Rank, Status, and Role Research Paper

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Human beings belong to a social species that has evolved to exist in dependence with other human beings. Accordingly, humans survive with others in society and cannot exist as lone individuals. In anthropology, a human society is a group of human beings who live together. Their interactions are patterned in regular and sometimes predictable manners. The society in which one lives is identified by its common language, customs, and geography. Anthropology and other social sciences assist in studying, understanding, and explaining the orderly interdependence of human society. Individual interactions with society are not independent because interactions occur among people who hold recognized positions in society. The concepts of rank, status, and role are indicators of recognized positions in social systems.

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Principles of rank, status, and role can be examined within the context of individual social systems. Rank most commonly refers to a type of society in which people have varying degrees of access to resources, power, and status. These rank societies contain social groups with various degrees of prestige. In turn, this creates stratification. Rank can also represent one’s position within a social scheme, system, or network.

A status is the social position a person occupies within a social network. For example, husband and wife are statuses. All individuals within a society may hold a range of statuses in their lifetime because they will partake in many different types of social interactions.

Each status is then accompanied by a corresponding role. A role is the set of expected behaviors specific to a status. When a role is not fulfilled effectively, the other members of society will show disapproval. People will behave in their individual roles according to this combined set of rights and obligations. It is the expected set of actions, for example, to be a loving and affectionate spouse. Kinship status is a good example of the relationships between status and role. The status of parents will include the right to discipline their children. It is also their role to feed and educate them. The relationships an individual has with family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and other people who are in the groups to which the individual belongs form a social network. Recreation, politics, and religion are examples of social-networking groups.

Social stratification is the process by which the members of a society are arranged into a pattern of superior and inferior ranks. It is a structural hierarchy of social inequality. These hierarchies may contain ranks, statuses, and classes, to which certain role behaviors will be assigned. Anthropologists consider social stratification a recent historical development because archaeological evidence from about 7,500 years ago shows distinct equalities in housing and burial sites. Anthropologists believe that members of those societies had similar access to resources and privileges. Recent industrial and postindustrial societies are considered socially stratified. These societies have families, social classes, and ethnic groups that have unequal access to economic resources, power, and prestige. Differences exist at more defined levels such as age, skill, gender, and education. For example, adults have greater status than children, and in many societies, men still have greater status than women. Those with special skills, technical training, or other advanced education may also have greater status and prestige.

Social stratification is related to the manner in which economic resources are divided. In separate studies anthropologists Gerhard Lenski (1966) and Marshall Sahlins (1958) found that the production of surplus stimulates the development of stratification. Lenski also felt that conflict arises over the control of the surplus and that the manner of distribution determines the basis of power. Inequalities in power create inequalities in access to economic resources and prestige.

Some theories state that social stratification is the result of production that creates surplus. Other theories stress that stratification exists in rank societies when there is pressure to consume, possess, and control available resources. If all people have the same access to economic resources or to society’s division of labor in creating goods and services, then it would follow that there would be greater societal equality. However, social stratification is not merely a matter of economics.

Economic resources are items of value, including land, goods, money, tools, and technology. Power is the influence or ability to force others to do what they may not otherwise want to do. In societies with unequal access to resources, it naturally follows that those with more economic resources will have greater power or influence. Political affiliations, for example, can bring power or influence to the general group. Prestige connotes a sense of honor for individual or group members.

Types of Societies

Anthropologists introduced concepts to highlight distinctions in the ways societies are organized. A fourfold classification of societies based on political organizations includes bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states. A band is a small group with a simple social structure. It has no complex differentiated political institutions or social institutions. A tribe is a pastoral or horticultural society that primarily relies on the land for all of its subsistence. A chiefdom has patterns of social stratification and an economic system of redistribution of goods. A state is the overall territory and social system that is ruled by a particular governing agency. An essential requirement for and consequence of a state society is that the society’s economic surplus be centrally appropriated and that the society be socially stratified. Evolutionary anthropological experts in the United States say these systems developed organically. Chiefdoms developed from the tribal systems and existed before the state.

