Socioeconomic Stratification, Class Structure, and Inequality on Self-Concept and Imposter Phenomenon

By Jen L’Insalata

Socioeconomic status includes aspects of ownership, wealth, and class identity. Gradients between rich and poor highlight the variation of outcome linked to mental and physical health outcomes, access to resources, opportunity, and education. Socioeconomic status provides a pathway to power through access and acceptance in a status-driven western economy. As socioeconomic differences increase, so does the subjective emphasis on the importance of status and income (Wilkinson, & Pickett, 2017).

Dominance hierarchies form a social organizational structure through which individuals are stratified into a class system. Stratifications encompass more than financial status, further dividing individuals based on cultural drivers and social values. Stratified societies maintain a ranking system used to evaluate and maximize perceived value within the hierarchy. Social ranking is based on access to valuable or scarce resources and the accumulation of resources provides a pathway to power (Wilkinson, & Pickett, 2017). 

Egalitarian framework counterbalances resource-based social ranking systems to a small degree through the value of generosity and selflessness. Cultural aspects associated with selflessness and community provide an avenue through egalitarian endeavors provide recognition and prestige. However societal inequality increases internal status-driven anxiety as socioeconomic based access becomes a valuable attribute (Wilkinson, & Pickett, 2017). 

According to an intrapersonal perspective, global self-esteem is based on an individual’s perception of performance in domains deemed important. American societal constructs emphasize a high degree of value and prestige associated with socioeconomic status and occupations. High education, income, and status-based occupations are valued in American society and serve as a basis of assessing an individual’s worthiness (von Soest, Wagner, Hansen, & Gerstorf, 2018). This in turn serves as a validation for self-esteem in adults. 

Interpersonal framework emphasizes the role of social interaction and social symbolism on self-esteem. Individuals who maintain healthy social interactions experience higher self-esteem outcomes. On the contrary, individuals with poor social connections experience low self-esteem outcomes. The internalization of the perceptions of others establishes a framework for self-evaluation. Individuals with low socioeconomic status are often marginalized and alienated in professional roles. Threats of social exclusion negatively influence self-perception (von Soest, Wagner, Hansen, & Gerstorf, 2018) leading many individuals to increase socioeconomic standing as a form of social inclusion.

Social mobility becomes restricted by socioeconomic class origins as cultural worldviews are influenced by economics and access to resources. The expectations and demands that culture places on the individual limits the ability to transcend socioeconomic stratifications. Awareness of the degree in which socioeconomic stratification impacts self-esteem drives many high achieving individuals to pursue avenues to socioeconomic advancement (Sánchez, Liu, Leathers, Goins, & Vilain, 2011).

Individuals experience class mobility in three directions, their class or origin, their current class, and their class as others ascribe them. Throughout life, individuals move between classes shifting their sense of self and belonging. Individuals of lower or working classes find themselves straddling class divisions and developing the need to operate between two distinct class identities. Lower income classes are often faced with the choice to be loyal to their class of origin, while striving to achieve career goals. In order to achieve career goals, individuals are often forced to assimilate into cultural norms and expectations of a higher socioeconomic class. This frequently results in the individual feeling alienated from both class environments (Ardoin, 2018). 

Imposter Phenomenon relates to one’s desire to appear in a particular manner within a peer group (Langford, & Clance, 1993). Individuals shift between social classes throughout educational and career progression. Transitioning socioeconomic class is a source of anxiety for many individuals. Individuals in working classes find themselves to be out of place when working toward financial and occupational advancement. There is a lack of comfortability and belonging to both the aspirational social class and the social class of origin (Ardoin, 2018). Straddling socioeconomic classes results in behavioral adaptations of separate personas when interacting in each class.  

American mythology maintains the belief that higher education is a pathway to upward mobility despite the socioeconomic stratifications of one’s origin (Sánchez, Liu, Leathers, Goins, & Vilain, 2011). Socioeconomic position encompasses aspects of education and the prestige associated with institutions of higher education. Higher education continues to be an avenue for socio-economic mobility by serving as a training ground for the labor market. Human capital theory connects educational qualifications to employee productivity and thus increased earning potential. Employers often select employees based on educational credentials (Delaney, & Farren, 2016). 

Institutions of higher education have a longstanding history of inequality and exclusionary practices based on socioeconomic status. The increasing cost of education, ranked and selective admissions, and tuition assistance contribute to contribute to illusion of education as a privilege. Students are often expected to conform and assimilate in order to “catch up” to more well-off peers (Ardoin, 2018). 

Many individuals from lower socioeconomic classes choose avenues of distance learning or pursue lower level higher educational qualifications in order to balance financial and academic responsibilities (Delaney, & Farren, 2016). Those who do gain entrance to prestigious institutions or purse high level educations experience a marginalization and find difficulty connecting to peers in higher socioeconomic positioning (Ardoin, 2018). As higher education is a prerequisite for many forms of employment, individuals from lower socioeconomic standing are forced to assimilate with a new socioeconomic culture while mitigating the dissonance of class identity. 

