Social status

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Social status is the level of social value a person is considered to hold. [1] [2] More specifically, it refers to the relative level of respect, honour, assumed competence, and deference accorded to people, groups, and organizations in a society. Status is based in widely shared beliefs about who members of a society think holds comparatively more or less social value, in other words, who they believe is better in terms of competence or moral traits. [3] Status is determined by the possession of various characteristics culturally believed to indicate superiority or inferiority (e.g., confident manner of speech or race). As such, people use status hierarchies to allocate resources, leadership positions, and other forms of power. In doing so, these shared cultural beliefs make unequal distributions of resources and power appear natural and fair, supporting systems of social stratification. [4] Status hierarchies appear to be universal across human societies, affording valued benefits to those who occupy the higher rungs, such as better health, social approval, resources, influence, and freedom. [2]



The sociologist Max Weber outlined three central aspects of stratification in a society: class, status, and power. In his scheme, which remains influential today, people possess status in the sense of honor because they belong to specific groups with unique lifestyles and privileges. [5] Modern sociologists and social psychologists broadened this understanding of status to refer to one's relative level of respectability and honor more generally. [6]

Some writers have also referred to a socially valued role or category a person occupies as a "status" (e.g., gender, social class, ethnicity, having a criminal conviction, having a mental illness, etc.). [7] As social network analysts, Stanley Wasserman and Katherine Faust Stanley cautioned "there is considerable disagreement among social scientists about the definitions of the related concepts of social position, social status, and social role." They note that while many scholars differentiate those terms, they can define those terms in a way that clashes with the definitions of another scholar; for example they state that "[Ralph] Linton uses the term 'status' in a way that is identical to our use of the term "position". [8]


Status hierarchies depend primarily on the possession and use of status symbols. These are cues or characteristics that people in a society agree indicate how much status a person holds and how they should be treated. [9] Such symbols can include the possession of valued attributes, like being conventionally beautiful or having a prestigious degree. Other status symbols include wealth and its display through conspicuous consumption. [10] Status in face-to-face interaction can also be conveyed through certain controllable behaviors, such as assertive speech, posture, [11] and emotional displays. [12] Social network analysts have also shown that one's affiliations can also be a source of status. Several studies document that being popular [13] or demonstrating dominance over peers [14] increases a person's status. Analyses of private companies also find that organizations can gain status from having well-respected corporate partners or investors. [1]

A medical professional shows students a model of human anatomy. People with higher status, like this instructor, command more attention, are more influential, and their statements are evaluated as more accurate, compared to others in the group. Castle Bridge School 01.jpg
A medical professional shows students a model of human anatomy. People with higher status, like this instructor, command more attention, are more influential, and their statements are evaluated as more accurate, compared to others in the group.

Because status is always relative to others, that means a person can enter many situations throughout their life or even a single day in which they hold high, equal, or low status depending on who is around them. For instance, a doctor holds high status when interacting with a patient, equal status in a meeting with fellow doctors, and low status when meeting with their hospital's chief of medicine. A person can also be a 'big fish in a small pond' such that they have higher status than everyone else in their organization, but low or equal status relative to professionals in their entire field. [15]

Some perspectives on status emphasize its relatively fixed and fluid aspects. Ascribed statuses are fixed for an individual at birth, while achieved status is determined by social rewards an individual acquires during his or her lifetime as a result of the exercise of ability and/or perseverance. [16] Examples of ascribed status include castes, race, and beauty among others. Meanwhile, achieved statuses are akin to one's educational credentials or occupation: these things require a person to exercise effort and often undergo years of training. The term master status has been used to describe the status most important for determining a person's position in a given context, like possessing a mental illness. [17] [18]

However, the concept of a master status is controversial. Status characteristics theory argues members of a task group will listen to whomever they believe will most help them solve a problem. One's external status in society (e.g., race or gender) determines influence in small groups, but so does a person's known ability on the task (e.g., mechanical ability when a car breaks down). [19] This implies that known ability would attenuate the effect of external status, implying a given external status characteristic is not a master status. The program of research finds characteristics assumed to be master statuses (e.g., mental illness) are, in fact, attenuated by known ability. [20] Moreover, status affects group members' assertiveness only when characteristics differentiate group members (i.e., groups are mixed-race or mixed-gender). With respect to gender, experimental tests repeatedly found that women are highly deferential only in the presence of men. [21] [22] [23] Although for disadvantaged groups, status disadvantage is not completely negated by valued characteristics, their social status does not depend predominantly on any one group membership. As such, status characteristics research has yet to identify a social characteristic that operates like a robust cross-situational master status.