Classification systems based on subsistence strategies include hunter-gatherers (foragers), pastoralists, horticulturists, and agriculturists. A fourfold classification of societies based on economic conditions are forager, herder, and extensive and intensive agriculturalists. Foragers are also called food collectors or hunter-gatherers. These societies do not own individual land. Instead, hunter-gatherers value the wild game and the plant life that live upon the land. Individuals from food-collecting societies do not maintain exclusive rights to the land where they hunt. Everyone in the society can hunt, gather, and draw water.

If the food supplies run low because the game migrates or the plant life dries out, then the land loses value. In these cases, communal ownership of the land is more practical. Territoriality tends to develop in areas where the land resources and access to water and game are abundant. In this situation, a group may become more sedentary and reluctant to let members of other groups travel onto their land. Territoriality is minimal in areas where plant and animal resources are unpredictable.

Like food-collecting societies, horticulturists do not individually or as a family own the land. However, plots of land may be allocated to families for their own use. After their herds graze an area low, horticulturists move to new land, allowing the land they used to lie fallow and replenish. Horticulturists are generally more self-sufficient than pastoralists. They make their own tools, but are obliged to communally share their tools and other weapons. For example, in the Truk society, if a canoe is needed for fishing, it may be taken from a close kinsman, without asking permission. If the canoe belongs to a distant kinsman, one must first ask permission, but the canoe owner is obliged to loan it.

In intensive agriculturalist societies, land is individually owned. Owners have the rights to use the resources and sell or give the land away as they choose. Occupying and cultivating the land increases its wealth and long-term usability. In industrial societies where intensive agriculturalists exist, individual landowners have absolute control of the land. In this absolute ownership, they are also subject to absolute loss due to natural disasters, national economic crisis, or catastrophic climate changes.

Lewis Henry Morgan (1877) was a pioneer in the study of human societies, concluding that cultural evolution was ranked on subsistence patterns and depended on technological complexity. His final scheme contained three ethnic periods: (1) savagery, (2) barbarism, and (3) civilization. He believed that every society would pass through these as they evolved to a higher form. Morgan ranked each group into lower, middle, and upper categories, based on the complexity of their tools. Savages may never have domesticated plants or animals for subsistence. Furthermore, an upper savage may have used fire and fished, but not used a bow or arrow. Barbarians may have domesticated animals and plants for subsistence. They also may have invented new tools and techniques. Morgan believed civilization was the next ethnic period to evolve from savages and barbarians. Although anthropologists have stopped using such terms as savage and barbarian, they do recognize the value in his classifications. He studied a variety of societies, concluded that subsistence was systematic, and correlated technological developments with forms of social organizations.

Anthropologists have continued to further classify societies as either egalitarian or stratified. In egalitarian societies, members or member groups have primarily equal access to the same degree of wealth, power, and prestige. In stratified societies, members or member groups have different levels of access to these resources. Egalitarian societies are often seen in smaller and less technologically developed communities like bands and tribes. Stratified societies are seen in larger, more complex, bureaucratic, or advanced societies like chiefdoms and states. Rank societies may lie somewhere in between these two.

Egalitarian Society

Egalitarian societies believe in the importance of human equality in social, political, and economic affairs. Members in egalitarian societies communally share economic resources such as food, tools, and weapons. The practice of sharing maintains equal access to these resources.

In egalitarian societies, there are few or no formal methods to give authority or power to certain individuals or groups. There is no hereditary right or position to power or authority. In most cases, egalitarian means that every man has equal say in what affects the tribe or clan. In some societies, this equality extends to women. Egalitarianism performs well in small band societies like hunter-gather, horticultural, and pastoral cultures. Most of these foodgathering societies live in family units that manage subsistence activities by consensus.

Members of these societies have primarily similar access to all economic resources and advantages. No social groups within these societies have greater or lesser access to resources or advantages. Morgan Fried (1967) defined egalitarian society as a society containing as many positions of prestige as there are members. Valued statuses are adjusted to meet the number of persons who are skilled to fill the positions. Egalitarian societies cannot fix or limit the number of persons who are capable of exerting power.

