A hierarchy is a ranking system in which entities (people, data points, etc.) are ranked according to relative importance, status, authority, or another factor.
There are multiple different types of hierarchies, encapsulating biological taxonomies, data hierarchies, corporate ranks, military ranks, and so on.
One of the most central types of hierarchy is a social hierarchy, wherein people in a society are ranked. This process leads to uneven distribution of power, status, wealth, and prestige across a population.
They provide a way of organizing complex systems, imposing order, and managing relationships between different entities or individuals. They can, for example, help a bureaucracy to efficiently distribute decision-making powers and a line of command. This can bring order and predictability, and clarify roles and responsibilities.
However, on the negative side, they can limit information flow, reduce flexibility, and potentially lead to inequality or abuse of power.
1. Military Hierarchy
Military and paramilitary organizations rely heavily on hierarchy in order to maintain order and command in situations where clarity of power is essential.
From top to bottom, it typically includes ranks such as General, Colonel, Major, Captain, Lieutenant, and various levels of Sergeants and Corporals, followed by Private. Eac
rank carries specific duties, responsibilities, and levels of authority.
While many social hierarchies – such as class-based ones – are generally seen as causing social inequalities, military hierarchies tend to be seen as very useful, important, and positive, for creating an efficient and powerful military organization.
2. Biology (Taxonomic Hierarchy)
The Linnaean taxonomic hierarchy in biology ranks and classifies organism based on their physical and biological similarities.
This hierarchical includes the following levels, from broad to specific: Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species.
Each level, or taxon, encompasses the one beneath it. For example, humans belong to the Domain Eukarya, Kingdom Animalia, Phylum Chordata, Class Mammalia, Order Primates, Family Hominidae, Genus Homo, and Species sapiens.
Interestingly, this hierarchy is used less and less today, because it didn’t look at evolutionary similarities but rather similarities in appearance – while this was once a useful approximation, new science demonstrates that it made some pretty big mistakes!
3. Social Class Systems
A social class system refers to social stratification based on socioeconomic status.
In such a model, the rich, middle-income, and poor tend to predominantly mix with others of similar wealth and professional status.
This, over time, has led to three broad types of social class in society, defined not only by levels of wealth but also profession, accent, and tastes:
- Working-class: The working-class tend to work in physical, low-skilled, and blue-collar jobs, live from paycheck to paycheck, have less refined accents, and consume foods, sports, and other consumer products designed for mass consumption.
- Middle-class: The middle-class tend to enjoy home ownership but still have mortgages and must work to maintain their standard of living. They tend to have professions in managerial and white-collar jobs.
- Upper-class: The upper-class have refined and expensive tastes, a preference for products that are rare and prestigious, and they own the majority of the economic capital (e.g. factories, stocks) in society.
Many societies, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, loosely have a class-based social structure. This tends to be a natural consequence of capitalism.
However, class systems tend to be less stringent than in the past, and movement between the class groups seems to be more fluid (Kerbo, 2012).
4. Caste Systems
Caste systems are some of the most formalized forms of social hierarchy that exist in the world today.
India prior to the 20th Century had perhaps the most famous of these. Their strict caste system assigned social roles and professions to people based on the caste they were born into. Furthermore, people were only allowed to marry within their caste (this is a phenomenon known as endogamy).
Similarly, people were only allowed to associate within their castes in social situations (Deshpande, 2011).
This social hierarchy is based on ascribed status (a status given to us at birth rather than earned – which would be achieved status). Such a form of hierarchy tends to dramatically limit social mobility and is seen today as highly unjust.
A patriarchy is a society structured around gender hierarchies that favor men over women.
Such societies have resulted in gender inequality, including wage disparities, discrimination in the workplace, and underrepresentation in leadership roles (Connell, 2009).
The patriarchy continues to be diluted, especially in Europe and the western world. However, it remains a prominent issue, as we can see with the glass ceiling effect where women tend to hit a point in their careers where they are locked out of promotions (this is a complex issue, with many complex contributing factors).
Some argue that we can see the glass ceiling effect, for example, in the fact that until 2018, there were more CEOs named John than woman CEOs in America.
6. Digital Data (File System Hierarchy)
Every time you search for a file in your computer, you are using a digital hierarchy that is used to storing information and retrieving it with ease.
Generally, this data will be organized in a hierarchical file system. You literally click on a file icon to go deeper into the hierarchy when searching for your documents.
