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Status Characteristics Theory

Sarah Ogilvie

While much stereotype research is intent on investigating the cognitive processes involved in stereotyping, there is little in this domain that examines the impact that these processes have upon interpersonal behaviour. This fact is somewhat surprising given that research into stereotypes is often argued to be socially relevant on the grounds that it will enable a greater understanding of prejudicial behaviour. Recently, however, certain researchers (Biernat & Kobrynowicz, 1997; Foddy, 1997) have drawn upon a separate body of knowledge in order to examine the way processing of stereotypic information impacts upon certain types of behaviour. This body of knowledge, known as status characteristics theory, focuses upon the way certain evaluations or attitudes, particularly those regarding competence, shape interactional behaviour (Berger et al., 1977). In order to understand the mutual contributions that stereotype research and status characteristics theory may have for each other, status characteristics theory will now be discussed.

In contrast to the cognitive focus of stereotype research, status characteristics theory focuses upon the behavioural manifestations of certain attitudes and evaluations (Berger et al., 1977; Foddy, 1997). Status characteristics theory rests upon the notion of a status organising process, wherein differences in evaluations and attitudes of individuals in interactional settings result in differences in observable and stable features of the interactional process (Berger et al., 1977). Central to this process is the concept of the status characteristic (Berger, Ridgeway, Fisek & Norman, 1997). This concept can be conceived as an attribute that individuals possess to differing degrees, wherein the differing degrees or levels of the attribute attract differential amounts of esteem or worthiness (Ridgeway, 1993). The weightings of esteem that are accorded each level of the attribute, are based on attitudes shared within the culture (Ridgeway, 1993).

There are two types of status characteristics that are described by the theory, diffuse and specific. Where diffuse status characteristics activate both general and specific expectations about performance, specific status characteristics generate distinct expectations about specific abilities (Berger & Zelditch Jr., 1985). An individual's racial group, gender, and educational level are considered to be diffuse status characteristics, while mathematical ability, and creative writing ability are examples of specific status characteristics. A characteristic such as gender is considered to be a diffuse status characteristic as firstly, each of its states, male and female, are accorded differentially valued attributes: males are accorded higher mathematical ability, and females, higher creative ability (Berger et al., 1977; Eagly, 1993). The second reason concerns there being a generalised expectation about which gender state (male or female) will be more or less capable in most situations (Foddy & Smithson, 1996; Webster Jr. & Foschi, 1988). Specific status characteristics, such as mechanical ability, have the potential to affect the status organising process in a task-related setting if the ability is in some way relevant to the task (Foddy & Smithson, 1996).

Status characteristics theory holds that external evaluations of status characteristics will be imported into task-related group settings, (Berger, Zelditch Jr., 1985). In this setting both diffuse and specific status characteristics become activated or salient when they differentiate members of the group (Foddy & Smithson, 1996; Ridgeway, 1993). Differentiation of group members occurs when there are differing states of a status characteristic evident within the group (as in mixed-sex groups) or when group members collectively believe that a particular characteristic is relevant to the task (as in tasks that are considered to be stereotypically male or female). In the status organising process, group members may possess status characteristics that are directly and/or indirectly linked to the nature of the task. When indirect connections exist, it is an assumption of status characteristics theory that group members will engage in a search among the features of the situation for linkages that may exist between the status characteristics and the task requirements (Berger et al., 1977). These linkages are referred to as paths of task relevance. When the features of the situation are linked on the basis of these paths of relevance, the process engaged in is termed the spread of relevance (Berger et al., 1977). Engaging in this process serves to connect previously unconnected status information to the immediate situation. This in turn, engenders expectations as to the task performance of group members. In the case where the perceiver assumes a more direct link between the task and the status information at hand, paths of task relevance will be shorter and stronger, thereby generating more compelling expectations for performance (Berger et al., 1977).

Status characteristics theory posits that despite the fact that certain status characteristics may be unrelated to the task at hand, group members will form expectations through the spread of relevance process, and act as if the information is relevant. This phenomenon is described by status characteristics theory as the burden of proof, wherein the burden lies in demonstrating that the particular status characteristic is unrelated to the task (Wagner & Berger, 1997). Until such a relationship is established, group members will continue to act as if the status characteristic is relevant (Wagner & Berger, 1997).

Once a group member's status characteristics are salient, expectations for their performance are generated. These expectations are based upon a combination of diffuse and specific status information, whereby values attached to the particular state of the status characteristic that the person possesses, are aggregated (Berger et al., 1997). This aggregation of status information represents each person's level of ability or performance expectancy relative to the other group members. (Berger et al., 1997). A group member's performance expectancy determines their positioning, in, what is termed, the power and prestige order of the group (Berger et al., 1997). Those possessing higher performance expectancies will be more highly placed in the this order, and higher positioning entails certain advantages. These group members will have greater opportunities to perform, to initiate problem solving, to have their performances positively evaluated, to reject the influence of others once disagreements arise, and to influence others in the group (Berger et al., 1977).

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