Expectation States Theory Essay

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Expectation states theory is a set of related theories concerned with processes by which actors draw information from their social and cultural environment and organize that information into expectation states that determine their interaction with others. Together with research testing these theories and other research applying them to problems in everyday interaction (such as interracial interaction in schools), expectation states theory constitutes a theoretical research program.

The earliest work in the program (called power and prestige theory) considers how actors develop expectations in groups where there are no significant social or cultural differences among the group members. However, the largest branch of the program is status characteristics theory, which is concerned with groups in which actors initially differ on such status distinctions as gender, race, or occupational positions. Status characteristics theory explains how such status distinctions consistently determine expectations and power and prestige behaviors in task groups, whether or not the distinction is related to the group’s task.

Basically, the theory argues that the powerful effect of such statuses is based on the activation in the group of cultural beliefs about these status distinctions. A coherent set of such beliefs defines a diffuse status characteristic (D). For example, gender may be a D for an actor if, for that actor: (1) men are in general more highly valued than women, (2) men are seen as more mechanically skilled than women, and (3) men are seen as more capable at tasks in general than women. These beliefs become salient in a group if D is relevant to the group’s task (e.g., the task is believed to favor males or females) or if D is a basis of discrimination in the group (as in a mixed-gender group). Even a D that is initially not relevant to the task will normally become relevant, unless its relevance is challenged or it is dissociated from the task. Status advantages thus tend to generalize from situation to situation. If new actors enter the group, the original group members add status information about the new actor to their previously processed information. If multiple status characteristics become relevant to the group’s task, actors combine the information in these characteristics (i.e. whether they imply success or failure at the task and how relevant they are to the task) in forming expectations for themselves and the others. Finally, once actors have formed expectations for self and others, their observable power and prestige behaviors (i.e. initiation and receipt of interaction, evaluations of performance, and influence) are determined by these expectations.

The arguments and consequences of status characteristics theory have been supported by extensive empirical studies. In addition, the theory has been applied to a broad range of status distinctions including gender, race, ethnic identities, educational attainment, occupational position, sexual orientation, physical attractiveness, and the status structures of work teams.

Over the years the expectation states program has grown in a variety of different ways.


  • Berger, J., Fisek, M. H., Norman, R. Z., & Zelditch, M., Jr. (1977) Status Characteristics and Social Interaction: An Expectation States Approach. Elsevier, New York.

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