Uses of status

Although a person's status does not always correspond to merit or actual ability, it does allow the members of a group to coordinate their actions and quickly agree on who among them should be listened to. When actual ability does correspond to status, then status hierarchies can be especially useful. They allow leaders to emerge who set informed precedents and influence less knowledgeable group members, allowing groups to use the shared information of their group to make more correct decisions. [24] This can be especially helpful in novel situations where group members must determine who is best equipped to complete a task.

In addition, groups accord more respect and esteem to members who help them succeed, which encourages highly capable members to contribute in the first place. [25] This helps groups motivate members to contribute to a collective good by offering respect and esteem as a kind of compensation for helping everyone in the group succeed. For instance, people recognized as achieving great feats for their group or society are sometimes accorded legendary status as heroes.

Finally, status helps maintain social inequality. Because status is based on beliefs about social worth and esteem, sociologists argue it can then appear only natural that higher-status people have more material resources and power. [6] Status makes it appear that a person's rank or position in society is due to their relative merit, and therefore deserved. For instance, if a society holds that the homeless are unworthy of respect or dignity, then their poor material conditions are not evaluated as unjust by members of that society, and therefore are not subject to change.

In different societies

Whether formal or informal, status hierarchies are present in all societies. [2] In a society, the relative honor and prestige accorded to individuals depends on how well an individual is perceived to match a society's values and ideals (e.g., being pious in a religious society or wealthy in a capitalist society). Status often comes with attendant rights, duties, and lifestyle practices. [5]

In modern societies, occupation is usually thought of as the main determinant of status, [26] but other memberships or affiliations (such as ethnic group, religion, gender, voluntary associations, fandom, hobby) can have an influence. [6] Achieved status, when people are placed in the stratification structure based on their individual merits or achievements like education or training, is thought to be reflective of modern developed societies. Consequently, achieved status implies that social mobility in a society is possible, as opposed to caste systems characterized by immobility based solely on ascribed status.

In pre-modern societies, status differentiation is widely varied. In some cases it can be quite rigid, such as with the Indian caste system. In other cases, status exists without class and/or informally, as is true with some Hunter-Gatherer societies such as the Khoisan, and some Indigenous Australian societies. In these cases, status is limited to specific personal relationships. For example, a Khoisan man is expected to take his wife's mother quite seriously (a non-joking relationship), although the mother-in-law has no special "status" over anyone except her son-in-law—and only then in specific contexts.

Status maintains and stabilizes social stratification. Mere inequality in resources and privileges is perceived as unfair and thus prompts retaliation and resistance from those of lower status, but if some individuals are seen as better than others (i.e., have higher status), then it seems natural and fair that high-status people receive more resources and privileges. [6] Historically, Max Weber distinguished status from social class, [5] though some contemporary empirical sociologists combine the two ideas to create socioeconomic status or SES, usually operationalized as a simple index of income, education and occupational prestige.

In nonhuman animals

Social status hierarchies have been documented in a wide range of animals: apes, [27] baboons, [28] wolves, [29] cows/bulls, [30] hens, [31] even fish, [32] and ants. [33] Natural selection produces status-seeking behavior because animals tend to have more surviving offspring when they raise their status in their social group. [34] Such behaviors vary widely because they are adaptations to a wide range of environmental niches. Some social dominance behaviors tend to increase reproductive opportunity, [35] while others tend to raise the survival rates of an individual’s offspring. [36] Neurochemicals, particularly serotonin, [37] prompt social dominance behaviors without need for an organism to have abstract conceptualizations of status as a means to an end. Social dominance hierarchy emerges from individual survival-seeking behaviors.

