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Ascription vs. Achievement in Middle East & North Africa Report

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Updated: Jul 6th, 2021


The focus of this study was to analyze the value that people attach to status earned through achievement versus that acquired through ascription. The researcher collected data from primary and secondary sources. The findings show that many people in the Middle East and North Africa attach more value to an ascribed power. People from royal families are respected for who they are irrespective of their capabilities. On the other hand, western countries attach great significance to what people can or have achieved when defining their status. The conclusion made emphasizes the need to reconcile the two approaches to determining an individual’s position. As society assigns status based on the core competencies of an individual, it is necessary to respect the influence that comes with an ascribed power of a person.


The concepts of achievement and ascription are two extremes when describing the positions and roles of people in an organizational setting. According to Hamerstone and Musser Hough (2013), the concepts often present a dilemma in management when it is not clear whether the emphasis should be placed on ascribed or achieved positions. Achieved status is gained through consistent work and clear demonstration of the capacity to accomplish specific goals. The achievers believe they can climb the social ladder through commitment and consistent improvement of core competencies. On the other hand, ascribed status is achieved through being a member or part of a given family or organization. To earn an ascribed position, one does not necessarily need to go through extensive training in a given field. A close relationship between a job applicant and a business owner may be the main qualification that one needs to be in the top management position. Such an individual may become a leader of people with impressive academic backgrounds even if he or she has a basic education. Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner (1998) observe that the situation causes a serious dilemma in the management process. Depending on the culture that is embraced within a given organization, emphasis may be placed on ascribed or achieved status. In this paper, the researcher was interested in determining whether the modern Emirati society leans more towards ascription or achievement when assigning status to individuals.

Literature Review

Understanding the Concepts of Ascription and Achievement

The status that is accorded to a given person is often based on two main factors. The first factor is the ascribed status. It depends on the place which a person holds in society. It is no matter what they have done to earn such a position (Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner, 1998). In the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan is considered the crown prince, not because of the training and achievements earned within the country, but by the virtue of being the son of the king.

The same case is witnessed in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where the crown prince is highly regarded and considered to be the next leader of the country. The ascribed status is not only common in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region but also in other parts of the world as well. Sasha and Malia Obama, the two daughters of former United States President Barrack Obama, have earned celebrity status in the world at large not because of what they have achieved but because of who they are. In the United Kingdom, Price Henry enjoys an envious position because of being a member of the royal family. As Hamerstone and Musser Hough (2013) note, one does not need to have extraordinary capabilities to earn an ascribed position in society or an organizational setting.

The achieved position, on the other hand, is earned through hard work, commitment, consistency, and achievement of great results. Positioned earned through achievement requires acts and decisions that the society considers admirable (Bovens & Wille, 2017). Taking the same case of former President Barrack Obama can help in demonstrating how one can earn status through achievement. Before getting into politics, the former president was not known to many people in his community. However, he started getting actively involved in community work to improve the status of those living in deplorable conditions because of financial constraints. He got into elective politics, became a senator from Illinois, and soon became the president. He earned a unique and admirable position in the country. He has remained a highly regarded person because of his achievements. Leading businessmen such as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Bill Gates of Microsoft Corporation, and Steve Jobs of Apple Inc are some of the world leaders who earned their envious positions because of their achievements. Their statuses have little to do with who they were before gaining fame but what they achieved.

Status through Achievement versus Status through Ascription

According to Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner (1998), most traditions around the world conformed to ascription as a way of assigning a status to individuals. Most of the empires and kingdoms around the world passed on leadership from a father to the son, and it was considered an effective way of maintaining stability. The importance of an individual was always determined by who they were in society. However, the wave of modernization and emergence of democracy in various parts of the world is bringing a change in the approach to leadership and status in society. It is now possible for people to work their way from the lowest social status to the highest level based on their achievements at every stage (Maranga, 2013).

Ascription is still a common way of assigning a status to an individual in almost every part of the world. It explains why in many societies, including the western countries and developing nations in Africa and parts of Asia, people maintain the surnames of their most successful parents or great-grandparents. The Rockefeller family has maintained the surname to the fourth generation, and the trend may continue as long as the name remains prestigious. It gives them a sense of security and admiration in a society that places a lot of value on factors such as one’s background and level of success. In the United Arab Emirates, the top political leadership is hereditary. These leaders, although not democratically elected, have transformed this nation into an economic powerhouse in the region. The city of Dubai is currently one of the top global business hubs and tourist destinations because of its initiatives (Bovens & Wille, 2017).

