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I am Working-Class:
Subjective Self-Definition as a Missing Measure of
Social Class and Socioeconomic Status in Higher Education Research
Mark Rubin
The University of Newcastle, Australia
Nida Denson
University of Western Sydney
Sue Kilpatrick
University of Tasmania
Kelly E. Matthews
The University of Queensland
Tom Stehlik
University of South Australia
and
David Zyngier
Monash University
The correct reference for this article is as follows:
Rubin, M., Denson, N., Kilpatrick, S., Matthews, K. E., Stehlik, T., & Zyngier, D. (2014). I am
working-class: Subjective self-definition as a missing measure of social class and socioeconomic
status in higher education research. Educational Researcher, 43, 196-200. doi:
10.3102/0013189X14528373
This self-archived version is provided for non-commercial, scholarly purposes only.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Mark


Rubin at the School of Psychology, the University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW
2308, Australia. Tel: +61 (0)2 4921 6706. Fax: +61 (0)2 4921 6980. E-mail:
Mark.Rubin@newcastle.edu.au

Abstract
This review provides a critical appraisal of the measurement of students social
class and socioeconomic status (SES) in the context of widening higher education
participation. Most assessments of social class and SES in higher education have
focused on objective measurements based on the income, occupation, and
education of students' parents, and they have tended to overlook diversity among
students based on factors such as age, ethnicity, indigeneity, and rurality.
However, recent research in psychology and sociology has stressed the more
subjective and intersectional nature of social class. The authors argue that it is
important to consider subjective self-definitions of social class and SES alongside
more traditional objective measures. The implications of this dual measurement
approach for higher education research are discussed.
Keywords: diversity; first-generation students; intersectionality; self-definition;
social class; socioeconomic status

I am Working-Class:
Subjective Self-Definition as a Missing Measure of
Social Class and Socioeconomic Status in Higher Education Research
The purpose of this review is to provide a critical appraisal of the
measurement of students social class and socioeconomic status (SES) in higher
education and suggest a more integrative approach that incorporates subjective
measures from psychology and sociology alongside the more traditional objective
measures of parental education, income, and occupation. We begin by defining
social class and SES and explaining the importance of these variables in higher
education research. We highlight the limitations of conventional, objective
assessments of social class and SES in this area. We then discuss recent advances
in psychology and sociology that have demonstrated the utility of more
subjective, self-definitional measures. We discuss the advantages of these
subjective measures and conclude by calling for an integrative approach that
includes both subjective and objective measures of social class and SES.
Defining Social Class and SES
Social class and SES are based on an interaction between peoples social,
cultural, and economic backgrounds and status. Like other sociostructural
variables (e.g., age, gender, ethnicity), social class and SES have powerful
influences on peoples personality and behavior (Ostrove & Cole, 2003). They
predict what clothes people wear, what food they eat, how they talk, their
attitudes, values and preferences, and their physical and mental health (Kraus &
Stephens, 2012).
Although often conflated with one another, social class and SES can be
distinguished as separate constructs (e.g., Ostrove & Cole, 2003). SES refers to
ones current social and economic situation and, consequently, it is relatively
mutable, especially in countries that provide opportunities for economic
advancement. In contrast, social class refers to ones sociocultural background
and is more stable, typically remaining static across generations (Jones & Vagle,
2013). Hence, it is possible for a working-class person to have a relatively high
SES while remaining in a stereotypically blue-collar occupation. Perhaps
because social class is more stable than SES, it is also more likely to be associated
with intergroup power and status differences that act as the basis for
discrimination and prejudice (Ostrove & Cole, 2003). For example, recent
research has found evidence of classism at universities (Langhout, Drake, &
Rosselli, 2009).

