A social hierarchy is a ranking system that organizes society so that some people have greater social status than others.
There are many types of social hierarchies, including caste systems, social class hierarchies, gender hierarchies, and so on (I’ll explore a ton of them if you scroll down!)
However, different societies have different approaches to hierarchies. For example, traditional societies tend to have more extreme gender hierarchies than liberal societies, while class-based societies tend to have more extreme income inequality than egalitarian societies.
Social Hierarchy Definition
Social hierarchies are means by which societies rank, classify, and distribute privileges and roles to their members.
Hierarchies can be established on a range of social factors, such as gender, race, income, culture, ethnicity, and so on.
Another way in which we can categorize hierarchies is the extent to which they are established based on achieved or ascribed status:
- Ascribed Status: This is a status that is given to someone at birth and remains relatively stable throughout life. For example, being born into royalty is ascribed to you, and you will remain high on the hierarchy for life. Similarly, in patriarchal societies, you will be ascribed male or female based on your sex, and this will largely determine your social status for the remainder of your life.
- Achieved Status: This is a status that is earned throughout your life, such as being a “doctor”, which is achieved through education. Another example is self-made wealth/
Societies with social hierarchies that value achieved over ascribed status tend to be seen as more meritocratic. However, this may be simply symbolic, given that social mobility (the ability to move up and down the hierarchy) may still be curtailed in any form of hierarchy.
Social Hierarchy Examples
1. Caste Systems
Some social hierarchies are incredibly rigid, such as with caste systems.
Famously, India had a strict caste system wherein people were assigned social roles and jobs within their castes and were only allowed to marry within their caste (known as endogamy). Similarly, people were only allowed to associate within their castes in social situations.
This system was significantly deconstructed in the second half of the 20th Century, but its remnants are still influential today (Deshpande, 2011).
This would be an example of a social hierarchy that is based on ascribed status and where social mobility is intentionally curtailed.
2. Class Systems
A class system refers to a social system wherein the rich, middle-income, and poor tend only to mix with others of similar wealth and professional status.
This, over time, lead to subcultural groups whereby people are stratified not only by wealth, but also cultures and tastes – wherein the rich have different accents and tastes to the middle-income and poor.
This class system, which combines factors like wealth, profession, and taste, among other factors, is represented by three broad types of social class:
- Working-class: Tending to work in physical labor or blue-collar jobs, living from paycheck to paycheck, and consuming sports, foods, and products designed for mass consumption.
- Middle-class: Tending to enjoy home ownership but with mortgages, and working in professional and managerial roles.
- Upper-class: With refined and expensive tastes, a preference for service and experience, and high income.
Many contemporary societies, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, have a class-based social structure which tends to be a natural consequence of capitalism. However, class systems tend to be less rigid than in the past due to diminishing prejudices and enhanced social mobility compared to 19th Century societies (Kerbo, 2012).
3. Racial and Ethnic Hierarchies
Some societies may organize people into explicit or subtle hierarchies based on race or ethnicity.
In these structures, the dominant racial or ethnic group typically has more privileges and a higher social status than minority groups.
A pertinent example is the United States, where systemic racism has resulted in substantial racial disparities (Bonilla-Silva, 2017). While significant progress has been made in breaking down race-based discrimination, statistics show it still exists to this day.
Other societies with overt and explicit ethnicity and race-based hierarchies include 1990s South Africa and present-day Myanmar.
Many societies are structured around gender hierarchies, often favoring men over women.
Patriarchal systems, where men are deemed superior and hold most power and authority, have resulted in various forms of gender inequality, such as wage disparities and underrepresentation in leadership roles (Connell, 2009).
While the patriarchy has been diluted substantially in the west, it remains a prominent issue, especially in the workplace where the glass ceiling effect – where women struggle to make it to the upper echelons of their professions – remains. We can see this, for example, in the fact that until 2018, there were more men named John than the total number of women as CEOs in America.
In these societies, elders hold the most esteemed social status and power to make key decisions.
This type of hierarchy is common in tribal societies but can also be observed in modern contexts, such as in the business world.
