Ascribed status and achieved status are two sociological terms that were coined by Ralph Linton in The Study of Man: An Introduction (1936).
These two terms describe two different kinds of social status assigned to someone. An individual can hold multiple social statuses at a time. One can be a father/man (ascribed status) and at the same time a lawyer (achieved status).
We will discuss/explain these concepts/statuses in some detail in the following sections.
An ascribed status is a social status of a person that is assigned to him by birth or that is assumed involuntarily in the later stages of life. The status is acquired without any effort, innate qualities, merit, or abilities. It is neither chosen nor earned.
Some common types of such status are; age, caste, ethnicity, gender, family, religion, nationality, family role (father, mother, brother, sister, etc), race, etc.
Is Ascribed Status Irreversible?
An ascribed status is said to be irreversible as defined by Ralph Linton. However, not all ascribed statuses are irreversible. To understand that, let us have a look at examples of ascribed status.
For example, being Syed is a respectable status in Muslims. ‘Syeds’ are the people who are descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Hence, a person born in the Sayyid family by birth acquires ‘Syed’ status which is totally irreversible. That person neither voluntarily assumed the status nor struggled for it. Thus, his status is ascribed and recognized by society.
Similarly, a person born in the lower class of society is labeled as ‘poor’. The status ‘poor’ is an ascribed status assigned by birth. Here, the ascribed status ‘poor’ is not irreversible; rather, that person can work hard and become rich in the future. Doing this, he will definitely change his prior status to a newly achieved status (we will discuss later).
Another example is the religious labels as Muslim, Christian, Hindu, etc. A person getting born in a Muslim family will assume an ascribed status of Muslim. Similar is the case with other religions too. However, this status again goes against the definition of ascribed status being irreversible. It is usually believed that someone born in any specific religion will continue to follow the same religion of his ancestors. However, later in life, a Christian can willingly convert to Islam. By doing this, he will reverse his ascribed status ‘Christian’ to a newly achieved status ‘Muslim’.
Similarly, nationality is an ascribed status. One can be Pakistani, Indian, or English by birth. However, this status is also reversible. One can migrate to another country and switch his nationality by surrendering his former nationality. In this way, he would acquire a new nationality (achieved status).
People are socially discriminated against on the basis of their ascribed status. Commonly observed; society respects rich people while discriminating poor.
Similarly, in the caste system in India, the upper caste is respected while the lower caste faces discrimination.
Moreover, with every ascribed status attached self-esteem. Someone born with good social status will have high self-esteem because of the treatment he receives from society. On similar lines, born in a lower-class family, or in a lower social caste will result in lower self-esteem. Likewise, being a citizen of an underdeveloped African country will cause low self-esteem. Likewise, belonging to a metropolis in America by birth will get you high self-esteem.
Is Ascribed Status valued?
The answer is, not really. Not all ascribed statuses are valued. Because, such status is given to a person without bringing into account his choice, his abilities, his struggle, and merit. So, if someone is a born politician just because his father is a political figure, or born rich; society will not value him more than the person who had achieved a politician status or got rich through hard work and struggle.
Achieved status is a social status that someone earns voluntarily through effort and hard work. It reflects a person’s abilities and skills.
For example, being a lawyer, professor, doctor, officer, etc are all achieved social statuses.
A person can achieve better social status by acquiring more knowledge, with more effort and hard work. Moreover, the better social or achieved status indicates better abilities and interpersonal skills, more knowledge, more wealth, more respect, more authority and influence, more popularity and fame, good lifestyle, high aspirations, better social standing, vast experiences, etc.
Achieving better social status is akin to upward social mobility. For example, a shopkeeper becoming a teacher would mean upward social mobility or better social status. However, an achieved status does not necessarily mean upward social mobility. Rather, it can be downward. An example in this regard is a student becoming a criminal.
An achieved status is socially more valued than ascribed status because the former shows abilities and merit while the latter is indifferent to them.
Moreover, an achieved status is reversible status as defined by Ralph Linton who has coined the term. A doctor who was erstwhile a school teacher can become a teacher again later, showing a reverse in his social status.
In a nutshell, both types of social status are opposite to each other. While ascribed status is involuntarily earned, achieved status is voluntary. The former is in some cases irreversible like caste, gender, family roles; and in some cases reversible, like nationality, social class, social standing, religions, etc. The latter is reversible as discussed above. Moreover, the latter is also more respected and valued than the former.
One can highlight multiple other differences between the two based on common observation.