Ascribed Status: Definition & Examples

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Feb 18, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Summary

  • 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 powerful.
  • Ascribed status often exists alongside achieved status, which describes the status that one takes on voluntarily through one's life. These, unlike ascribed status, can be changed, providing either upwards or downwards 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.

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). 

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:

  • age

  • ancestry

  • birth order

  • birthplace

  • caste

  • disability

  • ethnicity

  • eye color

  • family

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

  • gender

  • hair color

  • health problems and risks

  • height

  • inherited titles

  • nationality

  • physical appearance

  • race

  • religion

  • shoe size

Sometimes, there can be ambiguity as to 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" has 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). 

Gender

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 govern 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 certain nation, nationality and an 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. 

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, Feb 18). Ascribed Status: Definition & Examples. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/ascribed-status-definition-examples.html

References

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.