Throughout much of the 20th century, sociologists were fascinated, arguably obsessed, with theorizing about the conditions under which big social classes might form, an understandable fascination insofar as individual life chances and even collective outcomes (e.g., revolutions) were taken to depend on class processes. The occupationalization of the labor market has, by contrast, been treated as a mere surface phenomenon that is neither complicated, subtle, or consequential enough to merit much attention. Although occupations have long been represented in sociological rhetoric as the backbone of the inequality system, the tendency has been to reduce them to socioeconomic scores or to aggregate them into big social classes (e.g., “service class”), with neither approach taking seriously the balkanization of the labor market into discrete, organic occupational groups.
The purpose of this project is to show that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, much of the structure at the site of production is located at the level of detailed occupations (e.g., doctor, secretary, carpenter) rather than being gradational or aggregate in form. Because occupations are deeply institutionalized in contemporary labor markets, they serve as primitive units of work and social life, and one cannot well understand the structure of social mobility without representing the occupational mechanism for reproduction explicitly.