A hierarchy is any ranking of objects into grades, orders, or classes of increasing dominance or inclusiveness. As a social phenomenon, hierarchy is a specific type of social organization in which members are divided by status or especially authority. Early use restricted the concept to sacred rankings of heavenly bodies (e.g., orders of angels) or ecclesiastical and religious rule. Indeed, in his master-work Economy and Society, the German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) first distinguished between political and hierocratic organizations, limiting the latter to those entities with a monopoly of psychic coercion in distributing or denying religious benefits. Contemporary usage refers to any status or authority ranking based on traditional or religious beliefs and customs, formal-legal rules, or persistent inequalities.
Although contested, many scholars believe that humans, like other primates, are hierarchical animals who innately create social rankings within groups. Less contested is that humans throughout history have formed many social hierarchies, ranging from family, tribe, and clan groupings to genders, classes, and castes, to city-states, empires, and nation-states, to bureaucratic organizations including corporations, guilds, unions, political parties, and other civic associations.
Although particular forms differ, all hierarchies are comprised of relationships of superiority-inferiority or domination-subordination. On a daily basis, each individual in a modern society is likely to be a member of several distinct hierarchies with multiple and overlapping jurisdictions. One can simultaneously be a dominant member of a family from a “lower” class and a union leader, subject to the laws of the state in all these roles.
As these examples suggest, hierarchy is ubiquitous in social life. No definitive enumeration of types or forms is possible. At the same time, hierarchy is not universal. Many relationships are carried out between more or less equals, including interactions within peer or friendship networks, transactions in the marketplace, and diplomatic exchanges between great powers in international politics.
Hierarchy is not only varied but dynamic, evolving in form and extent. Although the historical trajectory has not been smooth and unidirectional, hierarchy appears to have deepened in scope and expanded in range over time, and especially in the modern era. With the rise of the nation-state as the encompassing form of hierarchy in the twentieth century, and the deepening of the division of labor within and between societies, greater areas of social life are now more clearly organized by rank and authority than in the past. This trend is challenged in the twenty-first century by globalization, the Internet, and various transnational social networks, all of which carry the potential for alternative, nonhierarchical forms of social organization. Whether these developments signal a long-term change in trajectory or merely a short-term oscillation in the degree of hierarchy remains a subject of debate.
Early understandings of the origins and rules of hierarchy were often functionalist, positing that hierarchies form to solve collective problems within societies. Perhaps best known among these early approaches is Robert Michaels’s “iron law of oligarchy,” which posited that the division of labor within organizations combines with the self-interest of organization elites to produce hierarchy even within bodies that pursue egalitarian goals ( 1958). Subsequent scholars have rendered this “law” a contingent tendency, but the forces first identified by Michaels remain important in our understanding of hierarchy.
Contemporary theories of hierarchy can be grouped into three principal schools. Psychological theories ground the ubiquity of social hierarchy in human nature. Associated with the work of James Sidanius and his colleagues, social dominance theory is, perhaps, the most prominent psychological approach today, largely because its multilevel approach avoids many of the problems of strictly individual-level theories. Like authoritarian personality theory and other individual approaches, social dominance theory posits a social dominance orientation that, although universal, varies across the human population and expresses the value people place on hierarchically structured relationships among social groups. Social dominance orientation, in turn, interacts with context-specific institutions and ideologies to produce age, gender, and “arbitrary-set” hierarchies that take the form of clan, ethnic, caste, class or other socially constructed types of discrimination. Although providing a persuasive synthesis of a tendency towards hierarchy in all nonsubsistence societies, social dominance theory lacks a well-developed mechanism for explaining intra- and intersocietal differences in the degree of group-based hierarchy.
