RSF Journal Contributors Discuss the Role of Status in Creating and Maintaining Inequality

April 11, 2023

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Fabien Accominotti, Lehn M. Benjamin, Carla Goar, Hilary J. Holbrow, Bianca Manago, Natasha Quadlin, Cecilia L. Ridgeway, and Jane Sell are contributors to RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences issue “Status: What It Is and Why It Matters for Inequality,” edited by Cecilia L. Ridgeway (Stanford University) and Hazel Rose Markus (Stanford University). The issue examines how status functions in society and its role in creating and maintaining inequality. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Fabien Accominotti is assistant professor of sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is co-author of the article “The Architecture of Status Hierarchies: Variations in Structure and Why They Matter for Inequality.”
Lehn M. Benjamin is an associate professor in the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. She is the author of the article “How Helping Can Reinforce or Attenuate Status Inequalities: The Case of Nonprofit Organizations.”
Carla Goar is professor of sociology and director of the Antiracism and Equity Institute at Kent State University. She is co-author of the article “Racial and Ethnic Status Distinctions and Discrimination: The Effects of Prior Contact and Group Interaction.”
Hilary J. Holbrow is assistant professor of Japanese politics and society at Indiana University. She is the author of the article “When All Assistants Are Women, Are All Women Assistants? Gender Inequality and the Gender Composition of Support Roles.”
Bianca Manago is assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University. She is co-author of the article “Racial and Ethnic Status Distinctions and Discrimination: The Effects of Prior Contact and Group Interaction.”
Natasha Quadlin is associate professor of sociology at University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of the article “Do Perceptions of Privilege Enhance – or Impede – Perceptions of Intelligence? Evidence from a National Survey Experiment.” Quadlin is a current RSF visiting scholar and co-author of the RSF book Who Should Pay? Higher Education, Responsibility, and the Public.
Cecilia L. Ridgeway is Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences, Emerita at Stanford University. She is co-editor of this issue of RSF, and co-author of the article “The Significance of Status: What It Is and How It Shapes Inequality.” Ridgeway is the author of the RSF book Status: Why Is It Everywhere? Why Does It Matter?, a contributing author to RSF volumes Facing Social Class and The Declining Significance of Gender?, and a former RSF visiting scholar.
Jane Sell is professor emeritus of sociology at Texas A&M University. She is co-author of the article “Racial and Ethnic Status Distinctions and Discrimination: The Effects of Prior Contact and Group Interaction.”

Q. What is status and how does it impact us? Why is it important to study status?

Ridgeway: People ask what status is because the word seems sort of vague to us. But status is something fundamental to human life. It is the respect or honor and esteem that others in our group and community give us. As you can imagine, even though we don't like to think about status, very often, this matters a great deal to us. We live and survive by other people – we rely on them. So, when we're treated with respect and esteem, it matters a great deal to us. We think about status as being a kind of hierarchy because you’ll notice immediately that some people in your group and community are treated with more respect and esteem than others. And you encounter this everywhere in your life, in your interactions in the grocery store, in what happens when you're in a school or a university, and on the job when you're treated in a certain way. Sometimes you're treated with great respect. Other times, you don’t seem to be treated with respect. This is the ongoing process of status.

It's a fundamental form of inequality in social life. In fact, it affects how we are treated in all aspects of our lives. I mentioned schools and workplaces but also in politics. For instance, there’s a great deal of evidence that people feel that urban elites are dominating the political discourse. They’re pushing back against these urban elites because they believe they’re putting them down. This status threat has been a big driver for political polarization and disagreement in the so-called cultural divide in American society. Even in the family, we encounter status differences and issues. So, status is a fundamental process that affects all of us.

And in fact, there's good evidence that status is a powerful motive for people's behavior. It affects their health as well as their happiness and well-being. Because it shapes the interactions you have at school, in the workplace, and other places, it also affects people's access. It affects people's access to valued outcomes in life, such as income, education, and health, even independent of all the other kinds of things that affect those processes. And yet, we don't understand status, we don't have a grip on it. We need to figure out what it is. And it turns out status is particularly important in explaining durable patterns of inequality based on social differences among us, such as gender, race, and class and social background. What I mean by durable patterns is that even when the economic circumstances change, somebody gets a little more power, or someone gets a little more money, this one group continues to be more respected, at least for a while, more respected than the other group. And that continues to further a kind of inequality.

