Status, Power, Inequalities, and Competition for Upward Mobility

The other day, my daughter and I were discussing the topic of power as it relates to "the way things are." I relayed to her that some people have power and it usually benefits them; as such, they take steps to maintain that power. This comes in the form of making rules, supporting some things and not others, creating norms of behavior, and so on. She nodded, either because she understood, was trying to be polite, or was just hoping I would stop talking. (I will assume the first). 

I was reminded of this conversation when I read a recent study from Nicholas Hays and Corinee Bendersky.* Rather than studying how people maintain inequalities, the authors examined ways in which people challenge it. They focuses on inequality among two dimensions: status and power. The consider status as "the relative level of respect and admiration one is conferred by others" while power refers to "asymmetrical control over socially valued resources." 

These differences are important because they are related to the degree to which one believes inequality can be changed. If a person is lacks status, that standing might be changeable because status is a socially agreed upon construct or level of standing. If one lacks power, she or he also lacks control over resources, and this might be considered tougher to change. 

The authors conducted seven studies to examine this general line of reasoning. They observed that people in low status positions did believe their relative standing was changeable and as a result, engaged in more competitive behaviors to change this situation. On the other hand, people who lacked power and control over resources were less likely to adopt this position and were equally unlikely to engage in competitive behaviors to improve their standing. 

in many situations, status and power are conflated--that is, if you have one, you likely have the other. But, this is not always the case. Thus, the findings inform how people with low status within a given setting, such as members of minority groups, can can and do engage in behaviors to alter this situation. As the authors note: "status is best described as a social resource that can be claimed, negotiated,m gained, and lost rather than the product of immutable attributes of individuals."


Hays, N. A., & Bensersky, C. (2015). Not all inequality od created equal: Effects of status versus power hierarchies on competition for upward mobility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108, 867-882.