The other two main approaches to hierarchy seek to explain precisely the differences in the forms and extent of hierarchy. The contractual perspective dates most clearly from Oliver Williamson’s path-breaking Markets and Hierarchies (1975). In a world of costly contracts that fail to specify obligations in all possible future states of the world, Williamson posited, self-seeking actors will tend to form hierarchies when one, but not both, of the parties to a recurring transaction possesses relationally specific assets—or assets that are worth considerably more within that relationship than in their next best use. An example would be a producer of specialized components for a particular brand of automobile. By placing the transactions under unified ownership, and subjecting them to administrative controls (dominance), the incentives of the parties to act opportunistically toward one another are greatly reduced. By internalizing transactions within a hierarchy, actors give up the information and discipline that is otherwise provided by market competition, but reduce the likelihood that they will be exploited by partners. Thus, Williamson and his many followers predict that the producer of specialized components will be subsumed within the automotive firm into a corporate hierarchy. In the absence of relationally specific assets or frequent exchanges, in contrast, actors will prefer to transact “at arm’s length” in a market. When both parties have relationally specific assets, they hold “mutual hostages” and can coexist effectively in long-term, bilateral, and non-hierarchical relationships. This key insight on hierarchies as solutions to the problem of incomplete contracting in the presence of relationally specific assets has been extended from firms and economic exchange to bureaucracies and other managerial hierarchies, as well as to the analysis of empires, alliances, federal states, international organizations, and a variety of other institutions.
The distributional school lacks a single defining work, but generally understands hierarchies as emerging from initial inequalities between individuals or groups and, then, reinforcing those inequalities to produce an even more highly stratified society. Like the contractual approach, this school conceives of hierarchy as largely negotiated, albeit often under duress and possibly under threat of coercion, between actors who accept a subordinate status in exchange for access to the economic surplus possessed by the would-be superior. In the “big man” societies of Melanesia, for example, individuals acquire status and authority by using their comparative advantage in hunting, gardening, ritual knowledge, or violence to accumulate a material surplus, which they then redistribute to needy villagers. Often pressed to appeal to the big man by unexpected downturns in fortune, the supplicants become followers or subordinates in an informal village hierarchy. Over time, or once embedded into some religious or ideological frame, these relations of inequality become accepted or “normalized” into legitimate rule, with big men or perhaps their sons turning into “chiefs” at some later date. Similar hierarchies unfolded in early monarchies and empires, on the one hand, and in modern capitalist societies, on the other.
A contractual approach understands hierarchy as constructed to prevent possible opportunism, whereas the distributional approach posits that hierarchy emerges from actual inequality and exploitation. Despite this apparent tension, the two schools are actually complementary. Within the distributional approach, subordinates are understood to be locked into hierarchies by the material benefits provided by the superior; although perhaps driven by necessity to appeal to the dominant party for assistance, the subordinates are better off than they would be otherwise, absent that aid. In turn, the benefits of reduced opportunism provide the superior with the economic surplus necessary to assist subordinates while making himself better off as well. This exchange of goods for status and authority, what Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) first called “compulsory cooperation,” provides the glue that holds social hierarchies together. Yet, to understand hierarchy as a bargain of sorts that leaves the parties to an agreement better off than they would otherwise be in an anarchic state of nature—where life would be, as Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) famously described it, “short, nasty, and brutish”—is not to accept that inequalities of status or resources are fixed and immutable or cannot be made more equal. The history of social struggle is largely one of subordinates claiming a greater and possibly equal share of the social benefits produced by hierarchy. To the extent that hierarchy is an enduring feature of human life, social struggle will persist as well.
SEE ALSO Caste; Community Power Studies; Elites; Michels, Robert; Oligarchy, Iron Law of; Power Elite; Psychology; Social Dominance Orientation; Spencer, Herbert; Stratification
Diehl, Michael W., ed. 2000. Hierarchies in Action: Cui Bono?. Occasional Paper 27. Carbondale: Center for Archaeological Investigations, Southern Illinois University.
Lake, David A. 1996. Anarchy, Hierarchy, and the Variety of International Relations. International Organization 50 (1): 1–33.
