An extensive literature investigating how educational achievements and other indicators of skill and ability translate into jobs ranked according to socio-economic status or prestige. The classic studies are those by Peter M. Blau and Otis Dudley Duncan (The American Occupational Structure, 1967) and David Featherman and Robert Hauser (Opportunity and Change, 1978).
The status-attainment programme attempts to explain social mobility patterns by identifying those attributes which seem to facilitate the movement of individuals into desirable occupations. To what extent are occupational outcomes shaped by family of origin rather than personal attributes such as educational attainment? This approach depends upon the assumption that individuals are allocated to positions ordered in a continuous unidimensional hierarchy. In some studies, this social hierarchy was conceptualized narrowly as being one of occupational prestige—most commonly, how people rate the relative ‘general standing’ of different occupations. In others, it was extended to include additional aspects of socio-economic status, such as income and years of schooling. For a useful overview of the major contributions see D. J. Treiman and H. B. G. Ganzeboom, ‘Cross-National Comparative Status-Attainment Research’, Research in Social Stratification and Mobility (1990).
In the original Blau-Duncan model for the United States in 1962, the total correlation between son's current occupation and father's occupation was found to be 0.405. This could be decomposed into an indirect effect via education of 0.227 (57 per cent) and an effect net of education (direct or through the son's first job) of 0.178 (43 per cent). In this same study, the ratio of the effect of education on current occupation to the direct effect of father's occupation on current occupation was calculated to be 2.9 to 1, a finding which led Blau and Duncan to conclude that achievement was more important than ascription in determining occupational status in mid-20th-century America.
The later so-called Wisconsin Model, developed by William H. Sewell and his associates, continued in the Blau-Duncan mould by relating the family background and ascribed characteristics of students to their occupational status via the mediation of ability as well as educational achievement. Various Wisconsin studies showed that family background affected educational and occupational outcomes through its effects on parental and peer influences and on the shaping of educational aspirations. Academic ability was also found to have a strong effect on educational attainment (independently of social origins) and an effect on occupational attainment through its impact on educational and occupational aspirations. In other words, both schooling and family background affected status attainment, mainly through effects transmitted by social psychological processes.
The implications of these findings for arguments about equality of opportunity and meritocracy soon became a matter of controversy. Some observers (such as Robert Hauser) took them to mean that status attainment in the United States was mainly a meritocratic process since the effects of family background could (apparently) be overcome by those attributable to schooling. Others (including Christopher Jencks) argued that such results undermined meritocratic interpretations of the status attainment process because both ascription and achievement continued to exert a substantial influence on mobility outcomes. Moreover, Jencks and his colleagues maintained that the importance of family background was underestimated in the Wisconsin model, and that of aptitude and aspirations overestimated, because of measurement errors in the original studies (see, for example, the exchange between Hauser, Jencks, and others in the journal Sociology of Education, 1983).