Aspects of social expression through dress, dialect, and manners contribute to the perception of a particular social standing sending a message that is then affirmed by society (Ardoin, 2018, & Wilkinson, & Pickett, 2017). Individuals with low self-esteem rely on the validation of others and are often compelled to adopt the behavioral patterns and appearance of the aspirational social class. Straddling socioeconomic class divisions contribute to additional dissonance surrounding one’s identity. The feeling of fraudulence may be increased due to conforming with social class expectations of two groups in varying environments. The desire to be validated within the aspirational in-group is compounded by intense fear and anxiety that that group will recognize an individual’s fraudulence (Gibson & Schwartz, 2008) which ultimately increase the occurrence of Imposter Phenomenon at the socioeconomic level. 


Ardoin, S. (2018). Helping Poor‐ and Working‐Class Students Create Their Own Sense of Belonging. New Directions for Student Services, 2018(162), 75–86.

Delaney, L., & Farren, M. (2016). No ‘self’ left behind? Part-time distance learning university graduates: social class, graduate identity and employability. Open Learning, 31(3), 194–208.

Gibson-Beverly, G., & Schwartz, J. R. (2008). Attachment, Entitlement, and the Impostor Phenomenon in Female Graduate Students. Journal of College Counseling, 11(2), 119–132.

Langford, J., & Clance, P. R. (1993). The imposter phenomenon: Recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 30(3), 495–501.

Sánchez, F. J., Liu, W. M., Leathers, L., Goins, J., & Vilain, E. (2011). The subjective experience of social class and upward mobility among African American men in graduate school. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 12(4), 368–382.

von Soest, T., Wagner, J., Hansen, T., & Gerstorf, D. (2018). Self-esteem across the second half of life: The role of socioeconomic status, physical health, social relationships, and personality factors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114(6), 945–958.

Wilkinson, R. G., & Pickett, K. E. (2017). The enemy between us: The psychological and social costs of inequality. European Journal of Social Psychology, 47(1), 11–24.


Considering Socioeconomic Status in Treatment

By Jen L’Insalata

Socioeconomic status encompasses more then just income. It includes aspects of ownership, wealth, and class identity. Social gradients between rich and poor showcase varying degrees of well-being linked to mental and physical health outcomes, access to resources, opportunity, and education, and provide a pathway to power through the existence of a status-driven western economy (Wilkinson, & Pickett, 2017).

Individuals residing in a higher socioeconomic status have access to healthcare and education which present opportunities for global wellbeing. Education and career endeavors associated with higher income offer a sense of prestige that is often unavailable to those of lower socioeconomic standing (Wilkinson, & Pickett, 2017). Individuals in lower socioeconomic classes are often considered ‘disadvantaged’ in terms of health outcomes, access, and opportunity. The association with being ‘disadvantaged’ leads to social isolation and alienation (Smith, 2005).

Poverty is complex and can be addressed from framework spanning several disciplines including psychology. However psychological services often fall short when providing services for low income populations. Classism and negative biases often influence the service provider and distinctions between white collar and blue-collar mentalities are not acknowledged in the therapeutic setting. This further exacerbates alienation and leads to a breakdown in understanding between the therapist and the client (Smith, 2009).

Historical movements have attempted to provide access to psychological services to lower income individuals through means of community mental health programs. Clinicians trained through higher education observed that individuals from lower socioeconomic status appeared unable to “grasp” concepts addressed through therapy (Smith, 2009). Misconceptions surrounding relatability and priority further alienate the client from the therapist.

When developing psychological services for lower income populations, once can utilize Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs as a framework. Maslow suggests that in order for individuals to address higher level concerns, basic needs must be satisfied (Wedding, & Corsini, 2014). In application, psychologists must recognize that individuals at lower socioeconomic statuses often struggle to secure basic needs such as food and shelter. Thus, priorities differ from individuals who have obtained security in low level needs and are able to focus on higher level motivators such as belonging, emotional wellbeing, and self-actualization.

Strength based client centered approaches are likely benefit those at lower socioeconomic levels as the focus on a client’s strengths rather then limitations and encourage the client to take an active role in the course of their program. Strength based client focused approaches rely heavily on collaboration when treatment planning and recognizing that clients may experience challenges unforeseen to the therapist. Strength based approaches also place the client in the position as the expert shifting the power differential between client and psychologist (Snyder & Lopez, 2006).

Similarly, family systems theory incorporates both the systemic and structural framework when working with low income individuals. Family systems therapy addresses poverty as it effects the individual and conceptualizes a client’s relationship to poverty when formulating a treatment approach (Smith, 2005). The therapist becomes aware of their interactions as a component of the system structure and thus the impact on the client.


Smith, L. (2005). Psychotherapy, Classism, and the Poor: Conspicuous by Their Absence. American Psychologist, 60(7), 687–696.

Snyder C.R. & Lopez, S.J.(2006). Positive Psychology: The Scientific and Practical Explorations of Human Strengths” SAGE.

Wedding, D., & Corsini, R. J. (Eds.). (2014). Current psychotherapies (10th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole. ISBN: 9781285083711.

Wilkinson, R. G., & Pickett, K. E. (2017). The enemy between us: The psychological and social costs of inequality. European Journal of Social Psychology, 47(1), 11–24.