Michaels, Robert.  1958. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchic Tendencies of Modern Democracy. Trans. Eden Paul and Cedar Paul. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
Williamson, Oliver E. 1975. Markets and Hierarchies: Analysis and Antitrust Implications. New York: Free Press.
David A. Lake
It is well established in sociology that, since time immemorial, societies have cultivated and sustained hierarchies of power, privilege, and prestige. Before the turn of the twentieth century Max Weber (1864–1920) posited that with the development of capitalism and modernity, such hierarchies would come to be institutionalized in bureaucracies and justified by a legal-rational mind-set. Weber's description of bureaucracy, with its hierarchical chain of command, was grounded in his observation of the Prussian army, a clearly and exclusively male organization. Thus, his theory of bureaucracy, upon which all subsequent bureaucracy theory and research has been based, contains this gender bias. With the exception of the studies of grassroots, collectivist-democratic organizations that began to come to print in the late 1970s, the entire multidisciplinary field of organizational theory and behavior emanating from departments of sociology, political science, management, and public administration can be said to be an extensive elaboration of Weber's original theory of bureaucracy, which included an ideal typical exposition of its characteristic features and an explanation for its spread and permanent nature in all modern societies. The gender bias in the hundred-year study of bureaucracy and hierarchy since then emanates from its beginnings.
However, ever since the consciousness-raising groups of the 1960s and 1970s that marked the beginning of the contemporary women's movement, feminists have been developing a challenge to hierarchical relations and their manifestation in bureaucracy. Key to the feminist case against bureaucracy is an understanding of how women end up subjugated in hierarchal control structures (Ferguson 1984) and how gender-based inequities of treatment have been the outcome in both industrial and service sectors of the economy and cross-nationally. In addition, Acker (1990) has shown how bureaucracy theory itself rests on masculine images and biases and urges organizational scholars to explore these further, while searching for alternative, less hierarchal modes of organization.
The search for a way out of women's relegation to the lower rungs of organizational hierarchies has taken three tacks: First, many researchers have examined various social movement activities that have tried to achieve greater gender equality at the organizational level.
A second and rich vein of research has searched, not for how women might improve their lot in existing hierarchal structures, but for how women might create alternative organizations that would eliminate hierarchies of skill, influence, and privilege. In this regard, many examples have been found, and over the last decades of the twentieth century thousands of grassroots feminist enterprises were built along self-managing and democratic lines.
Based upon Kathy Ferguson's (1984) argument that feminism and bureaucracy are incompatible and on Joyce Rothschild-Whitt's (1979) conception of a collectivist-democratic form of organization that could stand as an alternative to bureaucracy, many researchers have asked whether there is an empirical connection between feminist values and collectivist-democratic organizational structures. For example, feminist beliefs were translated into egalitarian and democratic innovations in the National Women's Studies Association studied by Robin Leidner (1991) and in the numerous feminist collectivist organizations in Quebec studied by Jennifer Beeman, et al (2005). The rape crisis centers and battered women's shelters studied by Nancy Matthews (1994) and Claire Reinelt (1994), respectively, continued to use many collectivist, anti-hierarchal practices even after they received state support for their organizations. Kathleen Iannello (1992) found many feminist organizations that are developing a process of consensus-based decision-making that she calls "modified consensus," which allows them to make decisions without hierarchy but also without the requirement of unanimous approval. Darcy Leach (2006) finds that the contemporary movement organizations in Germany assume a collectivist-democratic form, but still vary in terms of how they go about resolving conflicting points of view. Additionally, some of the American communes like Twin Oaks have developed some creative devices to overcome hierarchy and achieve equality in both work and gender relations (Rothschild and Tomchin 2006).
