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Income, Wealth, and Occupations

Income, Wealth, and Occupations

Author: Zach Lamb

Recognize the influence of income on social inequality.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. Welcome to sociological studies. Got a lot of ground to cover today. We're going to discuss income, wealth, occupations-- blue collar, white collar jobs. As well as discuss some of Max Weber's ideas on socioeconomic status. Let's get started with income and wealth.

Income, you're familiar with, is the money you earn. Your cash flow coming in from your assets or from your job. And wealth is a little bit different than income. Wealth is the monetary value of your cash flow and your assets minus what you owe in debts. So I might work as a sociology professor, and I've got some income from that job. I might own some land somewhere out in the country. And I might own a home.

So my income then is just what I'm making from my teaching. The land, in this case, is an asset. So that is part of my wealth. And I have a home, but I haven't quite paid for it yet. Suppose I just bought it. Than that represents a debt. So my overall wealth, then, is my monetary value of my assets and my income. So I'm going to add my income plus my land. But then I have to subtract from that the debt that I have from the house.

But eventually, I might pay off that house. That debt would go away. So my wealth would be my income, plus my land, plus the house. And you do the same wealth calculation for any asset you own beyond just land. A lot of people probably have more assets than land, so that would make the wealth computation more complex. But the general idea is it's the monetary value of your assets minus your debts.

And occupations are our jobs and our careers. Occupations are how we make our money, how we accumulate wealth. And occupations are commonly divided into two categories in society, blue collar and white collar occupations. So things like a mechanic, a receptionist, a sales person, a salesman or woman, commonly. Farmer and farm laborers, farmhands. Truck drivers. People who work in the service industry, waiters and waitresses, are blue collar occupations.

And they are accorded less social prestige than people who work in white collar occupations, such as doctors, engineers, professors, lawyers, increasingly bond traders and financiers, psychiatrists and psychologists, accountants and architects, for example. But this list is not exhaustive. I left many, many out.

It's central to see, then, that each profession in society, each occupation, provides different social prestige. Different levels of power, different levels of social status, or different kinds of social status. So we can't, then, break these groups done neatly into capitalists and labors, capitalists and proletariat, like Marx did.

In that time, in industrial capitalism, when he was looking at capitalism industrializing, that was a more appropriate way to look at the world. But now, we've sort of splintered into all of these different occupations that don't fit as neatly into proletariat and bourgeoisie. Sorry, the other way around. So we have to have a more complex measure of social standing. And we call that socioeconomic status.

And socioeconomic status is a measure of social prestige across many different rubrics. So for instance power, prestige, and status. In order to know really how you stand in society and where you're ranked in the social strata, we need to look at all three of those dimensions and take a composite measure.

Defined, then, socioeconomic status is a measure of social standing based on a combined look at different dimensions of inequality. And those dimensions, as I've said, are power, status, and class. And Sociologist Marx Weber, one of the giants in sociology-- as you've heard me talk about-- developed a way to look at socioeconomic status along these three rubrics. And in this way, he's different than Marx. Status measure our social standing, or honor our prestige. And that's what he means by status.

And classes, Weber maintained, there's more than just proletariats and the bourgeoisie as we talked about. Class position then ranges from high to low along a continuum. I mean, how do you put all these people into Marx's scheme? Where would a salesman fit? Where would a farmer fit? Where would an engineer fit? Where would a mechanical engineer fit? A specific kind of engineer?

So Weber recognized this. And Weber argued that status is then-- the socioeconomic status-- is not very consistent. We have different dimensions of inequality and different levels of these three things. So if you look at our professor here, he's got high status, or she has high status. But not very much power and not a lot of prestige. They may or may not be very high in the class ranking.

And looking at socioeconomic status then, a broad way to look at standing in society, rather than just class position, proletariat or bourgeoisie. Well it helps us to explain why Marx's revolution never occurred. Because society is splintered like this, and we have all these different groups of people in society with many different interests, some coincide, some do not. They coincide at this level, but they don't coincide at this level. So society is really multi-faceted in terms of social interest. That could help to explain why we never had a revolution in the Marxian sense.

Given that capitalist societies are open and more fluid-- we live in a classed system and not a caste system-- we have social mobility in society. You can move up or you can move down. You could be born in one place and move down in your life based upon your actions and live in another place. Or the opposite can happen. Or you can stay the same.

So sociologists are interested in movement both within a life and then across generations, so from parents to children. And there are two different measures of social mobility. We have intergenerational social mobility and intragenerational social mobility. Intergenerational is between generations, so between parents to children. If I'm born in the middle class, will I stay in the middle class? Or will I rise to the upper class based upon my actions or some fortuitous circumstance? Or will I descend down to the working class? So this is an example intergenerational mobility, a transfer of social standing from parents to children.

Intra is within a generation. Can I then move up, rather than can I hope that my kids move up? I'm only in the middle class, but I hope someday that my kids might raise. That's every parent's dream, to have their child in a better place than they were. So this is an intergenerational, whereas intra is just you within your life moving up or down in your life.

Well, how do we know each other's social status? What about strangers that you don't know? You might know the social status of your friends, but what if see that guy walking on the street? How are you supposed to know where he fits into the social hierarchy? What clues do you have? What visual cues do you have?

In modern society, everyone is distant. We don't know each other that well, but we see a lot of strangers in a day to day life. Just imagine walking around a city block. You are going to see tons of strangers. And you need to make inferences about them and where they fall in the social structure. How do we do that? Conspicuous consumption. The display, through consumption, of our economic power in society.

So you might see somebody walking by, he's got a suit on. Or he's got a nice tie on or really nice shoes. You're like, whoa, that guy might have some money. So this is conspicuous consumption, an act of displaying our wealth, economic power, through what we consume. And this idea, super famous in sociology-- economics as well, helps us to explain a lot-- was given to us right at the beginning of the 20th century by economist and social observer Thorstein Veblen. This guy was great.

And Veblen develop these ideas. 1899. Capitalism was really getting its second wave of industrialization. We were getting a new class of rich people. And he would observe these rich people in their fanciful dress, their fanciful accoutrements to dinner parties, such as fine dining ware, fine silverware. And there were all these rules of decorum and how to use it. You had to use this fork at this time, and they would host these elaborate parties putting on display their wealth. So think about these things in your life. Think about people you see consuming expensive things, or wanting to make sure that you know they have this piece or that piece.

Well I hope you enjoyed this rather sprawling lecture, covering socially economic status, mobility, income, wealth and occupations, blue collar occupations and white collar occupations, and finally, conspicuous consumption. Enjoy the rest of your day.

Terms to Know
Blue-Collar Occupations

Occupations involving manual labor.

Conspicuous Consumption

Buying goods and services to display social status publicly.


Money earned from goods, services, or investments.

Intergenerational Social Mobility

A change of social position or rank, moving up or down, from one generation to the next.

Intragenerational Social Mobility

A change of social position or rank, moving up or down, within one generation or lifetime.

Socioeconomic Status (SES)

A measure of social standing based on a composite picture that captures different dimensions of social inequality like differences in power, status, and class.


The monetary value of your assets and income, minus any money you owe as debts.

White-Collar Occupations

Occupations dealing more with information processing rather than physical labor.