Ascribed Status: Definition & Examples

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

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Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.

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Ascribed status refers to a social status assigned at birth or assumed involuntarily later in life. It is a position based on attributes over which the individual has little control, such as sex, race, ethnicity, lineage, disability, or family reputation, rather than on accomplishment or merit.
  • The concept of ascribed status, developed by Ralph Linton, describes all of the statuses that someone acquires either at birth or involuntarily later in life. These can be either physical — such as facial features, height, or gender — or social, such as caste, nationality, or level of inborn wealth.
  • Ascribed status is often important for determining the power dynamics and roles between people in a society. Those with ascribed statuses that are seen as superior often take on positions of more power.
  • Ascribed status often exists alongside achieved status, which describes the status that one takes on voluntarily throughout one’s life. These, unlike ascribed status, can be changed, providing either upwards or downward mobility.
  • There is, to some extent, the ambiguity between what can be considered to be an ascribed status and what is simply an achieved one.

Miniature people standing on piles of different heights of coins.

What is meant by ascribed status?

Ascribed status is a position in society which is the result of a fixed characteristic given at birth, such as gender or social class.

A person has no control over their status, and in many instances, this status is a social construct determined before someone is born into a specific culture.

Ascribed status can describe both physical and social traits. For example, eye color is one example of ascribed status, as people are born with and cannot change this feature. Kinship is also an example of ascribed status, as relations by blood to a certain group of people cannot be changed.

The first person to discuss the concept of ascribed and achieved status was the anthropologist Ralph Linton. Linton posited that ascribed status is assigned to an individual without reference to their innate differences or abilities. Ascribed status can be both reversible and irreversible.

For example, someone can lose their citizenship to a country (reversing their ascribed status); Meanwhile, someone who ages takes on the ascribed status of their age in an irreversible way.

What is the difference between achieved and ascribed status?

While ascribed status refers to the status that an individual acquires by virtue or birth, achieved status refers to the status level that an individual has earned through work, education, luck, social climbing, and so on. Someone’s achievable status could change throughout life.

For example, someone could become a doctor after years of preparation, earning a higher status than someone who is merely a medical student.

Similarly, achieved status can also propel someone downwards into society. For example, someone could become a criminal after convicting a crime, greatly limiting their future social and economic activities (Miller, 2017).

Examples of Ascribed Status

General categories.

Ascribed status includes any number of unchangeable and inborn factors. These are not necessarily intrinsically connected to political phenomena by every society. Some common examples of ascribed status may include:

birth order

family role (such as being a son, aunt, or cousin)

health problems and risks

inherited titles

nationality

physical appearance

Sometimes, there can be ambiguity about whether a trait is an example of ascribed or achieved status. For example, physical attractiveness can influence how someone is perceived and conveys social status.

While people often consider beauty to be natural — some individuals are born more attractive than others — there are ways of achieving physical beauty through efforts such as developing one’s personal presence, fashion, personal care, beauty routines, and lifestyle choices.

In this latter case, beauty can be considered to be both an ascribed and achieved status (Miller, 2017).

The Caste System

Castes are a system of social stratification found most notably in India. These castes divide people into categories based on moral purity and pollution, as determined by Hinduism (James, 2017).

This Cate system can allow those in the highest case — the Vedas, or the “enlightened” — to control other castes and create social boundaries. There are five major castes, and below them, the Achuta, or “untouchables.”

An untouchable, or Dalit, is considered to be outside the caste system, to the extent that they are often typically segregated from the rest of society. From a young age, Dalits are taught that they were born into the untouchable case as a way to pay for bad behavior in their previous lives.

These people are generally limited to jobs considered pollution, such as sweeping streets and metal work (James, 2017).

While the establishment of democracy, change in government programs, and the implementation of rights for `untouchables” have alleviated some effects of the caste system in urban areas, the ascribed status of castes still holds a powerful hold over Indian society (Miller, 2017).

As infants attempt to decipher human behavior, they undergo gender typing — the process in which a child starts becoming aware of their gender and are taught social behaviors ascribed by their gender.

In many societies, there are certain activities reserved for males or females, and crossing these gender boundaries is frowned upon (Miller, 2017).

For example, in the United States, many parents prepare their children to take up the ascribed status of gender by giving them gender-distinct names, clothes, and environments. These ascribed gender roles can lead to differences in intellectual and emotional development.

As a result, girls, who are often encouraged to learn social rules and imitate behaviors through toys such as dolls, often say that they would choose people-focused careers, such as nursing and teaching.

Alternatively, boys, who are given active toys and encouraged to explore, often say they want careers such as being a pilot, doctor, or lawyer (Johnstone & Bauer, 2004).

Ascribed and Achieved Status and Criminal Conviction

Albonetti and Hepburn (1996) investigated the effect of someone’s ascribed and achieved status on the likelihood that a prosecutor would choose to convict a drug offender criminally or place them into a treatment program.

The sociologists did so by estimating the effects that the defendant’s ascribed and achieved status has overall on their interaction with prosecutors.

Albonetti and Hepburn (1996) ultimately found that those who have lower ascribed and achieved statuses tended to be more likely to be convicted than those who did not.

Political Organization

Another example of ascribed status is that of political organizations. Political organizations are often created according to the status or role in society of the people within them. They can include bodies such as political parties, non-governmental organizations, and advocacy and special interest groups.

Political organizations are split between centralized or non-centralized political systems. While uncentralized political systems require several different parties to make a political decision, centralized political systems are made up of one group that holds absolute authority.

People cannot choose what form of political organization they are born into — yet, these greatly influence the roles that people take on within their societies and who has power. There are four groups of political organizations (Miller, 2017):

Band Societies: a small political organization consisting of 20 to 200 people who are largely relatives by birth or marriage. Traditionally, bands are conceptualized as foraging societies without places of permanent residence with no distinction between an upper and lower class.

Tribes: political organizations composed of several bands, where leadership is based on both ascribed and achieved status. Often, tribes are more reliant on agriculture.

Bushman organizations: societies of people composed as a largely egalitarian band. For example, all members may have the same traditional gear. However, people with different ascribed statuses — such as men and women — may take on different jobs.

Chiefdoms: in chiefdoms, people are led by one person, who governs over a group of tribes related through blood or marriage. In this style of government, there is a social hierarchy and economic stratification.

Unlike more centralized states, however, chiefdoms typically do not have formal laws and authority, which allows them to tax, maintain law and order, and keep track of citizens.

Nationality

Nations are groups of people believed to share the same history, culture, and identity. This may or may not also include ethnicity. In the past, nations emerged with groups of people who shared similar language, appearance, religious beliefs, and histories.

They came together to form territories, nation-states, and, eventually, countries, because people are born into a particular nation, nationality, and ascribed status (Miller, 2017).

Homelessness

There are some statuses that lie in a more ambiguous territory than, say, one’s career or shoe size. For example, many people see homelessness as an achieved status — the result of poor work ethic and irresponsible lifestyle choices. However, some sociologists have argued that hopelessness can often be considered to be an ascribed status.

For example, many children are born into homelessness, as children cannot choose to be homeless, as circumstances beyond their control leave them without housing.

Often, with parents suffering from other ascribed statuses — such as mental illness or disability — homeless children may be forced to provide for their families from an unusually young age. This may keep the child out of or unable to focus on education, separating them from opportunities that allow them to escape poverty and homelessness.

Due to factors largely outside of control — an ascribed status — those born into homelessness may stay homeless.

Albonetti, C. A., & Hepburn, J. R. (1996). Prosecutorial discretion to defer criminalization: The effects of defendant’s ascribed and achieved status characteristics. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 12 (1), 63-81.

Linton, R. (1936). The study of man: An introduction .

Foladare, I. S. (1969). A clarification of “ascribed status” and “achieved status” . The Sociological Quarterly, 10 (1), 53-61.

James, A., & James, A. (2017). Constructing childhood: Theory, policy and social practice . Macmillan International Higher Education.

Johnstone, G., & Bauer, K. G. (2004). Sociology and Canadian society . Emond Montgomery Publication.

Miller, B. D. (2017). Cultural anthropology . Pearson.

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Sociology: Achieved Status Versus Ascribed Status

ThoughtCo / Alex Dos Diaz

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Status is a term that is used often in sociology . Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of status, achieved status and ascribed status.

Each can refer to one's position, or role, within a social system—child, parent, pupil, playmate, etc.—or to one's economic or social position within that status. 

Individuals usually hold multiple statuses at any given time—lawyers, say, who happen to devote most of their time to pro bono work instead of rising through the ranks at a prestigious law firm. Status is important sociologically because we attach to one's position a certain set of presumed rights, as well as presumed obligations and expectations for certain behaviors.

Achieved Status

An achieved status is one that is acquired on the basis of merit; it is a position that is earned or chosen and reflects a person's skills, abilities, and efforts. Being a professional athlete, for example, is an achieved status, as is being a lawyer, college professor, or even a criminal.

Ascribed Status

An ascribed status, on the other hand, is beyond an individual's control. It is not earned, but rather is something people are either born with or had no control over. Examples of ascribed status include sex, race, and age. Children usually have more ascribed statuses than adults, since they do not usually have a choice in most matters.

A family's social status or socioeconomic status , for instance, would be an achieved status for adults, but an ascribed status for children. Homelessness might also be another example. For adults, homelessness often comes by way of achieving, or rather not achieving, something. For children, however, homelessness is not something they have any control over. Their economic status, or lack thereof, is entirely dependent on their parents' actions.

Mixed-Status

The line between achieved status and ascribed status is not always black and white. There are many statuses that can be considered a mixture of achievement and ascription. Parenthood, for one. According to the latest numbers gathered by the Guttmacher Institute, about 45% of pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned , which makes parenthood for those people an ascribed status.  

Then there are people who achieve a certain status because of an ascribed status. Take Kim Kardashian, for example, probably the most famous reality television celebrity in the world. Many people might argue that she would never have achieved that status if she had not come from a wealthy family, which is her ascribed status.  

Status Obligations

Probably the greatest set of obligations are conferred upon the status of parenthood. First, there are biological obligations: Mothers are expected to care for themselves and their unborn child (or children, in the case of twins, etc.) by abstaining for any activity that could cause either of them harm. Once a child is born, a host of legal, social, and economic obligations kick in, all with the purpose of ensuring that parents act in a responsible manner toward their children.

Then there are professional status obligations, like doctors and lawyers whose vocations bind them to certain oaths governing their client relationships. And socioeconomic status obligates those who have achieved a certain high level of economic status to contribute portions of their wealth to help the less fortunate in society. 

Finer, Lawrence B. and Mia R. Zolna. " Declines in Unintended Pregnancy in the United States, 2008-2011 ." New England Journal of Medicine , vol. 374, no. 9, 2016, p. 842-852. doi:10.1056/NEJMsa1506575

  • Max Weber's Key Contributions to Sociology
  • Understanding Meritocracy from a Sociological Perspective
  • An Introduction to Socioeconomic Status
  • What Is a Master Status?
  • What Is Social Stratification, and Why Does It Matter?
  • What Is Role Conflict in Sociology?
  • What Is Social Class, and Why Does it Matter?
  • Definition of Scapegoat, Scapegoating, and Scapegoat Theory
  • Definition of Status Generalization
  • Deviance and Strain Theory in Sociology
  • What Is Distributive Justice?
  • Assessing a Situation, in Terms of Sociology
  • Status Inconsistency
  • What Is Political Socialization? Definition and Examples
  • Sociology of Health and Illness
  • What Is Identity Diffusion? Definition and Examples

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5.1 Social Structure: The Building Blocks of Social Life

Learning objectives.

  • Describe the difference between a status and a role.
  • Understand the difference between an ascribed status, an achieved status, and a master status.
  • List the major social institutions.

Social life is composed of many levels of building blocks, from the very micro to the very macro. These building blocks combine to form the social structure . As Chapter 1 “Sociology and the Sociological Perspective” explained, social structure refers to the social patterns through which a society is organized and can be horizontal or vertical. To recall, horizontal social structure refers to the social relationships and the social and physical characteristics of communities to which individuals belong, while vertical social structure , more commonly called social inequality , refers to ways in which a society or group ranks people in a hierarchy. This chapter’s discussion of social structure focuses primarily on horizontal social structure, while Chapter 8 “Social Stratification” through Chapter 12 “Aging and the Elderly” , as well as much material in other chapters, examine dimensions of social inequality. The (horizontal) social structure comprises several components, to which we now turn, starting with the most micro and ending with the most macro. Our discussion of social interaction in the second half of this chapter incorporates several of these components.

Status has many meanings in the dictionary and also within sociology, but for now we will define it as the position that someone occupies in society. This position is often a job title, but many other types of positions exist: student, parent, sibling, relative, friend, and so forth. It should be clear that status as used in this way conveys nothing about the prestige of the position, to use a common synonym for status. A physician’s job is a status with much prestige, but a shoeshiner’s job is a status with no prestige.

Any one individual often occupies several different statuses at the same time, and someone can simultaneously be a banker, Girl Scout troop leader, mother, school board member, volunteer at a homeless shelter, and spouse. This someone would be very busy! We call all the positions an individual occupies that person’s status set (see Figure 5.1 “Example of a Status Set” ).

Figure 5.1 Example of a Status Set

Example of a Status Set: Banker, Girl Scout Troop Leader, Mother, School Board Member, Volunteer at Homeless Shelter, Spouse

Sociologists usually speak of three types of statuses. The first type is ascribed status , which is the status that someone is born with and has no control over. There are relatively few ascribed statuses; the most common ones are our biological sex, race, parents’ social class and religious affiliation, and biological relationships (child, grandchild, sibling, and so forth).

A nurse checking the heart rate of an elderly man

Status refers to the position an individual occupies. Used in this way, a person’s status is not related to the prestige of that status. The jobs of physician and shoeshiner are both statuses, even though one of these jobs is much more prestigious than the other job.

Public Domain Images – CC0 public domain.

The second kind of status is called achieved status , which, as the name implies, is a status you achieve, at some point after birth, sometimes through your own efforts and sometimes because good or bad luck befalls you. The status of student is an achieved status, as is the status of restaurant server or romantic partner, to cite just two of the many achieved statuses that exist.

