Tuesday, 25 March 2014

“I am Working-Class”: Self-Identification as a Measure of Social Class in Educational Research

Governments around the world are trying to open up higher education to working-class people. For example, in January this year, the White House released a report titled: "Increasing college opportunity for low-income students: Promising models and a call to action."

In the context of this general push towards widening participation in higher education, my colleagues and I have been developing a research project that aims to investigate social class differences in social integration among students atuniversity. After all, we need to bring working-class people into our universities socially and psychologically as well as physically. Our Australian research team includes myself, Dr Nida Denson from the University of Western Sydney, Prof Sue Kilpatrick from the University of Tasmania, Ms Kelly Matthews from the University of Queensland, Dr Tom Stehlik from the University of South Australia, and Dr David Zyngier from Monash University.

As we developed our research project, we quickly realised that the measurement of social class is an extremely contentious issue, with different researchers often preferring different measures. In particular, we noticed that there was a clear divergence between social psychologists and educational researchers in the types of social class measures that they used. Following the recommendations of a 2006 American Psychological Association report on measuring social class, modern-day social psychologists use subjective, self-identification measures of social class alongside more objective measures of income, occupation, and education (for a good example, see Michael Kraus’ work). In contrast, educational researchers have tended to restrict themselves to objective measures and to ignore the more subjective aspects of social class (for a recent review, see Rubin, 2012; for a notable exception, see Ostrove & Long, 2007).

We have discussed this interdisciplinary discrepancy in a recent review article published online this month in Educational Researcher. In our article, we call for educational researchers to follow the lead of social psychologists and complement (not replace) their objective measures of social class with measures of subjective social class. We believe that subjective measures are not only valid and reliable but also more direct and sensitive in their assessment of social class compared with objective measures. Most importantly, subjective measures tap the social identity aspect of social class, and they give a voice to students’ own opinions about their social class.

For further information, please see the following article: 

Rubin, M., Denson, N., Kilpatrick, S., Matthews, K., 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 DOI: 10.3102/0013189X14528373 

A self-archived version of this journal article is available here.