Rank Society

Rank refers to the social positions within societies that recognize social hierarchies. A rank society is one with equal access to economic resources or power. Within smaller social groups in a rank society, there is unequal access to status and prestige. Ranking is often practiced in agricultural or herding groups. Rank may be ascribed or it may be achieved. For example, ascribed rank is assigned at birth. If a child who is born to a great hunter or artisan is automatically assumed to be a great hunter or artisan, he has been given an ascribed rank and the accompanying status or prestige. However, people who possess different physical skills, levels of intelligence, and other abilities may achieve a rank through their actions or achievement.

A tribal chief is another example of an ascribed ranked position that is hereditary or genealogical. The rank of a tribal chief is given to the oldest son of a reigning tribal chief. The son succeeds his father in that rank. A chief will receive special honor and be shown greater respect by lower ranked citizens. People of lower rank must always keep their head bowed lower than the heads of those with higher rank. They will bow their heads lower than a chief who is sitting and bend low before a chief who is standing.

Fried describes rank societies as those that limit positions of status. Not all of the people qualified for such a rank position may occupy such a position. These rank societies exhibit varying degrees of stratification. In rank societies, individuals are placed in labor tasks or occupations that are suitable for their age, gender, and ability. However, Fried argues that in the rank societies, no political power derives from these specializations. Specializations in craftsmanship developed from a natural division of interest. The consensus among anthropologists is that fully stratified societies emerged from rank societies; the manner in which the transitions occurred is still debated.

Some controversy does exist in the belief that members of rank societies have equal access to economic resources and power. Material advantages exist for a chief, who maintains a storehouse and receives gifts from the commoners. Sahlins (1958) argues that although these benefits exist, the chief has no power to demand gifts and that the storehouses are only used to keep what will be consumed during feasts or later redistributed to the tribe.

Other studies show that food sharing and divisions of labor are not equal in rank societies. In collective meal preparations, for example, the chiefs are served first, and as tradition, the women bow in reverence. In tribes where the chiefs own the fishing areas, it was found that their households received twice as much fish per person as the rest of the tribal families. It was widely believed that principles of generosity would balance out the distribution of resources. However, recent studies by Laura Betzig (1988) show that gifts from all families to the chiefs did not equal the gifts from chiefs to other families. She found that in the small atoll of the western Carolines, even though all tribal households gave gifts to the Ifaluk chiefs, the chiefs most often only gave gifts to their own families.

Stratified Society

In stratified societies, members or member groups have greater and sometimes permanent access to wealth, power, and prestige. Anthropologists traditionally describe stratified societies as class systems or caste systems. These societies often exist in chiefdoms and states. The two forms of stratified societies are internally divided into hierarchical groups. These societies, class or caste, are fully stratified and have unequal access to economic resources, power, and prestige.


Some stratified societies have a closed class system called a caste system. Although the first prototype of a caste system originated in India, anthropologists use the term to define other similarly arranged societies. A caste system is a ranked group system in which there is no social mobility. Many people believe that a caste is determined by one’s occupation, but that is not entirely true. Membership within a caste rank is determined at birth, and caste systems practice endogamy. Marriage is legally restricted so that caste members must marry within their same caste group.

Castes can be identified by traditional occupation and are ranked on a scale of purity. In India, villagers have been stratified from the upper elite to the lowest caste members who perform street sweeping and other menial labor. Higher caste members, such as Brahmin priests, are obligated to hold strict dietary restrictions and are subject to other taboos to maintain their caste purity. On the other end of the spectrum are the outcastes or the untouchables whose occupations bring them into close and regular contact with animal skin, meat, and excrement. Between these two extremes are thousands of castes and subcastes.

Members of a lower caste can sometimes obtain a better wage-paying job and this can increase their social standing. In fact, the economic basis of the caste system has changed since World War II because many occupations have shifted from a barter or exchange system to a pay-for-service model. In this, a son born to the barber caste can become a wage-earning teacher during the week and cut hair on the weekends. Although the system allows him the benefits of having a teacher’s salary, it does not change his caste. He is and always will be in the barber caste, as his father was.

In a caste system, membership is ascribed and set for life. One mechanism to maintain caste immobility is to legally restrict marriage within castes. Because one cannot marry into a higher caste, it is impossible to achieve social mobility. Because the caste system gives advantages to the higher castes, it has caused resentment and hostility that has led to some economic and practical uprisings.