Not all studies, however, have found a direct correlation between feminist beliefs and the development of egalitarian or democratic practices. Sherryl Kleinman (1996), for example, finds that gender-based inequalities of influence persist even in a feminist health center she studied. In a study of 113 women's non-profit organizations in New York City, Rebecca Bordt (1997) challenges whether the previously asserted affinity between feminist ideology and collectivism exists, finding that organizations with an unspecified feminist ideology are more than twice as likely to be bureaucratic as collectivist. Bordt argues that most of these organizations present a hybrid, blending both professional and collectivist elements into one. Similarly, Sarah Oerton (1996) finds little reason to believe that work in flatter organizations will improve women's position in workplace hierarchies. Given the existence of these anomalous findings, more research is needed on the circumstances that can give rise to more egalitarian and less hierarchal organizational forms and on the specific effects more democratic structures may have on the material position of women and on power relations at the organizational level.
A third vein of scholarship looks at bureaucratic workplaces that are developing flatter team structures from within. Self-managing teams are spreading, particularly in engineering, manufacturing, and service enterprises. The research question is whether these new teams can bring about a new division of labor in which workplace decisions are made on an egalitarian footing, competencies are cross-trained, and tasks can be rotated and shared on a gender-equal basis.
One study of a team structure in a bank setting indicates the positive potential teams may have for cross training and thus upgrading the skills of those who previously occupied the lower rungs of the organizational hierarchy (Smith 1996). Another study of teams, also in a bank context, suggests that men in technical professions may be not very interested in learning what they see as the content of "women's work," presenting a major obstacle to egalitarian relations arising out of team work (Ollilainen and Rothschild 2001). The jury is still out on whether these new team structures within corporate settings will in fact bring more egalitarian relations to the workplace.
In sum, substantial social science research has been pursued on how to bring more egalitarian gender relations to the hierarchal organizations and institutions that dominate modern societies. Some of this research has focused on campaigns to bring more equal opportunity to conventional workplaces; other research has focused on the prospect for developing egalitarian teamwork and flatter structures within the bounds of large-scale bureaucracies. Choosing neither of these avenues, thousands of female-centered enterprises have been created around the turn of the twenty-first century, wherein the aim is to make decisions and accomplish tasks without recourse to hierarchal command structures. The edited volumes by Myra Marx Ferree and Patricia Yancey Martin (1995) and Joyce Rothschild and Celia Davies (1994) contain analyses of dozens of such organizations. Only time will tell the extent to which these pioneering organizations will prefigure the widespread development of counter-hierarchical structures in postmodern society.
see also Patriarchy.
Acker, Joan. 1990. "Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations." Gender and Society 4(2): 139-158.
Beeman, Jennifer; Nancy Guberman; Danielle Fournier; et.al. 2005. "Are the Movement's Organizations Open to the Movement's Members? A Study of Democratic Practices in Women's Groups in Quebec."
Bordt, Rebecca L. 1997. The Structure of Women's Nonprofit Organizations. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Ferguson, Kathy. 1984. The Feminist Case against Bureaucracy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Ferree, Myra Marx, and Patricia Yancey Martin. 1995. Feminist Organizations: Harvest of the New Women's Movement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Iannello, Kathleen P. 1992. Decisions Without Hierarchy: Feminist Interventions in Organizational Theory and Practice. London: Routledge.
Kleinman, Sherryl. 1996. Opposing Ambitions: Gender and Identity in an Alternative Organization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Leidner, Robin. 1991. "Stretching the Boundaries of Liberalism: Democratic Innovation in a Feminist Organization." Signs 16(2): 263-289.
Matthews, Nancy. 1994. Confronting Rape: The Feminist Anti-Rape Movement and the State. New York: Routledge.
Oerton, Sarah. 1996. Beyond Hierarchy: Gender, Sexuality and the Social Economy. London: Taylor & Francis.
Ollilainen, Marjukka, and Joyce Rothschild. 2001. "Can Self-Managing Teams Be Truly Cross-Functional? Gender Barriers to a 'New' Division of Labor." Research in the Sociology of Work 10: 141-164. Oxford, UK: Elsevier Science Ltd.
Reinelt, Claire. 1994. "Fostering Empowerment, Building Community: The Challenge for State-Funded Feminist Organizations." Human Relations 47(6): 685-705.
