Social status refers to the honor or prestige attached to one's position in society. It may also refer to a rank or position that one holds in a group, such as son or daughter, playmate, pupil, etc. One's social status is determined in different ways. One can earn his or her social status by his or her own achievements; this is known as achieved status. Alternatively, one can inherit his or her position on the social hierarchy; this is known as ascribed status. An ascribed status can also be defined as one that is fixed for an individual at birth, like sex, race, and socioeconomic background.
Social status is most often understood as a melding of the two types of status, with ascribed status influencing achieved status. For example, a baby born into a high-income household has his family's high socioeconomic status as an achieved status and is more likely to be exposed to resources like a familial emphasis on education that will make it more likely for him or her to get into an elite university. Admission, therefore, is an achieved status that was heavily influenced by resources made available by the person's ascribed status.
It is easy to see how achieved and ascribed statuses accumulate into the social status of an individual. Pulling back into a larger perspective, these same factors accumulate into a system of social stratification. Social stratification is a conceptual social hierarchy in which individuals are ranked in terms of their perceived value to society. In capitalist countries, this hierarchy is largely socioeconomic, in that high-income individuals are ranked at the top of the social hierarchy with low-income individuals at the bottom. However, social stratification is not limited to economics; perceived moral value is also integrated into the stratification so that a poor member of the clergy is in a higher social rank than a rich criminal.
Social status, or the social sphere in which one belongs, can be changed through a process of social mobility. One can move either up or down the social hierarchy and the process is described in terms of upward or downward mobility. Simply, social mobility allows a person to move into a social status other than the one into which he was born depending upon one's ambition, lack thereof, or other factors.
One's social status depends on the context of a his or her situation and is therefore malleable. Take, for example, an employee who works on the floor of a manufacturing company. When considered in light of the larger social hierarchy, this worker will probably fall somewhere toward the mid-bottom of the hierarchy because of his socioeconomic status. Yet, perhaps this man is the floor manager and therefore has control of hundreds of other employees. When he's at his place of work, he is high on the ladder of social hierarchy.
Social status has been theorized by major sociologists, including Max Weber . Weber was a prominent German social theorist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Weber proposes that there are three primary components to social stratification: property, prestige, and power. Property refers to one's material possessions and subsequent life chances. Prestige refers to the reputation or esteem associated with one's social position. Weber uses power to mean the ability to do what one wants, regardless of the will of others. These "three P's" combine to produce social stratification.
Max Weber and Wilhelm Dilthey introduced verstehen—understanding behaviors—as goal of sociology.
Twentieth century French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu continued to theorize social status . According to Bourdieu's 1979 work Distinction, social capital is just as significant a factor in social status as economic capital. By this, Bourdieu means that indicators of one's class are not limited to how much money one has in the bank, but also one's cultural tastes which one acquires beginning in his youth. These tastes are influenced by class. For example, tastes for classical music and foie gras would typically signal an upbringing from a higher social class than one whose tastes are for Cheetos and Top 40 hits. Thus, social stratification is demonstrated by economic class and the cultural preferences that it engenders.
According to Bourdieu's 1979 work Distinction, social capital is just as significant a factor in social status as economic capital.