Ascribed Status Essay
By Todd Schoepflin
Every so often the terms we encounter in an Introduction to Sociology textbook are a little boring. Sometimes the examples are outdated, other times the discussion just lies flat on the page. As much as I love teaching an introductory course, I even tire of the material occasionally. But then a student speaks up and the concepts jump off the page.
While teaching two basic concepts in sociology this semester-- ascribed status and achieved status --I gave the usual examples for each. An ascribed status is involuntary, something we cannot choose. Race, ethnicity, and the social class of our parents are examples of ascribed statuses.
On the other hand, an achieved status is something we accomplish in the course of our lives. To some extent, achieved status reflects our work and effort. College student, college dropout, CEO, and thief are examples of achieved statuses. (I made a sarcastic comment in class that some CEOs are thieves, but no one laughed. I’ll try that joke again next semester.)
Then I brought up homelessness as an interesting status to think about. Many people think homelessness is definitely an achieved status. They see homelessness as a result of a poor work ethic or irresponsible lifestyle choices. But when you think more deeply about homelessness, you gain an understanding that homelessness can be considered an ascribed status in many cases.
When I asked students about their understanding of the causes of homelessness, they were able to identify some of them, including substance abuse and mental illness. The cause of mental illness makes for an interesting debate. If we accept the premise that we don’t choose mental illness, I think we can make the argument that homelessness is an ascribed status when it’s the result of mental illness. By the way, one major reason for homelessness cited by mayors of U.S. cities is so obvious that most people wouldn’t think of it: a lack of affordable housing.
Anyway, the discussion continued when a student raised her hand and talked about how she was homeless as a child. I was stunned. Having taught college students for ten years, I thought I’d heard everything. But Ayla is my first student I know of that has experienced homelessness. In talking about her background she made an essential point: homeless children should be thought of as an example of ascribed status. Obviously, children don’t choose to be homeless, as circumstances beyond their control leave them without housing.
Throughout the semester, Ayla told me details about her childhood. Her mother, who had a drinking problem and other personal issues, could not provide for her on a consistent basis.The oldest of four children, Ayla had to take charge of family matters. She remembers paying bills as early as age nine. She would go to a check-cashing store and pay the rent (her family received SSI assistance). She would buy groceries. She’d get out of school and do a mental check (“What do I do now?”). Her first objective was to find her mom to make sure she was okay, and then she would get her brothers from school. Sometimes they would stay at a friend’s house, sometimes at a shelter.
This stretch of time in her life was roughly from age nine to thirteen in Rochester, New York. Through it all, she always attended school. Things settled in her life when she moved to Niagara Falls, New York to live with her grandmother. She graduated from high school in Niagara Falls and earned a scholarship to nearby Niagara University.
Ayla’s transition from being homeless as a child to attending college reminded me of the movie Homeless to Harvard, based on the true story of Liz Murray, who was homeless as a teenager and whose parents suffered from substance abuse. When I mentioned this movie in class, a student remarked “That’s why they don’t make movies called From Prep School to Harvard.” Now that was funny (the class laughed) but there was tremendous insight behind the humor. Making it to Harvard after prep school training is not nearly as impressive a feat compared with someone who has spent time on the streets as a child.
I remain awestruck by Ayla’s story, especially when I consider the relative advantages I enjoyed growing up in a solid middle-class household. We were well provided for. There was always plenty of food in the house and on the table. My father had a steady job my entire life. My mother stayed home to take care of my brother and me and to run the household. She didn’t return to the paid workforce until I attended middle school. I spent most of my childhood and adolescence in the house that is pictured, a very nice house my parents still live in today.
Reflecting back, the stability they provided was priceless. I took for granted not only material comfort but also consistency of care, discipline, and structure. I think I underestimate how much that consistency developed me into the person I am today. And I think of Ayla, who has come so far from so little, never knowing her father, not being able to count on her mother, having to be an adult during childhood. Ayla’s story continues to inspire me. I think it’s extraordinary that she became a college student (achieved status) after spending part of her life homeless (in her case, ascribed status). Since learning from Ayla about her life story, achieved status has taken on a new meaning for me.
In my essay, I try to explain what ascribed and achieved statuses are, and I try to explain how some of them have notable similarities. I also explain how such statuses usually affect the social and industrial roles a person takes or has.
Anthropologist Ralph Linton said that achieved status is a social position. It is something that people can achieved based on merit or “perceived” merit. There is an element of the social position begin chosen or earned in some way. It may reflect a personal skills or effort. Some people consider achieved status to also coincide with social roles. For example, a person may choose to be a mother and takes the role of a mother to rear children. A person may choose to be a taxi driver and takes the role of driving people around. Other examples of an achieved status include being a gardener, soccer player, and veterinary surgeon. People may also have more than one achieved status and more than one role.
Ascribed status is a social status that is often assumed involuntarily or is assigned at birth. Sometimes, a status may be assigned at birth that issues an assumption involuntarily later in life. For example, a person may be the 3rd in line for the British throne where that person would live out his/her entire life without being king/queen, and yet a tragic accident kills the two people in line before him/her and so the 3rd in line is forced to assume the throne.
There are some ascribed statuses that appear to be unavoidable. For example, a person born without arms will never play netball. However, most other ascribed statuses are more to do with gender, ethnicity, race, and family origins or background. They are ascribed, but they are culturally ascribed. For example, in Russia, a woman is ascribed the role of lower life form that was built to make babies, but in Canada a woman is as equally productive as a man both socially and industrially.
Ascribed statuses come with their own benefits and restrictions, but similar things are true with achieved statuses. For example, a stripper may no longer be welcome at civilized dinner tables, yet the difference is that the woman/man chose to be a stripper. If a person were not allowed at the table because of a deformity, then that exclusion was not caused (or the fault of) the deformed person. One may say it was the fault of the stripper because he/she chose to be a stripper.
There are roles that go with an ascribed status, and sometimes a person may choose to follow those roles and sometimes they do not. In many cases, the roles that are taken up are done so involuntarily.
There are other times when roles are not involuntary, but the person involved feels a great amount of social pressure to fulfill those roles. These may go as far and as deep as sexuality. For example, with only 10% of human society being homosexual, a person that is born homosexual (not somebody that chooses to be homosexual) may decide to act and “be” straight because of social pressure and the lack of viable partners in the homosexual world. Sexuality is considered an ascribed and an achieved status. A straight person may choose to be homosexual, and a person may also be born homosexual, in which case it is ascribed. The ascribed status homosexual (born that way) would be attracted to and aroused by people of the same sex from ages as young as puberty. People that choose to be homosexual may “come out” at any age, and they achieve their homosexual status via their actions and newfound attraction to same-sex relations.
As you can see by my essay, ascribed and achieved statuses have numerous differences and similarities. They each affect a person’s and a group’s roles both socially and industrially, and they may even affect the characteristics of a person and the public’s perception of them.