Two things about achieved statuses should be kept in mind. First, our ascribed statuses, and in particular our sex, race and ethnicity, and social class, often affect our ability to acquire and maintain many achieved statuses (such as college graduate). Second, achieved statuses can be viewed positively or negatively. Our society usually views achieved statuses such as physician, professor, or college student positively, but it certainly views achieved statuses such as burglar, prostitute, and pimp negatively.

The third type of status is called a master status . This is a status that is so important that it overrides other statuses you may hold. In terms of people’s reactions, master statuses can be either positive or negative for an individual depending on the particular master status they hold. Barack Obama now holds the positive master status of president of the United States: his status as president overrides all the other statuses he holds (husband, father, and so forth), and millions of Americans respect him, whether or not they voted for him or now favor his policies, because of this status. Many other positive master statuses exist in the political and entertainment worlds and in other spheres of life.

Some master statuses have negative consequences. To recall the medical student and nursing home news story that began this chapter, a physical disability often becomes such a master status. If you are bound to a wheelchair, for example, this fact becomes more important than the other statuses you have and may prompt people to perceive and interact with you negatively. In particular, they perceive you more in terms of your master status (someone bound to a wheelchair) than as the “person beneath” the master status, to cite Matt’s words. For similar reasons, gender, race, and sexual orientation may also be considered master statuses, as these statuses often subject women, people of color, and gays and lesbians, respectively, to discrimination and other problems, no matter what other statuses they may have.

Whatever status we occupy, certain objects signify any particular status. These objects are called status symbols . In popular terms, status symbol usually means something like a Rolls-Royce or BMW that shows off someone’s wealth or success, and many status symbols of this type exist. But sociologists use the term more generally than that. For example, the wheelchair that Matt the medical student rode for 12 days was a status symbol that signified his master status of someone with a (feigned) disability. If someone is pushing a stroller, the stroller is a status symbol that signifies that the person pushing it is a parent or caretaker of a young child.

Whatever its type, every status is accompanied by a role , which is the behavior expected of someone—and in fact everyone —with a certain status. You and most other people reading this book are students. Despite all the other differences among you, you have at least this one status in common. As such, there is a role expected of you as a student (at least by your professors); this role includes coming to class regularly, doing all the reading assigned from this textbook, and studying the best you can for exams. Roles for given statuses existed long before we were born, and they will continue long after we are no longer alive. A major dimension of socialization is learning the roles our society has and then behaving in the way a particular role demands.

A cashier taking a customer's money

Roles help us interact because we are familiar with the behavior associated with roles. Because shoppers and cashiers know what to expect of each other, their social interaction is possible.

David Tan – Cashier – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Because roles are the behavior expected of people in various statuses, they help us interact because we are familiar with the roles in the first place, a point to which the second half of this chapter returns. Suppose you are shopping in a department store. Your status is a shopper, and the role expected of you as a shopper—and of all shoppers—involves looking quietly at various items in the store, taking the ones you want to purchase to a checkout line, and paying for them. The person who takes your money is occupying another status in the store that we often call a cashier. The role expected of that cashier—and of all cashiers not only in that store but in every other store—is to accept your payment in a businesslike way and put your items in a bag. Because shoppers and cashiers all have these mutual expectations, their social interaction is possible.

Social Networks

Modern life seems increasingly characterized by social networks. A social network is the totality of relationships that link us to other people and groups and through them to still other people and groups. As Facebook and other social media show so clearly, social networks can be incredibly extensive. Social networks can be so large, of course, that an individual in a network may know little or nothing of another individual in the network (e.g., a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend). But these “friends of friends” can sometimes be an important source of practical advice and other kinds of help. They can “open doors” in the job market, they can introduce you to a potential romantic partner, they can pass through some tickets to the next big basketball game. As a key building block of social structure, social networks receive a fuller discussion in Chapter 6 “Groups and Organizations” .

Groups and Organizations

Groups and organizations are the next component of social structure. Because Chapter 6 “Groups and Organizations” discusses groups and organizations extensively, here we will simply define them and say one or two things about them.

A social group (hereafter just group ) consists of two or more people who regularly interact on the basis of mutual expectations and who share a common identity. To paraphrase John Donne, the 17th-century English poet, no one is an island; almost all people are members of many groups, including families, groups of friends, and groups of coworkers in a workplace. Sociology is sometimes called the study of group life, and it is difficult to imagine a modern society without many types of groups and a small, traditional society without at least some groups.

In terms of size, emotional bonding, and other characteristics, many types of groups exist, as Chapter 6 “Groups and Organizations” explains. But one of the most important types is the formal organization (also just organization ), which is a large group that follows explicit rules and procedures to achieve specific goals and tasks. For better and for worse, organizations are an essential feature of modern societies. Our banks, our hospitals, our schools, and so many other examples are all organizations, even if they differ from one another in many respects. In terms of their goals and other characteristics, several types of organizations exist, as Chapter 6 “Groups and Organizations” will again discuss.

Social Institutions

Yet another component of social structure is the social institution , or patterns of beliefs and behavior that help a society meet its basic needs. Modern society is filled with many social institutions that all help society meet its needs and achieve other goals and thus have a profound impact not only on the society as a whole but also on virtually every individual in a society. Examples of social institutions include the family, the economy, the polity (government), education, religion, and medicine. Chapter 13 “Work and the Economy” through Chapter 18 “Health and Medicine” examine each of these social institutions separately.

As those chapters will show, these social institutions all help the United States meet its basic needs, but they also have failings that prevent the United States from meeting all its needs. A particular problem is social inequality, to recall the vertical dimension of social structure, as our social institutions often fail many people because of their social class, race, ethnicity, gender, or all four. These chapters will also indicate that American society could better fulfill its needs if it followed certain practices and policies of other democracies that often help their societies “work” better than our own.

The largest component of social structure is, of course, society itself. Chapter 1 “Sociology and the Sociological Perspective” defined society as a group of people who live within a defined territory and who share a culture. Societies certainly differ in many ways; some are larger in population and some are smaller, some are modern and some are less modern. Since the origins of sociology during the 19th century, sociologists have tried to understand how and why modern, industrial society developed. Part of this understanding involves determining the differences between industrial societies and traditional ones.

One of the key differences between traditional and industrial societies is the emphasis placed on the community versus the emphasis placed on the individual. In traditional societies, community feeling and group commitment are usually the cornerstones of social life. In contrast, industrial society is more individualistic and impersonal. Whereas the people in traditional societies have close daily ties, those in industrial societies have many relationships in which one person barely knows the other person. Commitment to the group and community become less important in industrial societies, and individualism becomes more important.

Sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (1887/1963) long ago characterized these key characteristics of traditional and industrial societies with the German words Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft . Gemeinschaft means human community, and Tönnies said that a sense of community characterizes traditional societies, where family, kin, and community ties are quite strong. As societies grew and industrialized and as people moved to cities, Tönnies said, social ties weakened and became more impersonal. Tönnies called this situation Gesellschaft and found it dismaying. Chapter 5 “Social Structure and Social Interaction” , Section 5.2 “The Development of Modern Society” discusses the development of societies in more detail.

Key Takeaways

  • The major components of social structure are statuses, roles, social networks, groups and organizations, social institutions, and society.
  • Specific types of statuses include the ascribed status, achieved status, and master status. Depending on the type of master status, an individual may be viewed positively or negatively because of a master status.

For Your Review

  • Take a moment and list every status that you now occupy. Next to each status, indicate whether it is an ascribed status, achieved status, or master status.
  • Take a moment and list every group to which you belong. Write a brief essay in which you comment on which of the groups are more meaningful to you and which are less meaningful to you.

Tönnies, F. (1963). Community and society . New York, NY: Harper and Row. (Original work published 1887).

Sociology Copyright © 2016 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

Open Education Sociology Dictionary

ascribed status

Table of Contents

Definition of Ascribed Status

( noun ) A status assigned at birth or assumed involuntarily later in life, often based on biological factors, that cannot be changed through individual effort or achievement .

Examples of Ascribed Status

  • birth order
  • caste position
  • daughter or son
  • inherited wealth

Etymology of Ascribed Status

  • Coined along with achieved status by Ralph Linton (1893–1953) in The Study of Man: An Introduction (1936).

Ascribed Status Pronunciation

Pronunciation Usage Guide

Syllabification : as·cribed stat·us

Audio Pronunciation

Phonetic Spelling

  • American English – /uh-skrIEbd stAY-tuhs/
  • British English – /uh-skrIEbd stAY-tuhs/

International Phonetic Alphabet

  • American English – /əˈskraɪbd ˈstætəs/
  • British English – /əsˈkraɪbd ˈsteɪtəs/

Usage Notes

  • Plural: ascribed statuses
  • Ascribed statuses are often master statuses .
  • Ascribed status is the opposite of achieved status .
  • An individual can have multiple ascribed statuses that engage with each other intersectionally .
  • Ascribed statuses such as ethnicity and gender directly impact the likelihood of acquiring achieved statuses due to inequality and oppression.
  • A physical trait, biological in origin is an ascribed characteristic .
  • An ascribed identity refers to “identity-based” ascribed statuses, such as race , religion , or sex .
  • Also called ascription .

Related Quotations

  • “About 5000 years ago, people developed plow agriculture . By attaching oxen and other large animals to plows , farmers could increase the amount they produced. Again thanks to technological innovation , surpluses grew. With more wealth came still sharper social stratification . Agrarian societies developed religious beliefs justifying steeper inequality . People came to believe that kings and queens ruled by ‘ divine right .’ They viewed large landowners as ‘lords.’ Moreover, if you were born a peasant, you and your children were likely to remain peasants. If you were born a lord, you and your children were likely to remain lords. In the vocabulary of modern sociology , we say that stratification in agrarian societies was based more on ascription than achievement ” (Brym and Lie 2007:225).
  • “ Caste and class systems of stratification are opposite, extreme points on a continuum . The two systems differ in the ease of social mobility , the relative importance of achieved and ascribed statuses , and the extent to which each restricts interaction among people considered unequal” (Ferrante 2011:204).

Related Video

Additional Information

  • Word origin of “ascribe” and “status” – Online Etymology Dictionary: etymonline.com

Related Terms

  • achieved status
  • master status
  • status inconsistency
  • status symbol
  • stratification

Brym, Robert J., and John Lie. 2007. Sociology: Your Compass for a New World . 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Ferrante, Joan. 2011.  Sociology: A Global Perspective . 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

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Shepard, Jon M., and Robert W. Greene. 2003. Sociology and You . New York: Glencoe.

Shepard, Jon M. 2010. Sociology . 11th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Stolley, Kathy S. 2005. The Basics of Sociology . Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Thompson, William E., and Joseph V. Hickey. 2012. Society in Focus: An Introduction to Sociology . Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Tischler, Henry L. 2011.  Introduction to Sociology . 10th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Turner, Bryan S., ed. 2006. The Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wikipedia contributors. (N.d.) Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia . Wikimedia Foundation. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/ ).

Cite the Definition of Ascribed Status

ASA – American Sociological Association (5th edition)

Bell, Kenton, ed. 2013. “ascribed status.” In Open Education Sociology Dictionary . Retrieved May 14, 2024 ( https://sociologydictionary.org/ascribed-status/ ).

APA – American Psychological Association (6th edition)

ascribed status. (2013). In K. Bell (Ed.), Open education sociology dictionary . Retrieved from https://sociologydictionary.org/ascribed-status/

Chicago/Turabian: Author-Date – Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition)

Bell, Kenton, ed. 2013. “ascribed status.” In Open Education Sociology Dictionary . Accessed May 14, 2024. https://sociologydictionary.org/ascribed-status/ .

MLA – Modern Language Association (7th edition)

“ascribed status.” Open Education Sociology Dictionary . Ed. Kenton Bell. 2013. Web. 14 May. 2024. < https://sociologydictionary.org/ascribed-status/ >.

ascribed status vs identity

5.1 Social Structure: The Building Blocks of Social Life

Learning objectives.

  • Describe the difference between a status and a role.
  • Understand the difference between an ascribed status, an achieved status, and a master status.
  • List the major social institutions.

Social life is composed of many levels of building blocks, from the very micro to the very macro. These building blocks combine to form the social structure . As Chapter 1 "Sociology and the Sociological Perspective" explained, social structure The social patterns through which a society is organized; can be horizontal or vertical. refers to the social patterns through which a society is organized and can be horizontal or vertical. To recall, horizontal social structure refers to the social relationships and the social and physical characteristics of communities to which individuals belong, while vertical social structure , more commonly called social inequality The ways in which a society or group ranks people in a hierarchy. , refers to ways in which a society or group ranks people in a hierarchy. This chapter’s discussion of social structure focuses primarily on horizontal social structure, while Chapter 8 "Social Stratification" through Chapter 12 "Aging and the Elderly" , as well as much material in other chapters, examine dimensions of social inequality. The (horizontal) social structure comprises several components, to which we now turn, starting with the most micro and ending with the most macro. Our discussion of social interaction in the second half of this chapter incorporates several of these components.

Status The position that someone occupies in society. has many meanings in the dictionary and also within sociology, but for now we will define it as the position that someone occupies in society. This position is often a job title, but many other types of positions exist: student, parent, sibling, relative, friend, and so forth. It should be clear that status as used in this way conveys nothing about the prestige of the position, to use a common synonym for status. A physician’s job is a status with much prestige, but a shoeshiner’s job is a status with no prestige.

Any one individual often occupies several different statuses at the same time, and someone can simultaneously be a banker, Girl Scout troop leader, mother, school board member, volunteer at a homeless shelter, and spouse. This someone would be very busy! We call all the positions an individual occupies that person’s status set All the positions an individual occupies. (see Figure 5.1 "Example of a Status Set" ).

Figure 5.1 Example of a Status Set

ascribed status vs identity

Sociologists usually speak of three types of statuses. The first type is ascribed status The status that someone is born with and has no control over. , which is the status that someone is born with and has no control over. There are relatively few ascribed statuses; the most common ones are our biological sex, race, parents’ social class and religious affiliation, and biological relationships (child, grandchild, sibling, and so forth).

The second kind of status is called achieved status A status achieved at some point after birth, sometimes through one’s own efforts and sometimes because of good or bad luck. , which, as the name implies, is a status you achieve, at some point after birth, sometimes through your own efforts and sometimes because good or bad luck befalls you. The status of student is an achieved status, as is the status of restaurant server or romantic partner, to cite just two of the many achieved statuses that exist.

