A term devised by the American sociologist Gerhard Lenski (see ‘Status Crystallization: A Non-Vertical Dimension of Status’, American Sociological Review, 1954). Lenski argues that inconsistencies in status attributes lead to status ambiguity which in turn creates social tension. However, the concept itself does not refer to attitudes and expectations, but to the felt status incongruence. It was left to later writers (such as George Homans) to take such notions as status crystallization and status integration, combine them with the concepts of relative deprivation and reference groups, and in this way show their relevance for broader debates about social justice.
Subsequently, in the work of East European sociologists such as Wlodzimierz Wesolowski (see Classes, Strata and Power, 1966), status crystallization became the basis for a major school of social stratification. These authors took the indicators of status—such as occupational prestige, ethnicity, education, and income—and sought to measure the degree of crystallization (consistency or congruence); that is, whether or not individuals, roles, or groups were being ranked consistently across a range of status criteria, with high salaries attached to high-prestige occupations, and so forth. Crystallization could have consequences for role conflict, mental health, and social tension, particularly if awareness of status inconsistency emerged.
This approach was adopted by sociologists in communist societies during the 1960s and 1970s, in the attempt to introduce research concerning the extent of social inequality under real socialism, without broaching the taboo question of social class. Their general argument was that, in post-revolutionary societies, social class in the Marxist sense had lost its determining power over life-chances, but that social positions comprising status attributes, although decomposed or decrystallized, could re-emerge in a status-consistent form. This would point to the resurgence of systematic or structured social stratification and ultimately lead to social closure.