What’s All the Fuss About Status?

What’s All the Fuss About Status? October 31, 2023

Everyone cares about status. To say otherwise means you’re delusional or simply don’t understand status.

Unfortunately for many Christians, talking about status is taboo. Some see it as an evil that will be abolished when Jesus returns. Others link status and pride, making it difficult to admit that we all want it.

Whatever the case, we live in this world at this time. Managing and being concerned about status is a fundamental aspect of life, for better or worse. So, if we want to live in the real world, and not merely some idealized version of it, then we need to give more thought to status. In this series, I’ll explore three major questions:

  1. What is status? (That’s this post)
  2. What good is it? (Post 2)
  3. What are a few implications for the church? (Post 3)

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll closely follow the work of Cecilia Ridgway, a renowned sociologist and social psychologist at Stanford University. For those interested in a dense academic treatment, check out her book Status: Why Is It Everywhere? Why Does It Matter? (Quotes cited below come from this book.)

What is Status?

Most plainly, status is “the esteem and honor that group members grant in exchange for valued contributions” (54). It’s how we rank people based on what we think they’re worth in different situations.

Although status is closely related to power, they are distinct. Power refers to control over resources, but status is about social esteem or respect. It’s the ability to influence others. A person may have high standing without necessarily having a lot of power, and vice versa.

Status is a basic principle of social organization. It refers to an individual’s or a group’s position within a social hierarchy. Status creates expectations for behavior and sets the groundwork for interpersonal interactions.

Cecilia L. Ridgeway

Insightfully, Ridgeway notes that status is inevitable and natural for human society and flourishing because it arises out of a fundamental tension in the human condition.

On the one hand, humans are profoundly interdependent and need to cooperate with others to achieve their goals and meet their needs. On the other hand, this cooperative interdependence is nested within an inherent competitive tension, as people must also compete with others for resources and opportunities.

  • Cooperation: We rely on each other to achieve goals and meet needs. We are interdependent.
  • Competition: Despite needing each other, we also compete for resources and opportunities.

In short, status exists as a way of managing human relationships, to manage “cooperative interdependence to achieve collective goals in the face of competitive individual interests” (54).

This dynamic has benefits, which I’ll get into in the second post in this series. For now, we’re trying to understand what status is.

5 Characteristics of Status

Ridgway observes five distinguishing characteristics of status.

  1. Comparative Nature: Status is always about comparison. We often evaluate our place relative to others. That assessment can then shape our actions, thoughts, and self-image.
  2. Social Ranking: Status acts like a collective standard of what deserves respect. This shared understanding can create unity or division. It suggests a “shared, collective standard of what is worthy of respect” (10).
  3. Given, Not Taken: A person’s “status is fundamentally dependent on the evaluation and reactions of others.” In other words, status must be granted or given, not taken. In this way, “status is more like a reputation” (11).
  4. Culturally Shared: The standards for determining status vary with different groups. Understanding these standards helps in navigating various social contexts.
  5. Public Aspect: Status rankings have “a public character. That is, people experience these rankings as evaluative judgments that exist not only in their own eyes but also, for better or worse, in the eyes of a relevant group audience of others” (12).

These points seem intuitive upon reflection, but that’s no reason to minimize the insight she outlines here. Without understanding the distinguishing features of status, we won’t know how to interpret and respond to these dynamics around us.

Status as a Kind of Inequality

According to Ridgeway, it is important to note that while status may be natural and inevitable, it can also lead to patterns of inequality based on social differences such as race, gender, and class.

Status beliefs can perpetuate stereotypes and inequalities, shaping social institutions and practices. These beliefs may often operate subtly, influencing behaviors even when people are not consciously aware of them. These are widely held cultural assumptions that associate greater social value with certain groups. These beliefs can be explicit but often operate implicitly, guiding people’s behavior even when they are not consciously aware of them.

One question we’ll have to consider is this: Is all inequality always inherently bad?

A Look at What’s Next

Status is not a topic to be brushed aside or oversimplified. Its complexities shape our lives in ways we might not even realize. It has benefits but also potential pitfalls.

In the coming posts, we’ll explore the positive aspects of status, even within the church. We’ll look at how it can foster community, build trust, and enable more effective collaboration.

To hear an interview with Ridgeway, listen to her conversation with Ezra Klein.

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