Who thinks that they have low status?

If leftists support “political programmes that seek to eliminate status differences or moderate their impact” then the best way to reduce the left’s opposition to free markets would be to sever the link between income and status.

Don Arthur, 10 June.

But how strong is the existing link between income and status? This issue can be approached from two directions. We can ask people what weight they give income when assessing the status of another person – I am not aware of research on this, though I’m sure somebody must have put the question in a survey. We can also ask people how they perceive their own status and compare that self-assessment with their income. A question in the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2005 asks:

In our society there are groups which tend to be towards the top and groups which tend to be towards the bottom. Below is a scale that runs from the top to the bottom where the top is 10 and the bottom is 1. Where would you put yourself on this scale?

Overall, whatever others may think of them, most people do not think they are on the ‘bottom’ of society. Only 2% rate themselves as ‘1’ and only 18% below 5. If we thought of society as having 10 status deciles, 40% should rate themselves below 5. Consistent with an egalitarian ethos, few rate themselves too highly either. Only 3% of respondents put themselves in the top 20% of society.

Low income is, however, associated with lower status. Here I calculated average self-assessed status. For the sample as a whole, mean status was 5.75. On average, people with an annual household income of between $10,400 and $15,600 rated their status as 4.6, so more than one status point below average. Those earning $41,600 to $52,000 were almost exactly on the mean. Households earning between $104,000 and $130,000 put themselves at, on average, 6.4, and those earning $182,000 plus at 7.5. Though there are individuals in all these groups who don’t give the expected answer, overall these results are consistent with the view that income plays a part in status.

It’s presumably not just how much people earn that contributes to their self-assessed status, but what they do. Professionals and managers top the list, with both groups averaging 6.4, with associate professionals on 6. The only group not above 5 are labourers on 4.5, below even those receiving unemployment benefits, who give themselves 4.9 on average (though perhaps some of the unemployed were having a laugh at the expense of the survey; several rated themselves as a ‘9’ or ’10’, while no labourer did so).

Education too shows the predictable pattern. People with a vocational certificate or diploma rate themselves at just above the overall mean, those with a bachelor degree at 6.5, and those with a postgraduate degree at 6.6.

Of course education, occupation and income are all inter-connected; it would require more sophisticated analysis than this to sort out what’s most important in contributing to self-assessed status.

Two sociological variables often thought to be important, whether born overseas and religion (at least of those with enough in the sample to be meaningful) make no difference to status.

On the issue of whether leftists are preoccupied with status, people who class themselves on the two most left categories in the left-right spectrum report below average status, as do those on the mid-point. But overall being able to place oneself on the left-right spectrum (nearly a quarter of the sample could not) was associated with higher status, with all but 3 of the 11 categories reporting above-average status. Those in the third highest right-wing category come out on top with 6.5. Whether this is because people acquire status from their political views, or because other status-variables (eg education) are associated with having enough political understanding to identify an ideological position, I cannot say.

8 thoughts on “Who thinks that they have low status?

  1. It’s a funny question, isn’t it? My income would put me in the top quintile, but that doesn’t mean that I think I’m in any sense ‘better’ than the average Australian.


  2. Andrew – I think status is more localised than the AuSSA question allows and certainly a lot more complex than income, but 87% of respondents answered the status question. But from the point of view of people wanting to achieve greater status equality, money is fairly easily redistributed, while genuine respect for those with low status for other reasons is hard to achieve.


  3. I’d plump for different people assessing their own status by different criteria, not just money, but what they use to judge worth (and they’ll always use the measure that makes them feel best, or they’ll just make themselves miserable). It’s a psychological survival tactic.

    Perhaps the archetypal starving artist in the garrett would not consider himself low-status/low-class but a member of an elite, as an extreme example. Another might be priests (of any religion) bound to poverty, but considered by many (even the irreligious) as high class/status.

    So, maybe it depends on what people *mean* by the term status. Perhaps the only way to find out would be to compare what they call themselves versus those who are less-educated and much wealthier, or those more-educated and poorer.


  4. Research from a number of studies suggests that people treat income as a signal of underlying personal attributes. In her book ‘The Social Psychology of Material Possessions’ Helga Dittmar summarises the findings:

    “…wealthy people are seen as intelligent, responsible, hard-working, successful, skilfull, physically attractive and resourceful. In contrast, poor people are viewed as lazy, unmotivated, lacking in abilities and skills, irresponsible, unattractive and lacking proper money management” (p 162).

    Studies show that people also infer personal attributes from the kind of house a person lives in, the way they dress and the car they drive. There’s evidence that people who appear to be more affluent and of higher status get treated more courteously by others.

    It seems to me that there are two or perhaps three pathways from income to wellbeing.

    The first pathway is through the greater consumption choices that a higher income brings — with more money you can consume more of the material goods that you enjoy.

    The second pathway is through the opinions and (non-purchased) behaviour of others. Signals of income level alter the way others percieve you as a person and how they treat you. All things being equal, more income leads to higher esteem and better treatment.

    People on low incomes are less able to manage impressions through consumption choices than people on higher incomes. Money allows more choice about self-expression.

    Perhaps for some people there’s also a third pathway to do with power. Money allows you to get other people to do things for you. If you have enough money, you can find people who will follow your instructions and maybe even tolerate your abuse while remaining polite and deferential.

    This third pathway is about relative rather than absolute income. To gain power over others, you need to have superior earning power. If your income doubles relative to everyone else’s then maybe you’ll be able to afford a nanny and live-in housekeeper. But if everyone’s income doubles then you’ll have to be content with a new television and an occasional holiday abroad.


  5. Don – I have calculated average happiness for the various self-assessed status groups, which is consistent with the theory about the link between status and well-being. 7-8 or more is usually regarded as ‘normal’ .



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