In Sociology, Master status is the social position which is the primary identifying characteristic of an individual.
As a part of the society, we have many statuses attached to us, these may be acquired/ achieved- such as education, economic status, one’s occupational status-or it may be ascribed, something given to us by birth- ethnicity, race, caste, sex. The former may be subject to change depending on the historical context- poor may become rich and the rich may become poor-and the current social context, whereas the latter is relatively stable and unlikely to change over a period of time. At a given point we are a part of both ascribed as well as achieved status.
Out of the many statuses we identify with, we have one particular status, which is of the greatest importance to our standing in society. This status forms the basis of our identity as perceived by others, based on which they interact with us and behave towards us, it also forms the basis to a very large extent on how we perceive the world around us. This can be based on any status starting from and physical and mental abilities, our religion, race, sex, role as a mother, economic status, etc. The term ‘master status’ was first used by Everett Hughes in 1940s.
With every status come certain roles attached to them, e.g. a woman may be viewed as the caretaker and thus acquires the role of the mother. Based on the status we acquire in society, the master status may be given to us by others, which means it may be based on our skin color; e.g. an African- American living in the unites states, where racism is prevalent, may be viewed as a ‘black man’ before an individual having any other identity.
The master status may also be one that we attach to our self based either on the roles attached to our various statuses or an inner attribute. E.g. we often when asked to introduce ourselves say that ‘I am a girl’ or ‘I am a boy’, thus this becomes our master status and we attach every aspect of our lives to this, starting from how we behave in relation to the norms of the society to the kinds of rules we observe. Thus we can say that the role attached to the master status supersedes all the other roles that are attached to us.
Further, the master status may bring prestige, this will be the case if the status is desired, e.g. belonging to a higher caste, or being white. Or it may be stigmatized, this is usually negative and may arise from a choice that we have made, like breaking the law, or by the virtue of being a part of a status group ascribed to us by birth e.g. belonging to a lower caste, being black, being a woman. Such stigma will also entail discrimination based on this master status.
The master status may change from being desired to being stigmatized based on our choices and vice versa. Moreover, the concept of role conflict becomes especially important here, as this may create a situation of inconsistency among the various status one acquires. Role conflict is nothing but a situation of dilemma that is posed on an individual when their roles place incompatible demands on him/her. E.g. A woman may be a mother as well as working at the same time, she may not be able to devote enough time at home looking after her children, and thus is torn between finishing her work and devoting time to her family, this is role conflict. In such a case if the master status of the woman is that of a mother then the expectation from here would be to leave her work and take care of her children, creating a status inconsistency and making her choose.
Thus the master status plays an extremely important role in shaping one’s identity and how they perceive the world and in turn how the world perceives them.