Two things about achieved statuses should be kept in mind. First, our ascribed statuses, and in particular our sex, race and ethnicity, and social class, often affect our ability to acquire and maintain many achieved statuses (such as college graduate). Second, achieved statuses can be viewed positively or negatively. Our society usually views achieved statuses such as physician, professor, or college student positively, but it certainly views achieved statuses such as burglar, prostitute, and pimp negatively.

The third type of status is called a master status A status that is so important that it overrides other statuses a person may hold. . This is a status that is so important that it overrides other statuses you may hold. In terms of people’s reactions, master statuses can be either positive or negative for an individual depending on the particular master status they hold. Barack Obama now holds the positive master status of president of the United States: his status as president overrides all the other statuses he holds (husband, father, and so forth), and millions of Americans respect him, whether or not they voted for him or now favor his policies, because of this status. Many other positive master statuses exist in the political and entertainment worlds and in other spheres of life.

Some master statuses have negative consequences. To recall the medical student and nursing home news story that began this chapter, a physical disability often becomes such a master status. If you are bound to a wheelchair, for example, this fact becomes more important than the other statuses you have and may prompt people to perceive and interact with you negatively. In particular, they perceive you more in terms of your master status (someone bound to a wheelchair) than as the “person beneath” the master status, to cite Matt’s words. For similar reasons, gender, race, and sexual orientation may also be considered master statuses, as these statuses often subject women, people of color, and gays and lesbians, respectively, to discrimination and other problems, no matter what other statuses they may have.

Whatever status we occupy, certain objects signify any particular status. These objects are called status symbols An object that signifies a particular status that a person holds. . In popular terms, status symbol usually means something like a Rolls-Royce or BMW that shows off someone’s wealth or success, and many status symbols of this type exist. But sociologists use the term more generally than that. For example, the wheelchair that Matt the medical student rode for 12 days was a status symbol that signified his master status of someone with a (feigned) disability. If someone is pushing a stroller, the stroller is a status symbol that signifies that the person pushing it is a parent or caretaker of a young child.

Whatever its type, every status is accompanied by a role The behavior expected of someone with a certain status. , which is the behavior expected of someone—and in fact everyone —with a certain status. You and most other people reading this book are students. Despite all the other differences among you, you have at least this one status in common. As such, there is a role expected of you as a student (at least by your professors); this role includes coming to class regularly, doing all the reading assigned from this textbook, and studying the best you can for exams. Roles for given statuses existed long before we were born, and they will continue long after we are no longer alive. A major dimension of socialization is learning the roles our society has and then behaving in the way a particular role demands.

Because roles are the behavior expected of people in various statuses, they help us interact because we are familiar with the roles in the first place, a point to which the second half of this chapter returns. Suppose you are shopping in a department store. Your status is a shopper, and the role expected of you as a shopper—and of all shoppers—involves looking quietly at various items in the store, taking the ones you want to purchase to a checkout line, and paying for them. The person who takes your money is occupying another status in the store that we often call a cashier. The role expected of that cashier—and of all cashiers not only in that store but in every other store—is to accept your payment in a businesslike way and put your items in a bag. Because shoppers and cashiers all have these mutual expectations, their social interaction is possible.

Social Networks

Modern life seems increasingly characterized by social networks. A social network The totality of relationships that link us to other people and groups and through them to still other people and groups. is the totality of relationships that link us to other people and groups and through them to still other people and groups. As Facebook and other social media show so clearly, social networks can be incredibly extensive. Social networks can be so large, of course, that an individual in a network may know little or nothing of another individual in the network (e.g., a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend). But these “friends of friends” can sometimes be an important source of practical advice and other kinds of help. They can “open doors” in the job market, they can introduce you to a potential romantic partner, they can pass through some tickets to the next big basketball game. As a key building block of social structure, social networks receive a fuller discussion in Chapter 6 "Groups and Organizations" .

Groups and Organizations

Groups and organizations are the next component of social structure. Because Chapter 6 "Groups and Organizations" discusses groups and organizations extensively, here we will simply define them and say one or two things about them.

A social group Two or more people who regularly interact on the basis of mutual expectations and who share a common identity. (hereafter just group ) consists of two or more people who regularly interact on the basis of mutual expectations and who share a common identity. To paraphrase John Donne, the 17th-century English poet, no one is an island; almost all people are members of many groups, including families, groups of friends, and groups of coworkers in a workplace. Sociology is sometimes called the study of group life, and it is difficult to imagine a modern society without many types of groups and a small, traditional society without at least some groups.

In terms of size, emotional bonding, and other characteristics, many types of groups exist, as Chapter 6 "Groups and Organizations" explains. But one of the most important types is the formal organization A large group that follows explicit rules and procedures to achieve specific goals and tasks. (also just organization ), which is a large group that follows explicit rules and procedures to achieve specific goals and tasks. For better and for worse, organizations are an essential feature of modern societies. Our banks, our hospitals, our schools, and so many other examples are all organizations, even if they differ from one another in many respects. In terms of their goals and other characteristics, several types of organizations exist, as Chapter 6 "Groups and Organizations" will again discuss.

Social Institutions

Yet another component of social structure is the social institution Patterns of beliefs and behavior that help a society meet its basic needs. , or patterns of beliefs and behavior that help a society meet its basic needs. Modern society is filled with many social institutions that all help society meet its needs and achieve other goals and thus have a profound impact not only on the society as a whole but also on virtually every individual in a society. Examples of social institutions include the family, the economy, the polity (government), education, religion, and medicine. Chapter 13 "Work and the Economy" through Chapter 18 "Health and Medicine" examine each of these social institutions separately.

As those chapters will show, these social institutions all help the United States meet its basic needs, but they also have failings that prevent the United States from meeting all its needs. A particular problem is social inequality, to recall the vertical dimension of social structure, as our social institutions often fail many people because of their social class, race, ethnicity, gender, or all four. These chapters will also indicate that American society could better fulfill its needs if it followed certain practices and policies of other democracies that often help their societies “work” better than our own.

The largest component of social structure is, of course, society A group of people who live within a defined territory and who share a culture. itself. Chapter 1 "Sociology and the Sociological Perspective" defined society as a group of people who live within a defined territory and who share a culture. Societies certainly differ in many ways; some are larger in population and some are smaller, some are modern and some are less modern. Since the origins of sociology during the 19th century, sociologists have tried to understand how and why modern, industrial society developed. Part of this understanding involves determining the differences between industrial societies and traditional ones.

One of the key differences between traditional and industrial societies is the emphasis placed on the community versus the emphasis placed on the individual. In traditional societies, community feeling and group commitment are usually the cornerstones of social life. In contrast, industrial society is more individualistic and impersonal. Whereas the people in traditional societies have close daily ties, those in industrial societies have many relationships in which one person barely knows the other person. Commitment to the group and community become less important in industrial societies, and individualism becomes more important.

Sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (1887/1963) Tönnies, F. (1963). Community and society . New York, NY: Harper and Row. (Original work published 1887) long ago characterized these key characteristics of traditional and industrial societies with the German words Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft . Gemeinschaft A human community, particularly a small society with a strong sense of community and strong group ties. means human community, and Tönnies said that a sense of community characterizes traditional societies, where family, kin, and community ties are quite strong. As societies grew and industrialized and as people moved to cities, Tönnies said, social ties weakened and became more impersonal. Tönnies called this situation Gesellschaft A large society characterized by weak and impersonal social ties. and found it dismaying. Chapter 5 "Social Structure and Social Interaction" , Section 5.2 "The Development of Modern Society" discusses the development of societies in more detail.

Key Takeaways

  • The major components of social structure are statuses, roles, social networks, groups and organizations, social institutions, and society.
  • Specific types of statuses include the ascribed status, achieved status, and master status. Depending on the type of master status, an individual may be viewed positively or negatively because of a master status.

For Your Review

  • Take a moment and list every status that you now occupy. Next to each status, indicate whether it is an ascribed status, achieved status, or master status.
  • Take a moment and list every group to which you belong. Write a brief essay in which you comment on which of the groups are more meaningful to you and which are less meaningful to you.

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Understanding Ascribed Status in Sociology

Mr Edwards

In the field of sociology, “ascribed status” refers to the social position or rank that an individual is assigned to at birth or by factors beyond their control. This status is typically based on characteristics such as gender, race, ethnicity, family background, and social class. Unlike achieved status, which is earned through individual effort or accomplishments, ascribed status is given to individuals without their active involvement or choice.

Explanation of Ascribed Status

Ascribed status plays a significant role in shaping an individual’s social identity and their place in society. It influences how people perceive and interact with each other, as well as the opportunities and privileges they may have access to.

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Ascribed status can be categorized into two main types:

  • Universal Ascribed Status: This type of ascribed status is based on biological characteristics that are universally recognized, such as sex and age. For example, being assigned the status of “male” or “female” at birth is a universal ascribed status that often comes with certain societal expectations and roles.
  • Relatively Fixed Ascribed Status: This type of ascribed status is based on social characteristics that are relatively fixed but can vary across different societies or cultures. Examples include race, ethnicity, nationality, and social class. These characteristics are often used to make assumptions about an individual’s background, abilities, and potential.

Examples of Ascribed Status

To further illustrate the concept of ascribed status, let’s explore some examples:

1. Gender: In many societies, individuals are assigned the ascribed status of “male” or “female” based on their biological sex. This ascribed status influences societal expectations regarding behavior, roles, and responsibilities. For instance, in some cultures, women may be expected to prioritize family and domestic duties, while men may be encouraged to pursue careers and leadership roles.

2. Race and Ethnicity: Ascribed status based on race and ethnicity can significantly impact an individual’s experiences and opportunities. For example, individuals who are ascribed the status of belonging to a marginalized racial or ethnic group may face systemic discrimination and limited access to resources, affecting their educational, economic, and social outcomes.

3. Social Class: Ascribed status based on social class is determined by an individual’s family background and economic standing. Individuals born into wealthier families often have greater access to quality education , healthcare, and social networks, which can contribute to their overall life chances and opportunities. Conversely, those born into lower socioeconomic backgrounds may face barriers and limited resources.

4. Age: Ascribed status based on age can influence an individual’s rights, responsibilities, and social roles. Children are often seen as dependent and require guidance and protection, while older adults may be respected for their wisdom and experience. Society’s expectations and treatment of individuals can vary based on their age-related ascribed status.

Implications and Criticisms

While ascribed status provides a framework for understanding social stratification and inequality , it has faced criticism for perpetuating unjust social hierarchies. Critics argue that ascribed status can limit individuals’ opportunities and reinforce stereotypes, leading to discrimination and marginalization.

It is important to recognize that ascribed status does not define an individual’s abilities, talents, or potential. Societies are increasingly striving for greater inclusivity and social mobility, aiming to reduce the impact of ascribed status on an individual’s life outcomes.

Ascribed status is a fundamental concept in sociology that helps explain how individuals are assigned social positions based on characteristics beyond their control. Understanding ascribed status allows us to critically examine the impact of social hierarchies and work towards a more equitable society.

By recognizing the influence of ascribed status, we can challenge stereotypes, promote social mobility, and strive for a society where individuals are valued for their individual merits rather than predetermined characteristics.

Mr Edwards has a PhD in sociology and 10 years of experience in sociological knowledge

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1.2 Exploring Identity

Learning objectives.

By the end of this section, you should be able to:

  • Compare and contrast personal, social, and cultural identities.
  • Apply personal, social, and cultural identities to personal experiences.

“Who am I?” This question has been the central plot of many coming of age movies, such as The Breakfast Club (1985), Superbad (2007), Love, Simon (2018), Booksmart (2019), etc. In these movies, and in our own lives, we have grappled with how to answer this question. According to Erickson’s (1968) Psychosocial Theory of Development, adolescents enter a stage of Identity vs. Role Confusion, in which they explore and experiment with their identities, seeking to answer the question, “Who am I?” Identity exploration is about determining a sense of self and figuring out who also shares similar affiliations or social roles (APA).

Identity is marked by similarity, that is of the people like us, and by difference, of those who are not. How do we know which people are the same as us? What information do we use to categorize others and ourselves? What is often important is a symbol , like a badge, a team scarf, a newspaper, the language we speak, or perhaps the clothes we wear. Sometimes it is obvious. A badge can be a clear public statement that we identify with a particular group. Sometimes it is more subtle, but symbols and representations are important in marking the ways in which we share identities with some people and distinguish ourselves as different from others. In the rest of this section, we will examine the various types of identities that we develop and which identities we choose for ourselves and those that are chosen for us.

Personal, Social, and Cultural Identities

Recall from our earlier discussion of self-concept that we develop a sense of who we are based on what is reflected back on us from other people. Our parents, friends, teachers, and the media help shape our identities. While this happens from birth, most people in Western societies reach a stage in adolescence where maturing cognitive abilities and increased social awareness led them to begin to reflect on who they are. This begins a lifelong process of thinking about who we are now, who we were before, and who we will become (Tatum, B. D., 2000). Our identities make up an important part of our self-concept and can be broken down into three main categories: personal, social, and cultural identities (see Table 1.1 “Personal, Social, and Cultural Identities” below).

We must avoid the temptation to think of our identities as constant. Instead, our identities are formed through processes that started before we were born and will continue after we are gone; therefore, our identities aren’t something we achieve or complete. Two related but distinct components of our identities are our personal and social identities (Spreckels, J. & Kotthoff, H., 2009).  Personal identities  include the components of self that are primarily intrapersonal and connected to our life experiences. For example, I consider myself a puzzle lover, and you may identify as a fan of hip-hop music. Our  social identities  are the components of self that are derived from involvement in social groups with which we are interpersonally committed.

Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house

For example, we may derive aspects of our social identity from our family or from a community of fans for a sports team. Social identities differ from personal identities because they are externally organized through membership. Our membership may be voluntary (Greek organization on campus) or involuntary (family) and explicit (we pay dues to our labor union) or implicit (we purchase and listen to hip-hop music). There are innumerous options for personal and social identities. While our personal identity choices express who we are, our social identities align us with particular groups. Through our social identities, we make statements about who we are and who we are not.

Personal identities may change often as people have new experiences and develop new interests and hobbies. A current interest in online video games may give way to an interest in graphic design. Social identities do not change as often because they take more time to develop, as you must become interpersonally invested. For example, if an interest in online video games leads someone to become a member of a MMORPG, or a massively multiplayer online role-playing game community, that personal identity has led to a social identity that is now interpersonal and more entrenched.

