Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Of considerable significance for social scientific investigations of the origins, development, and decline of a wide variety of religious ideologies, movements, and institutions. Like other concepts that seek to impose sociological rigor on familiar societal terminology, status is subject to a number of distinct (although overlapping) usages that sometimes generate confusion.

The Legal Context

In its origins in social and political philosophy, status is used in a predominantly legal sense as a crucial element in the analysis of power, authority, individual rights, and social order. It denotes a legal capacity (or limitations on such capacity) to exert rights or enforce obligations within an organized and established social framework of superordination and subordination. The high-water mark of such usage was initiated by Henry Sumner Maine's influential 1861 depiction of the shift from status to contract in the evolution of human societies. Although the legal aspects of status no doubt retain relevance in a number of contexts, social scientific literature has rarely employed the concept in this restricted sense since the early decades of the present century.

The Structural Context

Displacement of such pioneering usage was the accomplishment of the American anthropologist Ralph Linton's structural interpretation of the concept. Appropriated by textbook sociology after World War II, it attained almost universal currency in social scientific circles, most notably in the heyday of the "structural functionalism" inspired by the writings of the Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons. Constituting the basic analytic unit in a social system and denoting simply a position in a particular structure or pattern of reciprocal behavior, a status entails specifically institutionalized rights and duties. The invocation and enactment of these expectations and obligations (i.e., the pattern of appropriate behavior) is designated by the inextricably related concept of role . In this dramaturgical depiction, a role involves performance of a socially assigned part and thus represents the dynamic aspect of status.

Although often thought to be Parsonian in origin, the widely used distinction between status ascription and status achievement is an integral part of Linton's original formulation. In his founding version of this dichotomy (clearly influenced by Maine), ascribed statuses are those assigned to individuals irrespective of their innate abilities or unique personal qualities. They are occupied as a matter of inherent destiny and hereditary right on the basis of criteria ascertainable at birth, and are thereby biologically determined to a significant degree. Age, sex (gender), and kinship are the crucial and largely irrevocable determinants of status ascription. By contrast, achieved statuses are those filled on the basis of specific qualities, knowledge, or skills through individual effort and competition. In terms of a crude dichotomy between "traditional" and "modern" social types, ascription (communally embedded in custom and inheritance) is inevitably linked to the former, while achievement (generated by individual ability and mobility) is intimately associated with the latter. For a time, indeed, the term Achieving Society with its instant evocation of individual aspiration, ambition, and initiative served as a potent inspirational slogan among advocates of economic, political, and social modernization.

Although later proponents of a social structural conception of status introduce numerous variations to its main themes, their indebtedness to Linton's original composition is manifest. The ascription-achievement distinction has long raised theoretical and empirical questions, but in a postmodernist climate, critical of both received categories and social inequities, its assumptions may be regarded as highly problematic and provocative in some scholarly quarters.

The Hierarchical Context

A hint of the hierarchical aspect of status may be inferred from Linton's acknowledgment that the term sometimes implies the sum total of an individual's statuses; that is, in this sense, it denotes an overall position in a total society. However, social scientific discussion of status as a central element in systems of hierarchy and social stratification had already begun a generation earlier in the writings of the pioneering German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920). As employed by Weber, the term status (the usual translation of the German Stand ) possesses precise referents intended to distinguish it clearly from the related concept of class . Although both class and status are aspects of the distribution of power within communities, class is determined by the economic order and class situation is ultimately a market situation . Although not communities in themselves, classes represent possible and frequent bases for communal action. By contrast, status is governed by the social order, that is, the way in which social honor is distributed among the various groups or segments within a community. Status situation thus denotes every typical component of individuals' life-fate, which is a function of a specific (positive or negative) social estimation of honor . Unlike classes, status groups are normally communities, although often of an amorphous kind. These express their collective sense of standing, honor, or prestige through a distinctive style of life that imposes various kinds and degrees of restriction on social intercourse with outsiders (e.g., endogamy). Such status distinctions and exclusions may rest purely on convention or, in a more rigid form, involve formal legal privileges and penalties. In its most extreme manifestation, status differentiation solidifies into a hermetic hierarchy of castes whose boundaries, duties, and privileges are prescribed by sacred rituals. Religious notions of impurity, stigma, and pollution are thus crucial to the legitimation and survival of this specific system of stratified segregation.

