Essay on Ascribed and Achieved Statuses

(a) Ascribed Status:

Ascribed statuses are those over which the individual has absolutely no choice. They are de­rived from membership in involuntary groups such as sex group, age group, racial group, etc. At the beginning stages of socialisation itself the new born individual derives such statuses.

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Virtually these statuses are ‘ascribed’ to the individual before knowing his potentialities. These statuses definitely “determine and limit the range of statuses” which he may subsequently achieve or try to achieve. Statuses are ascribed mostly on the basis of following considerations.

1. Sex:

An individual’s sex is a highly visible-physiological fact. It appears at birth and remains fixed for life. Individuals are born as either males or females and remain so for life. This sex difference is taken as one of the bases of ascribing status to the individuals. Some of the achieved statuses are influenced by this factor of sex.

It is wrong to assume that the male-female division of statuses is mainly based on inherent traits of men and women. Because, biological attributes cannot explain the behaviour differences of men and women.

Further, social differences themselves are not fixed but they change from one society to another and from one time to another. Example: Among the Tchambuli people, women are the bread-earners whereas men look after household work and spend time in combing hair, wearing different kinds of beads and other kinds of beautification. Among the Mundugumor people women and men are equally aggressive.

Among the Trobriand Islanders, except for breast-feeding, all the other tasks of child nursing are done by the father. In some tribes, the father gives training to the son in the art of dancing. These differences cannot be explained by the biological attributes as such.

In reality, the assignment of ‘female status’ to women is mainly due to her ‘child-bearing function’. Her physical weakness and limitation mainly spring from this fact. Woman is thus forced to carry the parasitic embryo in her body for a long time and nurse it later when it comes out of her womb. She is thus provided with some tasks that are compatible with reproduction. Usually, though not invariably, she is given tasks such as keeping house, cooking, gardening, sewing, making pots and baskets.

These may fit in with her tasks of child-bearing and child-rearing. Very rarely women are assigned the tasks that take them away from their home for a long time, and those require heavy physical exertion, exposure to bodily injury and sheer physical strength. For this reason, female work is more uniform and localised than that of men.

In the modern complex societies the statuses assigned to women have changed greatly. Still some division of labour between the sexes persists. In the occupational sphere today though women are not excluded they are handicapped in competition against men in certain fields such as medicine, law, college teaching, factory work, defense, industry, etc.

Certainly they are excluded in works such as coal mining, structural steel work, underwater tunneling, etc. It means for women, their ascribed statuses limit their attainment for achieved statuses.

2. Age:

All societies recognise differences in statuses and roles related to age. Like sex, it is a definite and highly visible physiological fact. Unlike sex, age cannot give rise to permanent lifetime statuses. Age represents not static but a steadily changing condition. The age relationship between given persons, that is, between father and son, younger brother and elder brother, etc, remains fixed through­out life.

But each living individual is subject to different age statuses during his life span. Most of the societies recognise five main age statuses such as: infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. In some societies the unborn and the dead too are recognised as two peculiar age-periods which have their own importance.

The unborn may be believed to be the spirits of departed ancestors. Hindus think of the unborn in a vague manner as the spirits of ‘souls’ of persons who lived in previous incarnations or ‘janmas’.

The transition from the status of the unborn to the status of the living is marked by some kind of ceremonies. Some taboos have surrounded the very event of birth. The Hindus, for example, observe pollution for 11 days from the day of birth of the child. Among the Chinese and Greeks the new born child is recognised as a member of the society only after the relevant ceremonies are held.

The transition from infancy to childhood is relatively smooth one and involves no social com­plication. But the change from childhood to adolescent period and then to adulthood is of tremen­dous importance. During this transitional period obvious physiological and mental changes do take place in the individual.

The individual who has been absorbing culture now starts participating in it. The change to adulthood is widely recognised in ceremony, custom and law. In some communities ‘puberty rites’ are observed. In some societies marriage takes place soon after this change, though in the civilized societies it takes place after a long time.