Cultural identities are based on socially constructed categories that teach us a way of being and include expectations for social behavior or ways of acting (Yep, G. A., 2002). Since we are often a part of them since birth, cultural identities are the least changeable of the three. The ways of being and the social expectations for behavior within cultural identities do change over time, but what separates them from most social identities is their historical roots (Collier, M. J., 1996). For example, think of how ways of being and acting have changed for African Americans since the civil rights movement. Additionally, common ways of being and acting within a cultural identity group are expressed through communication. In order to be accepted as a member of a cultural group, members must be acculturated, essentially learning and using a code that other group members will be able to recognize. We are acculturated into our various cultural identities in obvious and less obvious ways. We may literally have a parent or friend tell us what it means to be a man or a woman. We may also unconsciously consume messages from popular culture that offer representations of gender.

Any of these identity types can be ascribed or avowed.  Ascribed identities  are personal, social, or cultural identities that are placed on us by others, while  avowed identities  are those that we claim for ourselves (Martin & Nakayama, 2010). Sometimes people ascribe an identity to someone else based on stereotypes. You may see a person who likes to read science-fiction books, watches documentaries, has glasses, and collects Star Trek memorabilia and label him or her a nerd. If the person doesn’t avow that identity, it can create friction, and that label may even hurt the other person’s feelings. But ascribed and avowed identities can match up. To extend the previous example, there has been a movement in recent years to reclaim the label  nerd  and turn it into a positive, and a nerd subculture has been growing in popularity. For example, MC Frontalot, a leader in the nerdcore hip-hop movement, says that being branded a nerd in school was terrible, but now he raps about “nerdy” things like blogs to sold-out crowds (Shipman, 2007). We can see from this example that our ascribed and avowed identities change over the course of our lives, and sometimes they match up and sometimes not.

Although some identities are essentially permanent, the degree to which we are aware of them, also known as salience, changes. The intensity with which we avow an identity also changes based on context. For example, an African American may not have difficulty deciding which box to check on the demographic section of a survey. But if an African American becomes president of her college’s Black Student Union, she may more intensely avow her African American identity, which has now become more salient. If she studies abroad in Africa her junior year, she may be ascribed an identity of American by her new African friends rather than African American. For the Africans, their visitor’s identity as American is likely more salient than her identity as someone of African descent. If someone is biracial or multiracial, they may change their racial identification as they engage in an identity search. One intercultural communication scholar writes of his experiences as an “Asianlatinoamerican” (Yep, 2002). He notes repressing his Chinese identity as an adolescent living in Peru and then later embracing his Chinese identity and learning about his family history while in college in the United States. This example shows how even national identity fluctuates. Obviously one can change nationality by becoming a citizen of another country, although most people do not.

Throughout modern history, cultural and social influences have established dominant and nondominant groups (Allen, 2011).  Dominant identities historically had and currently have more resources and influence while  nondominant identities historically had and currently have less resources and influence. It is important to remember that these distinctions are being made at the societal level, not the individual level. There are obviously exceptions, with people in groups considered nondominant obtaining more resources and power than a person in a dominant group. However, the overall trend is that difference based on cultural groups has been institutionalized, and exceptions do not change this fact. Because of this uneven distribution of resources and power, members of dominant groups are granted privileges while nondominant groups are at a disadvantage. The main nondominant groups must face various forms of institutionalized discrimination, including racism, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism. As we will discuss later, privilege and disadvantage, like similarity and difference, are not “all or nothing.” No two people are completely different or completely similar, and no one person is completely privileged or completely disadvantaged.

Exploring Specific Cultural Identities

We can get a better understanding of current cultural identities by unpacking how they came to be. By looking at history, we can see how cultural identities that seem to have existed forever actually came to be constructed for various political and social reasons and how they have changed over time. Communication plays a central role in this construction. As we have already discussed, our identities are relational and communicative; they are also constructed. Social constructionism is a view that argues the self is formed through our interactions with others and in relationship to social, cultural, and political contexts (Allen, 2011). In this section, we’ll explore how the cultural identities of race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability have been constructed in the United States. There are other important identities that could be discussed, like religion, age, nationality, and class. Although they are not given their own section, consider how those identities may intersect with the identities discussed next.

Would it surprise you to know that human beings, regardless of how they are racially classified, share 99.9 percent of their DNA? This finding by the Human Genome Project asserts that race is a social construct, not a biological one (Figure 1.8). The American Anthropological Association agrees, stating that race is the product of “historical and contemporary social, economic, educational, and political circumstances” (Allen, 2011). Therefore, we will define race as a socially constructed category based on differences in appearance that has been used to create hierarchies that privilege some and disadvantage others.

Two women from different racial backgrounds smiling together.

Race didn’t become a socially and culturally recognized marker until European colonial expansion in the 1500s. As Western Europeans traveled to parts of the world previously unknown to them and encountered people who were different from them, a hierarchy of races began to develop that placed lighter skinned Europeans above darker skinned people. At the time, newly developing fields in natural and biological sciences took interest in examining the new locales, including the plant and animal life, natural resources, and native populations. Over the next three hundred years, science that we would now undoubtedly recognize as flawed, biased, and racist legitimated notions that native populations were less evolved than white Europeans, often calling them savages. In fact, there were scientific debates as to whether some of the native populations should be considered human or animal. Racial distinctions have been based largely on phenotypes, or physiological features such as skin color, hair texture, and body/facial features. Western “scientists” used these differences as “proof” that native populations were less evolved than the Europeans, which helped justify colonial expansion, enslavement, genocide, and exploitation on massive scales (Allen, 2011). Even though there is a consensus among experts that race is social rather than biological, we can’t deny that race still has meaning in our society and affects people as if it were “real.”

Discussing race in the United States is difficult for many reasons. One is due to uncertainty about language use. People may be frustrated by their perception that labels change too often or be afraid of using an “improper” term and being viewed as racially insensitive. It is important, however, that we not let political correctness get in the way of meaningful dialogues and learning opportunities related to difference.

Racial classifications used by the government and our regular communication about race in the United States have changed frequently, which further points to the social construction of race. Currently, the primary racial groups in the United States are African American, Asian American, European American, Latino/a, and Native American, but a brief look at changes in how the US Census Bureau has defined race clearly shows that this hasn’t always been the case (see Table 1.2 “Racial Classifications in the US Census” below). In the 1900s alone, there were twenty-six different ways that race was categorized on census forms (Allen, 2011). The way we communicate about race in our regular interactions has also changed, and many people are still hesitant to discuss race for fear of using “the wrong” vocabulary.

The five primary racial groups noted previously can still be broken down further to specify a particular region, country, or nation. For example, Asian Americans are diverse in terms of country and language of origin and cultural practices. While the category of Asian Americans can be useful when discussing broad trends, it can also generalize among groups, which can lead to stereotypes. You may find that someone identifies as Chinese American or Korean American instead of Asian American. In this case, the label further highlights a person’s cultural lineage. We should not assume, however, that someone identifies with his or her cultural lineage, as many people have more in common with their US American peers than a culture that may be one or more generations removed.

History and personal preference also influence how we communicate about race. Culture and communication scholar Brenda Allen notes that when she was born in 1950, her birth certificate included an  N  for Negro. Later she referred to herself as  colored  because that’s what people in her community referred to themselves as. During and before this time, the term  black  had negative connotations and would likely have offended someone. There was a movement in the 1960s to reclaim the word  black,  and the slogan “black is beautiful” was commonly used. Brenda Allen acknowledges the newer label of  African American  but notes that she still prefers  black . The terms  colored  and  Negro  are no longer considered appropriate because they were commonly used during a time when black people were blatantly discriminated against. Even though that history may seem far removed to some, it is not to others. Currently, the terms  African American and black are frequently used, and both are considered acceptable. The phrase  people of color is acceptable for most and is used to be inclusive of other racial minorities. If you are unsure what to use, you could always observe how a person refers to themself, or you could ask for their preference. In any case, a competent communicator defers to and respects the preference of the individual.

Source: Adapted from Brenda J. Allen,  Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2011), 71–72. * From Marks (2021).

The history of immigration in the United States also ties to the way that race has been constructed. The metaphor of the “melting pot” has been used to describe the immigration history of the United States but doesn’t capture the experiences of many immigrant groups (Allen, 2011). Generally, immigrant groups who were white, or light skinned, and spoke English were better able to assimilate, or melt into the melting pot. But immigrant groups that we might think of as white today were not always considered so. Irish immigrants were discriminated against and even portrayed as black in cartoons that appeared in newspapers. In some Southern states, Italian immigrants were forced to go to black schools, and it wasn’t until 1952 that Asian immigrants were allowed to become citizens of the United States. All this history is important, because it continues to influence communication among races today.

When we first meet a newborn baby, we ask whether it’s a boy or a girl. This question illustrates the importance of gender in organizing our social lives and our interpersonal relationships. A Canadian family became aware of the deep emotions people feel about gender and the great discomfort people feel when they can’t determine gender when they announced to the world that they were not going to tell anyone the gender of their baby, aside from the baby’s siblings. Their desire for their child, named Storm, to be able to experience early life without the boundaries and categories of gender brought criticism from many (Davis & James, 2011). Conversely, many parents consciously or unconsciously “code” their newborns in gendered ways based on our society’s associations of pink clothing and accessories with girls and blue with boys.

While it’s obvious to most people that colors aren’t gendered, they take on new meaning when we assign gendered characteristics of masculinity and femininity to them. Just like race, gender is a socially constructed category. While it is true that there are biological differences between who we label male and female, the meaning our society places on those differences is what actually matters in our day-to-day lives. And the biological differences are interpreted differently around the world, which further shows that although we think gender is a natural, normal, stable way of classifying things, it is actually not. There is a long history of appreciation for people who cross gender lines in Native American and South-Central Asian cultures, to name just two.

You may have noticed I use the word  gender  instead of  sex . That is because  gender  is an identity based on internalized cultural notions of masculinity and femininity that is constructed through communication and interaction. There are two important parts of this definition to unpack. First, we internalize notions of gender based on socializing institutions. Then we attempt to construct that gendered identity through our interactions with others, which is our gender expression. Sex is based on biological characteristics, including external genitalia, internal sex organs, chromosomes, and hormones (Wood, 2005). While the biological characteristics between men and women are obviously different, it is the meaning that we create and attach to those characteristics that makes them significant. The cultural differences in how that significance is ascribed are evidence that “our way of doing things” is arbitrary. For example, cross-cultural research has found that boys and girls in most cultures show both aggressive and nurturing tendencies, but cultures vary in terms of how they encourage these characteristics between genders. In a group in Africa, young boys are responsible for taking care of babies and are encouraged to be nurturing (Wood, 2005).

Gender has been constructed over the past few centuries in political and deliberate ways that have tended to favor men in terms of power. And various academic fields joined in the quest to “prove” there are “natural” differences between men and women. While the “proof” they presented was credible to many at the time, it seems blatantly sexist and inaccurate today. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, scientists who measure skulls, also known as craniometrists, claimed that men were more intelligent than women because they had larger brains. Leaders in the fast-growing fields of sociology and psychology argued that women were less evolved than men and had more in common with “children and savages” than an adult (white) males (Allen, 2011). Doctors and other decision makers like politicians also used women’s menstrual cycles as evidence that they were irrational, or hysterical, and therefore couldn’t be trusted to vote, pursue higher education, or be in a leadership position. These are just a few of the many instances of how knowledge was created by seemingly legitimate scientific disciplines that we can now clearly see served to empower men and disempower women. This system is based on the ideology of patriarchy, which is a system of social structures and practices that maintains the values, priorities, and interests of men as a group (Wood, 2005). One of the ways patriarchy is maintained is by its relative invisibility. While women have been the focus of much research on gender differences, males have been largely unexamined. Men have been treated as the “generic” human being to which others are compared. But that ignores that fact that men have a gender, too. Masculinities studies have challenged that notion by examining how masculinities are performed.

There have been challenges to the construction of gender in recent decades. Since the 1960s, scholars and activists have challenged established notions of what it means to be a man or a woman. The women’s rights movement in the United States dates back to the 1800s, when the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 (Wood, 2005). Although most women’s rights movements have been led by white, middle-class women, there was overlap between those involved in the abolitionist movement to end slavery and the beginnings of the women’s rights movement. Although some of the leaders of the early women’s rights movement had class and education privilege, they were still taking a risk by organizing and protesting. Black women were even more at risk, and Sojourner Truth, an emancipated slave, faced those risks often and gave a much-noted extemporaneous speech at a women’s rights gathering in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, which came to be called “Ain’t I a Woman?” (Wood, 2005) Her speech highlighted the multiple layers of oppression faced by black women.

Feminism as an intellectual and social movement advanced women’s rights and our overall understanding of gender. Feminism has gotten a bad reputation based on how it has been portrayed in the media and by some politicians. When I teach courses about gender, I often ask my students to raise their hand if they consider themselves feminists. I usually only have a few, if any, who do. I’ve found that students I teach are hesitant to identify as a feminist because of connotations of the word. However, when I ask students to raise their hand if they believe women have been treated unfairly and that there should be more equity, most students raise their hand. Gender and communication scholar Julia Wood has found the same trend and explains that a desire to make a more equitable society for everyone is at the root of feminism. She shares comments from a student that capture this disconnect: (Wood, 2005)

I would never call myself a feminist, because that word has so many negative connotations. I don’t hate men or anything, and I’m not interested in protesting. I don’t want to go around with hacked-off hair and no makeup and sit around bashing men. I do think women should have the same kinds of rights, including equal pay for equal work. But I wouldn’t call myself a feminist.

It’s important to remember that there are many ways to be a feminist and to realize that some of the stereotypes about feminism are rooted in sexism and homophobia, in that feminists are reduced to “men haters” and often presumed to be lesbians. The feminist movement also gave some momentum to the transgender rights movement. Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or expression do not match the gender they were assigned by birth. Transgender people may or may not seek medical intervention like surgery or hormone treatments to help match their physiology with their gender identity. The term  transgender  includes other labels such as  transsexual ,  transvestite ,  cross-dresser , and  intersex , among others. Terms like hermaphrodite and  she-male  are not considered appropriate. As with other groups, it is best to allow someone to self-identify first and then honor their preferred label (Figure 1.9). If you are unsure of which pronouns to use when addressing someone, you can use gender-neutral language or you can use the pronoun that matches with how they are presenting. If someone has long hair, make-up, and a dress on, but you think their biological sex is male due to other cues, it would be polite to address them with female pronouns, since that is the gender identity they are expressing.

