Status update

The annual Mayhew Lecture takes on status inequalities in today's society

Status inequalities are common in society today, but how did that come to be? That question will be part of the focus of the University of South Carolina’s annual Mayhew Lecture on Thursday (March 22). The Mayhew Lecture began in 1988 to honor the memory of Dr. Bruce Mayhew and highlights a different sociological topic each year.

This year’s lecturer is Cecilia Ridgeway, the Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences in the sociology department at Stanford University, who will discuss how status inequalities have increased and spread throughout society as well as why that matters. We caught up with Ridgeway to learn more about her lecture, which is based on her current book project, "Status: Why Is It Everywhere? Why Does It Matter?" Here’s a preview of next week’s event.

Q: How did status become so prevalent? 

Ridgeway: There is no well established answer to this question at present. However, my talk, which is based on a book I am writing on the “deep story” behind status inequality, posits a possible answer to this question and cites some evidence in support of that answer. I’ll lay this out in detail in the talk. 

Q: What is the importance of status in society? 

Ridgeway: Status, which is a ranking of people, groups or objects in terms of esteem and honor, is one of three fundamental bases of inequality in modern societies, the other 2 being material resources (wealth) and positions of power. It is an ancient and universal form of inequality in human societies which nevertheless interpenetrates modern ostensibly meritocratic institutions. Also, people care intensely about the value and esteem in which they are held, compared to others, by the groups and communities to which they belong. As such, status is a powerful micro-motive that shapes the struggle for precedence that lies behind inequality.

Q: How has status shaped our society? 

Ridgeway: Status plays a powerful role in the perpetuation of inequality among individuals based on status valued group differences like gender, race, occupation and education. Although I will say less about this, it also plays a powerful role in creating inequality among organizations (e.g., the relative status of various universities). And the status associated with objects affects consumer choices in the market. 

Q: Why is status the focus of your research? 

Ridgeway: Status shapes whether you are treated by others as “better” or “lesser” in everyday social relations. I’ve always been impressed by the power of such treatment in shaping people’s life outcomes often independent of their personal abilities or efforts.

If you're going

The Mayhew Lecture will be at 3 p.m. Thursday (March 22) in the Hollings Special Collection Library at the Thomas Cooper Library. The event is free and open to the public.

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