Notably, however, there is also a reverse effect, known as ageism, where beauty and youth are implicitly seen as more desirable traits than age. (Silverstein & Giarrusso, 2010).
6. Education-Based Hierarchy
In many societies, educational attainment is a key factor determining one’s place in the social hierarchy. Educational status may in this case be a proxy for an intelligence and intellect hierarchy.
Individuals with higher levels of education typically hold more prestigious positions, earn higher wages, and possess a higher social status.
This is especially prevalent in knowledge-based economies where highly educated individuals are often rewarded with greater economic opportunities and wield more societal influence (Torche, 2011).
Furthermore, certain fields of study, such as medicine and law, often come with higher prestige attached (Rivera, 2015).
7. Religious Hierarchies
Many religions and societies exhibit hierarchies based on religious roles, where clergy and religious leaders possess a higher social status than laypeople.
For instance, in the Catholic Church, the Pope, Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons each hold varying degrees of authority and influence. This was certainly true, for example, in pre-Enlightenment Europe.
Perhaps the most stark example of a society with a strict religious hierarchy today is Iran, whose theocracy holds elite Imams up as the most respected and laudable members of the society (Ebaugh, 2006).
8. Ability/Disability Hierarchy
This hierarchy is reinforced by societal attitudes and structures that privilege able-bodied individuals and disadvantage those with disabilities, resulting in disparities in access to resources, opportunities, and social inclusion (Campbell, 2009).
A key vehicle for undermining this has been the social model of disability, which has put pressure on societies to ensure all services and businesses to become accessible for people with physical and mental disabilities, to ensure people with disabilities enjoy equal opportunities.
9. Sexual Orientation Hierarchy
Societies often stratify individuals based on sexual orientation, with heterosexuality generally being privileged.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) individuals often face discrimination and marginalization due to societal norms and laws that uphold heteronormativity, leading to a hierarchy that privileges heterosexual individuals (Herek, 2007).
For example, until very recently, western society had banned gay couples from marrying. This created a hierarchy where some people’s relationships were more validated by society than others’.
10. Occupational Hierarchy
Occupations often come with associated prestige and societal value, forming a distinct hierarchy.
Doctors, lawyers, and engineers, for example, tend to have higher status due to the perceived importance of their work and the extensive training required.
In contrast, jobs like custodial work, food service, and manual labor are often deemed lower status due to lower pay and societal perceptions (Weeden & Grusky, 2005).
On an anecdotal level, we can see this when parents pressure their young adult children into becoming doctors and lawyers – the point here is that the parents want their children to have a degree of social status, usually to make the parents feel good about themselves rather than for the happiness of the adult children!
11. Bureaucratic Hierarchy
In many organizations, bureaucracies create clear hierarchies. Positions at the top—like CEOs, presidents, or directors—hold the most power, make key decisions, and usually earn the highest salaries.
Lower levels have less power and lower wages, with each successive level having a lesser degree of autonomy and decision-making authority (Weber, 2013).
This is perhaps one of the most legitimized forms of hierarchy in today’s world, with acknowledgment that the most experienced and competent people should make the most important strategic decisions because they are best placed to do so.
Of course, there are still issues with this model, especially when we look at the intersection of job promotions with other social hierarchies like gender-based hierarchies, which as we have seen, tend to make it more difficult for women to receive promotions into upper-level roles.
12. Political Hierarchy
In political systems, there is a clear hierarchy, with those in positions of power (presidents, prime ministers, senators, etc.) wielding more influence and often enjoying higher social status than ordinary citizens.
This power structure determines who gets to make decisions that affect the larger populace (Dahl, 2006). As with workplace hierarchies, these are overt hierarchies that make sense and, ideally, should be meritocratic.
Problems do arise, however, when societies become oligarchies or plutocracies, where a small group of political elites (oligarchies) or economic elites (plutocracies) consolidate political power, creating an undemocratic situation.
13. Attractiveness Hierarchy
An informal way in which we rank people is through their degrees of attractiveness. This is often based on comparisons to a cultural ideal.
For example, in today’s society, it’s generally perceived that women who have soft skin, thin bodies, and toned muscles meet the idealized version. Women are constantly compared and ranked against this ideal, and often, more beautiful people are treated more kindly, in what we call the beauty bias.
