Social status refers to the level of prestige, privilege, and honor someone is perceived to have in society.
Examples of social status include your profession, clothing, car, political affiliation, postcode, and affiliation to schools, groups, or organizations. Each of these elements contributes to your overall social status.
Social Status Definition
Social status refers to the ways people in society perceive you. Generally, we can see it as:
- High Status: You’re well respected due to your wealth, career, or social influence.
- Low Status: You are not well respected or even outcast by society due to a lack of wealth, prestige, education, etc.
Sociologists such as Max Weber argue that people with high social status have privileges in society that people with low status do not. These might include being treated with more respect by police and business people and being invited to more events.
Social Status Examples
People buy fashionable and even brand-name clothing to make themselves look like they have a degree of prestige.
For example, buying expensive brands like Gucci and Georgio Armani can make you look like you have a lot of wealth as well as high-end taste.
Some sub-cultures will also have their own fashion trends that help show someone’s membership of a group. While the broader culture might see that person as having low status, within the group, they may enjoy prestige due to their countercultural leather jacket or black leather boots.
2. Group Membership
Membership of certain groups and organizations can give you status. For example, being a member of the stonemasons can grant you access to powerful businesspeople who can help you get ahead in life.
Similarly, being an alma mater of the same college as a person interviewing you for a job may be valuable if that person has a bias toward people who went to the same college as them (and even better if you were in the same fraternity or sorority!).
3. Material Possessions
Possession of physical goods like a sports car, mansion, expensive watch, or the latest technological gadget, can help a person achieve a higher status.
For example, if you were to have a large pool in your mansion, you may get a lot more friends or adoring fans because you can draw them in by inviting them over for a swim.
While at first, they might not have been true friends, you had a way to instigate the friendship which may have blossomed into a true friendship. Here, you can see how high status can help you get things more easily in life.
When traveling around the world, you may come to learn that your nationality has a set of stereotypes surrounding it.
As an Australian, sometimes people initially stereotype me in both positive (laid-back, friendly) and negative (socially backward, irrelevant) ways. Similarly, Americans can be judged to be rude and loud but also generous tippers.
Hopefully, with increased social interaction with you, people will come to disregard their initial assumptions about your nationality. Nevertheless, as the nation of origin is an ascribed status, it’s hard to escape it during the initial interaction.
See Also: Types of Stereotypes
5. Popularity or ‘Coolness’
Being cool comes from a set of behaviors from a very young age. In infancy, it may be as simple as having a popular playmate. As children enter school, the cool kids are often perceived to have a mastery of witty comebacks, the ability to command a crowd, and proximity to other peers also perceived to be cool.
Even in adulthood, popularity remains a key factor in a person’s social status. Social media influencers, for example, have prestige because they have a lot of online followers. This can in turn buy them privileges such as brand sponsorships and exclusive access to nightclubs.
Some postcodes and neighborhoods are seen as having a particular degree of prestige. For example, the 90210 postcode in Beverley Hills (California) is so prestigious that a television series was named after it (the show ran from 2008 to 2013).
Similarly, living within close proximity to Central Park in New York brings with it a degree of status (and, of course, a requirement for a lot of money to afford the apartment!)
7. Profession (Occupation)
Professions have traditionally been a clear and quantifiable way of determining a person’s social status.
Professions with high status include lawyers, doctors, and pilots. These professions are a sign of someone’s accomplishments and importance.
Some people’s parents push them into a high-status occupation. In these situations, the parents are using their adult child’s occupation to achieve a positive societal image for their families.
In different cultures, different religions will enjoy different statuses. In 16th Century Spain, being Catholic was seen as being compulsory for being a member of the ruling class.
While secularism has spread throughout Western society, religious affiliation still plays a subtle role in achieving a ‘desirable’ status. Politicians and presidential candidates, for example, often need to demonstrate their religious affiliations to win votes from constituents. Historically, Protestantism has been the most prized religious affiliation for politicians running for office in the USA.
9. Political Affiliation
Political affiliation has the ability to both open and close doors for you. It may be a negative influence if your affiliation differs from that of the establishment, but being a card-carrying member of a political party can also help you get ahead in life.
Nowhere is this more evident than in North Korea, where membership of the ruling party is a prerequisite for moving up the ranks in society.
10. Children of the Elite
Being the child of someone from the elite class can give you an enormous leg-up in life. It can get you access to good schools, good jobs, and extreme wealth.
Thus, we often see multi-generational famous families such as the Kennedys, the Kardashians, the Baldwins, and Will Smith’s family (whose son is now a well-known singer).
By being the child of a rich or famous person, you have a lot of doors open to you simply because of your surname.
11. Attendance of an Elite School
Having attended an elite school or university looks great on a resume. It makes people pay attention and may give you the upper hand in a job interview.
A good example of the effect of this is the case of British prime ministers. It has produced no less than twenty prime ministers, each of whom got a leg-up by making social connections while at the most posh school in the nation.
12. Marital Status
Historically, being unmarried was sadly a sign of your lower social value. Unmarried men and women in their 30s were seen as socially undesirable.
It often led to rejection for a mortgage application, inability to climb the ranks of society, and shame for a person’s family.
Today, in most Western societies, this is not as much of an issue as it once was because marital status is increasingly seen as nobody’s business but your own.
Hobbies can reveal your class status in society. A person who plays Polo is generally seen as of a higher class than someone who plays rugby, for example.
While this may not seem like an issue of great substance, the social capital you build whilst doing your hobby (the people you meet and interact with) can help you to get ahead in life.
Furthermore, some people might judge you without getting to know you if you tell them you have a passtime that they consider to be lower class.