Gender as a cultural identity has implications for many aspects of our lives, including real-world contexts like education and work. Schools are primary grounds for socialization, and the educational experience for males and females is different in many ways from preschool through college. Although not always intentional, schools tend to recreate the hierarchies and inequalities that exist in society. Given that we live in a patriarchal society, there are communicative elements present in school that support this (Allen, 2011). For example, teachers are more likely to call on and pay attention to boys in a classroom, giving them more feedback in the form of criticism, praise, and help. This sends an implicit message that boys are more worthy of attention and valuable than girls. Teachers are also more likely to lead girls to focus on feelings and appearance and boys to focus on competition and achievement. The focus on appearance for girls can lead to anxieties about body image. Gender inequalities are also evident in the administrative structure of schools, which puts males in positions of authority more than females. While females make up 75 percent of the educational workforce, only 22 percent of superintendents and 8 percent of high school principals are women. Similar trends exist in colleges and universities, with women only accounting for 26 percent of full professors. These inequalities in schools correspond to larger inequalities in the general workforce. While there are more women in the workforce now than ever before, they still face a glass ceiling, which is a barrier for promotion to upper management. Many of my students have been surprised at the continuing pay gap that exists between men and women. In 2010, women earned about seventy-seven cents to every dollar earned by men (National Committee on Pay Equity, 2011). To put this into perspective, the National Committee on Pay Equity started an event called Equal Pay Day. In 2011, Equal Pay Day was on April 11. This signifies that for a woman to earn the same amount of money a man earned in a year, she would have to work more than three months extra, until April 11, to make up for the difference (National Committee on Pay Equity, 2011).

While race and gender are two of the first things we notice about others, sexuality is often something we view as personal and private. Although many people hold a view that a person’s sexuality should be kept private, this isn’t a reality for our society. One only needs to observe popular culture and media for a short time to see that sexuality permeates much of our public discourse.

Sexuality relates to culture and identity in important ways that extend beyond sexual orientation (Figure 1.9), just as race is more than the color of one’s skin and gender is more than one’s biological and physiological manifestations of masculinity and femininity. Sexuality isn’t just physical; it is social in that we communicate with others about sexuality (Allen, 2011). Sexuality is also biological in that it connects to physiological functions that carry significant social and political meaning like puberty, menstruation, and pregnancy. Sexuality connects to public health issues like sexually transmitted infections (STIs), sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and teen pregnancy. Sexuality is at the center of political issues like abortion, sex education, and gay and lesbian rights.

A diagram featuring a unicorn, showing spectrums for gender identity, expression, assigned sex, physical attraction, and romantic attracion.

The most obvious way sexuality relates to identity is through sexual orientation. Sexual orientation refers to a person’s primary physical and emotional sexual attraction and activity. The terms we most often use to categorize sexual orientation are heterosexual or straight , gay ,  lesbian , and  bisexual . Gays, lesbians, and bisexuals are sometimes referred to as sexual minorities. While the term  sexual preference  has been used previously,  sexual orientation  is more appropriate, since  preference  implies a simple choice. Although someone’s preference for a restaurant or actor may change frequently, sexuality is not as simple. The term  homosexual  can be appropriate in some instances, but it carries with it a clinical and medicalized tone. As you will see in the timeline that follows, the medical community has a recent history of “treating homosexuality” with means that most would view as inhumane today. Many people prefer a term like  gay , which was chosen and embraced by gay people, rather than  homosexual , which was imposed by a then discriminatory medical system.

The gay and lesbian rights movement became widely recognizable in the United States in the 1950s and continues on today, as evidenced by prominent issues regarding sexual orientation in national news and politics. National and international groups like the Human Rights Campaign advocate for rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer (GLBTQ) communities. While these communities are often grouped together within one acronym (GLBTQ), they are different. Gays and lesbians constitute the most visible of the groups and receive the most attention and funding. Bisexuals are rarely visible or included in popular cultural discourses or in social and political movements. Transgender issues have received much more attention in recent years, but transgender identity connects to gender more than it does to sexuality. Last,  queer  is a term used to describe a group that is diverse in terms of identities but usually takes a more activist and at times radical stance that critiques sexual categories. While  queer  was long considered a derogatory label, and still is by some, the queer activist movement that emerged in the 1980s and early 1990s reclaimed the word and embraced it as a positive. As you can see, there is a diversity of identities among sexual minorities, just as there is variation within races and genders.

As with other cultural identities, notions of sexuality have been socially constructed in different ways throughout human history. Sexual orientation didn’t come into being as an identity category until the late 1800s. Before that, sexuality was viewed in more physical or spiritual senses that were largely separate from a person’s identity. Table 1.3 “Developments Related to Sexuality, Identity, and Communication” (below) traces some of the developments relevant to sexuality, identity, and communication that show how this cultural identity has been constructed over the past 3,000 years.

Source: Adapted from Brenda J. Allen,  Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity  (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2011), 117–25; and University of Denver Queer and Ally Commission, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Queer History,”  Queer Ally Training Manual , 2008.

There is resistance to classifying ability as a cultural identity, because we follow a medical model of disability that places disability as an individual and medical rather than social and cultural issue. While much of what distinguishes able-bodied and cognitively able from disabled is rooted in science, biology, and physiology, there are important sociocultural dimensions. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines an individual with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment” (Allen, 2011). An impairment is defined as “any temporary or permanent loss or abnormality of a body structure or function, whether physiological or psychological” (Allen, 2011). This definition is important because it notes the social aspect of disability in that people’s life activities are limited and the relational aspect of disability in that the perception of a disability by others can lead someone to be classified as such. Ascribing an identity of disabled to a person can be problematic. If there is a mental or physical impairment, it should be diagnosed by a credentialed expert. If there isn’t an impairment, then the label of  disabled  can have negative impacts, as this label carries social and cultural significance. People are tracked into various educational programs based on their physical and cognitive abilities, and there are many cases of people being mistakenly labeled disabled who were treated differently despite their protest of the ascribed label. Students who did not speak English as a first language, for example, were—and perhaps still are—sometimes put into special education classes.

Ability, just as the other cultural identities discussed, has institutionalized privileges and disadvantages associated with it. Ableism is the system of beliefs and practices that produces a physical and mental standard that is projected as normal for a human being and labels deviations from it abnormal, resulting in unequal treatment and access to resources. Ability privilege refers to the unearned advantages that are provided for people who fit the cognitive and physical norms (Allen, 2011). I once attended a workshop about ability privilege led by a man who was visually impaired. He talked about how, unlike other cultural identities that are typically stable over a lifetime, ability fluctuates for most people. We have all experienced times when we are more or less able.

Perhaps you broke your leg and had to use crutches or a wheelchair for a while. Getting sick for a prolonged period of time also lessens our abilities, but we may fully recover from any of these examples and regain our ability privilege. Whether you’ve experienced a short-term disability or not, the majority of us will become less physically and cognitively able as we get older.

Statistically, people with disabilities make up the largest minority group in the United States, with an estimated 20 percent of people five years or older living with some form of disability (Allen, 2011). Medical advances have allowed some people with disabilities to live longer and more active lives than before, which has led to an increase in the number of people with disabilities. This number could continue to increase, as we have thousands of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with physical disabilities or psychological impairments such as posttraumatic stress disorder (Figure 1.10).

Men playing wheelchair basketball.

As disability has been constructed in US history, it has intersected with other cultural identities. For example, people opposed to “political and social equality for women cited their supposed physical, intellectual, and psychological flaws, deficits, and deviations from the male norm.” They framed women as emotional, irrational, and unstable, which was used to put them into the “scientific” category of “feeblemindedness,” which led them to be institutionalized (Carlson, 2001). Arguments supporting racial inequality and tighter immigration restrictions also drew on notions of disability, framing certain racial groups as prone to mental retardation, mental illness, or uncontrollable emotions and actions. See Table 1.4 “Developments Related to Ability, Identity, and Communication”  for a timeline of developments related to ability, identity, and communication. These thoughts led to a dark time in US history, as the eugenics movement sought to limit reproduction of people deemed as deficient.

Source: Maggie Shreve, “The Movement for Independent Living: A Brief History,”  Independent Living Research Utilization , accessed October 14, 2011,  http://ilru.org/html/publications/infopaks/IL_paradigm.doc .

During the early part of the 1900s, the eugenics movement was the epitome of the move to rehabilitate or reject people with disabilities (Allen, 2005). This was a brand of social engineering that was indicative of a strong public support in the rationality of science to cure society’s problems (Allen, 2011). A sterilization law written in 1914 “proposed to authorize sterilization of the socially inadequate,” which included the “feebleminded, insane, criminalistic, epileptic, inebriate, diseased, blind, deaf, deformed, and dependent” (Lombardo, 2011). During the eugenics movement in the United States, more than sixty thousand people in thirty-three states were involuntarily sterilized (Allen, 2011). Although the eugenics movement as it was envisioned and enacted then is unthinkable today, some who have studied the eugenics movement of the early 1900s have issued warnings that a newly packaged version of eugenics could be upon us. As human genome mapping and DNA manipulation become more accessible, advanced genetic testing could enable parents to eliminate undesirable aspects or enhance desirable characteristics of their children before they are born, creating “designer children” (Spice, 2005).

Much has changed for people with disabilities in the United States in the past fifty years. The independent living movement (ILM) was a part of the disability rights movement that took shape along with other social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The ILM calls for more individual and collective action toward social change by people with disabilities. Some of the goals of the ILM include reframing disability as a social and political rather than just a medical issue, a shift toward changing society rather than just rehabilitating people with disabilities, a view of accommodations as civil rights rather than charity, and more involvement by people with disabilities in the formulation and execution of policies relating to them (Longmore, 2003). As society better adapts to people with disabilities, there will be more instances of interability communication taking place.

Interability communication is communication between people with differing ability levels; for example, a hearing person communicating with someone who is hearing impaired or a person who doesn’t use a wheelchair communicating with someone who uses a wheelchair. Since many people are unsure of how to communicate with a person with disabilities, following are the “Ten Commandments of Etiquette for Communicating with People with Disabilities” to help you in communicating with persons with disabilities:

  • When talking with a person with a disability, speak directly to that person rather than through a companion or sign-language interpreter.
  • When introduced to a person with a disability, it is appropriate to offer to shake hands. People with limited hand use or an artificial limb can usually shake hands. (Shaking hands with the left hand is an acceptable greeting.)
  • When meeting a person who is visually impaired, always identify yourself and others who may be with you. When conversing in a group, remember to identify the person to whom you are speaking.
  • If you offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted. Then listen to or ask for instructions.
  • Treat adults as adults. Address people who have disabilities by their first names only when extending the same familiarity to all others. (Never patronize people who use wheelchairs by patting them on the head or shoulder.)
  • Leaning on or hanging on to a person’s wheelchair is similar to leaning or hanging on to a person and is generally considered annoying. The chair is part of the personal body space of the person who uses it.
  • Listen attentively when you’re talking with a person who has difficulty speaking. Be patient and wait for the person to finish, rather than correcting or speaking for the person. If necessary, ask short questions that require short answers, a nod, or a shake of the head. Never pretend to understand if you are having difficulty doing so. Instead, repeat what you have understood and allow the person to respond. The response will clue you in and guide your understanding.
  • When speaking with a person who uses a wheelchair or a person who uses crutches, place yourself at eye level in front of the person to facilitate the conversation.
  • To get the attention of a person who is deaf, tap the person on the shoulder or wave your hand. Look directly at the person and speak clearly, slowly, and expressively to determine if the person can read your lips. Not all people who are deaf can read lips. For those who do lip read, be sensitive to their needs by placing yourself so that you face the light source and keep hands, cigarettes, and food away from your mouth when speaking.
  • Relax. Don’t be embarrassed if you happen to use accepted, common expressions such as “See you later” or “Did you hear about that?” that seem to relate to a person’s disability. Don’t be afraid to ask questions when you’re unsure of what to do.
  • Personal identities are components of self that are primarily intrapersonal and connect to our individual interests and life experiences.
  • Social identities are components of self that are derived from our involvement in social groups to which we are interpersonally invested.
  • Cultural identities are components of self based on socially constructed categories that teach us a way of being and include expectations for our thoughts and behaviors.
  • The social constructionist view of culture and identity states that the self is formed through our interactions with others and in relation to social, cultural, and political contexts.
  • Race, gender, sexuality, and ability are socially constructed cultural identities that developed over time in relation to historical, social, and political contexts.

Discussion Questions

  • List some of your personal, social, and cultural identities. Are there any that relate? If so, how? For your cultural identities, which ones are dominant and which ones are nondominant? What would a person who looked at this list be able to tell about you?
  • Describe a situation in which someone ascribed an identity to you that didn’t match with your avowed identities. Why do you think the person ascribed the identity to you? Were there any stereotypes involved?
  • Do you ever have difficulty discussing different cultural identities due to terminology? If so, what are your uncertainties? What did you learn in this chapter that can help you overcome them?
  • How do you see sexuality connect to identity in the media? Why do you think the media portrays sexuality and identity the way it does?
  • Think of an instance in which you had an interaction with someone with a disability. Would knowing the “Ten Commandments for Communicating with People with Disabilities” have influenced how you communicated in this instance? Why or why not?

Remix/Revisions Featured in this Section

  • Small editing revisions to tailor the content to the Psychology of Human Relations course.
  • Remix combining 8.1 Foundations of Culture and Identity and 8.2 Exploring Specific Cultural Identities (Communication in the Real World – University of Minnesota).
  • Changed formatting for photos to provide links to locations of images and CC licenses.
  • Added doi links to references to comply with APA 7th edition formatting reference manual.

Attributions

CC Licensed Content, Original Modification, adaptation, and original content.  Provided by : Stevy Scarbrough. License : CC-BY-NC-SA

CC Licensed Content Shared Previously Communication in the Real World. Authored by: University of Minnesota. Located at: https://open.lib.umn.edu/communication/chapter/8-1-foundations-of-culture-and-identity/   License: CC-BY-NC-SA

Allen, B. J. (2011).  Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (2nd ed.). Waveland.