The same goes for cultural norms around idealized male bodies.
14. Hierarchies of Masculinity and Femininity
Attractiveness is not the only way men and women are placed on hierarchies. They are also ranked based on personality traits.
For example, there are idealized versions of masculinity (known as hegemonic masculinity), which tend to refer both to physical traits (e.g. big muscles) and personality traits (aggressiveness, protectiveness, leadership qualities).
Men who are more gentle, interested in caring for children, or interested in feminized professions, may be informally seen as inferior.
The same goes for cultural norms around idealized femininity.
See Also: Masculinity vs Femininity
Pros and Cons of Social Hierarchies
So far I have been somewhat critical of social hierarchies (they do, after all, lead to substantial unwarranted discrimination and prejudice).
However, there is also clear evidence for their social value in many circumstances. In such circumstances, the benefits are seen to outweigh the damages.
Advantages of hierarchies include:
- Organizational efficiency: Hierarchical structures provide clear, predefined roles and responsibilities, helping to organize tasks and manage workload effectively. This results in enhanced productivity and efficiency, which was a key argument of Weber’s theory of bureaucratization (Weber, 1940).
- Defined paths of communication and command: Hierarchies establish clear lines of authority and communication. This streamlines decision-making processes and enables effective communication within organizations. Hence, we see explicit hierarchies in business, political, and military organizations (Carzo & Yanouzas, 1969).
- Stability and predictability: A structural-functionalist argument for hierarchies is that they provide stability and predictability, as each individual knows their place and responsibilities within the structure. This reduces uncertainty and promotes order (Krackhardt, 1994).
Disadvantages of hierarchies include:
- Inequality and Power Imbalances: Hierarchies inherently create power imbalances and can perpetuate inequality. Those in upper levels may exploit or neglect those at lower levels, leading to feelings of disenfranchisement (Leavitt, 2005).
- Stifling creativity and initiative: Hierarchical structures can inhibit creativity and initiative, particularly in those at lower levels who may not feel empowered to express new ideas or challenge the status quo.
- Resistance to change: Hierarchies can also foster resistance to change. Those at the top of the hierarchy may be reluctant to implement changes that could disrupt their position of power.
Here is a summary table:
|Pros of Social Hierarchies||Cons of Social Hierarchies|
|Enhance organizational efficiency||Perpetuate inequality and power imbalances (Leavitt, 2005)|
|Establish defined paths of communication and command||Stifle creativity and initiative|
|Provide stability and predictability||Foster resistance to change|
Social Cues and Projecting Status
People can project social status to strangers in a range of ways, known as social cues, to improve others’ social perception of them and improve their social reputation.
This is a strategy used to demonstrate dominance and power, or similarly, subversion, in the case of countercultural groups. Every time we are in social interactions, the behaviors and signals we send demonstrate our status on the hierarchy.
- Dress codes: Dressing in a suit and tie for a man can project power, while dressing in flip-flops and an old, raggy shirt and symbolize rebellion against the hierarchy’s symbology. Similarly, some elite schools insist on school dress codes and uniforms as a way to project the school’s higher status among other schools in the region
- Posture and voice projection (behavioral cues): Standing straight and speaking in a steady, clear voice tends to demonstrate confidence and control, which can be interpreted as being a person of power and social status. Vocal and speech characteristics that demonstrate low status may include a working-class accent, hesitancy in speech, or use of crass language.
- Assigned titles: Societies assign titles, like PhD, as a way to confer status upon people and help us to situate someone higher-up on social hierarchies.
- Possessions: Many people spend a lot of money on the newest cars and gadgets in order to project power and status to others. Ironically, often wealthy people don’t do this, while poor people go into debt in order to project a false sense of status.
Many social cues that project status are culturally-defined, and depending upon your culture, you may be able to project status in different ways. That’s why sometimes we call them context cues.
Social hierarchies appear to be natural in all societies of humans and, indeed, the societies primates like gorillas and chimps. But what is of most interest to sociologists is that social hierarchies come with power struggles, revealing what societies value, how they value and devalue one another, and how they treat those with lowest status.
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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]