Grounded in a collective sense of "belonging together" and a profound hostility to the impersonal rationality of market forces, status (whether the outcome of ascription or achievement) is fundamentally different from class. Nonetheless, mutual and complex interaction of economic and social orders means that class and status distinctions are frequently interwoven even in avowedly egalitarian societies. Thus class is by no means the only significant element in modern social stratification systems, while status is in no way restricted to traditional social contexts. Use of the term status along essentially Weberian lines is a permanent feature of contemporary social scientific studies of stratification as well as of less rigorous characterizations of the social scene. It is a key ingredient in the more comprehensive category of social class , which has had wide currency among social scientists since the pioneering American investigations of W. Lloyd Warner and August B. Hollingshead.

Religion and Status

In any of the usages outlined above, the concept of status may be applied in diverse religious contexts. Of broadest analytic relevance in its structural sense and most restricted in its legal application, it is most provocative when defined and employed as a component in systems of social stratification. In this respect, Weber's subtle investigation of the Hindu caste system continues to provide a paradigmatic demonstration of its utility in religiously charged situations, despite eloquent complaints that Western social scientific conceptions of stratification are entirely inadequate to the analysis of hierarchy in an Indian setting.

The recurrent role of religion in legitimating, maintaining, and perpetuating existing status hierarchies has long been rightly acknowledged in a wide range of scholarship. This vague variant on Marx's "opium of the people" thesis has, however, been increasingly complemented by a necessary recognition of the religious factor as a potentially radical threat to social order and the status quo. Likewise, although its impact is often extremely difficult to distinguish from that of class, status (as a prime ingredient of stratification) independently exerts an obvious influence on both the static and the dynamic aspects of religion. The significance of status (as either cause or effect) is so evident in such a broad comparative-historical range of religious phenomena that it has become an unquestioned assumption of contemporary social scientific investigations of topics as varied as priesthood, conversion, defection, millenarianism, sectarianism, fundamentalism, secularization, religious mobility, rites of passage, popular religiosity, and early Christianity.

The establishment of status so firmly on the modern scholarly agenda is, in no small part, the legacy of Max Weber, whose preoccupation with class, status, and other aspects of social stratification is directly related to his classic blueprint for research in the sociology of religion. By discerning the genesis of certain status distinctions within shared religious ideas and perceiving the source of various religious propensities in the situation of specific status groups, he demonstrates vital connections between religious affiliation and social stratification. His rich comparative-historical accounts of the religious tendencies of such (privileged and unprivileged) social strata as nobles, peasants, merchants, artisans, and intellectuals blend with his efforts to identify those status groups sensitive to the appeals of (ethical and exemplary) prophecy and thereby disposed to embrace novel forms of salvation religion. In tracing the elective affinities between status groups and religious orientations in specific instances, Weber underlines the reciprocity, complexity, and indeterminism of such links. That religious ideas are never a simple reflection of the social position of their proponents anymore than social statuses are ever the pure product of religious ideology is a truth that, fortunately, now constitutes part of the creed of the social scientific study of religion.

See also Karl Marx, Marxism, Roles, Stratification, Max Weber

Roger O'Toole


L. Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970)

R. Linton, The Study of Man (New York: Appleton, 1936)

H. S. Maine, Ancient Law (London: Dent, 1960 [1861])

D. C. McClelland, The Achieving Society (New York: Free Press, 1961)

M. Milner, Status and Sacredness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994)

T. Parsons, The Social System (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1951)

M. Weber, The Religion of India (New York: Free Press, 1958)

M. Weber, Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).

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