Ascribed characteristics

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Ascribed characteristics, as used in the social sciences, refer to properties of an individual, over which that individual has very little, if any, control. Typical examples include race, ethnicity, gender, caste, height, and sexual orientation. The term is more or less equally apt for characteristics chiefly caused by "nature" (e.g. genetics) and for those chiefly caused by "nurture" (e.g. parenting during early childhood).

The term is often used in discussions of how people with a certain ascribed characteristic are systematically treated differently than other members of society, in a way that is perceived as unfair. Thus the study of racism can be seen, at least superficially, as the study of the ways that people with a certain skin color and cultural background are systematically mistreated by society at large.

Many heated arguments stem from disagreements over whether or not a given trait is "really" an ascribed characteristic. For example, many people who find homosexuality morally objectionable may attempt to justify this by insisting that homosexuals make a conscious choice about the nature of the sexual desire they experience, as they would find it difficult to condemn homosexuality if they accepted that it were entirely determined, either genetically or from early childhood. (See Sexual orientation.)

Of course, the complications of the issue are myriad. For example, consider the discussion in chapter 10 of Ronald Dore's British Factory, Japanese Factory, in which Dore inquires into whether hiring and promotion decisions in the Japanese firm Hitachi over a particular time were based chiefly on "achievement" or chiefly on "ascribed characteristics". The context of the discussion implies, as is often implied, that achievement-based decisions are good, while those based on ascribed characteristics are bad. His discussion nonetheless admits, part explicitly, part implicitly, that there are several complications to this moral judgement, including:

  • Some achievement characteristics are positively correlated with some ascribed characteristics. For example, "the power to command...may be much more likely to be bred in upper class families". To the extent that "the power to command" is viewed as a measure of merit, promotion decisions favoring high merit would not be entirely distinguishable from making promotion decisions favoring high class. Thus, it can be difficult, in real life, to tell whether a particular promotion decision has been made for just or unjust reasons.
  • You can "irrelevantly [acquire] discriminatory characteristics", and even do so on purpose. For example, you can convert to a new religion, or get married. Most people agree that discrimination based on ascribed characteristics is bad, but is it really any worse to discriminate based on these traits which, though not ascribed, still shouldn't affect performance?
  • It is reasonable to view even some ascribed characteristics as factors that should affect employee compensation. In Hitachi, for example, pay is positively correlated both with performance and with age. The latter is an ascribed characteristic, but Dore suggests that it is a perfectly reasonable consideration, especially since expenses such as childcare tend to increase over the duration of employment at Hitachi.

As if this weren't complex enough, Dore also points out that what counts as an ascribed characteristic can vary depending on context. In evaluating the fairness of hiring standards, he views an applicant's success in the educational system as a good approximation of achievement. Thus, he notes that hiring decisions at Hitachi, during the time of his study, were "regulated by very strict qualification standards", and not very significantly influenced by ascribed characteristics. When he turns to evaluate opportunities for advancement within the firm, however, Dore notes that "educational qualifications...limit the range of posts which one can achieve". That is, even if one's level of achievement increases, one may still be kept down by a relative lack of achievement in the educational system. Thus, in investigating opportunities for promotions, educational achievement "become[s] another form of ascribed characteristic."


  • Dore, Ronald (1973). "Two Employment Systems", chapter 10 of British Factory, Japanese Factory. Berkeley: University of California Press. (The discussion above is based almost exclusively on pp. 270--272, including footnote 4. Ascribed Characteristics are not the chief subject of this chapter.)

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