Social Indicators Research

, Volume 104, Issue 2, pp 225-251

First online:

Issues in the Conceptualisation and Measurement of Socioeconomic Background: Do Different Measures Generate Different Conclusions?

  • Gary Neil MarksAffiliated withAustralian Council for Educational ResearchMelbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, University of Melbourne Email author 

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Parental occupation and education are used extensively in the analysis of socioeconomic inequalities in education and subsequent social and economic outcomes. The purpose of this paper is to examine if different ways of measuring socioeconomic background substantially alter substantive conclusions on cross-national differences in socioeconomic inequalities in student achievement. The effects of father’s occupational group are largely consistent across countries, with students from teaching backgrounds scoring very highly in many countries. Student performance by mother’s educational group is quite similar across countries although the relative performance of students whose mothers completed vocational education differs between countries. Notwithstanding these differences, continuous measures of father’s and mother’s occupation and education, and composite measures comprising combinations of these four indicators and additional indicators produce similar, but not identical, orderings of countries in terms of socioeconomic inequalities in student performance. However common single indicator measures, mother’s education and father’s occupation do not show a particularly high correspondence, cross-nationally. On theoretical and empirical grounds, the preferred measure is a composite of both parents’ occupation and education.


Occupational status Class background Student achievement Sociology of education Cross-national comparisons