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Social status is the relative level of respect, honor, assumed competence, and deference accorded to people, groups, and organizations in a society. Some writers have also referred to a socially valued role or category a person occupies as a "status" (e.g., being a criminal or mentally ill). At its core, status is about who members of a society believe hold comparatively more or less social value. By definition, these beliefs about who is more or less valued (e.g., honorable, respectable, smart) are broadly shared among members of a society. As such, groups use status hierarchies to allocate resources, leadership positions, and other forms of power. In so doing, these shared cultural beliefs make unequal distributions of resources and power appear natural and fair, supporting systems of social stratification. 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.
Status hierarchies depend primarily on the possession and use of status symbols. These are cues people use to determine how much status a person holds and how they should be treated. Such symbols can include the possession of socially valuable attributes, like being conventionally beautiful or having a prestigious degree. Wealth and the display of it through conspicuous consumption can be indicators of status. Status in face-to-face interaction can also be conveyed through certain controllable behaviors, such as assertive speech, posture, and emotional displays.
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. 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.
Other perspectives, like status characteristics theory, eschew the idea of a master status. The theory argues that members of a group faced with a novel objective will look for information about themselves and others to figure out who is relatively more or less capable than others in the group. This situational approach to status hierarchies argues that different social attributes only determine a person's status and resulting behavior if these attributes differentiate that group member from other group members. For instance, because in contemporary U.S. society, men are attributed more social value than women, gender will determine one's position in a status hierarchy if both men and women are group members, but gender will not impact a person's status if all group members all share the same gender. In same-sex encounters, gender provides no new information about who is more or less capable, and so will not influence interaction. This account generally runs counter to perspectives based on socialization, which would argue that men and women internalize different norms dictating how to behave. Thus, according to a socialization perspective, men should always be less deferential than women, even in same-sex groups. With respect to gender, tests of status characteristics theory have repeatedly found experimental evidence favoring its situational explanation over the socialization and 'master status' perspectives.
In different societies
Whether formal or informal, status hierarchies are present in all societies. In a society, the relative honor and prestige accorded to individuals depends on how well an individual is perceived to match a society's goals and ideals (e.g., being pious in a religious society). Status sometimes comes with attendant rights, duties, and lifestyle practices.
In modern societies, occupation is usually thought of as the main determinant of status, but other memberships or affiliations (such as ethnic group, religion, gender, voluntary associations, fandom, hobby) can have an influence. Achieved status, when people are placed in the stratification structure based on their individual merits or achievements, is thought to be reflective of modern developed societies. This image status can be achieved, for instance, through education, occupation, and marital status. Their place within the stratification structure is determined by society's standards, which often judges them on success in matching important values, like political power, academic acumen, and financial wealth.
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 likely to be perceived as unfair and thus prompt 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. Historically, Max Weber distinguished status from social class, 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, baboons, wolves, cows/bulls, hens, even fish, and ants. Natural selection produces status-seeking behavior because animals tend to have more surviving offspring when they raise their status in their social group. Such behaviors vary widely because they are adaptations to a wide range of environmental niches. Some social dominance behaviors tend to increase reproductive opportunity, while others tend to raise the survival rates of an individual’s offspring. Neurochemicals, particularly serotonin, 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 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.
Inborn and acquired
Statuses such as those based on inborn characteristics, such as ethnicity or royal heritage, are called ascribed statuses. A stigma (such as a physical deformity or mental illness) can also be an attribute a person has possessed since birth, but stigmas can also be acquired later in life. Either way, stigmas generally result in lower status if known to others.
Status can be changed through a process of social mobility wherein a person changes position within the stratification system. A move in social standing can be upward (upward mobility), or downward (downward mobility). Social mobility is more frequent in societies where achievement rather than ascription is valued.
Social stratification describes the way people are placed or "stratified" in society. It is associated with the ability of individuals to live up to some set of ideals or principles regarded as important by the society or a subculture within it. The members of a social group 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. Some of the more common bases for such stratification include:
- Wealth/Income (most common): Ties between persons with the same personal income
- Gender: Ties between persons of the same sex and sexuality
- Political status: Ties between persons of the same political views/status
- Religion: Ties between persons of the same religion
- Race/Ethnicity: Ties between persons of the same ethnic/racial group
- Social class: Ties between persons born into the same economic group
- Coolness: Ties between persons who have similar levels of popularity
Max Weber's three dimensions of stratification
The German sociologist Max Weber developed a theory proposing that stratification is based on three factors that have become known as "the three p's of stratification": property, prestige 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).
- Prestige is a significant factor in determining one's place in the stratification system. The ownership of property is not always going to assure power, but there are frequently people with prestige and little property.
- Property refers to one's material possessions and their life chances. If someone has control of property, that person has power over others and can use the property to his or her own benefit.
- Power is the ability to do what one wants, regardless of the will of others. (Domination, a closely related concept, is the power to make others' behavior conform to one's commands). This refers to two different types of power, which are possession of power and exercising power. For example, some people in charge of the government have an immense amount of power, and yet they do not make much money.
Max Weber developed various ways that societies are organized in hierarchical systems of power. These ways are social status, class power and political power.
- Class Power: This refers to unequal access to resources. If you have access to something that someone else needs, that can make you more powerful than the person in need. The person with the resource thus has bargaining power over the other.
- Social Status (Social Power): If you view someone as a social superior, that person will have power over you because you believe that person has a higher status than you do.
- Political Power: Political power can influence the hierarchical system of power because those that can influence what laws are passed and how they are applied can exercise power over others.
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 and can be of both a positive and negative sort. 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 can include professions, club-like organizations, ethnicity, race, and other groups for which pattern association.
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