A social class system is comprised of ranked subgroups in a stratified society. Membership in a social class is determined by economic criteria, such as income, property ownership, or educational levels. A class is also a category or group of similar occupational types that has similar opportunities in terms of economic resources, power, and prestige. Not every class has the same access to land, livestock, money, food, and other significant resources. In class societies, people can achieve different status or prestige through occupation, education, and achieved or inherited wealth. A class system is different from a caste system because the class system is open. Laws or other social norms do not strictly prohibit social mobility.

Class boundaries may have been formed by customs and traditions. According to the studies of Michael Argyle (1994), people identify with a social class very early in life. Differences in many different social indicators go beyond the basics of occupation, wealth, and prestige. People in different social classes relate to others of similar religious affiliation, family upbringing, child-rearing practices, activities of leisure, social manners, and social graces. People are comfortable with other people of the same class because they share many commonalities. People generally stay within and marry within the class to which they were born.

The class to which one belongs throughout one’s lifetime is neither fully determined at birth nor fixed throughout an entire lifetime. The American society is generally an open class system. It is possible to move from one class to another through educational attainment, by marriage into a higher class, or by developing a highly valued skill that makes one marketable and well compensated. In addition to occupation, other class indicators include religion, family tradition, leisure, and quality or quantity of possessions. In an open class system, it is believed that dedication and a strong work ethic, along with great effort, can lead to greater social mobility.


Status is the position one holds in a social system. As members of a status group, people have rights, duties, and lifestyle benefits or burdens. Statuses exist in societies that contain a hierarchy for power and prestige. Status has its own stratification. Those with higher status can influence, through the use of their power or prestige, the actions or conduct of other people. Status is related to role, or an expected social behavior. A person occupying a specific social position or status has various roles or behaviors, such as actions and qualities, to fill. In Western industrial societies, having a respected occupation, owning and/or consuming material goods, and even appearance, etiquette, manners, and morality have become more important than lineage as status indicators.

Occupations in these societies are stratified so that achieved occupational promotion can enhance the social status of individuals and their immediate families. Social scientists have defined two basic kinds of social status: ascribed and achieved. Either one is assigned to a status group at birth, or one achieves status through educational, occupational, or skill-level accomplishments. In ascribed status, one is either born into or grows into the status. When status is assigned at birth, little knowledge exists of the person’s individual skills or predominant traits. It is assigned based on birthrights, gender, family relations, ethnicity, and age. Membership in an ascribed status group is most often nonvoluntary, and ascribed status cannot be discarded. People qualifying for a status are expected to fulfill all role obligations assigned to that status by general society and those determined within the status group.

The kinship system can best illustrate ascribed status. Anthropologists say that when people are born, they automatically become a child, either a son or daughter, to the parent. When they grow older and have their own child, they automatically become a parent, either a mother or father, to the child. Individuals within a status group are not ranked of their own accord. It is the status group as a whole that is ranked.

Concomitantly, an achieved status is one that is earned after fulfilling certain criteria. An achieved status is based on efforts and it includes accomplishments. In open class societies with mobility, individuals may increase their social status by achieving a higher education or an advanced degree, working toward a professional occupation, or making significant accomplishments in their personal, professional, or community life. Graduating from college is one such example of achieved status. In addition to requiring dedication and effort, it oftentimes also requires the financial resources to pay school tuition and living expenses while one pursues a degree. In open societies, a higher status can also be achieved by marrying into a different social class.

Social stratification that is based only on status is a premodern societal structure, in which members of each status group interacted only with other members of their group. In other societies, clan or lineage are ranked as either aristocratic or common, with some clans being stigmatized.


People take on a variety of social interactions based on the status they occupy at that moment. They know how to interact, or what behaviors to exhibit, because each status is associated with corresponding roles. A role is a collection of obligations and responsibilities for the occupants of a status. In sociological theory, a role is a behavior that is determined by what is expected of that position. Roles are socially defined attributes and are not related to individual characteristics or personalities.