The degree to which people and society believe some people are more worthy or important than others based on their membership to social difference groups such as gender, race, or social class, is based on status beliefs. Those beliefs can be changed historically, but it's a process. We can change them, and we need to change them. But unless we consciously try to change them, we won't change them, they will continue to act in our lives. That's why it's important for us to study status so that we can get a hold of this right-in-front-of-our-faces and yet often-invisible-to-us inequality process that keeps perpetuating patterns of unequal outcomes amongst social groups. So, we argue that it's high time that we really understand status and get a handle on it because we'll never create the more egalitarian society we want if we don't do that.

Q. What are status hierarchies and what are some of their properties? How do these properties impact inequality?

Accominotti: One of our key ideas is that we don't just focus on status, but we focus on status hierarchy. So, what are the status hierarchies? Well, there are many ways we can think about status hierarchies. We could think of them as things that exist out there in the world. For example, a firm's organizational chart or line of command would be a status hierarchy. The way we think about them in our paper is a little bit different than that – it actually goes by the notion of status. Status is essentially something that exists in people's minds. Someone's status is how other people think of them, it's the value other people accord them. And we argue that status hierarchies are similar, except they don’t just apply to one person, but to relations between persons. So, we define status hierarchies as sets of relations of superiority, equality, or inferiority that people perceive among one another.

My perceptions of my colleagues based on their performance in the workplace is an example of a case of a status hierarchy that can be a set of relations of superiority or inferiority. I might have an image in my mind of how my colleagues compare to one another in terms of how valuable they are to the company. This image may come from my observation or a more formal evaluation of my colleagues’ actual performance. It may also be distorted by some bias I may have towards certain categories that my colleagues are a part of. For example, my thoughts on gender categories or racial categories.

Looking at status hierarchies as an image that people have in their minds is important because it makes it possible to reflect on the properties of this image as well as the consequences of these properties. So, when I envision this hierarchy among my colleagues in terms of how valuable they are relative to one another, what does this image look like? What are its properties as an image? And in the paper, we examine three such properties, which we call architectural features, of these status hierarchies. These features are the clarity, the verticality, and the rigidity of these status hierarchies. I’ll focus on clarity as an example. The image that we have regarding the relative value of others out there may be more or less clear-cut. We may have a very precise image, where we have a feeling that we know that someone is twice as valuable as someone else. Or we may have a blurrier image, where we think that someone is maybe twice as valuable as someone else, but it's unclear how distant they really are – it could be more, it could be less. This is what we call the greater or lesser clarity of status hierarchies.

Now, why does all of this matter? And why does it matter for inequality? Well, we know that status positions are associated with the rewards that we receive from society. So, people in high-status positions are going to receive more than people in low-status positions. But our idea is that by focusing on status hierarchies and their properties we can say something more than this. We can say, not just who's going to receive more based on their status position, but how much more people in top positions are going to receive compared to those in bottom positions based on the properties of the status hierarchies they're in.

To go back to my example, we actually show that, holding constant the value we accord various employees in the workplace, if the image we have of their relative value is more precise because we derive it from some kind of quantitative evaluation, like a performance review, then the greater the differences in rewards that we are willing to accept between the ones at the top and the ones at the bottom. The sheer fact that the hierarchy is presented as more precise makes the level of inequality between high and low-value actors increase. And more generally, the article shows that holding constant the value we give people, the greater the clarity, the verticality, and the rigidity of the status hierarchy they belong to the larger the gap in rewards between the incumbents of high versus low-status positions.

Q. Research has primarily focused on how the increased representation of women in management jobs combats gender stereotypes and inequality. How does an overrepresentation of women in low-status jobs, such as administrative positions, impact gender stereotypes and inequality?

Holbrow: We're at a moment where the so-called gender revolution has stalled. The gender pay gap in many countries is stagnant and women are no longer making further rapid gains in their representation in professional and managerial jobs. I think one important question of our day is how can we recapture momentum toward greater gender equality in the workplace? Now, a typical answer to this is, if we could just get more women into leadership positions, then people would no longer doubt women's capabilities or merit. But the fact is, at least in the United States, we've already tried this. So today, we have a woman Vice President, we have women in the C-suites of companies, and the president of my university, Indiana University, is a woman. And yet, despite women's increasing visibility in these powerful roles, pervasive misogynistic beliefs about women's capabilities remain.

