Definition of Status Generalization

Understanding An Important Sociological Concept

A woman exits a private jet, signaling high status in society.
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Status generalization is a process that occurs when a status that is irrelevant in a situation still has an effect on that situation. In other words, attributions made to people on the basis of social status characteristics, such as occupation, are generalized to a variety of other statuses and social situations. This is particularly likely to occur in relation to master statuses such as occupation, race, gender, and age.

Extended Definition

Status generalization is a common problem in societies across the world and is at the center of much sociological research and social policy work. It is a problem because it typically leads to the experience of unjust privileges for some, and unjust experiences of discrimination for others.

Many instances of racism are rooted in status generalization. For example, studies have found that whites believe that lighter-skinned Black and Latino people are smarter than darker-skinned ones, which signals how race and skin color status are influential in how people are evaluated in general. Other studies that examine the influence of race on education and schooling clearly show that Black and Latino students are tracked into remedial classes and out of college-prep courses because of the assumption that race correlates with intelligence and ability.

Similarly, many instances of sexism and gender discrimination are the result of status generalization on the basis of sex and/or gender.

One disturbing example is the persistent gender pay gap that exists in most societies. This gap exists because most people either consciously or subconsciously believe that one's gender status impacts one's value, and thus one's worth, as an employee. Gender status also impacts how a person's intelligence is evaluated.

One study found that university professors are more likely to respond to prospective graduate students when those hypothetical students are male (and white), signaling that the gender status of "woman" means that a person is not taken as seriously in the context of academic research.

Other examples of status generalization include studies of juries that found that although jury members are supposed to be equal, those who are male or who have high prestige occupations tend to have more influence and are more likely to be placed in leadership positions even though their occupations may have no bearing on their ability to deliberate a particular case.

This is an instance in which status generalization can lead to receipt of unjust privileges in society, which is a common dynamic in a patriarchal society that places the status of men above that of women. It is also common to a society stratified by things like economic class and occupational prestige. In a racially stratified society, status generalization can also lead to white privilege. Often, multiple statuses are taken into account simultaneously when status generalization occurs.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.