The Importance of Social Class and SES Diversity in Higher Education


International research in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and
Development countries has identified social class and SES as key factors in
determining participation, performance, and retention in higher education (e.g.,
James, 2008; Maras, 2007). In particular, researchers have found that workingclass and low SES students are less likely to obtain good grades, complete their
degrees, and feel socially integrated at their university (for meta-analytic
evidence, see Robbins, Le, Davis, Lauver, Langley, & Carlstrom, 2004; Rubin,
2012a). As Devlin (2013) pointed out, this inequality derives from an interaction
between student and university factors. Working-class and low SES students are
less familiar than middle-class and high SES students with the established cultural
norms of universities (e.g., terminology, styles, ways of speaking, worldviews, the
roles of students and staff, etc.). Devlin suggests that students and institutions
must work together to bridge this socio-cultural incongruity (see also Stephens,
Fryberg, Markus, Johnson, & Covarrubias, 2012).
It is imperative for educational researchers to consider social class and
SES in their studies in order to understand the implications of diversity in higher
education and imbue their work with societal relevance. As a prominent
researcher in this field explained, we can no longer plan an effective research
agenda based on the assumption that our undergraduate student population is
made up of White undergraduates from middle or upper-middle class homes
(Pascarella, 2006, p. 512). Consequently, higher education researchers need to
use sensitive and valid measures of social class and SES in order to provide
relevant information to assist higher education administrators and policy-makers
in addressing the challenges faced by working-class and low SES students.
Below, we consider some of the strengths and weaknesses of traditional, objective
measures of social class and SES that have been used in educational research.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Objective Measures of Social Class
Most assessments of social class and SES in educational research have
focused on objective measurements that are based on income, occupation,
education, and material possessions (for reviews, see Rubin, 2012a; Sirin, 2005).
For example, students might be asked to estimate their annual household income,
report the occupation and education levels of their parents, and/or indicate
whether or not they own a computer or laptop. This objective measurement
approach is useful because it limits the influence of subjective biases in students
self-reports. Research based on this objective approach has successfully
identified the social class differences in participation, performance, and retention
in higher education that we discussed earlier. Based on this research, it is clear
that objective differences in income can have a profound effect on the time that
students have available for studying and socializing as well as the availability and

quality of their study resources (e.g., owning a laptop). In addition, differences in


parental education levels have been shown to predict exposure to socio-cultural
university norms that help students to navigate university life (Rubin, 2012b;
York-Anderson & Bowman, 1991). Hence, it is not our aim to reject this wellestablished and fruitful approach to studying social class and SES. Nonetheless,
we do feel that it is important to highlight a few key limitations of this objective
measurement approach.
First, objective measures of social class and SES need to be benchmarked
and interpreted relative to population-based standards, and these can be difficult
and controversial to establish. In particular, if social class and/or SES are
conceptualized as categorical variables, then decisions about how many categories
to include and the cut-off points for these categories are debateable (Bourdieu,
1987, p. 2). Even after agreement is reached on such issues, the resulting
standards are limited to specific time-periods and contexts. Hence, objective
standards can become quickly out-dated and cannot be generalized outside of the
local contexts in which they were developed. Indeed, there are no international
conventions for measuring social class or SES.
Second, as a target population in higher education, most undergraduate
university students have yet to establish a stable income, occupation, or level of
education. Consequently, educational researchers often refer to students' parents
as relevant proxies for these variables (for a meta-analytic review, see Rubin,
2012a). However, this relatively indirect approach tells us more about students
parents than about the students themselves; a problem that is exacerbated for older
students. For example, the parental education of an older, mature-aged student is
less relevant to their SES than the parental education of a younger, more
traditional-aged student. A further problem with this approach is that students
often do not know the income, occupation, and/or education of their parents. For
example, one study found that 51% of respondents were unable to complete a
family income measure (Jetten, Iyer, Tsivrikos, & Young, 2008, Study 1). Hence,
references to parental income, occupation, and/or education can lead to problems
with missing data. Researchers can collect data from students parents in order to
deal with this problem. However, it may be difficult to recruit students parents in
some cases, again leading to the problem of missing data.
Third, social class and SES are closely bound to other sociodemographic
variables in educational contexts, such as age, ethnicity, indigeneity, and
regionality or what Bourdieu (1985, 1987) termed a persons cultural and social
capital or habitus. Consequently, a fair assessment of social class and SES
requires that they are considered in the context of these co-occurring constructs.
For example, although the education or family income of an ethnic minority
member might be considered to be low relative to a majority population
standard, it might also be considered to be high relative to the persons minority