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Identity. In APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved July 28, 2022 from https://dictionary.apa.org/identity

Collier, M. J. (1996). Communication competence promblematics in ethnic friendships, Communication Monographs, 63(4) (1996): 314-346. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637759609376397

Cullen, L. T. (2007, April 26). Employee diversity training doesn’t work,  Time. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1615183,00.html .

Jones Jr., R. G. (2009). Communicating queer identities through personal narrative and intersectional reflexivity (Publication No. 3366166) [Doctoral Dissertation, University of Denver]. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Global. https://www.proquest.com/docview/304880542

Marks, R. (2021, August 3). Improvements to the 2020 census race and Hispanic origin question designs, data processing, and coding procedures . US Census Bureau. Retrieved from: https://www.census.gov/newsroom/blogs/random-samplings/2021/08/improvements-to-2020-census-race-hispanic-origin-question-designs.html

Martin, J. N., & Nakayama, T. K. (2010). Intercultural Communication in Contexts (5th ed.). McGraw-Hill.

Saenz, A., (2011, March 23). Census data shows a changed American landscape,  ABC News .   http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/census-data-reveals-changed-american-landscape/story?id=13206427

Shipman, T. (2007, July 22). Nerds get their revenge as at last it’s hip to be square, The Sunday Telegraph . https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1558191/Nerds-get-revenge-now-its-hip-to-be-square.html

Spreckels, J. & Kotthoff, H. (2009). Communicating identity in intercultural communication, in H. Kotthoff & H. Spencer-Oatey (Eds.) Handbook of Intercultural Communication (pp. 415-440) . Mouton de Gruyter.

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Yep, G. A. (2002). My three cultures: Navigating the multicultural identity landscape,” in J. N. Martin, L. A. Flores, & T. K. Nakayama (Eds.) Intercultural Communication: Experiences and Contexts (2 nd ed, pp. 61) McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Psychology of Human Relations Copyright © by Stevy Scarbrough is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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23 Ascribed Status Examples – Sociology Guide

ascribed status examples definition

Examples of ascribed status include age, gender, race, caste, disability, inherited title, and multigenerational wealth.

An ascribed status is a social status that you didn’t choose and is usually given to you from birth.

When exploring a person’s ascribed status, you need to think of identity features that a person neither earned nor chose. No amount of effort or desire can influence our ascribed status.

(However, as I discuss in the FAQ at the bottom of this article, in some instances, ascribed status can be gained and lost later in life!)

Ascribed Status Examples

A person cannot change their age, making this an ascribed identity marker. While this is ascribed throughout our lives, it also changes. You move through phases of infancy, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age, and senior years, at a pace that you do not control.

At each age, you may face discrimination and stereotypes that will both hinder and help you. As a young person, you may be seen as cool and full of vitality but also naïve. As an elderly person, you may be seen as wise but also potentially failing cognitively or strength-wise. These are all considerations that could benefit you when going for a job, or that a potential employer might hold against you.

Your gender (male or female) is ascribed by society at birth. However, in the 21 st Century, people are increasingly seeing gender to be more fluid than in the past. Progressive societies acknowledge transgenderism where people are born feeling as if they are one gender trapped in the other gender’s body.

See Also: Gender Stereotype Examples

Your race is a genetically defined feature. It is generally identifiable by your skin color, but also other features such as eye color and jawline. Common races include black, Caucasian, and Asian.

Societies have historically created social hierarchies based on race. For example, in the United States, white Europeans have historically enjoyed privileges while African Americans have historically suffered severe discrimination.

4. Ethnicity

Unlike race, ethnicity is about cultural expressions of people who share common ancestry. For example, people who are Caucasian might come from a range of different ethnic groups ranging from Ireland across to eastern Russia.

Similarly, in Myanmar, there are multiple different ethnic groups within the country that are in consistent and ongoing armed conflict.

Furthermore, you may have been born in the United States but enjoy an ethnic background from anywhere in the world because you continue to practice the traditions of your ethnic origins.

See Also:  Social Identity Examples   

5. Disability

A person doesn’t choose to have a disability. Nevertheless, it is a status marker that can have a negative impact throughout your life.

For example, it could hinder your ability to access public services, jobs, or even go traveling throughout your life. While society has made good gains in ensuring access for people with disabilities, there is still some way to go.

6. Physical Appearance

While people make big efforts to alter their physical appearance (from putting on makeup to getting cosmetic surgery), it is by-and-large an attribute that you don’t have control over.

Unfortunately, physical appearance can lead to status discrimination, such as when people who are overweight are overlooked for customer service jobs because a brand wants to maintain an image of beauty and perfection.

7. Ancestry

You do not choose your ancestry and yet it can dramatically impact your position in the social stratification system.

The most stark example of this is the descendants of slaves. They continue to experience the intergenerational disadvantages that came from their disempowerment and disenfranchisement.

Other examples of ancestry impacting your social position is if you were born into minor royalty or can get a legacy position in an elite school such as Eton in England.

8. Birth Order

There is research showing that your birth order may impact your success in life. Furthermore, in some societies, the first-born son is favored and privileged while the younger children and girls are secondary. This can impact access to education and other opportunities in life.

9. Citizenship at Birth

Your birth citizenship can dramatically affect your life. For example, people born into first-world countries have greater access to public services and enhanced ability to travel unimpeded.

While this is usually an ascribed status, it is also possible to change your citizenship. However, this requires a lot of work. If you become a naturalized citizen, then your citizenship will become an achieved status. Similarly, in some circumstances, you can lose or renounce your citizenship.

10. First Language

People do not choose the first language they learn. Your first language is the language of your parents.

People who speak English tend to have a global advantage because it is the language of business. However, upper middle-class people who don’t speak English as a first language tend to be able to speak multiple languages which could also give them an upper hand.

Associated with first language is the seemingly stubborn identity marker of your accent.

Accents tend to become permanent and unchangeable from about the age of 12 . After this age, even if you move overseas and live in a culture with an entirely different accent, you tend to keep your original accent.

This can cause your status to remain fixed for life. For example, even you move from the UK to the USA at the age of 20 and stay there for 30 years, you will still be seen by people you interact with as British, not American.

12. Inherited Title

Sometimes, you might inherit a title. This is most common in old monarchies like the UK. You might inherit the title of Baroness, Duke, Dame, or Earl. These inherited titles can remain with you for your whole life thanks to your royal ancestry.

The United States doesn’t tend to have these titles, but there are less formal titles that one might inherit such as the “son of Rupert Murdoch” or “daughter of the former president” that you cannot shake.

13. Multigenerational Wealth

People can inherit wealth. We might call these people ‘trust fund babies’.

Inherited wealth, also known as old money, is destined for you from birth. This can shape how people treat you as you grow up as well as your opportunities (for example, for elite education).

14. Sexuality

The issue of whether sexuality is a choice or something you are ‘born with’ has been ongoing for decades.

Today, progressive societies increasingly leaning toward embracing the idea that people do not choose their sexuality, based upon the testimony of LGBTQI people.

Thus, we can consider sexuality to be ascribed rather than an achieved status example .

Being born into a caste is an old tradition from India . Within the Indian caste system , there are four broad caste groups:

  • Brahmins – Teachers and intellectuals
  • Kshatriyas – Warriors and rulers
  • Vaishyas – Traders
  • Shudras – Menial jobs

Your assigned profession in life used to depend on the caste you were born into. Furthermore, people from lower castes (e.g. those that destined you for menial work) were widely discriminated against to the extent that they were considered ‘untouchables’.

Movement between the castes and marriage to people from other castes was also traditionally frowned upon.

Today, discrimination between castes remains among many people.

16. Postcode at Birth

The place where you were born is not up to you but can have a big impact on your life.

For example, in many countries, your postcode influences where you can go to public school. Similarly, it may influence the sort of healthcare you have access to.

This also relates to being a ‘city kid’ or a ‘rural kid’ who might have a lot more access to outdoor play which can help with spontaneous physical development.

Thus, while your parents may be able to make a choice about where within a city or country you are born, you personally did not.

While not the most important factor that might impact your status within the social hierarchy, your hair is an example of ascribed status.

This is one ascribed status that you cannot change but also changes through life. For example, you might become a bald man at age 25 without any choice of your own. Suddenly, you find that as part of your identity that you cannot change (and something that could impact your status in social situations, such as when dating).

18. Social Class

People tend to be born into a social class. This doesn’t just mean wealth (e.g being born into poverty) but also a class-based culture.

For example, working-class people often tend to associate with other working-class people, share a common way of speaking, and live in the same neighborhoods.

By contrast, being born into the upper class will mean you have access to better schools, more learning resources, and more elite clubs.

As a child, you tend not to choose which social class you belong to. However, when you’re older, you may be able to move across class boundaries, so this one fits in the gray area between ascribed and achieved. As a student, it might be a good idea not to use this as a clear ascribed status example.

19. Genetic Predispositions

We are often predisposed to certain physical traits due to our genes. A person may be predisposed to a certain chronic illness, for example.

Similarly, you may have a certain genetic predisposition to being particularly muscular, tall, thin, short, or fat. Each of these predispositions may lead to stereotyping throughout your life or limit life chances (e.g. not being allowed into the military due to flat feet).

See Also:  Types of Stereotypes

20. Religion

Like social class, religion is partially ascribed and partially achieved. We usually start with an ascribed religion (e.g. being baptised at birth) and raised within your family’s religious traditions.

We are introduced to and socialized with people within our family’s religious groupings and obtain that religious identity with minimal personal choice.

When we reach adulthood, we may change religions, lose faith, or continue the religion of our family. Thus, into adulthood, this one becomes a choice and is therefore closer to an attained rather than ascribed status in adulthood.

21. Culture

Like religion, we’re usually born into a culture that we cannot choose. As we get older, we can choose to reject the culture, but many dispositions of the culture stay with us for life.

That’s because a culture becomes normalized within us. For example, some cultures teach their children in unique ways (e.g. the place-based learning that occurs in Aboriginal Australian culture) that can influence how someone learns and thinks for the rest of their lives.

Related: Examples of Culture

22. Surname

In some towns, sharing a surname with people who have been disgraced can be a big problem.

While you may not personally have any reason to be seen as being a disgrace, if two of your uncles went to prison and your cousins are poorly behaved at the local school, this might work against you. People may stereotype you.

By contrast, if you’re the younger brother or sister of an intelligent person or a star athlete, people might see you as also having great potential.

23. Eye Color

Eye color very rarely impacts your destiny. It is not an identifying feature that tends to garner much discrimination. The rare exception might be people with stunning eyes. In these cases, they might be considered beautiful and gain certain advantages from this.

Nevertheless, eye color is an ascribed feature rather than an achieved feature.

Ascribed Status Definition in Sociology

Ascribed status is a concept in sociology that works in contrast to achieved status (a social status that you worked for) and master status (your dominant identity feature).

Social status research was progressed by Max Weber in his research on the three-component theory from The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism . Weber argued that social status was one of three components that contributed to the social stratification system which privileges some people above others.

Following Weber’s work, Ralph Linton developed the dualistic concepts of ascribed status versus achieved status.

Ascribed Status vs Achieved Status in Sociology

According to Linton, ascribed status was one given to us at birth and neither earned nor chosen. No amount of effort or desire would influence our ascribed status.

By contrast, achieved status was something we could choose and earn through ability, merit, and choice.

The concepts of ascribed and achieved status help us to understand how prestige, privilege, and honor are either achieved or assigned by society. They show how we live in a social hierarchy that is both incredibly unfair (we’re born into a position on the hierarchy) and fluid (we can change our status in some contexts through hard work).

Gray Areas and Factors Influencing Ascription of Status

There are gray areas where it’s not clear if someone’s status is ascribed or assigned. In these instances, we can see that ascribed status isn’t as clear or fixed as we might have first thought.

Thus, social status fits more on a sliding scale than a black-and-white contrast. While most ascribed statuses are given at birth and stay with us for life, some may change, and remain unchosen and unearned .

This prompted Linton to propose several terms to describe how even ascribed status can change. These terms are outlined below.

Delayed Ascription

Delayed ascription refers to an assigned status that is assigned later in life. An example is the onset of a disability in adulthood which fundamentally changes people’s perception of you in the social hierarchy.

Fluid Ascription

Fluid ascription refers to situations where an assigned status becomes ascribed in adulthood. This occurs when you’re given a status without your choice and then you choose to keep it or lose it as an adult.

One example of fluid ascription is religion. Many people are raised within a religious tradition without their free will or choice , and then in adulthood they have to choose whether to keep or lose that ascription.

What is master status?

Master status is the status that is the dominant social status of a person. For example, Bull Clinton’s dominant status will always be remembered as a president of the United States. His other statuses as father, husband, Democrat, Caucasian, and college graduate are all secondary to his main, or master, status feature.

Sometimes, what society perceives to be your master status is different from the one you perceive for yourself. For example, Bill Clinton may think the most important status for himself personally is that of a father.

Ascribed statuses are features of a person that influence their position in the social hierarchy. They cause unfair social stratification that can advantage some people and disadvantage others despite the fact you don’t choose any of these identifying features.

Examples of ascribed status include race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, inherited title, and disability.

Further Reading

Bourdieu, P. (1979). Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. London: Routledge.

Fiske, S. (2010) Interpersonal Stratification: Status, Power, and Subordination. (pp. 941–982). In Fiske, S., Gilbert, D. & Lindzey, G. (eds.) Handbook of Social Psychology. Los Angeles: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Linton, R. (1936). The Study of Man: An Introduction . New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Prato, M., Kypraios, E., Ertug, G., & Lee, Y. G. (2019). Middle-status conformity revisited: The interplay between achieved and ascribed status. Academy of Management Journal, 62 (4), 1003-1027. doi: https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2017.0316

Roberts, A., Palermo, R. & Visser, T. (2019). Effects of dominance and prestige-based social status on competition for attentional resources. Sci Rep 9 , 2473. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39223-0

Weber, M., & Kalberg, S. (2013). The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism . Routledge.

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Ascribed Status

Definition An  ascribed status  would be the social status or labels reflected onto an individual by a society  or community based on their birth. This would include the social classification of an individual  in a familial perspective depending on what relationships with others they were born into (Ex: a  son or a father). An individual can have multiple ascribed statuses making up their entire  identity. This concept does not include a social status one might have pertain to themselves due  to the accomplishment of a task while living (such as being labeled a criminal due to them  robbing a bank).

