Social status is the relative respect, competence, and deference accorded to people, groups, and organizations in a society. At its core, status is about who is thought to be comparatively better. These beliefs about who is better or worse are broadly shared among members of a society. As such, status hierarchies decide who gets to “call the shots,” who is worthy, and who deserves access to valuable resources. In so doing, shared cultural beliefs uphold systems of social stratification by making inequality in society appear natural and fair. 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 possession of socially valuable attributes, like being conventionally beautiful or having a prestigious degree. Wealth and the display of it through conspicuous consumption are also indicators of status.
Some perspectives on social 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.
In different societies
Status refers to the relative rank that an individual holds; this includes attendant rights, duties, and lifestyle, in a social hierarchy based upon honor or prestige. Status has two different types that come along with it: achieved, and ascribed. The word status refers to social stratification on a vertical scale.
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 is when people are placed in the stratification structure based on their individual merits or achievements. This status can be achieved through education, occupation, and marital status. Their place within the stratification structure is determined by society’s bar, which often judges them on success, success being financial, academic, political and so on. America most commonly uses this form of status with jobs. The higher you are in rank the better off you are and the more control you have over your co-workers.
In pre-modern societies, status differentiation is widely varied. In some cases it can be quite rigid and class based, 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. All societies have a form of social status.
Status is an important idea in social stratification. Max Weber distinguishes status from social class, though some contemporary empirical sociologists combine the two ideas to create socioeconomic status or SES, usually operationalised as a simple index of income, education and occupational prestige.
Social status 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.
Social 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.
Inborn and acquired social status
Social statuses based on inborn characteristics, such as ethnicity, are called ascribed statuses, while statuses that individuals gained through their own efforts are called achieved statuses. Specific behaviors are associated with social stigmas, which can affect status.
Ascribed status is when one’s position is inherited through family. Monarchy is a widely recognized use of this method, to keep the rulers in one family. This usually occurs at birth without any reference as to how that person may turn out to be a good or bad leader.
Social status can be changed through a process of social mobility. Social mobility is change of position within the stratification system. A move in status can be upward (upward mobility), or downward (downward mobility). Social mobility allows a person to move to another social status other than the one he or she was born in. Social mobility is more frequent in societies where achievement rather than ascription is the primary basis for social status.
Social mobility is especially prominent in the United States in recent years with an ever-increasing number of women entering into the workplace as well as a steady increase in the number of full-time college students.This increased education as well as the massive increase in multiple household incomes has greatly contributed to the rise in social mobility obtained by so many today. With this upward mobility; however, comes the philosophy of “Keeping up with the Joneses” that so many Americans obtain. Although this sounds good on the surface, it actually poses a problem because millions of Americans are in credit card debt due to conspicuous consumption and purchasing goods that they do not have the money to pay for.
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 some social group 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. Such ties between people are often fluid and amorphous. Some of the more common bases for such raking 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.
Pierre Bourdieu’s theory on class distinction
The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu developed theories of social stratification based on aesthetic taste in his work Distinction. Bourdieu claims that how one chooses to present one’s social space to the world, one’s aesthetic dispositions, depicts one’s status and distances oneself from lower groups. Specifically, Bourdieu hypothesizes that these dispositions are internalized at an early age and guide the young towards their appropriate social positions, towards the behaviors that are suitable for them, and an aversion towards other lifestyles.
Bourdieu theorizes that class fractions teach aesthetic preferences to their young. Class fractions are determined by a combination of the varying degrees of social, economic, and cultural capital. Society incorporates “symbolic goods, especially those regarded as the attributes of excellence, […as] the ideal weapon in strategies of distinction”. Those attributes deemed excellent are shaped by the interests of the dominating class. He emphasizes the dominance of cultural capital early on by stating that “differences in cultural capital mark the differences between the classes”.
Aesthetic dispositions are the result of social origin rather than accumulated capital and experience over time. The acquisition of cultural capital depends heavily on “[t]otal, early, imperceptible learning, performed within the family from the earliest days of life”.Bourdieu hypothetically guarantees that the opinions of the young are those that they are born into, the accepted “definitions that their elders offer them”.
He asserts the primacy of social origin and cultural capital by claiming that social capital and economic capital, though acquired cumulatively over time, depend upon it. Bourdieu claims that “one has to take account of all the characteristics of social condition which are (statistically) associated from earliest childhood with possession of high or low income and which tend to shape tastes adjusted to these conditions”.
According to Bourdieu, tastes in food, culture and presentation, are indicators of class, because trends in their consumption seemingly correlate with an individual’s fit in society. Each fraction of the dominant class develops its own aesthetic criteria. A multitude of consumer interests based on differing social positions necessitates that each fraction “has its own artists and philosophers, newspapers and critics, just as it has its hairdresser, interior decorator or tailor.”
Bourdieu does not wholly disregard the importance of social capital and economic capital in the formation of cultural capital. In fact, the production of art and the ability to play an instrument “presuppose not only dispositions associated with long establishment in the world of art and culture but also economic means…and spare time”. However, regardless of one’s ability to act upon one’s preferences, Bourdieu specifies that “respondents are only required to express a status-induced familiarity with legitimate… culture”.
“[Taste] functions as a sort of social orientation, a ‘sense of one’s place’, guiding the occupants of a given… social space towards the social positions adjusted to their properties, and towards the practices or goods which befit the occupants of that position”. Thus, different modes of acquisition yield differences in the nature of preferences.
These “cognitive structures…are internalized, ’embodied’ social structures”, becoming a natural entity to the individual. Different tastes are thus seen as unnatural and rejected, resulting in “disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance (‘sick-making’) of the tastes of others.”
Bourdieu himself believes class distinction and preferences are “most marked in the ordinary choices of everyday existence, such as furniture, clothing or cooking, which are particularly revealing of deep-rooted and long-standing dispositions because, lying outside the scope of the educational system, they have to be confronted, as it were, by naked taste”. Indeed, Bordieu believes that “the strongest and most indelible mark of infant learning” would probably be in the tastes of food. Bourdieu thinks that meals served on special occasions are “an interesting indicator of the mode of self-presentation adopted in ‘showing off’ a life-style (in which furniture also plays a part)”. The idea is that their likes and dislikes should mirror those of their class fractions.
Children from the lower end of the social hierarchy are predicted to choose “heavy, fatty fattening foods, which are also cheap” in their dinner layouts, opting for “plentiful and good” meals as opposed to foods that are “original and exotic”. These potential outcomes would reinforce Bourdieu’s “ethic of sobriety for the sake of slimness, which is most recognized at the highest levels of the social hierarchy,” that contrasts the “convivial indulgence” characteristic of the lower classes. Demonstrations of the tastes of luxury (or freedom) and the tastes of necessity reveal a distinction among the social classes.
The degree to which social origin affects these preferences surpasses both educational and economic capital. In fact, at equivalent levels of educational capital, social origin remains an influential factor in determining these dispositions. How one describes one’s social environment relates closely to social origin because the instinctive narrative springs from early stages of development. Also, across the divisions of labor “economic constraints tend to relax without any fundamental change in the pattern of spending”. This observation reinforces the idea that social origin, more than economic capital, produces aesthetic preferences because regardless of economic capability consumption patterns remain stable.
For Social status see also
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