Rothschild, Joyce, and Celia Davies. 1994. Gender and Organizational Life. Special issue of Human Relations 47(6): 583-754.
Rothschild, Joyce, and Amy Tomchin. 2006. "Can Collectivist-Democracy Bring Gender Equality? The Efforts at Twin Oaks." Research in the Sociology of Work 16.
Rothschild-Whitt, Joyce. 1979. "The Collectivist Organization: An Alternative to Rational-Bureaucratic Models." American Sociological Review 44(4): 509-527.
Smith, Vicki. 1996. "Employee Involvement, Involved Employees: Participative Work Arrangements in a White-Collar Service Occupation." Social Problems 43(2): 166-179.
The word hierarchy stems from the Greek word hierarches, and early usage referred primarily to ecclesiastical structure and authority. The term is now widely used in a number of fields and generally denotes an inter-level relationship, usually conceived as a vertical layering of levels that implies higher value, power, or centralization at the top, and less of these qualities at the bottom.
History of the concept
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato has had an enormous influence on hierarchical thinking. In works such as the Republic and Phaedo, Plato argued that the world is divided into a lower, chaotic material reality, and a higher reality of forms that is the genuine source of truth, beauty, and the good. For Plato, this ontological distinction was necessarily related to epistemological and moral ones, for the realm of the forms are the source of true knowledge as well as being the ultimate good that all seek. Human beings were seen as a composite of the two worlds, the irrational world of matter and the rational world of the forms. In Plato's framework, the good person is one who shuns material things and pursues rational inquiry in accordance with one's true, nonmaterial nature.
During the Roman era, Plotinus (205–270) and other neo-Platonists expanded Plato's dualism into what twentieth-century philosopher Arthur Lovejoy (1873–1962) called the great chain of being. According to this view, God is the most real, out of which all other things emanate. Material reality is that which is most distant from the plenitude of God and, in a sense, the least real. As a composite of the different levels of reality, human beings stand at a halfway point, both material and spiritual. Neo-Platonism profoundly influenced the development of Christian theology, particularly through the writings of Augustine of Hippo (354–430), Pseudo-Dionysus (c. fifth century c.e.), and Bonaventure (1217–1274). In a Christian framework, angels naturally fit into a neo-Platonic framework as beings who occupied a higher level of reality. For Augustine in particular, evil could be explained as the absence of good, an irrational move from the most real (God) towards the unreal.
The rise of modern science played a significant role in the demise of hierarchical understandings of the world. Early scientific thinkers were influenced by philosophers such as William of Ockham (c. 1285–c. 1347), who denied Plato's theory of forms and hierarchical ontologies. This and other factors led to an understanding of the physical world that emphasized material causes alone, a tendency that seemed vindicated by the work of Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) and Isaac Newton (1642–1727). Such materialistic views were typically reductionistic in character. Materialist reductionists inverted and then rejected the neo-Platonic hierarchy of being, claiming not only that it is the material world that is most real, it is the only reality. Such materialism not only influenced scientists such as Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749–1827), but also the whole trajectory of nineteenth-century philosophy.
In the twentieth century, the legitimacy of ontological and moral hierarchies was intensely debated within specific fields of philosophy and theology. Debates about ontological hierarchies focused on questions of reductionism and emergence or holism, much of which centered on the status of the mind and human person. Reductionists emphasize that the material constituents of the world are all that there is, and that higher-order realities such as the human mind and culture can ultimately be explained by the laws of physics and chemistry. Reductionists often point to the success of neo-Darwinism and the discovery of DNA as justification for their approach. Likewise, categories of mind and the human person, so reductionists argue, can best be understood in terms of the activities of the brain. In the late twentieth century, reductionism was most associated with the popular writings of Richard Dawkins and Francis Crick in biology and the thought of Daniel Dennett, Paul Churchland, and Patricia Churchland in the philosophy of mind.
