Social class and psychological distress

Publication Name: 
American Sociological Review
Publication Authors: 
Kessler RC and Cleary PD
HCP Authors:Ronald C. Kessler PhD
Date of Publication: 
Jun 1980

Although a negative relationship between socioeconomic position and psychological distress has consistently been documented in community surveys, we know very little about the determinants of this relationship. The dominant interpretation argues that distress is caused by exposure to stressful life experiences, that lower status people are highly exposed to this sort of experience, and that statistical adjustment for differential exposure can account for the higher rates of distress among lower status people. In this paper, a different interpretation is emphasized. It is shown that differential exposure to stress, while clearly of some importance, accounts for only a minor part of the status/distress relationship, and that a far more central role is played by class differences in responsiveness to stress--that is, by the fact that lower status people are more likely than middle and upper status people to develop symptoms of distress when exposed to problematic life experience. Several plausible interpretations of this differential responsiveness are presented and an analysis strategy developed to evaluate their relative contributions. Results of an empirical evaluation document the importance of social origins and mobility experiences as determinants of differential responsiveness to stress.

(June 1980)

View the Article