Hidden (Dis)Advantages of Class: How Cultural Signals of Class Shape U.S. Labor Market Outcomes


By bhadmin February 2, 2021

While the status attainment literature posits a direct relationship between family socioeconomic background and occupational attainment, sociologists tend to focus on supply-side factors, like schooling and social capital, to account for this effect, neglecting demand-side explanations like discrimination. My dissertation addresses this theoretical and empirical gap by using survey- and field-experimental methods to examine how cultural signals of class influence the evaluation and selection of U.S. job applicants. Drawing on sociological theory and original survey data, I propose that Americans commonly draw on cultural measures of status—namely, indicators of cultural taste—to discern the class positions of others. Through two survey-experimental studies, I investigate the extent to which these cultural signals of class influence how people are socially perceived and stereotyped in the U.S. I conclude that Americans attribute a higher class position, greater levels of competence, and greater employability to individuals with traditionally highbrow tastes. I then explore the extent to which these cultural signals influence the hiring decisions of U.S. employers. Results from an audit study conducted in four major U.S. cities and a survey-experimental study of 1,428 hiring managers reveal the hidden value of highbrow taste in the U.S. labor market and, simultaneously, its hidden cost. I find that applicants with high status cultural tastes experience a significantly higher probability of employer callback if they are (1) women and (2) applying to customer-facing jobs. However, this probability becomes negative and non-significant among male and/or non-customer-facing job applicants. Survey-experimental evidence suggests that these differing patterns of employer callback may be explained by the positive effect of high status cultural signals on perceptions of demeanor and competence and their negative effect on perceptions of warmth. Together, the survey and audit study findings presented in this dissertation offer unique insight into the cultural content of American class bias and the gendered nature of its labor market consequences.

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