Social relationships provide a structure for patterned or predictable social behaviors. Status and role are linked together in complementary pairs. Status is not independent of role and role is not independent of status. For example, parent and child are complementary roles because the parent has a role responsibility to discipline the child and the child is expected to obey the parent. When people within their status fail to act effectively in their role, other members of the society will show disapproval.

When a role is socially recognized, it helps people in a society create a strategy to deal with recurrent social situations, and to cope with the roles that others play. People create the expectations for the roles that they and others will perform. Clusters of statuses and their complementary roles create the core of enduring social relationships. The existence of these clusters then provides regular and predictable patterns of behavior, or social structures, that can be reviewed for appropriateness and changed as needed.

Role confusion occurs when people experience difficulty knowing which role needs to be filled within their current status. Similarly, role strain and role conflict may develop. Role strain is the tension between the many roles one is expected to fill and pressure to choose a focus for one or more roles. For example, a parent may feel conflicted over her obligations to act as a parent who teaches manners, arithmetic, and moral behavior while also meeting the rigors of being a professor who lectures at a university. As such, she may also feel conflicted over being an adviser to students while also working as a tenured faculty member who is required to advocate for faculty rights on campus.

Contemporary Theories of Social Organization

Most societies create status sets particular to social groups. Religion, gender, family, clan, occupation, and political affiliations define these sets. Highly structured social groups sharing a common focus or mission are called institutions, and these social organizations consist of interlocking role relationships. These relationships become active when status positions are filled and social groups have members.

French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1933/1984), considered the founder of both modern sociology and anthropology, studied societal adherence, contrasting mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity. In mechanical solidarity, small-scale, kinship-based societies were held together by the efforts of their family members. The members of these small groups performed all survival tasks. These societies stayed together because they had a strong sense of commonality or likeness, which occurs when groups share the same language and customs. Because these groups are kinship based and can meet their own survival needs, smaller groups could break from the whole and the smaller groups would still survive. Organic solidarity exists in larger-scale societies like nation-states. In these societies, specialists in subgroups handle survival tasks, and the division of labor is complex. The occupational groups are dependent on other occupational groups and cannot exist if they break off into smaller groups. For example, tradesmen like metal workers and pot makers do not also produce their own clothing. In these larger societies, each occupational group depends on the work produced by other occupations.

Contemporary Theories of Social Class

Although the term social class most often refers to modern-day industrial societies, it has also described various groups from city-state, empire, caste, and feudal societies.

During the feudal, industrial, and political revolutions of the 18th and early 19th centuries, the terms rank and order were challenged. The term social class became the popular hierarchical determinant in society as feudal distinctions of rank became less important. New social groups emerged as a new commercial, industrial, and capitalistic society replaced the feudal societies. An urban class of factory workers subsequently developed, and a wage-labor economy with capitalistic property owners developed. Therefore, new economic conditions emerged.

Early scholars in the concepts of social class developed their theories in the social sciences. Political philosophers of the 14th to the 18th centuries, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, and Thomas Hobbes, began writing about and discussing social stratification. When 19th-century French social theorist Henri de Saint-Simon argued that the type of governmental body was directly related to the mode of economic production, he opened the door for the development of our most predominant theoretical traditions of social class and class conflict.

While social status is directly related to achieved honor, occupational standing, cultural delineations, and birthrights, social class originally related directly to the economic interests of its membership. The theories of Karl Marx (1872/1988) and Max Weber (1968) defined class in economic terms, even though the determinants in their theories varied. Marx classified societies by their modes of production. He believed that capitalist societies had two social classes: those who owned property and those who did not. Property owners in his capitalistic society were called the bourgeoisie. The remainders were the proletariat. When class is determined by ownership of capital, one class has privileged access to necessary material resources and that creates a class system where one class controls the other. The more powerful class uses these privileges to dominate the less fortunate. While the dominant bourgeois class owned the capital, the proletariat was the exploited working class. Members of the proletariat provide the services or the manual labor required for the bourgeoisie to remain in business.