Status inconsistency

Status inconsistency is a situation where an individual's social positions have both positive and negative influences on his or her social status. For example, a teacher may have a positive societal image (respect, prestige) which increases their status but may earn little money, which simultaneously decreases their status. In task-focused interpersonal encounters, people unconsciously combine this information to develop impressions of their own and others' relative rank. [19] At one time, researchers thought status inconsistency would be a source of stress, though evidence for this hypothesis proved inconsistent, leaving some to conclude conflicting expectations through occupying incompatible roles may be the true stressor. [38]

Social stratification

Status is one of the major components of social stratification, the way people are hierarchically placed in a society. The members of a group with similar status interact mainly within their own group and to a lesser degree with those of higher or lower status in a recognized system of social stratification. [39] Although the determinants of status are specific to different cultures, some of the more common bases for status-based stratification include:

Max Weber's three dimensions of stratification

The German sociologist Max Weber argued stratification is based on three factors: property, status, and power. He claimed that social stratification is a result of the interaction of wealth (class), prestige status (or in German Stand) and power (party). [40]

Status group

Max Weber developed the idea of "status group" which is a translation of the German Stand (pl. Stände). Status groups are communities that are based on ideas of lifestyles and the honor the status group both asserts, and is given by others. Status groups exist in the context of beliefs about relative prestige, privilege, and honor. People in status groups are only supposed to engage with people of like status, and in particular, marriage inside or outside the group is discouraged. Status groups in some societies include professions, club-like organizations, ethnicity, race, and any other socially (de)valued group that organizes interaction among relative equals. [41]

See also

Related Research Articles

Social class Hierarchical social stratification

A social class is a set of concepts in the social sciences and political theory centered on models of social stratification which occur in a class society, in which people are grouped into a set of hierarchical social categories, the most common being the upper, middle and lower classes. Membership in a social class can for example be dependent on education, wealth, occupation, income, and belonging to a particular subculture or social network.

Prejudice Affective feeling towards a person or thing based on perceived group membership

Prejudice can be an affective feeling towards a person based on their perceived group membership. The word is often used to refer to a preconceived evaluation or classification of another person based on that person's perceived political affiliation, sex, gender, beliefs, values, social class, age, disability, religion, sexuality, race, ethnicity, language, nationality, complexion, beauty, height, occupation, wealth, education, criminality, sport-team affiliation, music tastes or other personal characteristics.


In sociology, popularity is how much a person, idea, place, item or other concept is either liked or accorded status by other people. Liking can be due to reciprocal liking, interpersonal attraction, and similar factors. Social status can be due to dominance, superiority, and similar factors. For example, a kind person may be considered likable and therefore more popular than another person, and a wealthy person may be considered superior and therefore more popular than another person.

The term social order can be used in two senses: In the first sense, it refers to a particular system of social structures and institutions. Examples are the ancient, the feudal, and the capitalist social order. In the second sense, social order is contrasted to social chaos or disorder and refers to a stable state of society in which the existing social structure is accepted and maintained by its members. The problem of order or Hobbesian problem, which is central to much of sociology, political science and political philosophy, is the question of how and why it is that social orders exist at all.

Three-component theory of stratification

The three-component theory of stratification, More widely known as Weberian stratification or the three class system, was developed by German sociologist Max Weber with class, status and party as distinct ideal types. Weber developed a multidimensional approach to social stratification that reflects the interplay among wealth, prestige and power.

Ascribed status is a term used in sociology that refers to the social status of a person that is assigned at birth or assumed involuntarily later in life. The status is a position that is neither earned by the person nor chosen for them. Rather, the ascribed status is assigned based on social and cultural expectations, norms, and standards. These positions are occupied regardless of efforts or desire. These rigid social designators remain fixed throughout an individual's life and are inseparable from the positive or negative stereotypes that are linked with one's ascribed statuses.

Dominance hierarchy Type of social hierarchy

A dominance hierarchy, formerly and colloquially called a pecking order, is a type of social hierarchy that arises when members of animal social groups interact, creating a ranking system. In social living groups, members are likely to compete for access to limited resources and mating opportunities. Rather than fighting each time they meet, relative rank is established between members of the same sex. Based on repetitive interactions, a social order is created that is subject to change each time a dominant animal is challenged by a subordinate one. In mammals, a dominant individual is sometimes called an alpha, and the lower rank is sometimes termed a beta.

Social stratification Population with similar characteristics in a society

Social stratification refers to a society's categorization of its people into groups based on socioeconomic factors like wealth, income, race, education, ethnicity, gender, occupation, social status, or derived power. As such, stratification is the relative social position of persons within a social group, category, geographic region, or social unit.

Social position is the position of an individual in a given society and culture. A given position may belong to many individuals. Social position influences social status. Social position can help to identify a person's position within the social hierarchy in a society.