Example of being Personally Affected by this Concept: My personal  ascribed status  would be an ‘Asian American woman’ as I had been born in the  United States of America and have descent from Asian origins. Due to not having done anything  throughout my lifetime to inherit this title, it is a part of my identity as something I had been  born as. When born into this family, I automatically became the biological daughter of my two  parents. The label of a ‘daughter’ was given to me at birth. This ascribed status is used daily to  identify me as being connected to an ethnicity or family. The label itself causes people to address  me as someone’s daughter, as well as acknowledging me as an Asian American. These terms  themselves hold their own significant roles as does every role one has associated with their social  status. Although these roles may become more fluid depending on the culture of an individual  and the multiple influences that society has on an individual’s values, many of these roles are  recognized as similar. Personally, as my parent’s child, I understand that my parents have a  responsibility to me and that there is a significance to me respecting and bonding with them. To  interact with another individual, I take into consideration their  ascribed status  and achieved  social status as they both influence the identity that a person has within a society.

Our Sociological Glossary, by LWTech Students Copyright © 2021 by Lake Washington Institute of Technology is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Ascribed identity

Ascribed identities can be thought of as the identities that other people, or society, might impose on you. These include, for example, gender- and age-defined identities which are rooted in very early social experience.

There may be conflict between the two kinds of identity. Many social work service users, for example, find that their view of themselves (their self-identity) differs from society’s view of them (ascribed identity), and that frequently the latter is negative and based on a stereotype. Stereotyping is a process through which we assign a set of attributes to a person based on their presumed membership of a particular group. It also involves simplifying information about complex situations. For example, many older people find that their identity is seen only in terms of one attribute, their age, and the traits that are assumed to accompany that age, while their individual characteristics, capabilities and experiences are ignored. Similarly, people with mental health problems are often portrayed as one group and are frequently stereotyped in films, books and television as being stupid or violent and therefore to be feared.

Stereotypes represent society’s views in a rigid and simplistic way. It can be all too easy for individuals to absorb or internalise stereotypes so that they come to believe they are true of themselves or of others. It is an important part of social work to become aware of how we may have internalised some assumptions about people before getting to know the real person. You may feel you have been stereotyped yourself. For example, you might have come across some stereotypes of social workers and noticed that this affects your views of social work.

  • How accurate do you think these stereotypes are?
  • Do they contain any truths?
  • How does it make you feel to be stereotyped in that way?

While we recognise that stereotypes exist in our culture and can become part of our personal responses and attitudes, it is important in social work that we spend time thinking about, and becoming aware of, our assumptions.

Activity 6 Thinking about your own stereotypes

Look at these images and answer the questions below.

Four photographs: an older person landing after a skydive; two white women with two black children on a beach; an athlete with one artificial leg celebrating at the Paralympic Games; a man with tattoos and piercings holding a baby and smiling.

Consider the following questions:

  • Have a guess at who and what are the four pictures depicting.
  • In what ways do you think some people or groups might be stereotyped by society at large?
  • Do you think representations of these people or groups reinforce the stereotypes or challenge them?
  • Are there any stereotypes of people or groups that you think you might have held in the past or are affected by now?

Make a note of any time you think you have been stereotyped. How did this feel?

Based on a single image it can be hard to establish who and what the pictures are about with complete certainty. But it’s likely we will ‘read’ certain aspects of the pictures in similar ways. For example, the first image appears to be an older adult about to land after a tandem sky dive. The second picture depicts what seems to be two women and two children having fun on a beach. But what assumptions do you first make about the relationships between the people in the picture? For instance, are the women a couple? And are they the parents of the two children? The third image appears to be an elite athlete, possibly a Team GB Paralympian, celebrating. The last picture is a man with numerous tattoos (a form of body modification often associated with ‘tough guy’ personas) looking lovingly at the baby he is carefully holding.

These images have been chosen because they challenge selected stereotypes – for instance, the assumption that older people do not take part in dangerous, adrenaline-filled activities. The pictures were chosen to suggest that stereotypes should be challenged and thought about. How did you react to them? Did you react differently depending on the picture and perhaps some of the assumptions you made? Do you have other examples of stereotypes you would like to challenge?

It is not easy to challenge certain stereotypes, but it is important to do so. We can all be influenced by what other people think, but part of building good social work skills is to reflect on the assumptions we make about how people might think, feel or behave on the basis of a stereotype.

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Master Status: Its Dominance in Social Identity

ascribed status vs identity

Table of Contents

Have you ever noticed how some aspects of a person’s identity seem to take precedence over others? This phenomenon is rooted in the concept of “ master status ,” a term that carries significant weight in the field of sociology . It’s a lens through which we can understand why certain attributes, like race , gender , or disability , often dominate the way individuals are perceived and interact within society. But what exactly is master status, and how does it shape our experiences and the opportunities available to us? Let’s unravel this concept and explore its profound impact on social identity and interactions.

What is Master Status?

Master status is a sociological concept that identifies a particular status of an individual that stands out or overrides other statuses. These statuses can be ascribed, such as gender, race, and age, or achieved, like a professional title. However, it’s the ascribed status es that often become master statuses because they are immediately visible or widely recognized in society. The concept of master status is crucial because it helps us understand how certain characteristics of a person can frame their entire life narrative, often without their consent or control.

The Role of Ascribed Statuses

Ascribed statuses are the characteristics that people are born with, or that are given to them involuntarily, often at a young age. These can include race, ethnicity, gender, and family background. In many cases, these ascribed statuses become master statuses — but why is that? It has much to do with societal structures and the value systems that have been historically established. Certain ascribed statuses carry stereotypes and societal expectations that influence how people are treated and how they interact with the world.

Master Status and Social Identity

The concept of master status is deeply entwined with social identity. Social identity is how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us within the context of society. When a master status is ascribed, it becomes a dominant part of that identity, often overshadowing other aspects of a person. This can affect self-esteem, social circles, and even livelihoods, as the master status becomes a pivotal point around which many life events and interactions revolve.

Master Status in Everyday Interactions

Every day, whether we’re aware of it or not, master statuses are at play. They influence the way we are greeted in stores, the respect we receive in professional settings, and even the trust placed in us during casual encounters. For example, a woman in a predominantly male field may find her gender becomes her master status, affecting how her colleagues interact with her, regardless of her professional accomplishments.

The Impact of Master Status on Life Chances

Life chances, a term coined by sociologist Max Weber , refers to the opportunities each individual has to improve their quality of life. Master statuses can have a profound impact on these chances. Consider how race or disability, as master statuses, might affect someone’s access to education, employment, or fair treatment in the justice system. The implications are vast and deeply rooted in societal structures that often perpetuate inequality.

Negotiating with a Master Status

Is it possible for individuals to negotiate or change their master status? This can be challenging, especially when dealing with deeply ingrained societal beliefs. However, through social movements , education, and increased awareness, people and groups can challenge the preconceived notions attached to their master statuses, slowly reshaping the narratives that have for so long defined them.

Master Status and Intersectionality

Intersectionality is a concept that recognizes the multiple facets of identity that intersect and how these intersections contribute to unique experiences of oppression or privilege. A person is not defined by a single master status; rather, the interplay between their various ascribed and achieved status es can create complex social dynamics. An understanding of intersectionality is vital when considering how different master statuses can compound to affect an individual’s life.

Master status is a powerful element of social identity that can dictate the course of an individual’s interactions and opportunities. It highlights the importance of recognizing the inherent biases and structures within society that elevate certain ascribed statuses above others. By understanding and acknowledging the role of master statuses, we can work towards a more equitable society where every aspect of an individual’s identity is valued and respected.

What are some of the master statuses that have influenced your life or the lives of those around you? And how can we, as a society, challenge the negative impacts of master statuses to create more inclusive social environments?

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Introduction to Sociology

1 Thinking Sociologically

  • Sociological Methods
  • Sociology in Everyday Life
  • Sociology and other Disciplines
  • In What Way Sociological Looks at Reality
  • Observe Interpret and Validate Sociological Perspectives

2 Emergence of Sociology and Social Anthropology

  • Emergence of Sociology
  • Social and Economic Changes that Swept 19th Century European Society
  • The Rise of Sociological Theory
  • Emergence of Social Anthropology
  • Emergence of Modern Social Anthropology
  • Pioneers of Social Anthropology

3 Relationship of Sociology with Anthropology

  • Nature of Sociology and Social Anthropology
  • Emergence and History of Sociology
  • Emergence and History of Anthropology
  • Similarities between Sociology and Anthropology
  • Differences between Sociology and Anthropology

4 Relationship of Sociology with Psychology

  • Definition of Sociology
  • Sociology and Psychology: The Possible Interlink
  • Social Psychology: Historical Development
  • Defining Social Psychology
  • Inter-disciplinary Approach to Social Psychology
  • Scope of Social Psychology
  • Your Sociological Tool Kit
  • Concepts and Methods of Sociology used in Social Psychology
  • Perspectives in Sociological Social Psychology
  • Objectives of Research in Social Psychology
  • Importance of Sociological Social Psychology

5 Relationship of Sociology with History

  • Defining History
  • Relationship of Sociology with History
  • Difference Between Sociology and History
  • Historical Sociology as Sub-Discipline

6 Relationship of Sociology with Economics

  • Definition of Economics
  • Differences between Sociology and Economics
  • Definitions Given by Different Economist and their Relation to Sociology
  • Definitions Given by Different Sociologists and their Relation to Economics
  • Economic Sociology as a Sub-Discipline of Sociology
  • Common Issues Concerning both Sociology and Economics

7 Relationship of Sociology with Political Science

  • Definition of Political Science
  • Shift in the Focus of Political Science
  • Relationship between Sociology and Political Science
  • Differentiating between Political Sociology and Sociology of Politics
  • Political Culture
  • Political Socialisation
  • Political Capital

8 Culture and Society

  • Culture and Biology
  • Culture Trait and Culture Complex
  • Characteristics of Culture
  • Types of Culture: Material and Non-material Culture
  • Elements of Culture
  • Culture and Civilization
  • Cultural Change
  • Cultural Diversity
  • Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism
  • Multiculturalism
  • Globalisation and Culture
  • Culture in Indian Context

9 Social Groups and Community

  • Definitions of Community
  • Characteristics of Community
  • Elements of Community Sentiment
  • Community and Association
  • Definition of Social Group
  • Bases of Classification of Groups
  • Primary and Secondary Groups
  • Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft
  • In Group and Out Group
  • Reference Group
  • Social Group and Community Differences

10 Associations and Institutions

  • Meaning and Definition of Association
  • Main Characteristics of an Association
  • Defining Institutions
  • Purpose of Institutions
  • Types of Institutions
  • Perspectives on Social Institutions

11 Status and Role

  • The Concept of Status
  • Ascribed and Achieved Status
  • Master Status
  • The Concept of Role
  • Role Theory
  • Classification of Roles
  • Role Systems: Simple and Complex Societies
  • Dimensions of Roles

12 Socialisation

  • Socialisation – Meaning and Definitions
  • Types of Socialisation
  • Theories of Socialisation
  • Agents of Socialisation

13 Structure and Function

  • From Positivism to Functionalism
  • The Premises of Functionalism
  • Functionalism in Social Anthropology: Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski
  • Functionalism of Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton

14 Social Control and Change

  • Meaning and Definition of Social Control
  • Types of Social Control
  • Agencies of Social Control
  • Concept and Meaning of Social Change
  • Approaches to Understanding Social Change
  • Factors of Social Change
  • Impact of Social Change

15 Evolutionary Perspective

  • The Beginning of the Concept of Social Evolution
  • The Organic Analogy and Biological Theories of Evolution
  • Theories of Cultural Evolution
  • Limitation of Classical Evolutionary Theory
  • Neo-Evolutionary Theories

16 Functionalism

  • Founders of Functionalism
  • Later Functionalists

17 Structuralism

  • Claude Levi-Strauss and Structuralism
  • The Concept of Culture as Understood by Levi-Strauss
  • The Structural Analysis of Myths
  • Ethnography and Structural Analysis
  • Critical Points of View

18 Conflict Perspective

  • The Classical Theorists
  • Modern Conflict Schools
  • Elite Theory
  • Recent Trends in Conflict Theory

19 Interpretive Sociology

  • Meaning and Definition
  • Differences Between Interpretive and Positivist Sociology
  • Origins of Interpretive Sociology
  • Branches of Interpretive Sociology
  • Limitations of Interpretive Sociology

20 Symbolic Interactionism

  • George Herbert Mead: Basic Concepts
  • The Emergence of Symbolic Interactionism
  • Other Schools of Thought
  • Erving Goffman and the Dramaturgical Approach
  • Recent Studies

21 Feminist Perspective

  • Socio-Historical Background
  • Liberal Feminism
  • Radical Feminism
  • Marxist Feminism
  • Socialist Feminism
  • Post Modern and Third Wave Feminism
  • Multicultural and Postcolonial Feminism

22 Dalit Perspective

  • Defining Dalits: A Sociological Perspective
  • Demand for a Different Perspective
  • Theoretical Rationale of ‘Dalit Perspective’
  • Defining Dalit Perspective

23 Division of Labour- Durkheim and Marx

  • Socio-Economic Setting and Meaning of ‘Division of Labour’
  • Durkheim’s Views on Division of Labour
  • Marx’s Views on Division of Labour
  • A Comparison

24 Religion- Durkheim and Weber

  • Definition of Religion — Beliefs and Rites
  • Durkheim’s Study of ‘Totemism’
  • Religion and Science
  • The Religion of India
  • The Religion of China
  • Ancient Judaism
  • Durkheim and Weber — A Comparison

25 Capitalism- Marx and Weber

  • Karl Marx on Capitalism
  • Max Weber on Capitalism
  • Marx and Weber – A Comparison

26 Social change and transformation

  • Concept of Social Change and Social Transformation
  • Theories of Social Change
  • Rate of Social Change

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12.4: Achieved Status vs. Ascribed Status

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Achieved status  refers to the status level an individual in society has earned through work, education, luck, and/or social climbing. Achieved status is changeable throughout one's life. An example would be the status one earns when they become a doctor after years of studying and preparation. Having the credibility of being a doctor is a higher achieved status than the credibility of being a medical school student.