The relationship between the two would forever be in conflict, according to Marx, because they disagree over who shall control the means of production. They will continue to disagree until the powers of those controlling the economy are overthrown. In addition to controlling the material production, the work conditions, and the earning power of the proletariat, Marx also felt that the bourgeoisie controlled the production of ideas, cultural styles, and political doctrine. They established the governmental structure, political climate, and major structural changes in society. Although Marx recognized that postindustrial society contained social groups outside of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, such as peasant farmers and small shop owners, he firmly believed that the industrial revolution would eventually eliminate such economic class nuances. These classes were the residual effect of precapitalist societies and would disappear as capitalist systems matured, he said.

Marx argued that an uprising was necessary and inevitable because of class antagonism and class conflict that drives critical social change. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx wrote that when private property disappeared, then the class system that originates in the division of labor would disappear. Marx also theorized that an increased ability to obtain an education would enable society’s younger generations to quickly learn the whole system of production, freeing them from the present-day division of labor. Equality would eventually diminish the need for class separation. Furthermore, Marx said that communist society would be incompatible with the existence of class. The difference between this communist system and socialism is that in socialist societies, the means of production are publically owned and managed. Communist society would produce a sufficient mass of products to satisfy the needs of everyone.

Scholars and philosophers since Marx have dedicated their intellectual pursuits to provide alternative theories to communism. German sociologist Max Weber (1968) said that the development of a social class structure in a modern society was based on more than economics. Weber believed societal variables, such as capital, education, and workforce skills, also affected life chances in the social class system. Having a special trade, sought-after skills, or educational achievements would help those with less property achieve placement in a more desirable social class.

Unlike Marx, whose social structure contained only the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, Weber contended that four social classes existed. The highest class contained the upper ranked property owners. The next level consisted of intellectuals, scholars, managers, and skilled administrators. Additionally, Weber’s system contained a traditional petit bourgeois class of smaller shop owners and businessmen. The lowest class in his four-class system contained the traditional working class. While he maintained property ownership as a class, he recognized that those with high-demand special skills formed another social class grouping. He believed that class conflict would exist, but only within those classes in direct opposition, such as the worker and the worker’s manager.

Weber wrote that power is distributed according to status, classes, and parties. His insights expanded also upon theories of social stratification, where social honor and status impacted, but was different than, social class. He wrote that power is generally the chance that is taken against the will of the larger group. Although power is alluring in itself, the quest for power contains social honor. Achieving social honor or prestige is the foundation of political or economic power. He distinguished class from social status and the pure economic indicators used in the past. Social order is a manner in which social honor is distributed, Weber said. Economic order determines the distribution of goods and services and social order depends on economic order. However, class is not based on economics alone. It is also based on power and prestige. Class refers to any group of people with the same class situations.

Future Directions

Social Stratification: Class

Contemporary capitalistic societies have lost some of their class distinctions. Social and economic statuses are continually transformed, overstepping the traditional boundaries in which they were defined. Modern class theories, although reflective of Marx and Weber, have moved from these models, partly because modern theorists believe that individuals are ranked on a variety of indicators, often unrelated to economics. They took Weber’s notions of status and created a more multidimensional approach to social status, including occupation, religion, gender, education, and ethnicity. In post–World War II America, prestige and social status challenged a traditionally and economically stratified class system. The post–World War II era brought—across the board—a raise in living standards, greater social mobility, and a redistribution of economic resources.

Recent research conducted by Marshall and Swift (1999) used an odds-ratio methodology to consider equality and inequality and chances for social mobility. Comparatively, and often argumentatively, sociologist Ottar Hellevik (1997) prefers to use the Lorenz curve and the Gini coefficient to measure the existence of societal inequalities. Prior to Hellevik’s assertion of this stance, Gordon Marshall (1996) examined whether communism had in practice increased equality in East Germany. Marshall believed the German experience with communism offered an unusual research opportunity in social stratification. Following World War II, West Germany followed a capitalistic path to economic growth. East Germany chose communist structure in an attempt to increase social and economic equality. Marshall concluded that communism did little to help the citizens of East Germany achieve social equality.

Despite decades of disagreement over class structures and social status boundaries, social scientists have generally agreed that class is divided into three main categories: upper class, middle class, and lower or working class. The upper class in modern society exists through its largely inherited wealth. They are the owners of large properties from which their current income is derived. They enjoy many benefits in their membership in the upper class, including influence on the governing economic and political policies of their society. Through the privilege of membership in this class, they have access to better educational and economic opportunities that also enhance the wealth of their families, for generations to come.