The authoritarian personality is a hypothetical personality type characterized by extreme obedience and unquestioning respect for and submission to the authority of a person external to the self, which is supposedly realized through the oppression of subordinate people. Conceptually, the term authoritarian personality originated from the writings of Erich Fromm, and usually is applied to men and women who exhibit a strict and oppressive personality towards their subordinates.

Social dominance orientation (SDO) is a personality trait measuring an individual's support for social hierarchy and the extent to which they desire their in-group be superior to out-groups. SDO is conceptualized under social dominance theory as a measure of individual differences in levels of group-based discrimination; that is, it is a measure of an individual's preference for hierarchy within any social system and the domination over lower-status groups. It is a predisposition toward anti-egalitarianism within and between groups.

Social psychology (sociology)

In sociology, social psychology studies the relationship between the individual and society. Although studying many of the same substantive topics as its counterpart in the field of psychology, sociological social psychology places relatively more emphasis on the influence of social structure and culture on individual outcomes, such as personality, behavior, and one's position in social hierarchies. Researchers broadly focus on higher levels of analysis, directing attention mainly to groups and the arrangement of relationships among people. This subfield of sociology is broadly recognized as having three major perspectives: Symbolic interactionism, social structure and personality, and structural social psychology.

Life chances is a social science theory of the opportunities each individual that has helped to improve their quality of life. The concept was introduced by German sociologist Max Weber in the 1920s. It is a probabilistic concept, describing how likely it is, given certain factors, that an individual's life will turn out a certain way. According to this theory, life chances are positively correlated with one's socioeconomic status.

Sexual capital or erotic capital is the social value an individual or group accrues as a result of their sexual attractiveness. As with other forms of capital, sexual capital is convertible, and may be useful in acquiring other forms of capital, including social capital and economic capital.

Status attainment is the process of one attaining one's positions in society, or class. Status attainment is affected by both achieved factors, such as educational attainment, and ascribed factors, such as family income. The theory of status attainment states that one can be mobile, either upwardly or downwardly, in the form of a class system.

Social dominance theory (SDT) is a social psychological theory of intergroup relations that examines the caste-like features of group-based social hierarchies, seeking to explain how they remain stable and perpetuate themselves. According to the theory, group-based inequalities are maintained through three primary mechanisms: institutional discrimination, aggregated individual discrimination, and behavioral asymmetry. The theory proposes that widely shared cultural ideologies provide the moral and intellectual justification for these intergroup behaviors, serving to disguise privilege as “normal”. For data collection and validation of predictions, the social dominance orientation (SDO) scale was composed to measure acceptance of and desire for group-based social hierarchy using two factors: 1) support for group-based dominance and 2) generalized opposition to equality, regardless of the in-group’s position in the power structure. Though the scale is used in other social and political psychology studies with disparate goals including those exploring the causes of the orientation, social dominance theory’s perspective is that explaining the orientation cannot explain group-based dominance due to its role as just one of many factors that act as both partial effects as well as a partial cause of group-based dominance.

Social inequality Uneven distribution of resources in a society

Social inequality occurs when resources in a given society are distributed unevenly, typically through norms of allocation, that engender specific patterns along lines of socially defined categories of persons. It is the differentiation preference of access of social goods in the society brought about by power, religion, kinship, prestige, race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, and class. Social inequality usually implies the lack of equality of outcome, but may alternatively be conceptualized in terms of the lack of equality of access to opportunity. The social rights include labor market, the source of income, health care, and freedom of speech, education, political representation, and participation.

Expectation states theory

Expectation states theory is a social psychological theory first proposed by Joseph Berger and his colleagues that explains how expected competence forms the basis for status hierarchies in small groups. The theory's best known branch, status characteristics theory, deals with the role that certain pieces of social information play in organizing these hierarchies. More recently, sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway has utilized the theory to explain how beliefs about status become attached to different social groups and the implications this has for social inequality.

In sociology, as defined by Webster and Driskell, status generalization is "the process by which statuses of actors external to a particular interaction are imported and allowed to determine important features of that interaction." As an example, Webster and Driskell cite the tendency of white male executives to become group leaders even if their executive skills are not relevant to the group's task.

Originating in evolutionary psychology, dual strategies theory states two major strategies individuals use to advance in social hierarchies.


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Further reading