Master Status

July 23, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Disability is often a “master status.”*  The term was coined by Everett Hughes seventy years ago to indicate a characteristic that, from the perspective of other people, floods out other aspects of a person’s identity.   

Last week’s “This American Life” provided an excellent example.  The story was about an actress and dancer – Mary Archbold - whose left arm ends at the elbow.  She was born that way.   Outside the house, she wears a prosthesis, and though it is hard plastic and cannot do anywhere near what a real arm can do, she is able to keep other people from realizing that she does not have two normal arms. 

And that’s the way she likes it – mostly because she is acutely aware of the master-status problem.  Here is the audio clip (it runs less than two minutes), followed by the transcript.

IRA GLASS: Is that moment [when you reveal to others] a moment of horror or a moment of pride?

MARY ARCHBOLD: Half and half. There’s the horror of: What reaction is it going to be? And then there’s the quiet pride that maybe you saw me as me before you saw me as an actor with a disability.

IRA: You feel like those two things are contradictory?

MARY: [Immediately] Yes.

IRA: I’m not sure I understand that. It’s like you’re saying you want them to see you. But you includes the fact that you have only one full arm.

MARY: True. But it’s not my leading characteristic. And often times when people find it out first, that’s sort of how they describe me. I’m like categorized “one-arm Mary.”

IRA: But everyone when you see them, you see some superficial thing – their hair or the way they’re dressed or their age whatever it is, their race whatever it is, and they get classified . . .

MARY: And I’d be happy to be classified among any other things. You can call me “the short girl,” you can call me “the brunette girl,” you can call me “the blue-eyed girl” – whatever you want to say. Just not “the disabled girl.” . . . . . And because I am a performer, it’s sort of a professional necessity, ’cause otherwise the only role I’ll be called in for is “wounded vet who just came home from Afghanistan.” And this way, I get called in for “housewife,” I get called in for “mom.”

The entire episode of TAL illustrates other sociological and psychological principles as well.  The Mary Archbold segments (one with the title “There’s Something About Mary”) take up only 13 minutes, and they could easily be used as a companion piece if you’re teaching Goffman (especially Stigma).

*Hughes was using the old status/role distinction.  Look in almost any introductory sociology text, and you will read that “status” refers to the position in a social system while “role” refers to the expected behaviors of someone in that position. “Brother” and “sister” are statuses; the behaviors we expect (sharing certain chores, giving Christmas gifts, etc.) are part of the role. 

However, if you listen to sociologists any time except when they are delivering the intro lecture on role, they use role to refer to both the position and the behaviors.  Just as we say that someone is in the role of Lady Macbeth, referring both to her position in the play and the things she will do and say, we refer to  “the role of sister,” not the “status” of sister. 

As for “status,” except for the intro lecture and surviving coinages like “master status,”  sociologists speak of “status” almost exclusively to refer to hierarchical position, usually socio-economic status.


Bob S. said...

Interesting post.

Care to discuss how it relates to the previous post about gun control?

What is the master status in the Aurora murderer's case? Gun owner, evil or insane?

S.Horrmann said...

Jay Livingston! Thanks so much for your comments regarding Master Status.

I share the same issue with Mary...mine is right arm. As a result, hiding in plain sight is much more challenging, as you might imagine, hand shaking etc. Still, I've done it for years.

As a social worker I learned about MS in school. As a small child I understood it viscerally, as a result of others behavior. The only way to avoid that.... was to appear normal.

Ira just couldn't seem to understand how one could pull this off. It's not that difficult..after all I've had a lifetime to perfect it. People often see what they expect to see.

In the blink of an eye one can move from attractive woman, to non-entity. There's no going back from that.