Social status

From New World Encyclopedia

Social status is the standing one holds in society based on prestige. It is also affected by a number of factors such as occupation, wealth, education, and family background. In stratified societies, consisting of a hierarchical social structure, people are divided into social classes that are valued differently in the society. Certain types of society have a rigid social class system, with little or no social mobility and thus no opportunity to change one’s social status. Others, although stratified, are more open to change in social status through marriage, education, talent, and hard work. Globalization has increased the opportunities for people to change their social status. However, a truly equitable society requires that all its members be equally valued, regardless of their family background, occupation, income level, or other factors.

Historical Overview

Historically, social status has had varying degrees of importance. Social status has different meanings in stratified and non-stratified societies. For example, in a society with a stratified social structure, wealth and power divide the people into different social classes. Those with more power, or those with the ability to influence others, have a higher social status. Social mobility is also an important part of a stratified society. People have the ability to move up and down in most stratified societies, but the degree of fluidity varies. Moving up in social class usually entails gaining more wealth, income, or power; whereas moving down in social class usually means their loss. In a non-stratified society, the divisions are more dependent upon skills, talents, and intelligence. For instance, a person can have a high social status if they are a hard-working member of their society who renders indispensable services.

The Indian caste system has presented social status as a static standing. One was born into their social status and remained there, neither moving up or down in standing, until death. In other cases, status has relatively little importance or may not exist at all, as is true with some hunter-gatherer societies such as the Khoisan, some indigenous Australian societies, and other non-stratified societies. In these cases, status is limited to specific personal relationships. For example, a !Kung man is expected to take his mother-in-law (his wife's mother) quite seriously; but the mother-in-law has no "status" over anyone but her son-in-law—and only then in certain contexts.

Different types of government lead to different interpretations of social status. The Medici family governed Florence and much of Italy for three centuries, resulting in a type of oligarchy. The Medici family ran the government through religious, political, and even artistic leadership. They were the highest members of this society, with people who worked closely with the family considered to have high social status.

In a government such as a monarchy, especially an absolute monarchy, one person rules the province. This person has the highest social status in society, and this position is usually static and handed down to his or her descendants. For example, in Brunei the sultan is both head of state and head of government, and the title has passed within the same dynasty since the fifteenth century. Since the monarch has absolute authority, social status is contingent on the monarch's choice. If the monarch wants the economy to focus more on a specific industry, people in that industry will have a higher social status.

In a constitutional monarchy, such as the United Kingdom, however, power is distributed differently. The British royal family has less power than the elected government. The monarch has the powers guaranteed to them by the crown, the "royal prerogative," which includes making treaties, sending ambassadors, and maintaining peace. The royal prerogative is only used, however, on the advice and discretion of the ministers in the British Parliament. The royal prerogative also has no jurisdiction over taxes of the country, limiting what the current monarch can impose. Social status in this situation is misleading. The British royal family is at the top of the social stratum, but their powers are limited by the elected government officials, and their accumulated wealth is less than that of the British Parliament.

Globalization in the late twentieth century impacted the way people view their own social status, as well as that of their peers. Social status is not as limited as it once was. Through the medium of the Internet and other forms of international communication, people are able discover business opportunities and investments that previously were not available to them. Corporations invest business into other countries, providing local workers jobs different from those they had access to in the past. Globalization thus has had the ability to show people opportunities all over the world that they were not able to see before. Such opportunities change the social status of people who previously had no chance to improve their situation.

Concepts of Social Status

Social status implies social stratification, or the hierarchical arrangement of social classes. Max Weber, in his 1904 observation of life in the United States, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, presented a "three-component theory" of stratification, namely that social class, social status, and party class (or political affiliation) were three separate components that contributed to stratification. Social status, according to Weber, is based on honor, prestige, religion, and other non-economic qualities. Social class is based on a person's relationship to the business market, so it takes a more economic approach. Later empirical sociologists fused the two ideas into "Socio-Economic Status," usually operationalized as a simple index of income, education, and occupational prestige.

Social status is also conceptualized in a variety of ways:

Achieved status is a sociological term denoting the social position that a person assumes voluntarily, reflecting personal skills, abilities, and efforts. Examples of achieved status are being an Olympic athlete, a criminal, or a teacher.

Ascribed status is the social status a person is given from birth or assumes involuntarily later in life. For example, a person born into a wealthy family has a high ascribed status; similarly a person who marries into a wealthy family may also assume a high status.

Social status also consists of role-taking. A person has many roles along different social strata and usually occupies several at once. For example, a person can be a parent, a teacher, a friend, and a spouse. Some roles are considered by society to be more important than others, and so roles affect social status.

Social position involves the ranking of roles of an individual in any given society and culture. Any position (for example, being a parent, or the occupation of priest) may belong to many individuals. A person can have many social positions involving their profession, family, or hobbies. For instance, the priest can be a son of his parents, an active member in volunteering at community centers, and an expert at putting together jigsaw puzzles. These are different social positions for the same individual, the priest. The social positions depend on the rank of importance to the individual. If this individual ranks occupation as most important, the other roles (such as brother, son, volunteer) may take a backseat to being a priest. These social positions influence the perceived social status of the individual.

'Status inconsistency describes the situation where an individual's social positions have both positive and negative influences on his social status. For example, the social position of teacher has a positive societal image (respect, prestige) which increases his or her status, but the position may earn a relatively low salary, which simultaneously decreases his or her status. The social position of criminal, on the other hand, could ensure a low social status but could also involve high income, which is usually only seen with those of higher social status.

Stigma can decrease social status. Stigma is usually attached to a person who is labeled as criminal, deviant, or member of an unpopular minority group. If a person violates a social norm, then their identity is stigmatized, which in turn can decrease their social status.

Cultural bonds, family ties, religion, race, gender, and occupation are all factors when examining social status. For example, many societies place higher esteem on some races or religions than on others. Different occupations bring different forms of respect, but occupation is not the only indicator of social status. A physician doctor will have higher status than a factory worker, but an immigrant doctor from a minority religion may have a lower social status.


In stratified societies, social status endows different value to individual members of the society. If education and wealth are considered main indicators of social status, then education will become more valued, and more expensive. American society in the twentieth century witnessed inflation in the cost of higher education and an emphasis on educational success. Globalization, however, has also shown people that their social status is not forever fixed. Witnessing the possibility for people in other cultures to move up and down in social standing may inspire them to question how their own society works. People desire to move up in their social status and many have different ideas on how to go about this, some of which result in creative new ideas. This may create progress for a culture.

Historically, hierarchical social structures have been successful in advancing civilization and culture. Nevertheless, a truly equitable society would be one in which social status does not result in different value for individuals. Recognition of the value of each person, as a unique individual fulfilling their own potential and as a member of society fulfilling their role in service to the whole community, is necessary for the establishment of a peaceful, just world.


  • Marmot, Michael. 2005. The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity. Reprint. Owl Books. ISBN 0805078541
  • Botton, Alain De. 2005. Status Anxiety. Reprint. Vintage. ISBN 0375725350
  • Weber, Max. 1987. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1st ed. Routledge. ISBN 0415084342


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