In addition to their explanations for status in society and their own status, and the indicators of status that they use, a crucial part of people’s perception of privilege is their sense of their own status. When assessing our status, we might compare ourselves to a range of different reference points, from a billionaire property magnate that we read about in the paper to subsistence farmer struggling to feed their family that we see on the news. However, in our day-to-day lives the most salient reference points tend to be the society that we live in and the people that we know personally. The Privilege and Participation survey asked people about their sense of status when compared to each of those groups, and the results can be seen in Figure 1 (above, using weighted data).
Respondents were specifically asked to think of society and their acquaintances being on a ladder, and to place themselves on that ladder relative to those other groups. When comparing themselves to society (panel A), a quarter of people (25.8%, a plurality) place themselves on the fifth rung of the ladder, which is intuitively the middle even if there was not actually a middle category (because it was a ten-point scale). This is likely to be a signal of feeling ‘average’ or ‘normal,’ and the attraction of the middle of the scale can also be seen in the fact that more than half of people (53.3%) place themselves on the fourth, fifth, and sixth rungs. The picture is similar in relation to acquaintances (panel B) and people still err towards the middle of the scale, though they think of themselves as having slightly higher status within this group. A plurality of more than a fifth (22.7%) place themselves on the fifth rung and a majority (53.4%) place themselves on the fifth, sixth, and seventh rungs.
People are roughly normally distributed around the fifth rung when comparing themselves to both groups but, as noted, more people favour higher rungs when compared to acquaintances. However, there are also lower peaks at each end of the scale, representing people who think of themselves as particularly high or low status. In relation to society, one in sixteen people (6.2%) place themselves on the lowest rung and one in eight people (12.1%) place themselves on the highest rung. The groups at each end of the scale are slightly lower when people compare themselves to their acquaintances: one in eighteen (5.6%) place themselves on the bottom run and one in nine (10.6%) place themselves on the top rung. These outlying groups mean that the answers to these questions differ notably from the more normally distributed answers to similar questions that were asked in 2001, 2005, and 2010, and this may indicate a problem.
Previous questions have asked people to compare themselves to those who they know based on who is ‘best off’ and ‘worst off’ but the Privilege and Participation survey asked people to compare themselves to those with the ‘highest status’ and the ‘lowest status.’ This shift in focus may have driven more people to place themselves on the top or bottom rungs because status does necessarily not signal economic comparisons in the same way as being better or worse off. Focusing on status may, for instance, have led people with low self-esteem to place themselves on the bottom rung whilst prompting others to assert that their status is as high as anyone else’s by placing themselves on the top rung. Additionally, the original question assigned the lowest status rung a value of 10 and the highest status rung a value of 1 (this has subsequently been inverted so that higher status has higher values), which runs counter to previous question wordings. This may have been counter-intuitive, especially without anchors specifying the meaning of each end of the scale (beyond the explanation in the wording), and led to confusion amongst some people. These problems with the questions undermine our confidence in the validity of the answers, and certainly throw their meaning into doubt. As such, it may be expedient to exclude the variables from future analyses.