In the modern society, the transition from the childhood to adulthood involves great strain for the following reasons. Firstly, the child becomes an adult not when he is physiologically mature but socially mature.

The physiological maturation takes place long before the individual is admitted socially as an adult. Secondly, man is not all at once considered socially as competent to take up any kind of activity. Physiological maturation does not guarantee that the person is fit for any kind of socially important tasks.

Thirdly, there is no universally accepted and publicly expressed procedure or step as such to declare that an individual has become an adult. It becomes a matter of private definition in each family.

Fourthly, there is a long time interval between sexual maturity and mar­riage. But this prolonged period of bachelorship and the disapproval of pre-marital sex relationship that introduce an element of sexual strain have further complicated the period of adolescence.

The passage of individuals from adulthood to old age is not very much visible. It varies with individuals also. Normally in old age mental and physical powers decline and dependence on others increases. Hence the range of thought and action of the old become very much limited.

The roles assigned to the old also vary considerably from society to society. In some societies they are relieved of their work while in others they are made to work hard. The old may receive a high degree of reverence in some societies such as those of Indians, Chinese, Japanese, etc., while their counter­parts in the West may not enjoy that much of respect.

In extreme cases, as it has been among the Eskimos, the old may even be abandoned and hence made to meet death. In some societies, the transition to old age status is socially distinguished.

For example, in Japan, it was customary for the old father to hand over to the son his power in a formal manner to enter a period of voluntary retirement. The Hindu concept of’ Vanaprasthashrama’ also reveals the same thing.

In settled cultures normally, an individual’s power and prestige increases with age. The older person seeks to hold their power which they have enjoyed so far. Society too may expect their service especially for political and administrative purposes.

They are able to hold their power be­cause of a superiority which based on knowledge and experience. The younger ones may appreci­ate this superiority or envy it. This superiority is definitely developed by the ascription of status on the basis of age in an organised society.

Not only the living individuals but also the dead are given a status in society. The main reason is the livings are descended both physically and socially from the dead. The practice of ancestral worship clearly indicates the recognition of the status of the dead.

Among the Hindus, there is the ritual of ‘Shraddha’ in which the dead are given some offerings. In some societies the great deeds of the great men are remembered. In this case, their status would indicate an achieved status”.

Finally, as Ralph Linton has pointed out, “In the case of age, as in that of sex, biological factors involved appear to be secondary to the cultural ones in determining the content of status.”

3. Kinship:

Kinship status reveals the individual’s relation to his parents and siblings. The new born infant’s status in the community is normally identified with that of the parents’. This ascription is highly arbitrary because there is no necessary relation between the capacities of the parents and those of the offspring.

Stupid parents may have wise children and vice-versa. Still it is socially convenient to relate the child to the society through the parents. When the child is born the father and mother become responsible for it. They only socialise him in the initial stage. It is quite natural that the child’s first status connection rests with the parents only.

The child may take the status of parents soon after its birth as it is in the case of caste or race. But sometimes it may acquire the parental status sometimes later as it is in the case of succession or inheritance. The latter one is often referred to as the process of “delayed ascription”. Further, the child in its later life may seek to acquire some achieved statuses that are different from those of parents.

The relative advantage or disadvantages that the child enjoys in securing these statuses are mostly provided by his parents. Example: the son of an upper-class man has greater advantages in making achievements in academic field than the son of a poor-class man.

This is also true in the case of open-class occupational placement. This is often referred to as “fluid ascription”. Here the ele­ment of achievement does not completely dismiss the element of ascription.

It is true that a number of important statuses of the child are dependent on the factor of kinship. The ascription of citizenship, religious affiliation, and community membership, for example, in most cases are a matter of identification with parents. The class or the caste position is transmitted from parents to the child.

