Doctors and Garbage Men: Unpacking Post-Secondary Students’ Perceptions of Occupational Prestige

Alexandra Shoichet


Research in the field of occupational prestige often involves ranking occupations or their attributes in an attempt to understand the variables that, taken together, produce a collective understanding of prestige that justifies the hierarchy of occupations in society. These studies acknowledge, generally, that while the ingredients of prestige may differ, it is an unavoidable feature of social interaction. What is less well-researched is how prestige affects the individual, particularly regarding his or her personal occupational aspirations. This study is a preliminary comparison of idealized and prestigious occupations in order to determine whether there is a correlation between the jobs esteemed by society and those idealized by the individual. In other words, it is an attempt to see whether the “best” jobs are what people actually want for themselves. After surveying three hundred and forty-four students at five post-secondary institutions in Nova Scotia, Canada, it was found that although prestigious and idealized occupations may be highly correlated in children, perceptions of prestige alter as children age and become more cognizant of cultural and societal values. Yet, although prestige is an abstract social concept, with components that differ due to the socioeconomic status and culture of those qualifying it, it is evaluated through attributes that are inherently personal. It is time to set aside debates on the location of occupations in the prestige hierarchy and instead question its very formation and continuing existence. Ultimately, this paper argues that prestige is an outdated concept propagating the discourse of the “good” job that is based on symbolic social consensus rather than objective reality. The implications of this research may not only serve to debunk the prestige hierarchy and permit a more nuanced understanding of those suffering from occupational inferiority, but it may help to show at what point personal preferences are supplanted by those of society and how the relationship between the ideal and prestigious may be mediated. This research will hopefully stimulate discussion on occupational prestige in order to help eliminate the discrimination faced by those who perform low prestige occupations whose personal worth is evaluated on the basis of their job alone.


Occupational Prestige; Idealized Occupations; Jobs; Symbolic Interaction

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