  • Income: Total household income divided by an equivalency scale (for cost of living). The scale counts each adult as 1 person, each child under 18 as .70, and then scales that count by ^.70. I divided the resulting distribution into thirds, so households are in the top, middle, or bottom third. Top third is what I called “middle/upper” class, bottom third is “lower class.”
  • Education: I use BA degree to identify households that have (middle/upper) or don’t (lower) a four-year college graduate present. This is 31% of adults.
  • Occupation: I used the 2018 ACS occupation codes, and coded people as middle/upper class if their codes was 10 to 3550, which are management, business, and financial occupations; computer, engineering, and science occupations; education, legal, community service, arts, and media occupations; and healthcare practitioners and technical occupations. It’s pretty close to what we used to call “managerial and professional” occupations. Together, these account for 37% of workers.

So each of these three variables identifies an upper/middle class status of about a third of people.

For lower class status, you can just reverse them. The except is income, which is in three categories. For that, I counted households as lower class if their household income was in the bottom third of the adjusted distribution. In the figures below, that means they’re neither middle/upper class nor lower class if they’re in the middle of the income distribution. This is easily adjusted.

Venn diagrams

You can make Venn diagrams in Stata using the pvenn2 add-on, which I naturally discovered after making these. If  you must know, made these by generating tables in Stata, downloading this free plotter app, entering the values manually, copying the resulting figures into Powerpoint and applying the text there, then printing them to PDF, and extracting the images from PDF using Photoshop. Not recommended workflow.

Here they are. I hope the visuals might help people think about for example, who they might get if they screened on just one of these variables, or how unusual someone is who has a high income or occupation but no BA, and so on. But draw your own conclusions (and feel free to modify the code and follow your own approach). Click to enlarge.

First middle/upper class:

Venn diagram of overlapping class definitions

Then lower class:

Venn diagram of overlapping class definitions.

I said draw your own conclusions, but please don’t draw the conclusion that I think this is the best way to define social class. That’s a whole different question. This is just about simply ways to select people to be research subjects. For other posts on social class, follow this tag, which includes this post about class self identification by income and race/ethnicity.


Data and code: osf.io/w2yvf/

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