group (Adler & Stewart, 2007; Ostrove, Adler, Kuppermann, & Washington,
2000). Objective measures are inherently acontextual, and consequently they
overlook this intersectionality and its interpretational implications (Crenshaw,
1994; Ostrove & Cole, 2003).
Finally, although objective measures may provide a useful method for
assessing a persons objective SES, they fail to assess the persons subjective SES
and social class identity. Hence, objective measures may categorize a person as
being of medium SES and middle-class even though the person perceives
himself or herself to be of low SES and working-class. Again, this social
psychological component of SES and social class must be assessed if we
conceptualize these variables as being something more than objective societal
demographics (Ostrove & Cole, 2003).
The New Socio-Psychological Approach to Social Class
In contrast to educational research, recent studies in psychology and
sociology have employed subjective, self-definitional measures of social class and
SES alongside more objective measures (e.g., Adler, Epel, Castellazzo, &
Ickovics, 2000; Hamamura, 2012; Horberg, Oveis, Keltner, & Cohen, 2009;
Jetten et al., 2008; Kraus, Cte, & Keltner, 2010; Kraus, Piff, & Keltner, 2009;
Kudrna, Furnham, & Swami, 2010; Laurin, Fitzsimons, & Kay, 2011; Ostrove et
al., 2000; Ostrove, & Cole, 2003; for a recent review of further social
psychological research in this area, see Kraus & Stephens, 2012). For example,
social psychologists have asked their participants to categorize themselves
according to social class categories such as working-class and upper-class
(Horberg et al., 2009; Jetten et al., 2008, Study 2). Other researchers in health
and social psychology have used the MacArthur Scale of Subjective Social Status
(Adler et al., 2000; Adler & Stewart, 2007). Here, participants indicate their
position on a 10-runged social ladder in which higher rungs represent people
who have higher social class or SES. The scale comes in two versions. The first
measures SES based on the respondents perceptions of income, education, and
occupational prestige in relation to other people in their country. The second
measures social class based on the respondents subjective perceptions of social
standing in their (subjectively defined) community.
Consistent with this subjective methodology, social psychologists have
provided an explicit acknowledgement of the subjective component of social class
in their recent definitions. For example, Kraus et al. (2009) explained that social
class comprises both an individuals material resources and an individuals
perceived rank within the social hierarchy (p. 992). This dualist perspective on
social class fits nicely with Bourdieus (1985, 1987) considerations on social
class. He proposed that the similar objective conditions, or habitus, in which
people from different social classes live, including their differing access to social,

cultural, economic, and symbolic capital, gives rise to subjective identities that
embody and reify social classes.
The recent increase in the use of subjective measures of social class and
SES in psychology has been noted by the American Psychological Associations
(2006) Task Force on SES, which has recommended that researchers employ both
subjective and objective measure of SES in their research (Saegert et al., 2006).
In general, however, this recommendation has not been heeded by educational
researchers (for a notable exception, see Ostrove & Long, 2007). In the following
sections, we consider the utility of this dual conceptualization of social class in
educational research. In particular, we focus on the validity, reliability, predictive
power, and contextual-sensitivity of subjective measures of social class and SES.
To be clear, we do not claim that subjective measures are generally superior to
objective measures. We only aim to highlight the relative strengths of subjective
measures on some key dimensions in order to persuade educational researchers to
incorporate both subjective and objective measures in their research.
Are Subjective Measures Valid?
A common concern about the validity of subjective social class measures
is that many people do not know what category of social class they belong to.
This concern is unfounded if researchers employ meaningful response categories.
For example, a recent nationally-representative USA survey found that more than
98% of respondents were able to self-identify as either upper class (2%),
upper-middle class (15%), middle class (49%), lower-middle class (25%),
or lower class (7%; Morin & Motel, 2012; see also Ostrove & Long, 2007).
A further concern is that most people will describe themselves as middleclass. Although this was the case in the USA survey (i.e., 89% categorized
themselves as either upper-middle class, middle class, or lower middleclass), the expansion of the middle-class category into meaningful subcategories
can enhance the discriminatory power of such measures.
A further potential threat to the validity of subjective social class measures
is that such measures may be influenced by peoples mood or affect. However,
contrary to this possibility, experimentally manipulating mood does not alter
peoples ratings of their subjective social class (Kraus, Adler, & Chen, 2013; for a
discussion, see Kraus, Tan, & Tannenbaum, 2013).
Subjective measures also provide valid assessments of social class and
SES if these variables are conceived as social identities that are derived from
membership in socially-defined groups (e.g., Jetten et al., 2008; Soria, Stebleton,
& Huesman, 2013; Tajfel & Turner, 1979). This subjective conceptualization of
social class and SES is consistent with the use of self-definition in classifying the
ethnicity or indigeneity of people in a range of other settings, including
population censuses and university admission applications. In addition, the use of

