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Ascribed status is the social status a person is assigned at birth or assumed involuntarily later in life. It is a position that is neither earned nor chosen but assigned. 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.
The practice of assigning such statuses to individuals exists cross-culturally within all societies and is based on gender, race, family origins, and ethnic backgrounds. For example, a person born into a wealthy family has a high ascribed status based solely on the social networks and economic advantages that one gains from being born into a family with more resources than others.
In contrast, an achieved status is a social position a person takes on voluntarily that reflects both personal ability and merit. An individual's occupation tends to fall under the category of an achieved status; for example, a teacher or a firefighter.
Individuals have control over their achieved statuses insofar as there are no restrictions associated with their ascribed statuses that could potentially hinder their social growth. Ascribed status plays an important role in societies because it can provide the members with a defined and unified identity. No matter where an individual's ascribed status may place him or her in the social hierarchy, each has a set of roles and expectations that are directly linked to each ascribed status and thus, provides a social identity.
In addition to ascription, at birth there are also:
- Delayed Ascription (when social status is given at a later stage of life)
- Fluid Ascription (when ascribed status leads to an achieved status)
Reversible and irreversible
The anthropologist, Ralph Linton, developed definitions for ascribed status and achieved status. According to Linton, ascribed status is assigned to an individual without reference to their innate differences or abilities. Achieved status is determined by an individual's performance or effort. Linton noted that while the definitions of the two concepts are clear and distinct, it is not always easy to identify whether an individual's status is ascribed or achieved. His perspective offers a deviation from the view that ascribed statuses are always fixed.
Religion is generally perceived as an ascribed status but for those individuals who choose a religion as an adult, or convert to another religion, their religion becomes an achieved status, based on Linton's definition. It is commonly perceived that ascribed statuses are irreversible while achieved statuses are reversible. Linton uses Leo Schnore's research to illustrate how ascribed statuses can be both irreversible and reversible. An example of an ascribed reversible status is the status of citizenship.
An example of ascribed irreversible status is age. His conclusion is based on the fact that an ascribed status within a social structure is indicative of the behavior that one can exhibit but it does not explain the action itself. Ascribed status is an arbitrary system of classifying individuals that is not fixed in the way that most people think.
Status is a social phenomenon rather than a biological one. The meaning is derived from the collection of expectations of how an individual should behave and what the expected treatment of that individual is. If an individual lies about a biological fact or social accomplishment and this lie remains undiscovered by others and is accepted by them, then in this social system, his status will be based on the lie. His status would not be based on a biological fact or social accomplishment.
Behavior toward the individual will be in accordance with the accepted lie. Consequently, behavior expected from that individual will also be in accordance with that accepted lie rather than the ascribed status that would be associated with him if the truth were known. The success of the structure requires that the expectations remain constant, even if they are illegitimately acquired, given that the truth is never discovered. This further highlights the arbitrariness of ascribed status because there is no biological basis or universal truth for assigning these societal rankings to individuals.
There is a positive correlation between an individual's self-esteem and their ascribed status; for this purpose, self-esteem is defined as a liking and respect for oneself which has its basis in reality. Individuals with a low social status generally have a lower self-esteem. A negative image of oneself among individuals with lower ascribed statuses is the result of the internalization of the expectations that others have of them and the treatment that they receive based on those statuses.
The juxtaposition of their own value systems against the larger society's view often leaves individuals of a lower status with low self-esteem without regard to the individual’s actual capabilities. A negative self-image may stifle an individual's efforts to acquire a certain achieved status; this illustrates how a low ascribed status can result in a low achieved status.
Minorities and status inconsistency
Ascribed statuses are determined by the dominant groups in society and as a result, minorities are often assigned lower statuses. Minority groups are forced to attempt to reconcile the conflicts that arise from the social expectations that are linked with their assigned statuses in society and their perceived view of themselves. In the face of the knowledge that individuals occupy more than one ascribed role at a time, it becomes evident that there may be some statuses in society’s multi-dimensional structure that do not comfortably coexist.
Consistency is defined as the degree to which an individual’s social rank positions that exist within important status hierarchies are at a comparable level. The greater mobility of class systems produces less status consistency. In Canada, for example, most university professors with advanced academic degrees enjoy high social prestige but earn only average salaries. Low status consistency means that classes are much harder to define than castes.
At the root of the problem of status inconsistency is the inability of individuals to reconcile the conflicting expectations. A woman from a racial minority group may not experience status inconsistency because as a woman and as a member of a minority group, she may be considered to be of a lower ascribed status. But, if this woman rejects the assigned roles that are associated with her status, she experiences status inconsistency.
To offer another example, a woman born into a wealthy family occupies both a high and a low ascribed status within the social structure: her inherited resources and social networks are advantageous but her role as a woman may be considered inferior. When a person holds a high rank on one status dimension and low rank on another, the expectations of the two are often at odds with one another.
The two general consequences that arise from the tension that exists between the differing expectations are frustration and uncertainty about how one should act, given how others believe they should behave, and their own perceived notions of their abilities and the course of action that they should take to achieve their goals.
Wealth is not the only social characteristic that defines an individual's ascribed status. Religion is also a factor. If a person's family identifies with a particular religion, be it Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, etc., generally that person may be presumed to adopt the same religion as their biological or adopted parents. An individual's religion or absence of religion becomes a part of his or her ascribed status. The social norms of a particular religion may have different ascribed statuses than those given by the larger society because followers are ascribed status based on the religious doctrines that govern their belief.
Ascribed status can also be closely linked with master status, as they both involve what a person is born into. Master status is a broader term that includes more topics than ascribed status.
The caste system in India has been an extreme example of a stratification structure based on ascribed status. Each level in the stratification structure is known as a caste. Everyone is born into a specific caste. The caste of the parents generally determines the status of their children, regardless of ability or merit. The ranks of the caste system include:
- Brahmins: priests and scholars
- Kshatriyas: rulers, warriors, and those concerned with the defense and administration of the well-being of their town or village
- Vaishyas: traders, merchants, and people involved in agricultural production
- Shudras: the lowest of the caste system in Hinduism; laborers and servants for the other castes.
- Dalits: formerly called untouchables, they are so low that they do not have a place in the caste system. The jobs of these people include dealing with dead bodies and excrement.
- Linton, Ralph (1936). The Study of Man: An Introduction. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc. p. 115.
- Shepard, Jon; Robert W. Greene (2003). Sociology and You. Ohio: Glencoe McGraw-Hill. pp. A–22. ISBN 0-07-828576-3.
- 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. The practice of assigning such statuses to individuals exists cross-culturally within all societies and are based on gender, race, family origins, and ethnic backgrounds.
- Linton, Ralph (1936). The Study of Man: An Introduction. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc.
- Foladare, Irving S. (1969). "A Clarification of "Ascribed Status" and "Achieved Status"". The Sociological Quarterly. 10 (1): 53–61. doi:10.1111/j.1533-8525.1969.tb02061.x. JSTOR 4105001.
- Jacques, J. M.; Chason, K. J. (1977). "Self-Esteem and Low Status Groups: A Changing Scene?*". The Sociological Quarterly. 18 (3): 399. doi:10.1111/j.1533-8525.1977.tb01424.x.
- Macionis, Gerber, John, Linda (2010). Sociology 7th Canadian Ed. Toronto, Ontario: Pearson Canada Inc.. pp. 226.
- Jackson, Elton F. (1962). "Status Consistency and Symptoms of Stress". American Sociological Review. 27 (4): 469–480. doi:10.2307/2090028. JSTOR 2090028.