What Is a Master Status?

The Defining Social Position a Person Occupies

A police badge signals to society at large that a person is a police officer. For many police officers, their profession will be their master status.
A black band is stretched across a District 1 Chicago Police officer's badge to mourn the death of a fellow officer on July 19, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Put simply, a master status is the defining social position a person holds, meaning the title the person most relates to when trying to express him or herself to others.

In sociology, it is a concept that lies at the core of a person's social identity and influences that person's roles and behaviors in a societal context. Occupation is often a master status because it forms such an important part of a person's identity and affects the other roles one may occupy such as a family member or friend, a resident of a city, or even a hobby enthusiast.

In this way, a person may identify as a teacher, firefighter, or pilot, for example.

Gender, age, and race are also common master statuses, wherein a person feels the strongest allegiance to their core defining characteristics.

Regardless of what master status a person identifies with, it is often largely due to external social forces like socialization and social interaction with others, which shape how we see and understand ourselves and our relationships to others.

Origins of the Phrase

The sociologist Everett C. Hughes originally noted the term "master status" in his presidential address given at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in 1963, wherein he summarized its definition as "the tendency of observers to believe that one label or demographic category is more significant than any other aspect of the observed person's background, behavior or performance." Hughes' address was later published as an article in the American Sociological Review, titled "Race Relations and the Sociological Imagination."

Particularly, Hughes noted the idea of race as an important master status for many in American culture at the time. Other early observations of this trend also posited that these master statuses often existed socially to group like-minded individuals together.

This meant that men who identified as Asian American more than they identified as being economically middle class or an executive of a small company would often befriend others who identified primarily as Asian American.

Types of Master Statuses

There are a variety of ways in which humans identify themselves in social settings, but it's harder to note specifically the identities with which they most identify. Some sociologists posit this is because a person's master status is inclined to change over the course of his or her life, depending on the cultural, historical and personal events that affect one's life course.

Still, some identities persist throughout a person's life, such as race or ethnicity, sex or sexual orientation, or even physical or mental ability. Some others though, like religion or spirituality, education or age and economic standing can change more easily, and often do. Even becoming a parent or grandparent can provide a master status for one to achieve.

Basically, if you look at master statuses as over-arching achievements one can accomplish in life, one can define almost any accomplishment as his or her master status of choice. In some cases, a person can choose his or her master status by consciously projecting certain characteristics, roles, and attributes in their social interactions with others. In other cases, we may not have much of a choice of what our master status in any given situation.

Women, racial and sexual minorities, and disabled folks often find that their master status is chosen for them by others and strongly defines how others treat them and how they experience society in general.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Crossman, Ashley. "What Is a Master Status?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 22, 2017, thoughtco.com/master-status-3026399. Crossman, Ashley. (2017, August 22). What Is a Master Status? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/master-status-3026399 Crossman, Ashley. "What Is a Master Status?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/master-status-3026399 (accessed January 17, 2018).