One striking illustration of this is the frequency with which women in professional and managerial positions are mistaken for assistants. This is something that happens to CEOs, and it happens to everyone else, from photographers, to professors, to politicians. I argue that this phenomenon provides us with an important clue into what's going on with the stalled gender revolution. Perhaps what drives devalued beliefs about women is not primarily women's absence from the top, but their overwhelming over-representation at the bottom of organizational hierarchies. Take the case of administrative assistants, which as I said, is something that other women are frequently mistaken for. This occupation is over 90% female. That was true in the 1970s and it's true now. So, what do administrative assistants do? Well, generally, they take care of tedious mundane tasks that we think of others as being too “important” to do. The problem is, when all people doing these jobs are women, it seems logical that people will draw inferences about all women's capabilities and contributions from this fact.

On the ground, what this means is that women in the workplace are less likely to be assigned high-value tasks. And whatever women do, their work is more likely to be seen as merely supportive, rather than as an important and valuable contribution in its own right. In other words, when all assistants are women, all women are then more likely to be perceived and treated as assistants. To free women from the effects of these devalued beliefs, we need to recognize and undo women's overwhelming over-representation in support roles. And I argue that that is the key to unraveling persistent gender bias that holds women back across the entire occupational spectrum and it's the key to restarting the stalled gender revolution.

Q. Research has shown that socioeconomic status is a better predictor of educational outcomes, such as college attendance and completion, than academic measures, such as GPA. How does Americans’ strong belief in meritocracy impact perceptions of the role privilege plays in academic achievement? How do these perceptions affect the symbolic power of a college degree?

Quadlin: I think all of these constructs are highly interrelated. Americans believe really strongly in meritocracy or the idea that individual success is the result of individual merit. So, in part, because we believe merit is so important for success, I think many people are kind of blind to the processes that contribute to merit in the first place. They might recognize that a successful person is privileged, and they might even know that that privilege contributed to a person's individual success, but I'm not sure people care why a person is successful. They're just very impressed by successful people and they aren't critical of the underlying construction of merit.

In fact, my research shows that if anything, if a person is perceived as privileged, they're also perceived as even more intelligent or meritorious than they otherwise would be. So, privilege seems to kind of bolster or reinforce merit in this way. This becomes especially important in the case of college degrees because both privilege and intelligence – or other measures of academic achievement – are theoretically both predictive of where people go to college.

I did this research largely because I wanted to know about the underlying signals tied to a college degree. For example, we know that Harvard graduates are overwhelmingly privileged at the point of college entry. I wanted to know if people are skeptical of Harvard graduates as a result because they're coming from these very privileged backgrounds. And my research says absolutely not. You can be perceived as privileged and intelligent simultaneously. I also find that these individuals are perceived as highly likable too, and that also further reinforces these patterns of inequality that we see that are related to status.

Q. Briefly, what are intergroup contact and inconsistent complexity manipulation interventions? What are these interventions used to target? Do they impact Whites’ prejudicial attitudes and behaviors toward people of color? If so, how?

Manago: Our manuscript endeavors to combine two different perspectives on decreasing prejudice and inequality. We specifically considered the issue of race/ethnicity within task groups. One perspective is intergroup contact, and the other perspective is status characteristics and expectation states.

Sell: What is intergroup contact theory? A large number of studies and meta-analyses confirmed the general result that those individuals with more intergroup contact, that is, more contact with others outside their own groups, demonstrate lower prejudice. This effect is present regardless of the age of the individual respondents. In fact, the results hold for children – even very young children. Additionally, the effects of decreasing the prejudice towards minority group members are stronger than decreasing prejudice against majority group members. One large critique of this general finding and the literature, however, is exactly how is it that intergroup contact relates to the behavior of individuals in an interaction. And this is one of the questions we address in our research in this paper.

Goar: What is status characteristics and expectations states theory? Status characteristics and expectation states theory – SCES – occupies a large literature, but with a more defined scope than the intergroup contact theory. That is, most of status characteristics and expectation states research deals with groups and behavior, most commonly interaction and task groups. SCES documents how inequality generated by status characteristics such as race, ethnicity, or gender, can be reproduced by groups through a process called the burden of proof. That means that inequality is reproduced unless something or some process intervenes.

In groups, this inequality is demonstrated through who is given the opportunity to talk, who takes that opportunity, and who is deferred to most often. One intervention that we examine in this manuscript is termed inconsistent complexity. Inconsistent complexity is defining a task as complicated, involving many different tasks and abilities that may be unrelated to each other. Such a definition impedes thinking about a task as unitary, that is, a task that a person is either good or bad at completing. We previously found support for the inconsistent complexity intervention, and we sought to replicate its effect in groups composed of different groups of race/ethnicity, Mexican American women interacting with White women, and Black women interacting with White women.