Due to kinship ties the child acquires not only a status in larger society but also a position in the family. The child acquires the status as a son or daughter. To his parents’ kinsmen he may be a grandson, a nephew, a brother, a cousin and son. Mutual rights and obligations go along with kinship connections. Even in the modern society, if not extended kinship ties, the immediate family ties remain socially important. In some societies much of social life is governed by them.

4. Other Bases of Ascription:

In addition to age, sex and kinship there are also other bases of status ascription. Since the individual manifests certain racial traits at the time of his birth itself, it is possible to ascribe him a racial status. An individual has no choice about his place of birth and hence his regional and na­tional statuses are ascribed.

Though these may be changed later, there is no initial choice. Similarly, we are born as Hindus, Christians, Muslims etc., for our religious status is ascribed at birth itself. A different religious status may, however be, acquired later.

Our initial class-status is likewise ascribed. At birth, we take on the class position of our parents for we have no choice. We can however change it later. But our caste status which is ascribed at birth cannot be changed. Illegitimacy, for example prevents full identification with the parents.

Similarly, the total number of children born in the fam­ily, the fact of adoption, the fact of the death of a parent, the occurrence of divorce-all can affect the infant’s status independently of his will. Thus, the “accident of birth” is universal and extremely important in society.

(b) The Achieved Status:

The statuses about which the person has some choice, however much or little, are achieved statuses. All societies have some achieved statuses and no society depends completely on ascribed statuses. The proportion of the statuses in a social structure which are open to achievement varies widely around the world.

Even if a society is very particular about providing ascribed statuses to its members, there will be some individuals who will alter the place which they are assigned to occupy in the structure because they have special talents or ambitions.

The history of all societies and all times is filled with their names, for they are the men who make history. In order to make use of their capacities for common social ends the society institutionalizes the achievement of status. By doing so society can capitalize on the deviant instead of punishing him.

Further, by making certain changes of status legitimate, a society may admit members with unusual abilities for statuses where average ability is not just enough. It can also prevent the filling of high positions by some incompetent persons.

The leader of combat teams, the creator of artistic products, and the inventor are examples of statuses which a society might find it worthwhile to throw open to achievements rather than ascribing to a few on the basis of birth.

In primitive societies one can find that greater stress is laid on ascribed statuses. The civilized societies on the contrary, have placed high premium on achieved statuses. Factors such as the domi­nance of commercial activities, urban conditions of life, greater division of labour, and rapid social change have compelled the individuals to achieve their statuses on the basis of accomplishments in the modern societies.

In urban centers and in commercial fields no mediocre person can thrive. They provide better opportunities for achievement also. Division of labour offers a chance to a talented man for a competitive advantage to work with efficiency to secure a status. Rapid change provides continually new statuses. Since they are new they cannot be filled by ascription.

As we know all kinds of statuses are not thrown open to all in all societies. Only some of them are thrown to achievement on some basis. Firstly, the statuses that require the possession of unusual talents are obviously thrown open.

For example, no mediocre person can achieve the status of a great artist or a great physicist, or a great writer or a great actor, etc. Secondly, the statuses that depend on the informal and spontaneous approval of the people are predominantly achieved.

For example, the sportsmen, singers, drama artists, film actors, public speakers and such men can achieve very high status in spite of their humble birth. Finally, the statuses that require long and costly education are normally achieved. For example, only through high level of education that one can attain the status of a doctor, psychiatrist, judge, advocate, engineer, etc.

In the modern civilized societies most of the occupational statuses are achieved. The existences of a number of secondary groups indicate that our organisational membership is an achieved status. Marital status, parental status, educational status, etc., are all achieved. Because one is not obliged to become a husband or a wife or a parent or an educated person.

The outstanding function of a social structure with many achieved statuses is that, it provides not for the isolation of roles but for their combination into a necessary interdependence. A structure characterised by achieved statuses enhances competition for those statuses, but the specialization of roles also necessitates co-operation.