In ‘computer speak’, the top level has the root directory. Then, there are various subdirectories branching off. These can have their own subdirectories, forming a tree-like structure. Each level helps to organize data by category or purpose.
7. Government Hierarchy
Governments are often structured hierarchically. For example, in federalist societies, the federal government is at the top, followed by state governments which are subordinate to the federal government.
Below this, we may see county governments and local (city or town) governments.
This hierarchy differs in intensity from one society to the other with some being flat hierarchies (power sharing) and others being clear with the federal government holding ultimate power.
8. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”.
This is a hierarchy of needs – what needs are most fundamental, and which can we only achieve after having conquered the base needs?
According to Maslow, basic needs like food and water (Physiological) come first and foremost. Next on the hierarchy are safety needs (Safety), then to social needs (Love/Belonging), then self-esteem (Esteem), and finally self-actualization.
Each stage must generally be satisfied before moving to the next.
For more about this, visit my full guide on Maslow’s Hierarchy.
9. Bureaucratic Hierarchy
Most bureaucracies, such as government organizations or large corporations, need hierarchies on order to impose order and control.
Positions at the top—like the founder, CEO, president, or director, hold the most power. These people at the top are relied upon to make key decisions, and are usually remunerated the most!
Lower levels have less power and, as a result, lower wages. Generally, lower-down workers have a lesser degree of autonomy and lesser decision-making authority (Weber, 2013).
As with the military, a corporate hierarchy is one of the most legitimized forms of hierarchy. We all acknowledge that the most experienced and competent people should be at the top because that will lead to the best outcomes.
10. Political Hierarchy
If we look at our government, we can see a clear hierarchy. Of course, at the top is your prime minister or president. Then, the next powerful people might be ministers, followed by senators, and so on down the chain of command.
This power structure determines who gets to make the decisions that will affect society, and in many ways, the leader of a country is at the very top of the hierarchy (Dahl, 2006).
As with workplace and military hierarchies, these are overt hierarchies that make sense – we need to know who is in command.
Problems do arise, however, with political hierarchies – especially in societies that are oriented around oligarchies or plutocracies. In such societies, a small group of political elites (oligarchies) or economic elites (plutocracies) consolidate power and limit the distribution of power to the rest of society.
11. Racial and Ethnic Hierarchies
Some societies, especially in the past, organized people into hierarchies based on race or ethnicity.
In these structures, the dominant racial or ethnic group (historically, in European and colonized nations, the Caucasian population), typically has more privileges and a higher social status than minority groups.
A prominent example is in the United States. In the USA, systemic racism has resulted in intergenerational racial disparities still seen to this day (Bonilla-Silva, 2017). While progress has been made in the USA in breaking down race-based discrimination, statistics show it still exists on a broad social level to this day.
Other societies with overt race-based hierarchies include 1990s South Africa and present-day Myanmar, where ethnic groups are in conflict due to discrimination across society.
Certain societies value age because it is seen that elderly people have greater wisdom. This is a social structure known as a gerontocracy.
In a gerontocracy, the social elders hold high social status. They mat have the power to make the most important decisions across the social group.
A gerontocracy is common in tribal societies, but we can also often see it in traditional family structures where a patriarch or matriarch remains the decision maker late into their life.
Note, however, that there is also a reverse effect, known as ageism. In ageism, where beauty and youth are correlated with greater power and status. (Silverstein & Giarrusso, 2010).
13. Education-Based Hierarchy
In most societies, educational attainment has an influence in affecting a person’s place on a social hierarchy.
Often, this is because educational status is a proxy for intelligence and intellect.
People in society with higher levels of education may have an edge in job interviews, hold more prestigious positions in organizations, and earn higher wages.
An education-based hierarchy is prevalent in knowledge-based economies such as the USA and other advanced capitalist economies. In such societies, highly educated individuals are respected and wield more societal influence (Torche, 2011).
There are some situations where this hierarchy has been brutally deconstructed and flipped, such as in Pol Pot’s communist regime, where intellectuals faced genocide in Pol Pot’s attempts to create a classless society.
14. Religious Hierarchies
Catholicism is perhaps the best example of a religion with a stringent internal hierarchy.
Besides the over gender-based structure (only men being allowed to be priests), we also see a rigid structure: at the top, we have the Pope, followed by Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons each holding varying degrees of authority and influence.
