Occupational prestige refers primarily to the differential social evaluation which is ascribed to jobs or occupations. What people know about jobs, or how people view occupations, is to a greater extent a given; much more variation exists in the value that they ascribe to them.
To ask how people rate the ‘general standing’ of an occupation (the most common question) is taken to be a measure of occupational prestige and hence of the social status of occupations, though many other criteria have been proposed, including ‘social usefulness’ as well as ‘prestige’ and ‘status’ themselves. In order to obtain the scale of occupations (which is invariably taken to be national in application), respondents’ ratings are aggregated, typically by taking either the average or, as in the classic American study by C. C. North and P. K. Hatt in 1947 (‘Jobs and Occupations: A Popular Evaluation’, Opinion News), by taking the percentage who adjudged the occupation as having ‘excellent social standing’. The resulting aggregate rank-order gives the scale. Variations in ratings are given little attention, though they are often considerable and consistent, and it is a matter of some dispute whether there exist consistent social differences in perception and evaluation. Much has been made by structural-functionalists of the extent to which different national averaged rankings correlate, but this is probably due as much to the necessary restriction to a few very familiar stereotypical occupations, as to any widespread cross-national consensus.
Occupational prestige scores feature centrally in a wide range of empirical sociological studies of social class formation, educational attainment, and occupational inheritance through social mobility, though their substantive and methodological meaning is sometimes obscure. The most widely used scale of occupational prestige in comparative studies of occupational mobility is probably the so-called Treiman Scale (see D. J. Treiman, Occupational Prestige in Comparative Perspective, 1977). See also status attainment.