Achieved status has largely been associated with progressive societies, though that does not mean societies leaning towards ascription are not progressive, as Slonim (2014) explains. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin are some of the world’s worst dictators who many still regard with contempt because of their actions and decisions they made while in power (Maranga, 2013). However, when one analyzes their path towards leadership without paying serious attention to their evil deeds while in power, they are a perfect demonstration of how people can achieve great status in society.

Both of them had a humble background and worked their ways through their country’s leadership, overcoming numerous obstacles, to the apex. Adolf Hitler, at the height of his reign, became the most feared and powerful leader in the world. Without the united force of the leading world powers, especially the effort made by the United States, he and his Nazi Germany would have conquered entire Europe and possibly the world (Maranga, 2013). Joseph Stalin on his side managed to transform the Soviet Union from a nation of peasants to an industrial country that became a superpower at the end of the Second World War (Bovens & Wille, 2017). Some transformative leaders such as Margret Thatcher of the United Kingdom, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, and Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin Group have demonstrated the power of leadership achieved through one’s accomplishments.


When conducting this research, it was important to gather relevant data from various sources to support the conclusion of the study. The researcher collected data from two main sources. The first source of data came from a review of the literature. Slonim (2014) observes that information from the literature review provides background information that forms a basis for the research. It eliminates repetitive information by identifying knowledge gaps that require further investigation. It explains why the researcher spent some time reviewing relevant secondary sources of data to inform the study. The information was collected from books and journal articles in this field. Reliable online sources also provided important insight into the study. Information obtained from these sources formed the background of the literature review. These sources were also used to support the argument of the researcher throughout the paper.

The second source of data came from a sampled population of respondents. A survey was used to collect information from a sample of respondents. The researcher identified 24 participants to take part in this study. A stratified sampling technique was used to identify the participants. The first stratum had 12 Emirati women aged between 18 to 25 years. The second stratum had 12 non-Emirati women living within the country of the same age group as the first stratum. In each of the two strata, the participants were randomly selected as long as they qualified to be in the desired class. They were informed about the relevance of the study and the importance of their participation. The researcher prepared a list of questions that were structured using the Lickert scale (strongly disagree, disagree, not sure, agree, and strongly agree). The following are the statements that were presented to the participants to rate based on whether they agree or disagree with them:

  1. The most important thing in life is to think and act in ways that best suit the person you really are, even if you do not get things done.
  2. The respect a person gets is highly dependent on the family out of which they come.
  3. Family wealth decides an individual’s future
  4. When someone is born, the success they are going to have is already in the cards, so they might as well accept it and not fight against it.
  5. I describe myself in terms of my accomplishments rather than my family and relationships.

It is important to note that a strong agreement with the first four questions is an indication of a person leaning towards ascription. Strong approval of the fifth question is an indication that one is leaning towards achievement as a way of gaining status in society.


The responses obtained from the sampled participants were statically analyzed to determine the orientation of the two groups of people who took part in the study. The researcher was interested in determining whether they valued the ascription of status over achievement or vice versa. The participants were requested to state how they accord status based on the two approaches. Their response was coded and analyzed mathematically using an excel spreadsheet. Figure 1 below shows their response.

How to accord status.
Fig. 1. How to accord status.

The response shows that 80% of Emirati women lean towards ascription when determining the status of people in society. About 60% of them noted that achievement was also important in the society and organizational setting. On the other hand, 75% of non-Emirati women believe that achievement is the best way of determining the status of a person in society or within a company. 58% of these women noted that ascription could not be ignored when determining the social status of an individual. The overall outcome of the primary data analysis shows that Emirati women tend to lean towards ascription while non-Emirati women lean towards the achievement approach.


