In this post, Sarah Michele Ford examines how South African runner Oscar Pistorius can help us understand the sociological concept of status, including ascribed, achieved, and master statuses.
The headlines when we in the Western Hemisphere woke on Valentine’s Day were surprising.
“A Nation Reels as a Star Runner is Charged in Girlfriend’s Death”
“Olympian Oscar Pistorius charged with murder”
“‘Blade Runner’ Athlete Charged with Murder of Girlfriend”
Never fear, this isn’t going to be a blog post about yet another famous athlete gone bad. Instead, it’s about the adjectives used before his name. In these news articles, and many others, you find Oscar Pistorius described using terms like “Olympic and paralympic runner”, “BladeRunner”, and “Olympian”. Before Reeva Steenkamp’s death, and before the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, he was known as the double-amputee track star, the man who fought to prove that his carbon-fiber prosthetics didn’t give him an unfair advantage over runners relying on flesh-and-bone limbs. He was the guy who “lost” a race against a five-year-old girl wearing her own version of the legs he races on.
All of those adjectives are indicators of Oscar Pistorius’ status as a double amputee, as an elite athlete, and as an alleged murderer.
Sociologically speaking, a status is simply “a position in a social system”. It’s a social category that exists independent of the person or people that inhabit it; it’s a social box that people fit into. You are only one of many people inhabiting the status of “sociology student” and Oscar Pistorius is only one of many people inhabiting the statuses of “double amputee” and “Olympic athlete” (though he is the only person to inhabit both of those at once).
We can further break statuses down into two basic categories. Ascribed statuses are the ones that an individual inhabits just by virtue of their being; they’re the ones you can’t help having like sex, race, and sexuality. Achieved statuses, on the other hand, are the ones that an individual comes to inhabit on the basis of their own actions. It’s important to note here that while we use the term “achieved” here, it applies equally to statuses that the dominant culture would consider negative, such as “drug addict” or “high school dropout”. Finally, there are the statuses that override all others, the master statuses. These may be ascribed or achieved, and they are the statuses that are inescapable, the ones that outweigh all of our other statuses. They’re the adjectives that come before the name, like “President” or the statuses that people use first when describing a person (such as race for minorities).
So what does this all mean for Oscar Pistorius? Like all of us, he inhabits many different statuses – the familial ascribed statuses that we all do (child, sibling, etc.), as well the statuses pertaining to his gender (male) and race (caucasian). The reason that I, an American who isn’t all that interested in track and field, know who he is, though, is because of his master statuses. These revolve around one primary ascribed status – double amputee – and the way that he has pushed past the conventional amputee status to add to it the status of an elite athlete, able to compete successfully against “able-bodied” athletes at the highest levels. Now the question becomes, will “murderer” become his next master status?
Put another way, will the world remember this Oscar Pistorius, or this one?
- Write down a list of all the statuses you current have. You should be able to think of at least 10.
- Of your statuses, which are ascribed and which are achieved? Which are your master statuses?
- Under what circumstances might an individual shed (i.e. get rid of) an ascribed status? What about a master status?
- Think about some famous people with master statuses. Danica Patrick is often referred to as a Female Nascar driver. Pop star Adam Lambert was often referred to as the “gay American Idol”. President Barack Obama is often referred to as the first black president. Why might someone who is a social minority prefer to not have their minority status always proceed their accomplishments? Why might they appreciate it being recognized?
- Bennett-Smith, Meredith. 6 August 2012. “Ellie May Challis And Oscar Pistorious [sp] ‘Race’ In Inspiring Series of Newly Discovered Images” Huffington Post.
- Epstein, David. 4 August 2012. “Fair or foul? Experts split over whether Pistorius has advantage.” SportsIllustrated.com London 2012, Inside Track & Field.
- Gambrell, Jon and Gerald Imray. 14 February 2013. “Olympian Oscar Pistorius charged with murder”. Associated Press.
- Polgren, Lydia. 14 February 2013. “A Nation Reels as a Star Runner is Charged in Girlfriend’s Death.” The New York Times.
- Quist-Arcton, Ofeibea. 14 February 2013. “‘Blade Runner’ Athlete Charged with Murder of Girlfriend” NPR: All Things Considered.