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Social status has been used throughout history to differentiate individuals and groups of people in order to maintain hierarchical systems of inequality between and among people and to enforce the idea that certain groups of people are, by nature, born to a certain level of existence.
Social status is often described as one’s “standing” in society; the word status is derived from the Latin statum, meaning “stand.” In a narrow sense, the term refers to one’s legal or professional standing within a group; in a broader sense, it means one’s value and importance in the eyes of the world (de Botton 2004, p. vii). At various points in history, the belief that inequality was a way of life was subscribed to by both the oppressed and their oppressors in terms of religion, law, and cultural norms. History, law, and cultural artifacts show that in nearly every society, certain groups of people were held in high esteem while others were ignored or ridiculed. Historical events such as the French Revolution, the American Revolution, and the civil rights movement largely transformed societies, moving them away from hierarchical ladders that restricted upward mobility because of heredity, lineage, family, gender, race/ethnicity, skills, physical attributes, religion, accent, and temperament.
The desire for social status can spur individuals to act on their dreams, achieve goals, and form a common bridge with others. Often, though, individual achievement has not been considered a factor when comparing one’s social standing in a community. According to Alain de Botton in Status Anxiety (2004), “what mattered was one’s identity at birth, rather than anything one might achieve in one’s lifetime through the exercise of one’s faculties. What mattered was who one was, seldom what one did” (p. 87).
According to de Botton, the characteristics of groups that historically have been considered high status can be traced from Sparta in 400 BCE to Brazil in 1960. Such characteristics have ranged from military training, wealth, power, sainthood, knighthood, social graces, and hunting ability to those with the ability—physical, intellectual, and artistic—to persuade and/or bully other groups into offering respect or a redistribution of favor. Derrick Bell, in Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education (2004), relates social status to race/ethnicity, access to opportunity, and the reflection of persons of color when discussing issues of privilege and status. According to Bell (2004), “Du Bois reminds us that to compensate their low wages, segregation gave whites a ‘public and psychological wage’____ David Roediger adds that status and privileges could be used to make up for alienating and exploitative class relationships, North and South” (p. 81).
Theoretical Development And Research
Theories have been developed to describe social status, class, and identity. Similarly, social status has been described in terms of international dominance and competitiveness between countries. Thye and Lawler (2005) note that “status characteristics theory investigates the effect that individual properties such as age, gender, and ability have on interaction. The theory asserts that these status characteristics are indicative of task ability. In collective task settings, members act as if status characteristics give clues suggesting how capable each individual is of contributing to the successful completion of the group’s task” (p. 126). Status characteristics theory, in essence, attributes rewards, influence, and value to certain groups based on characteristics and expectations of competency. Edward Said (2003) has described the use of social status to plunder other nations in the quest for international superiority. Said frames social status in terms of a country’s plunder and conquest under the aegis of “a civilizing mission, the idea that some races and cultures have a higher aim in life than others; this gives the more powerful, more developed, more civilized the right to colonize others in the name of a noble ideal” (p. 333). The historical underpinnings of social status can be traced to the Greeks. Said states that “each culture defines its enemies, what stands beyond it and threatens it. For the Greeks beginning with Herodotus, anyone who did not speak Greek was automatically a barbarian, an Other to be despised and fought against” (p. 335).
Social status is often viewed through the lens of comparing groups along specific criteria and the relationship between groups. According to Suls and Wheeler (2000), Newcomb’s 1943 analysis of college student political attitudes revealed that “people use groups or social aggregates as standards or frames of reference when evaluating their abilities, attitudes, or beliefs” (p. 85). Similarly Suls and Wheeler state that “Roper (1940) first introduced the idea of a reference group by suggesting that individuals’ perceptions of their own status depends on where they stand in relationship to other people” (p. 85). Abowitz (2005) conducted a recent study of undergraduate college students to ascertain their views of the American class system. Based on a survey of a random sample of 154 undergraduate students, Abowitz reported that college students believe that they can achieve a certain social status through individual factors that are part of, as the author states, an achievement ideology, “the idea that success and social standing are largely a product of individual effort and not a product of family privilege and connections” (p. 716).
