When you hear the word ‘status’ in everyday language, you may think of concepts like high status or low status, as in “her fancy job is very high status” or “they’re too low status to lead the group.” In sociology, however, status isn’t viewed in that kind of competitive, relative comparison way—it is simply the position in society that a person occupies. Sociologists use the term status to describe the responsibilities that a person holds and the benefits that a person experiences according to their rank and place in society. By recognizing your status, you can determine what this means for your role in society, strengthening your self and social awareness.
You can think of the social structure as full of empty roles, like professor, doctor, mother: these are statuses that are built into the social structure, which are occupied by individuals. People can hold many statuses at the same time. All the statuses that one person occupies is known as their status set.
Not all statuses are the same. Sociologists differentiate between those statuses that come to them involuntarily, meaning situations that they’re born into or life circumstances that simply happened, and things that they actively choose in life and achieve. There are two types of statuses:
Ascribed status: A social position that a person achieves involuntarily by virtue of their birth or life circumstances.
EXAMPLEStatuses like sibling, first grandchild, or latch-key kid are statuses that you would have no choice over or ascribed statuses. You occupy them involuntarily.
Achieved status: A social position that a person occupies voluntarily by virtue of their talent, choices, or effort.
EXAMPLEStatuses like teacher, partner, and employee are achieved statuses.
Note that achievement typically has a positive connotation in regular speech, but in sociology, achievement is viewed in terms of something that one can become -- it is not necessarily something esteemed. The connotation is neutral, so you can achieve becoming a doctor and you can achieve becoming a thief.
Sociologists recognize that ascribed status strongly influences a person’s achieved status. What financial and family situation you are born into and the emotional and material circumstances of your childhood will strongly influence what you achieve in life. If you have the ascribed status of being born into a wealthy family, you're much more likely to have achieved statuses of college graduate or professional, whereas if you have the ascribed status of poverty, it is much more difficult to achieve the status of college graduate or professional.
People have one overriding dominant status, which is called master status. A master status is the most important status for shaping your identity and position in the social world. How you define master status is constructed socially.
EXAMPLEIn the United States, our jobs tend to be our master statuses. Most Americans will ask “what do you do?” when they meet someone new. It’s because -- consciously or unconsciously -- they are trying to pin down and define your master status, so they can make other inferences about you. These inferences might include how much education you've had, what your interests are, where you are from, and whether you're liberal or conservative. All of these other attributes tend to flow from master status. In other countries or communities, the first question might be "what town are you from?" or "what's your family name?" These questions would be prevalent in a culture where master status flows more from geographic origin or family than from career.
Like achieved status, master status has a neutral connotation. And like ascribed status, an individual may have no choice over which status is seen as their master status by strangers, especially those making snap judgments.
EXAMPLEThink about how you might casually refer to a stranger on the street who is an older Black man using a cane. You might say "that old guy," or "that Black guy," or "that guy with the cane," but you are unlikely to know that his actual master status -- the status that is most meaningful to him, and that has the greatest impact on his life and outlook -- is "retired cardiologist." "Elderly," "Black," "disabled," and "male" are more visible to strangers than his profession, and so he may be defined by others by these statuses. But when he thinks about himself and his role in the world, he is, first and foremost, a cardiologist, and that is his master status.