subjective measures to tap the identity component of social class and SES allows
researchers to undertake more sensitive investigations of classism in higher
education (Langhout et al., 2009).
Empirical evidence of convergent validity comes from studies that have
found positive correlations between subjective and objective measures of social
class (e.g., Kraus et al., 2010; Kraus et al., 2009; Ostrove et al., 2000; Ostrove &
Long, 2007). These moderately-sized correlations indicate that subjective
measures assess an important aspect of social class but one that is relatively
distinct from objective aspects. Consistent with this assumption, subjective
measures have been shown to uniquely predict self-rated global health even after
controlling for objective measures (Adler et al., 2000). Indeed, this approach of
controlling for the objective aspect of social class and SES in order to examine the
independent effects of subjective social class can more accurately capture the
unique aspects of social class that are not captured by objective indicators.
Are Subjective Measures Reliable and Predictive?
There are reasons to believe that subjective measures of social class
provide more reliable and predictive assessments than objective measures,
especially in educational research. Subjective measures relate to students rather
than to their parents, and so they provide more proximal and accurate
representations of students' social class. Consequently, they are likely to be more
sensitive to changes in students' social class over time. It is perhaps for these
reasons that subjective measures are stronger predictors than objective measures
in the field of higher education (Ostrove & Long, 2007) and act as better
predictors of health outcomes (e.g., Ostrove et al., 2000; for brief reviews, see
Kraus et al., 2009, p. 993; Kudrna et al., 2010, p. 860).
Are Subjective Measures Context-Sensitive?
As we have argued above, social class and SES need to be considered
within the context of the broader social, economic and political context (Jones &
Vagle, 2013). Subjective measures are better placed to accomplish this goal than
objective measures because they have an intrinsic capacity to assess social class in
a contextualized manner. Unlike objective measures, subjective measures do not
require pre-established benchmarks against which to interpret different levels of
social class or SES (e.g., cut-offs for family income). Instead, respondents are
able to reflect on their own internalized standards based on their individual,
context-specific experiences and reference groups. This does not mean that the
interpretation of subjective measures can be undertaken independently from the
local contexts and time periods within which they are employed. On the contrary,
all measures of social class must be interpreted in a contextual manner. However,
the inbuilt context-sensitivity of subjective measures does provide a greater

potential for comparisons between different groups, situations, contexts, and


cultures (e.g., Hamamura, 2012). In particular, researchers can manipulate the
frame of reference within which respondents make their judgments in order to
facilitate relevant comparisons. For example, participants can be instructed to
consider their social class or SES relative to others in their country or others in
their university (cf. Adler & Stewart, 2007; Kraus et al., 2009). Similarly,
comparisons can be made between the subjective family income (e.g., low,
medium, high) of traditional- and nontraditional-aged students who are asked
to make their judgments in the context of other students of your age. Unlike
objective measures, this contextual flexibility of subjective measures allows them
to accommodate the intersection of social class and SES with other demographics
such as gender, age, ethnicity, and regionality (Crenshaw, 1994; Ostrove & Cole,
2003).
Implications and Conclusions
Worldwide, universities are striving to provide a curriculum and student
services that support expanding and diverse participation and the needs of a 21st
century knowledge economy. In order to maintain its relevance, the educational
research community needs to provide robust and informative research that
accurately defines, describes, and communicates the increasingly diverse
demography, experiences, and outcomes of university students. In this review,
we have argued that students subjectively self-defined perceptions of their social
class and SES are vital ingredients in this type of research. Specifically, we have
argued that, relative to objective measures, subjective measures of social class and
SES:
provide more direct assessments that relate to students self-definition rather
than the characteristics of students parents;
can be interpreted without reference to objective standards that are constrained
to particular contexts and time-periods;
result in less missing data;
are more sensitive to changes in social class and SES;
assess the identity component of social class and SES;
have proven convergent validity with objective measures;
are stronger predictors of some outcome variables;
afford greater potential for comparisons between different situations and
contexts; and
enable a conceptualization of social class as an intersectional construct.
Again, to be clear, we are not proposing that subjective measures of social
class and SES should replace objective measures. Instead, we are suggesting that
researchers in higher education should habitually supplement their objective
measures with subjective measures in order to provide a more nuanced,

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articulated, and comprehensive assessment of these complex, context-dependent


variables. More generally, this approach will give a clearer voice to students
subjective experiences in higher education.

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