Ascribed status  refers to the status that an individual acquires by virtue or by birth. The individual has no control over this status, it is simply the social position they are born into (James 2017). In many instances, this status is a social construct already pre-determined before one is born into the specific culture; it is nearly impossible to move up. One examples of ascribed status is eye color. When a baby is born, they have a certain eye color. Because the baby has no control over its eye color and can't change this feature it is considered an ascribed characteristic. Another example of an ascribed characteristic is kinship. When a baby is born, it is related by blood to a certain group of people, its kin, and nothing can change this.

Cultural Example of Achieved Status

American society possesses a number of examples of achieved status. In America, it is culturally acceptable (if you have the necessary resources) to begin life at the low end of the social ladder and to work your way up, by means of achieving a proper education, making useful social connections, and getting promoted within your career. Achieved status is not a position that a person is born into, but rather, it is attained through effort; this includes becoming an Olympic athlete, a doctor, or even a criminal. Although this struggle from the low end of the social ladder to the upper has become ingrained in the idea of America (The American Dream), the actual occurrence of someone rising from lower class to higher class is extremely rare. The number and severity of the obstacles one faces to climb the social ladder often depends on one's race, ethnicity, and beginning economic status.

Examples of Ascribed Status

Caste system.

A caste is a system of social stratification found in India (as well as other parts of the world) dividing people into categories based on moral purity and pollution (James 2017). Abiding by the Caste System ultimately allows the people in the highest caste to control the rest of society and keep social barriers from being crossed. In India, the caste system consists of five different levels. The highest caste is considered the most "pure"- ritually and morally; the castes beneath it decline in "purity" and increase in "pollution". The Castes are as follow:

  • Vedas(The Enlightened)
  • Brahmins (priests and teachers)[6]
  • Kshatriyas (rulers and soldiers)[7]
  • Vaishyas (merchants and traders)[8]
  • Shudras (laborers)[9]

Below these castes are the "Untouchables" or the Achuta (Dalit).

File:Beggar India.jpg

An “untouchable” or Dalit is considered outside of the caste system. They are the lowest in the Indian social stratification and treated very poorly often segregated from the rest of society. The "Untouchables" are taught early on that they are born into their caste to pay for bad behavior in their previous lives. They are limited to jobs considered ritually polluting such as taking care of human waste, metal work, street sweeping. Some insist that the Indian caste system doesn't exist anymore due to the incorporation of democracy, change in government programs and the implementation of rights for the "untouchables"; however, this is mostly only seen in the urban areas.

An ascribed status of an individual can be based on the sex that they are born. Gender typing is known as the process in which a child starts becoming aware of their gender. They slowly are socially constructed into the norm of that gender. This comes from an infant maturing and trying to focus and figure out their human behavior.Often there are certain activities that are reserved for males or females. Crossing the gender roles set forth by society is often frowned upon in communities that gender type. The vast majority of gender typing is culturally generated and not a creation of inborn biological distinctions between the sexes.[10]

An ethnographic example of gender typing can be observed in the early development of children in the United States. From birth, some U.S. parents set their children up for certain sexual categories by giving their babies gender-distinct names, clothes, and environments. The gender roles ascribed by the parents can lead to differences in intellectual and emotional development. For example, girls are provided with toys such as Barbies that encourage them to learn social rules and imitate behaviors. In contrast, boys are given more active toys and encouraged to explore. As a result of this early childhood gender typing, elementary school girls typically say they would choose lower paid, lower status careers such as nurse, teacher, or stewardess and boys are more likely to obtain higher paid, higher status careers such as pilot, architect, doctor, or lawyer, largely influence by their toys and surroundings.  [11]

Political Organization

Political organization gives thorough information on the values/ideas of separate individuals. In modern human societies, people have organized in groups, usually according to their status/role in society. Some examples include:

  • Political parties
  • Non-governmental organizations
  • Advocacy groups
  • Special interest groups

Types of Political Organization

There are four types of political organization within groups and they are split between centralized or non-centralized political systems. An uncentralized political system is a political organization that requires several different parties to make a decision/law where as the centralized system is a political organization that is made up of one group that holds all authority within a government.[8]

Between the centralized and non-centralized forms of political organization, there are four groups:

  • Band Society  - a foraging group and the smallest group of political organization ranging anywhere from 20 to 200 people but typically consisting of about 80 people. Most of the people within this group are relatives either by birth or marriage. Since a band is a foraging society they do not have a place of permanent residence because they are constantly moving around. A band is referred to as egalitarian because there is no distinction between an upper and a lower class but they have a leader. The leader doesn't exhibit typical leadership by lacking power and influence over the members.
  • Tribe  - comprised of several bands. Leadership is based on ascribed and achieved statuses, some tribes may have a chief, and their organization is based on kinship. A tribe is more reliant on horticulture and pastoralism rather than foraging like bands and are usually a larger group than bands. A sub division of a tribe is the “Big Man” system which has a very influential leader who has no formal authority.
  • Bushman  - traditionally a society of people that are comprised of a band and thus egalitarian, which is defined as, relating to or believing in the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities. Since they moved around a lot they had traditional gear that they wear which included a hide sling, blanket, and cloak in order to carry their food, firewood, a digging stick and even a separate smaller cloak to carry a baby. The woman gather and the men typically hunt in this society and the children do not have jobs.
  • Chiefdom  - the people are led by one person known as a chief. The chief governs over a group of tribes which are related through blood or marriage. In many chiefdoms, the chief is looked upon as the sole decider of what goes on in the society, and holds much sway with the members of the chiefdom. This centralized style of government has a social hierarchy and economic stratification unlike bands and tribes. On the other hand, a state is much more centralized than a chiefdom and has formal laws and authority. They have power to tax, maintain law and order, and to keep track of their citizens.

Nation, Nationalities and Nation-State

In the past, nations came about when groups of people who were similar in ways such as language, appearance, religious beliefs, and history came together to form territories, nation-states, and eventually countries. Out of these nations came the sense of nationalities and nationalism. Nationalism can be defined as a sense of belonging to a particular nation that comes with birth (loyalty and devotion). An example would be patriotism in the United States.

Nation: A group of people believed to share the same history, culture, identity, and oftentimes ethnicity.

Nation-State : A political unit consisting of an autonomous state inhabited predominantly by a people sharing a common culture, history and language. [12]

Nationality ( Nation-Building ): The sense of belonging and loyalty to a particular nation that comes about through origin, birth or naturalization.[13] Often, government officials will encourage citizens to feel loyalty and devotion for their nation-states; this is called nationalism.

Nation-building: An   effort to instill a sense of nationality into the citizens of a state

IMAGES

  1. Achieved Status Versus Ascribed Status in Sociology

    ascribed status vs identity

  2. Ralph Linton: Ascribed vs Achieved Status as a Form of Identity

    ascribed status vs identity

  3. 🏆 Achieved role. Achieved Status: Definition & Examples. 2022-10-26

    ascribed status vs identity

  4. Ascribed Status: Definition and Examples

    ascribed status vs identity

  5. 🎉 Ascribed status and achieved status. Everyday Sociology Blog

    ascribed status vs identity

  6. 😱 Ascribed role examples. Ascribed Status Meaning and Examples. 2022-11-06

    ascribed status vs identity

VIDEO

  1. A Levels Academy Islamabad lecture video on Ascribed status by Barrister Amna, Sociology

  2. PAGE #239 Ligaspaka VS IDENTITY in Hawaly court

  3. Rose's ascribed status accounts for her submissive behavior with Draya. Natty is walking & READY!

  4. The Quran's Final Judgment Debunking Misattributed Scriptures in Christianity and Judaism

  5. Communist Aryan Invasion Theory Debunked

  6. What is status? Types of status with easy examples in Hindi or urdu

COMMENTS

  1. Ascribed Status: Definition & Examples

    Ascribed status often exists alongside achieved status, which describes the status that one takes on voluntarily throughout one's life. These, unlike ascribed status, can be changed, providing either upwards or downward mobility. ... and identity. This may or may not also include ethnicity. In the past, nations emerged with groups of people ...

  2. Ascribed status

    e. 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. It is given to them by either their society or group, living them little or no control over it. [1]

  3. Achieved Status Versus Ascribed Status in Sociology

    Sociology: Achieved Status Versus Ascribed Status. Status is a term that is used often in sociology. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of status, achieved status and ascribed status. Each can refer to one's position, or role, within a social system—child, parent, pupil, playmate, etc.—or to one's economic or social position within that ...

  4. 11.4: Achieved Status vs. Ascribed Status

    An ascribed status of an individual can be based on the sex that they are born. Gender typing is known as the process in which a child starts becoming aware of their gender. ... Nation: A group of people believed to share the same history, culture, identity, and oftentimes ethnicity. Nation-State: A political unit consisting of an autonomous ...

  5. 5.1 Social Structure: The Building Blocks of Social Life

    Take a moment and list every status that you now occupy. Next to each status, indicate whether it is an ascribed status, achieved status, or master status. Take a moment and list every group to which you belong. Write a brief essay in which you comment on which of the groups are more meaningful to you and which are less meaningful to you.

  6. ascribed status definition

    Ascribed statuses such as ethnicity and gender directly impact the likelihood of acquiring achieved statuses due to inequality and oppression. A physical trait, biological in origin is an ascribed characteristic. An ascribed identity refers to "identity-based" ascribed statuses, such as race, religion, or sex. Also called ascription.

  7. Social Structure: The Building Blocks of Social Life

    Sociologists usually speak of three types of statuses. The first type is ascribed status The status that someone is born with and has no control over., which is the status that someone is born with and has no control over.There are relatively few ascribed statuses; the most common ones are our biological sex, race, parents' social class and religious affiliation, and biological relationships ...

  8. Navigating Between Ascribed and Achieved Statuses

    These markers of identity and social standing are known as ascribed and achieved status es. They are powerful forces that shape our lives, opportunities, and how we interact with one another. In this blog, we'll dive deep into understanding these statuses, how they differ, and the way they influence our societal fabric.

  9. 5.1.3A: Social Status

    An ascribed status can also be defined as one that is fixed for an individual at birth, like sex, race, and socioeconomic background. Social status is most often understood as a melding of the two types of status, with ascribed status influencing achieved status. For example, a baby born into a high-income household has his family's high ...

  10. A Clarification of Ascribed Status and

    The concepts "ascribed status" and "achieved status," developed by. Ralph Linton, have located properties of social systems which have given sociologists valuable insights into the nature of social structure.'. Linton. defined "ascribed status" as "assigned to individuals without reference. to their innate differences or abilities" and ...

  11. Understanding Ascribed Status in Sociology

    Ascribed status can be categorized into two main types: Universal Ascribed Status: This type of ascribed status is based on biological characteristics that are universally recognized, such as sex and age. For example, being assigned the status of "male" or "female" at birth is a universal ascribed status that often comes with certain societal expectations and roles.

  12. 1.2 Exploring Identity

    Any of these identity types can be ascribed or avowed. Ascribed identities are personal, social, or cultural identities that are placed on us by others, while avowed identities are those that we claim for ourselves (Martin & Nakayama, 2010).Sometimes people ascribe an identity to someone else based on stereotypes. You may see a person who likes to read science-fiction books, watches ...

  13. Ascribed identities in the global era: a complex approach

    2 Basing upon Linton's famous distinction (Citation 1936), in this work 'ascribed identities' refer to biological characteristics, gender and ethnic phenotypes, or social conditions, such as language, religion, and nationality.On the other hand, 'achieved identities' are changes that occur during an individual's lifetime (e.g. loss of status due to major events such as conflicts and ...

  14. Ralph Linton: Ascribed vs Achieved Status as a Form of Identity

    Discusses Anthropologist Ralph Linton's theory of Ascribed vs Achieved status as a form of identity. It explains and provides examples of each form.

  15. 23 Ascribed Status Examples

    Ascribed status is a concept in sociology that works in contrast to achieved status (a social status that you worked for) and master status (your dominant identity feature). Social status research was progressed by Max Weber in his research on the three-component theory from The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism .

  16. 5.3A: Social Status

    Admission, therefore, is an achieved status that was heavily influenced by resources made available by the person's ascribed status. Max Weber: Max Weber and Wilhelm Dilthey introduced verstehen—understanding behaviors—as goal of sociology. It is easy to see how achieved and ascribed statuses accumulate into the social status of an ...

  17. 5.1.1: Foundations of Culture and Identity

    Figure 5.1.1.1 5.1.1. 1: Pledging a fraternity or sorority is an example of a social identity ( Adaenn - CC BY-NC 2.0.). For example, we may derive aspects of our social identity from our family or from a community of fans for a sports team. Social identities differ from personal identities because they are externally organized through ...

  18. Ascribed Status

    Ascribed Status Definition An ascribed status would be the social status or labels reflected onto an individual by a society or community based on their birth. This would include the social classification of an individual in a familial perspective depending on what relationships with others they were born into (Ex: a son or a father). An individual can have multiple ascribed statuses making up ...

  19. Ascribed Status

    Learn the definition of ascribed status and the word's etymology. See what an ascribed identity is and discover the difference between ascribed vs achieved status.

  20. Ascribed status

    Other articles where ascribed status is discussed: social status: Status may be ascribed—that is, assigned to individuals at birth without reference to any innate abilities—or achieved, requiring special qualities and gained through competition and individual effort. Ascribed status is typically based on sex, age, race, family relationships, or birth, while achieved status may be based on ...

  21. An introduction to social work: Ascribed identity

    Ascribed identities can be thought of as the identities that other people, or society, might impose on you. These include, for example, gender- and age-defined identities which are rooted in very early social experience. There may be conflict between the two kinds of identity. Many social work service users, for example, find that their view of ...

  22. Master Status: Its Dominance in Social Identity

    Master status is a powerful element of social identity that can dictate the course of an individual's interactions and opportunities. It highlights the importance of recognizing the inherent biases and structures within society that elevate certain ascribed statuses above others. By understanding and acknowledging the role of master statuses ...

  23. 12.4: Achieved Status vs. Ascribed Status

    An ascribed status of an individual can be based on the sex that they are born. Gender typing is known as the process in which a child starts becoming aware of their gender. ... Nation: A group of people believed to share the same history, culture, identity, and oftentimes ethnicity. Nation-State: A political unit consisting of an autonomous ...