Manago: We are highlighting the main effects of our study, but we also have further findings regarding mediation effects that we encourage interested people to read in our article. In the present study, we find that, in all cases, the greater the past intergroup contact, the less anxiety about interacting with a particular group. This relationship holds for White, Mexican American, and Black group members. However, this anxiety does not necessarily relate to assessments of the competence of group members, and it doesn't seem related to behavior. That is, increased group contact is not related to decreased inequality in groups. This indicates that the affective positive consequences of intergroup contact do not necessarily relate to behavior within groups. We could not assess the effects of inconsistent complexity on groups of White and Black group members because there was no initial inequality in these groups to begin with. This, by the way, demonstrates the vital importance of baseline conditions to assess any kind of intervention. However, we do find that the inconsistent complexity intervention does decrease the inequality between White and Mexican American group members. We believe our research highlights the importance of combining different literatures to develop insights and presents further research that attitudes do not necessarily directly relate to behavior and interaction.

Q. Nonprofits dedicated to addressing poverty and inequality may not consider the basic status hierarchy that forms in helping exchanges, such as those between staff and participants.  Why is this status hierarchy important to recognize and address? And what practices do nonprofit organizations, and their staff members engage in that attenuate these status hierarchies or exacerbate these hierarchies?

Benjamin: I study nonprofit organizations and their social impact. Social impact is a central concern in the field: funders, volunteers, communities, and nonprofit leaders themselves all want to know whether these organizations are making a positive difference in people's lives. Did people land good-paying jobs because of a nonprofit's training program? Did they get into affordable housing? Are they safe? And so on. These questions are clearly important. But the focus on achieving intended goals, or what we call outcomes, misses something fundamental: the effects of relationships. Participants—those who seek support from nonprofits—experience nonprofits and their strategies through relationships with staff, volunteers, and peers. And these relationships have distinct effects that that matter a great deal for equity and impact but are not adequately captured in goal achievement measures. This is where status theory comes in. Our status—how we are valued in relationships—is a central concern for all of us. Are we respected? Do our views seem to carry weight? Do others look to us or even follow our lead? Status is different from power. Power is coercive, whereas status is voluntarily accorded by others based on how others view our competence in achieving a shared goal.

In nonprofit organizations, status merits special attention because of the status hierarchy that forms between staff and participants at the outset of the relationship. Staff are assumed to have some competence—knowledge, skill, connections—that participants do not have. This initial status hierarchy is a basic feature of helping exchanges. Consequently, when people seek support from a nonprofit they can feel a temporary loss of status, and addressing this loss of status is a part of the work in nonprofits. However, often this work is hard to explain and goes unrecognized in evaluations of nonprofit social impact. To be sure, countless studies have offered clues that status processes are at work in these organizations, for example by pointing to how these organizations use labels that connote worthiness or how they identify structural causes for problems in ways that are empowering. But missing is a basic account that would tie these observations together and clearly delineate how participating in these organizations affects the social status of participants. Such an account is necessary to fully assess the impact of these organizations on inequality. Without explicit attention to addressing the status hierarchy, staff and organizations can exacerbate status hierarchies, leading some participants to disengage. Those who do stay engaged may bear the negative emotional, psychological, and physiological costs of that engagement.

What practices affect status hierarchies? Research suggests three types of practices can address status hierarchies: sharing control, establishing commonalities, and questioning causes. There are also three corresponding practices that can exacerbate status hierarchies: asserting control, reinforcing differences, and assuming causes. For example, take commonality at the staff level. Many staff and participants in my research and in the research of others report the importance of establishing more mutual relationships, something that can help address this initial status hierarchy, e.g., "I'm not so different from you." Staff and organizations can also reinforce differences, for example, by giving better sleeping quarters to volunteers in a shelter for homeless men. These practices that emphasize differences can reinforce that status hierarchy and affect participants' experience of that organization. The paper gives many other examples.

Status is one central feature of relationships and is particularly salient in nonprofit organizations because of the initial hierarchy between staff and participants. This initial hierarchy can easily be exacerbated with practices that assert control, emphasize difference, and assume causes. But they can also be diminished by the way that staff interact with participants and the way that organizations are run when they share control, question causes, and establish more mutual relationships. This status loss may never be captured by outcome measurements, such as job placement or stable housing, because the cost for participants is not fully registered in those measures. Yet these are the implicit ways in which nonprofits can reinforce inequity at a relational level, despite addressing inequality at a material level. By recognizing these status hierarchies and incorporating practices that address them nonprofits can align their relational work with their strategies to address inequity and realize a positive impact.


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