Occupational Data and Classification: An Old and Recurring Dilemma for Labor and Social Historians

Margo Anderson, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

A question on a person’s “occupation” has been a standard inquiry on censuses and surveys going on 200 years now. Researchers have not surprisingly made extensive use of the data, both micro data and tabulations, to study the changing patterns of the macro economy, the micro patterns of within firms and families, and the social mobility of individuals, families, and groups over time. It’s a workhorse variable. It’s also a very problematic and complicated variable, almost always recorded as an open ended survey response, requiring lots of data “cleaning” and “classification” work to wrestle the responses into some kind of useful dataset. There’s the question of who has an “occupation,” or is in the “labor force,” or is “working,” or at what age a person acquires or relinquishes an “occupation.” Or how to understand the evolution of occupational titles. This paper will review some of these dilemmas to evaluate how social scientists have used, and at times abused, “occupational data” in the past and present.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 49. The Data of Labor History