14. Ownership of Capital and Assets
Owning capital assets means owning things like rental properties, stocks, bonds, factories, and businesses.
If you own these assets, your prestige increases because you’re seen as more influential in society. The power that comes with controlling the means of production gives you more money and more access to wealthy people.
Shallow people might also try to get close to you to get access to your money.
15. Your 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.
16. Skin Color, Ethnicity, and Race
Your skin color, ethnicity, and race are all things you’re born with but can dramatically influence the amount of prejudice you face in your life.
Historically, people of color (non-white people) in the West have been discriminated against. This has led to structural disadvantages and structural discrimination that persist to this very day.
Historically women were discriminated against and seen as second class citizens. This dramatically impacted employment opportunities for generations of women (with prejudices implying women should stay home and raise children).
Today, a gender pay gap still exists for women, showing that there are still some structural issues in society in regards to gender. Some people disagree with this assertion, showing how data can be interpreted differently by different people.
Young people have status because they’re seen as being in their prime, cool, and influential. However, paradoxically, they may also be seen as naive and incompetent in the workforce.
Similarly, older people may be seen as being of less value (especially if their physical or cognitive capacities decline). However, they will also be seen as having higher value if their knowledge and wisdom are respected.
Therefore, age is a complex social identity when it comes to social stratification. It changes depending on the culture and context. Furthermore, there may be disagreement between people about how much value an older or younger person has. So, this one’s very complicated!
19. Social Class
We can generally split social class into a hierarchy:
- Lower Class: Also known as the working class, they’re typically seen as being lower down in the social structure and therefore having low status. They’re seen as having little money and, sometimes, poor manners.
- Middle Class: People in the middle class have a comfortable living (a home, a car, going on vacations) but do not generally get special privileges. Most people fit in the middle class bracket, but you may see yourself as lower middle class (struggling to pay off a mortgage and having generally populist tastes in food, for example) or upper middle class (quite comfortable but not able to throw around money).
- Upper Class: These people are often business owners who hold the means of production, enjoy expensive tastes, and are seen as having high status.
20. Rewards and Honors
Rewards and honors include getting a military badge for your service, a medal from the Queen (if you’re from a Commonwealth country), or an award for recognition to your community.
These rewards are tokens that explicitly signify your value to your community. The fact that not everyone can get one gives it an exclusiveness that endows you with status.
21. A University Degree
While university degrees are becoming far more common these days, they are still seen as being badges of a degree of intelligence and capabilities.
While once the degree was an exclusive symbol, today it’s often simply a starting point for being able to break into a higher-class (and therefore higher-status) career path.
Social Stratification in Sociological Theory
In 1904, Weber came up with the “three-component theory” of stratification in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
The book states that social class, social status, and party class (aka political affiliation) contribute to a social stratification system. The social stratification system is a social hierarchy where some people are privileged above others.
Sociologist Ralph Linton subsequently identified two types of status: achieved status and ascribed status, discussed below.
Types of Social Status
Achieved status refers to a person’s own achievements rather than anything they were born with.
Personal achievements might include:
- Obtaining a degree
- Starting up a successful business
- Becoming influential on social media
- Being in a prestigious job
- Becoming a best-selling author
To go deeper on this topic, see our article on achieved status examples.
Ascribed status is an identity trait that you’re born with. These ones are often based on stereotypes about certain types of people.
- Your surname
- Your gender
- Your ethnicity
- Your nationality
- Your eye color
To go deeper on this topic, see our article on ascribed status examples.
What is Status Inconsistency?
A key concept within the hierarchical social system model is the concept of status inconsistency. This occurs when a person may occupy different statuses simultaneously.
For example, a teacher enjoys high status in the sense that they are valued and well respected, while also having low status in the sense that they are poorly paid.
The same goes of a volunteer, who is highly valued despite the fact society doesn’t reward them for their valued and even prestigious work.
Feminist theorists often highlight that this inconsistency is common in feminized industries such as teaching and nursing because historically women’s work has been underpaid. Here, we can see how ascribed statuses like gender, race, and disability can have undue negative influences on social status.
What is a Master Status?
A person’s master status is the status that they perceive to be the most important to their identity.
For example, if an individual holds the following statuses, they might see one of them as being most important: surgeon, father, husband, college pupil, volunteer, brother, Christian, football player, conservative, and wealthy.
Society may perceive this imaginary person’s master status to be that they’re a surgeon (a highly valued profession) while they might personally perceive their master status to be the father (because that’s the most important aspect of their identity to them).
Similarly, to look at Barack Obama’s status, we can see that he was the first black president of the United States of America, father, professor, community organizer, author, and husband. Society would clearly rank his master status as being that of the first black president.
See Also: Social Identity Examples
Social Status in the Indian Caste System
One of the most stringent and enduring social hierarchies in the world is the Indian caste system. This is a social structure that ascribes status to people upon birth and does not allow movement between castes.
This causes significant damage to people because those born into a caste seen as ‘untouchable’ are condemned to lower-income jobs. People in other castes want nothing to do with them.
While this system is officially banned in India, and government quotas have been in place to break down caste barriers for decades, the problem still persists to this day in some quarters of Indian society.
A person’s social status is their position in a society’s social hierarchy. There are many complex factors that influence your standing in the hierarchy, including your age, gender, race, career path, surname, and education level.
As Western society has liberalized, movement up and down the hierarchy has become easier for many people. At the same time, society has tended to care less about someone’s prestige with an attempt to treat all people equally. However, there is still a long way to go in achieving true equality for everyone.
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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.A.W. Effects of dominance and prestige based social status on competition for attentional resources. Sci Rep 9, 2473 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39223-0
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]