Modern opposition to reductionism has early roots in the movement of British emergentism, typified by the work of C. D. Broad. Opponents to reductionism have frequently endorsed the category of emergence, arguing that there are higher-order levels that emerge from, but are not reducible to, the lower levels of reality. Generally speaking, emergentists do not deny the validity of the lower-level sciences, only their sufficiency for explaining higher-order phenomenon. Emergentism came to be particularly important for the defense of biology as a legitimate and separate field of inquiry from physics and chemistry, and has been vigorously supported by such prominent thinkers as biologist Ernst Mayr and philosopher Karl Popper. Emergence has also been complemented by the concept of supervenience, which provides a philosophical framework for understanding the relation of different levels of reality. Philosophers such as Jaegwon Kim have argued, however, that supervenience ultimately leads to causal reduction of higher-level to lower-level physical properties. Within the paradigm of computational complexity theory, a similar suspicion has been raised against emergence by John Holland and others.
Hierarchy in the science-religion dialogue
Science and religion scholars have tended to support emergentist positions and reject reductionist ontologies. Both the physicist and theologian Ian Barbour and the biochemist and theologian Arthur Peacocke have strongly criticized reductionist interpretations of science. Both have noted that while science employs methodological reductionism in its attempt to analyze physical reality, such practice does not entail ontological reductionism. Going a step further, Peacocke has argued that the whole of reality should be understood as a complex hierarchy that begins at the bottom with physics and chemistry, and moves towards increasing levels of complexity, moving towards living organisms, human beings, cultures, and eventually God at the very top. Peacocke's analysis has had tremendous influence, and has been developed in different ways by philosophers Nancey Murphy and Philip Clayton.
Despite this, the value of hierarchical thinking has been much questioned in broader theological circles. Feminist theologians such as Sallie McFague have criticized traditional moral hierarchies because of their tendency to oppress women. Environmental theologians and philosophers have also criticized moral hierarchies as contributors to abuse of animals and destruction of ecosystems. Because traditional moral hierarchies have been justified by reference to ontological hierarchies, these too have come under attack. Serious dialogue between these differing theological perspectives has yet to occur and represents a likely step in the science-religion dialogue.
See also Emergence; Holism; Order; Plato; Supervenience
ayala, francisco, and, dobzhansky, theodosius, eds. studies in the philosophy of biology: reductionism and related problems. berkeley: university of california press, 1974.
broad, c. d. the mind and its place in nature. new york: harcourt, 1929.
kim, jaegwon. supervenience and mind: selected philosophical essays. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1993.
lovejoy, arthur. the great chain of being: a study of the history of an idea (1936). cambridge, mass.: harvard university press, 1970.
mcfague, sallie. models of god: theology for an ecological, nuclear age. philadelphia: fortress press, 1987.
peacocke, arthur. theology for a scientific age: being and becoming—natural, divine, and human, enlarged edition. minneapolis, minn.: fortress press, 1993.
gregory r. peterson
hi·er·ar·chy / ˈhī(ə)ˌrärkē/ • n. (pl. -chies) a system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority. ∎ (the hierarchy) the upper echelons of a hierarchical system; those in authority: the magazine was read quite widely even by some of the hierarchy. ∎ an arrangement or classification of things according to relative importance or inclusiveness: a taxonomic hierarchy of phyla, classes, orders, families, genera, and species. ∎ (the hierarchy) the clergy of the Catholic or Episcopal Church; the religious authorities. ∎ Theol. the traditional system of orders of angels and other heavenly beings. DERIVATIVES: hi·er·ar·chic / ˌhī(ə)ˈrärkik/ adj. hi·er·ar·chi·za·tion / ˌhī(ə)ˌrärkəˈzāshən/ n. hi·er·ar·chize / -ˌkīz/ v.
hierarchical and non-hierarchical classification methods
hierarchical and non-hierarchical classification methods
hierarchical and non-hierarchical classification methods
So hierarch ecclesiastical ruler XVI; archangel XVII. — medL. — Gr. hierarchical XV.