European Sociological Review

Positional, Mobility and Reference effects: How Does Social Class Affect Life Satisfaction in Europe?

European Sociological Review

Authors: Dr. Caspar Kaiser

Caspar Kaiser & Nhat An Trinh


In this study, we analyse the effects of social class on life satisfaction and develop a theoretical framework that shows how social class affects life satisfaction through five pathways. Informed by this framework, we estimate the direct effects of class destination and class origin, the effect of own intergenerational class mobility as well as the effects of others’ class position and mobility (so-called reference effects). To do so, we utilize European Social Survey (ESS) waves 1 to 5 (2002-2010). We obtain information on life satisfaction as well as destination and origin class for about 100,000 respondents in 32 European countries. Our mobility analyses are performed with diagonal reference models, which allow for the consistent estimation of mobility effects. We find: (1) Class destination consistently and strongly structures life satisfaction across Europe. (2) Own class mobility positively impacts life satisfaction, particularly in Eastern Europe. (3) Other’s class mobility has a strong negative effect on life satisfaction. Especially the latter finding points to the hitherto neglected importance of reference effects when considering the impact of social class on life satisfaction.

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