How Expectation States Theory Explains Social Inequality

Overview and Examples

Expectation states theory helps explain how status hierarchies can emerge in a mixed race group of people.
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Expectation states theory is an approach to understanding how people evaluate other people’s competence in small task groups and the amount of credibility and influence they give them as a result. Central to the theory is the idea that we evaluate people based on two criteria. The first criterion is specific skills and abilities that are relevant to the task at hand, such as prior experience or training. The second criterion is composed of status characteristics such as gender, age, race, education, and physical attractiveness, that encourage people to believe that someone will be superior to others, even though those characteristics play no role in the work of the group.

Overview of Expectation States Theory

Expectation states theory was developed by American sociologist and social psychologist, Joseph Berger, along with his colleagues, in the early 1970s. Based on social psychological experiments, Berger and his colleagues first published a paper on the topic in 1972 in the American Sociological Review, titled "Status Characteristics and Social Interaction."

Their theory offers an explanation for why social hierarchies emerge in small, task-oriented groups. According to the theory, both known information and implicit assumptions based on certain characteristics lead to a person developing an assessment of another's abilities, skills, and value. When this combination is favorable, we will have a positive view of their ability to contribute to the task at hand. When the combination is less than favorable or poor, we will have a negative view of their ability to contribute. Within a group setting, this results in a hierarchy forming in which some are sen as more valuable and important than others. The higher or lower a person is on the hierarchy, the higher or lower his or her level of esteem and influence within the group will be.

Berger and his colleagues theorized that while an assessment of relevant experience and experitse is a part of this process, in the end, the formation of a hierarchy within the group is most strongly influenced by the effect of social cues on the assumptions that we make about others. The assumptions we make about people — especially who we don't know very well or with whom we have limited experience — are largely based on social cues that are often guided by stereotypes of race, gender, age, class, and looks. Because this happens, people who are already privileged in society in terms of social status end up being favorably assessed within small groups, and those who experience disadvantages due to these characteristics will be negatively assessed.

Of course, it's not just visual cues that shape this process, but also how we comport ourselves, speak, and interact with others. In other words, what sociologists call cultural capital makes some appear more valuable and others less so.

Why Expectation States Theory Matters

Sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway has pointed out, in a paper titled "Why Status Matters for Inequality," that as these trends perpetuate over time they lead to certain groups having more influence and power than others. This makes members of higher status groups appear to be right and worthy of trust, which encourages those in lower status groups and people in general to trust them and to go along with their way of doing things. What this means is that social status hierarchies, and the inequalities of race, class, gender, age, and others that go along with them, are fostered and perpetuated by what happens in small group interactions.

This theory seems to bear out in the wealth and income disparities between white people and people of color, and between men and women, and would seem to correlate with both women and people of color reporting that they are frequently "presumed incompetent" or presumed to occupy positions of employment and status lower than they actually do.