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The term master status denotes a perceived social standing that has exceptional significance for individual identity, frequently shaping a person’s entire social experience. The concept is at least implied within the theoretical framework of structural functionalism, especially the work of Talcott Parsons who was predisposed toward using the expression in a normative sense. Here, master status is attached to the prestige relating to the individual’s primary social role. However, in the disciplines of sociology and social psychology, master status is a concept used more specifically in the field of deviance.
The principal development of the notion of a master status is usually attributed to the theories of Howard Becker, especially through his work Outsiders (1963). For Becker, a master status usually implies a negative connotation. It is related to the potential effects upon an individual of being openly labeled as deviant. In Becker’s analysis a deviant act only becomes deviant when social actors perceive and define it as such. It follows that deviants are those who are labeled as a result of these socio-psychological processes. A label is not neutral since it contains an evaluation of the person to whom it is attached. A major consequence of labeling is the formation of a master status surpassing and indeed contaminating all other statuses possessed by an individual. Other social actors subsequently appraise and respond to the labeled person in terms of the perceived attributes of the master status, thus assuming that he or she has the negative characteristics normally associated with such labels. Since individuals’ self-concepts are largely derived from the response of others, they are inclined to see themselves in terms of the label, perhaps engendering a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby the deviant’s identification with his or her master status becomes the controlling one.
The concept of master status has been further used in the area of deviance, including Jock Young’s (1971) survey of the implications of labeling ”hippie” marijuana users. However, it is probably in the seminal work of Erving Goffman where the concept has been used most effectively. The consequences of being labeled with a master status are analyzed by Goffman in terms of the effects of stigma upon self-conceptions. He focused, in particular, on the often vain struggle of the stigmatized to maintain self-respect and reputable public image by various coping strategies. This is taken further in his volume Asylums (1968), which explores the role of total institutions in the application of a stigmatized master status.
- Becker, H. (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. Free Press, New York.
- Goffman, E. (1968) Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
- Young, J. (1971) The role of the police as amplifiers of deviancy, negotiators of reality, and the translators of fantasy. In: Cohen, (ed.), Images of Deviance. Harmondsworth, Penguin, pp. 27-61.