Another stark example of a society with a strict religious hierarchy is modern-day Iran. Iran’s theocracy holds elite Imams up as the most respected members of the society who have the power to enact moral laws (Ebaugh, 2006).
15. Mathematics (Set Hierarchy)
In set theory, a branch of mathematical logic, sets are often structured in a hierarchy based on their relationship to each other.
In the context of set hierarchy, a set can contain other sets, and the contained sets are referred to as “subsets”. A subset is a set composed of elements that all belong to another set, known as a “superset”.
For example, the set of all animals is a superset of the set of all dogs, which is itself a superset of all Labrador Retrievers. Each subset belongs to the larger set above it.
Pros and Cons of Social Hierarchies
While sociologists might argue that social hierarchies have inherent inequalities and injustices (which is probably true), they also have a lot of value. As I’ve noted, they’re certainly necessary in some areas of life such as the bureaucracy of a large organization.
So, below, we have some pros and cons of hierarchies.
Advantages of hierarchies:
- Clear lines of command and accountability: Having a hierarchy streamlines decision-making processes because everyone knows who the decision-maker is, and everyone knows who to report to. This enables fast and effective communication and ensures everyone knows their role. This can make institutions like the military far more effective overall (Carzo & Yanouzas, 1969). The resultant productivity and efficiency was a key argument of Weber’s theory of bureaucratization (Weber, 1940).
- Stability and predictability: Functionalist scholars argue that hierarchies are good for society because they lead to stability. If everyone knows their role and their job, then everyone can feel comfortable knowing what is in their lane, and what isn’t. This reduces uncertainty and promotes order (Krackhardt, 1994).
Disadvantages of hierarchies:
- Inequality and Power Imbalances: Social hierarchies tend to create power imbalances. These imbalances, if there is no correction mechanism, can perpetuate inequality. Without transparency and accountability, people at the top of the hierarchy may exploit or neglect those at lower levels, and may benefit from preferential treatment from others. This may lead to feelings of disenfranchisement from people lower in the hierarchy (Leavitt, 2005).
- Stifling creativity and initiative: Weber argued that a negative of bureaucratic hierarchies is that they tend to stifle creativity and innovation. Take, for example, a startup business which can pivot and release new products that are better than the big companies’ products, because the big company is busy sitting in meetings trying to figure things out!
Social Cues and Projecting Status
One way in which social hierarchies are maintained is through social cues, where people project their status to others to influence others’ perceptions of them in the social hierarchy.
Consider the following examples:
- Dress codes: Dressing in a suit and tie for a man can project power. Similarly, we can picture people like Hillary Clinton in her pantsuit to project her power. Similarly, elite schools have school dress codes as a way to signify the school’s status relative to government schools nearby
- Body Language and Posture: Those with higher status often exhibit confident body language. They may stand tall, make direct eye contact, and take up more space. On the contrary, individuals of lower status might exhibit submissive body language, such as avoiding eye contact or taking up less space.
- Language and Communication Style: People of higher social status may communicate in a particular way, using sophisticated language, clear articulation, or a certain accent or dialect associated with a higher social class. They might also be more assertive or dominating in conversations, often leading or directing the conversation flow.
- Material possessions: Items such as cars, houses, gadgets, etc., are often used as social cues to determine a person’s place in the social hierarchy. Owning expensive or high-status items can be indicative of higher social standing.
- Social Capital: Who a person associates with can serve as a social cue to their status. High-status individuals often have connections with other high-status individuals.
Hierarchies are, simply, ranking systems. They can be social, but also can refer to biological, scientific, philosophical, and technological hierarchies. The thing that unites all hierarchies is that they lead to order, structure, and organization. This strength has some negative side-effects, especially in social hierarchies, which may end up causing social injustices and inequalities.
Krackhardt, D. (1994). Graph theoretical dimensions of informal organizations. Computational organization theory, 89, 112.
Kerbo, H., 2012). Social Stratification and Inequality: Class Conflict in the United States. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2017). Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. Los Angeles: Rowman & Littlefield.
Connell, R. W. (2009). Gender: In World Perspective (2nd ed.). Sydney: Polity.
Silverstein, M., & Giarrusso, R. (2010). Aging and Generational Relations over the Life Course: A Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspective. London: De Gruyter.
Weber, M. (1947/1922). The theory of social and economic organization (A. M. Henderson & T. Parsons, Trans.). New York: Free Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]