The approach that society takes in assigning an individual a given status may vary and can broadly be classified into two categories. According to Hamerstone and Musser Hough (2013), people can get their status based on who they are in society. The approach emphasizes the background of an individual and a position is earned by being a member of a respectable family or group. The actions of an individual may have little impact on defining the respect and admiration that society has towards the person. Society may also assign an individual a specific status based on what they have achieved. In this approach, who the person is would be given little importance. The main focus is what they have and can achieve in a given social setting. Their value is directly attached to the benefits they have to their society.

The Conflicting Cultures

The two cultural perspectives of assigning a status to an individual are often conflicting. A person who is purely achievement-oriented will give a total disregard to the background of an individual and primarily focus on the capabilities. For instance, a chief executive officer may not treat the son of a business owner with preference when selecting a regional manager. The son may be one of the applicants to the position, but the top manager will base the decision on the qualifications of the candidates. It means that despite the background of the son that may offer him a competitive advantage over other applicants, the manager will make the selection on a pure basis of core competencies. In case other applicants have better qualifications, they will be considered for the position. In case this relative has a superior qualification, he will get the job. Once hired, an achievement-oriented manager will focus on the performance of junior officers, paying little attention to who they are related to, in the society or an organization. Slonim (2014) says that this approach of assigning personality is common in western countries, especially in Europe and North America. Most of the respected people in these regions such as Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Bill Clinton, Christiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Muhammad Ali earned their status through their commitment, hard work, and competencies.

An ascription-oriented person highly values the social background of an individual. The competency of that individual may not matter as long as they come from powerful families. People from respected backgrounds are accorded unique status in the society irrespective of how competent they are in meeting the needs of their community. A manager who is ascription-oriented will always be keen to meet the demands of the family of the business owner. Such an executive understands that these family members wield a unique influence in the firm and their decisions can have a significant bearing. The culture is more common in the MENA region than in any other place in the world. In the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom, people ascend to the top political leadership based on who they are and not what they can achieve.

Reconciling the Two Cultures

It is crucial to have a reconciliation of the two extremes when looking at the status that one should be accorded in a given social setting. According to Hamerstone and Musser Hough (2013), modern society is increasingly embracing the achievement approach over ascription. The world is getting extremely competitive almost in every respect. Dubai has become one of the most preferred destinations for tourists around the world (Bovens & Wille, 2017). The city is also a top business hub in the region that attracts people from the Far East, Europe, North America, and Africa. It is a sign that its leadership has monitored and mastered the nature of competition in these fields and is registering splendid performance.

The capacity of an individual to accomplish a given task in the right manner and within the right time defines the status that the person is accorded in society. The social background, gender, race, religion, and many other such demographical factors are given less priority when determining an individual who is most qualified to undertake a given responsibility. However, Slonim (2014) warns that as society moves towards an achievement-oriented approach of defining status, the ascription approach of earning respect in society cannot be ignored. The son of a business owner has immense influence in defining the decisions of the father whose wish may be to hand over the empire to the next generation. As the chief executive officer strives to make independent decisions focused on achieving the best success, the influence of the powerful family members and friends should not be dismissed.


The status that a person enjoys in society can be earned through hard work and commitment, or acquired on the basis of an individual’s background. People from royal families have admirable social status based on who they are in society. On the other hand, others achieve greatness based on what they do. The study shows that people from western countries tend to be achievement-oriented while those from the MENA region tend to be ascription-oriented. The study suggests that although the achievement-oriented status is increasingly becoming superior, one should not ignore the immense influence that ascribed power has within a given social setting. While it may necessary to restrict the freedom that family members enjoy in a given organization because of the possible negative consequences, the top manager should always be respectful and considerate to these individuals because of their ascribed influence.


Bovens, M., & Wille, A. (2017). Diploma democracy: The rise of political meritocracy. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Hamerstone, J., & Musser Hough, L. (2013). A woman’s framework for a successful career and life. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Maranga, K. (2013). Indigenous people and the roles of culture, law and globalization: Comparing the Americas, Asia-Pacific, and Africa. Boca Raton, FL: Universal Publishers.

Slonim, T. (2014). The polyvagal theory: Neuropsychological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, & self-regulation. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy, 64(4), 593-600. Web.

Trompenaars, F., & Hampden-Turner, C. (1998). Riding the waves of culture: Understanding cultural diversity in business (2nd ed.). London, England: Nicholas Brealey Publishing Ltd.

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