Social Status Measurement
According to classical research conducted to understand the role of student persistence in college, background characteristics of students and their social status were some of the most reliable predictors of success. Similarly, Toutkoushian and Curtis (2005) found that the socioeconomic status of specific school districts can help explain variations in students’ average standardized test scores, college attendance, and school rankings. Sociometry, a systematic method for investigating relationships, was used in Kosir and Pecjak’s (2005) study to determine whether students were categorized by their peers as having social status and popularity. Based on the results of their research, Kosir and Pecjack found that peer-perceived popularity is a construct that is distinct from sociometric popularity.
Other studies of social status involve the predictive value of subjective assessments of social status with an individual’s health status. Research by Operario, Adler based on a national sample of 500 adults, ages eighteen and over, used the Scale of Subjective Status. Participants were instructed to do the following:
Think of a ladder with 10 steps representing where people stand in the United States. At step 10 are people who are the best off—those who have the most money, the most education, and the most respected jobs. At step 1 are the people who are worst off—those who have the least money, least education, and the least respected jobs or no job. Where would you place yourself on this ladder? (p. 241)
For this portion of the research, “the sample rated themselves on average above the midpoint of the scale at both baseline and follow-up” (Operario et. al. 2004, p. 241). Including measures of global health and health risk factors, the authors found predictive utility in self-report measures of socioeconomic status and individual health status.
Levin (2004) measured social dominance by groups that want to have a higher status than other groups using such distinctions as religion, ethnicity, and gender. Using a social status questionnaire, Levin found that differences in social dominance between arbitrary groups (e.g., ethnicity and religion) was greater when the status gap between the groups was perceived to be larger.
Thus, social status, depending on the historical time frame, country, and culture, can be delineated through one’s resources and achievement. However, the hierarchy suggested by comparing one’s standing with others still exists and is prevalent in societies where resources and power define the influence that one or a group has. This power and influence permeate aspects of governance and the place each person subscribes to with reference to an individual’s or a group’s relative value and standing.
- Abowitz, Deborah A. 2005. Social Mobility and the American Dream: What Do College Students Believe? College Student Journal 39 (4): 716–728.
- Alcoff, Linda M., and Eduardo Mendieta, eds. 2003. Identities: Race, Class, Gender, and Nationality. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
- Bell, Derrick. 2004. Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform. New York: Oxford University Press.
- De Botton, Alain. 2004. Status Anxiety. New York: Pantheon Books.
- Kosir, K., and S. Pecjak. 2005. Sociometry as a Method for Investigating Peer Relationships: What Does It Actually Measure? Educational Research 47 (1): 127–144.
- Levin, S. 2004. Perceived Group Status Differences and the Effects of Gender, Ethnicity, and Religion on Social Dominance Orientation. Political Psychology 25 (1): 31–48.
- Operario, D., N. E. Adler, and D. R. Williams. 2004. Subjective Social Status: Reliability and Predictive Utility for Global Health. Psychology and Health 19 (2): 237–246.
- Said, Edward. 2003. The Clash of Civilizations. In Identities: Race, Class, Gender, and Nationality, eds. Linda M. Alcoff and Eduardo Mendieta, 333–335. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
- Suls, Jerry, and Ladd Wheeler, eds. 2000. Handbook of Social Comparison: Theory and Research. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
- Thye, Shane R., and Edward J. Lawler, eds. 2005. Social Identification in Groups. Vol. 22 of Advances in Group Processes. Boston: Elsevier.
- Toutkoushian, R. K., and T. Curtis. 2005. Effects of Socioeconomic Factors on Public High School Outcomes and Rankings. Journal of Educational Research 98 (5): 259–271.
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