The middle class is the socioeconomic class that includes those in professional, highly skilled labor, and middle- to lower-management occupations. It is a tiered middle class, with wealth professionals and managers at the top, and clerical, transportation, and distribution workers near the bottom.

In contrast, modern capital societies with a three-class system have a lower or working class. They are often in the lowest-paid, lowest-skilled jobs in the economic structure. These workers are nonunionized and often work in the service or retail industries. Their living conditions have the lowest standards, with restricted access to education and almost nonexistent power to make policy decisions in the political and economic arenas.

Social Stratification: Caste

During the 20th century, relationships between and among castes in India have changed. Some similarly ranked castes have worked together to form political alliances. In the lower castes, members have been striving for a higher status and attempting to escape the permanent position in which they are placed at the bottom of the closed caste system. In other cases, the members of the same caste have worked together to implement increased national solidarity.

Since World War II, the caste system in India has changed due to the growing trends in a global economy and trends in earning cash payment for services. For example, in addition to working in one’s caste profession, one may also improve his social standing by obtaining a better education or wage-paying job. However, marriage is still restricted to within one’s caste. According to research done by Fuller and Narasimhan (2008), the rate of child marriages has significantly declined and the rules of endogamy have lessened. Individual qualifications and personal characteristics are now vital to marriage in India, and education is now a key rank indicator. In fact, having a college or university degree is sometimes considered more attractive then being a very successful farmer or landlord. Additionally, these preferences exist across genders. Fuller and Narasimhan found that educated husbands prefer educated wives, even if the wives plan to work within the home. However, despite these more lenient marriage practices, ancestral status is still considered a marital asset.

Rank and Status

Anthropologists have shown increased interest in status and rank research. Steffen Daisgaard (2008) found a current tendency for people using social-networking Web sites to post individual information on the Internet, publicly ranking themselves and their personal relationships. They also publicly display status information. With the use of current social-network sites, people may present their preferences in art, music, literature, and social events. They may also publically post photographs and videos of themselves, their significant others, and significant events. More important, social-network users can show lists of their “friends” or other recognized social relations. Similar processes of social identity formation, Daisgaard said, have been discussed since the early 1980s. People would dress in a particular style so that they would be identified with others who dressed in that manner.

Facebook and MySpace are the most commonly used social-network sites. In posting a “virtual self,” people become the center of their social universe. These socialnetworking sites, Daisgaard also pointed out, involve systems of ranking and hierarchical structures. MySpace has a “Top 8” feature in which the social self may rank their top eight friends. Other Internet rankings are seen daily in more nondescriptive manners. For example, Daisgaard said that Google search results are ranked according to relevance. One might think this means that Google results are ranked according to their relevance to the person who inquired, but it is not so. Relevance is ranked according to Google’s sponsors or according to popularity that is determined by hit counters (Daisgaard, 2008).

Other recent studies in ranking systems outlined the current practices used in colleges and universities in Canada and the United States. Research by M. Reza Nakhaie (2004) showed that preestablished universal and impersonal criteria are the determinants for employment rank and status. To maintain an atmosphere of progressive collegiality, personal and social attributes are not considered when a faculty member is reviewed for rank and status promotions. Rank promotion may also be based on seniority. Nakhaie noted that this universalistic approach relies on the belief that opportunity for social or professional mobility is the foundation of legitimate power. In this environment, rank is achieved.


Members of a human society are interdependent beings who behave in patterned and predictable ways because of their social positions. Rank, status, and role are indicators of these positions and the social structure in which one lives. Examining egalitarian societies, rank societies, and the variety of social stratification systems assists in understanding the ranks, statuses, and roles that people maintain. Simple societies practice egalitarianism, in which resources for subsistence are communally shared. Rank societies also communally share resources, but rank members may be privileged to power or prestige. More complex societies may be stratified, and often have unequal access to resources, power, and prestige. No matter which system, its members have rank, status, and role considerations to maintain. These criteria are understood and adhered to by its members. In addition, societal structures are impacted by changes in economic structures and technological advances. As such, corresponding systems of rank, status, and role continually evolve.


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