In responding to the question of why societies construct hierarchies, it is first necessary to understand that such construction has always been a common element within them. While it is established that certain cultures do not have hierarchical structures (Robbins 253), the reality remains that most societies in humanity's history do. Hierarchies have been, and are, established by means of ethnic backgrounds, financial status, religious beliefs, gender, gender orientations, and a variety of other demographic factors, all of which may interchangeably erect the stratification. However, whether these hierarchies are viewed as either exploitative, to serve a state agenda, or integrative, and promoted for a more efficient culture, it seems that mankind continually manifests a need to segment itself through perceivable differences. This is a crucial element in anthropology, for it goes to patterns of human behavior virtually omnipresent, and historically so. To understand mankind, it is essential to consider mankind's relentless drive to create tiers of identity in its cultures.

Types and Formations of Hierarchies

As noted, hierarchies are usually designated as either exploitative or integrative. The first, as may be obvious, is typically unconcerned with issues of human rights, and is in place to secure a dynastic or governmental base within the society. This is probably the most common type of hierarchy to be discovered in humanity's history, as Asian and European empires relied for long centuries on strict observances of traditional roles within their societies. Not surprisingly, such formations both generate and depend upon stereotypes, wherein groups of people within the culture are identified primarily through one, common aspect, no matter how valid that aspect may be. Stereotyping is, in a word, ideal for the maintaining of a hierarchy based upon status and power. Moreover, it has the additional benefit for the hierarchy of abetting its own existence; when, as in under the Russian sovereigns of the 17th and 18th centuries, serfs were viewed as sub-human beings, those people themselves largely subscribed to the same viewpoint subjugating them, and did not seek to attain rights or justice.

This type of hierarchy, however, is by no means distinct from that more favorably looked upon, the integrative. That is to say, it is inevitable that a functioning society must develop a means of accepting whatever variations in rank or social status that go to making the hierarchy, and this is an integrative process. Moreover, and at least in speculative terms, there is no “anthropological law” that dictates that an exploitative hierarchy must be abusive, or even opposed to a uniform application of human rights. Also, as has been evident historically, it is not unusual for even the lowest tiers of societies to resist change within exploitative hierarchies, and this cannot be solely due to the effects of prolonged repression. It seems that some level of self-interest may lie within even the most limited rankings of a hierarchy, and it is an obligation of anthropology to examine this.

Driving Forces

That human beings evince a willingness, or even a desire, to exist within a hierarchical state should not be surprising or disturbing. On a very basic level, any form of hierarchy translates to an order of some kind, which in turn translates to safety. In adhering to such an order, people essentially safeguard their own interests, as well as preserve the safety of their families. Extensive study of how primates behave has shown that, no matter each group's particular form of hierarchy, a common element, or goal, is observed: violence within the primate society is reduced, and usually confined to routine, generational struggles to assert dominance. If primates are, as the evidence indicates, willing to endure certain forms of subjugation in order for the group to succeed, and their own preservation to be consequently made more secure, it is reasonable to assume that mankind shares this same impulse.

Then there is the matter of abnegation, or the distinct characteristic within societies to, not only set in place a leadership, but strongly desire one. This human trait may have developed early on, with the formations of the first societies, which occurred when nomadic ways of life were abandoned and agricultural pursuits, more reliable in ensuring survival, were adopted. A sedentary or stable society is inherently one at risk; in creating a means of sustaining itself, it creates something valuable, and is therefore vulnerable. With any settlement, then, comes the need for organization, and most particularly leadership. If earlier forms of the nature of this leadership evolved into tribal, familial dynasties and monarchies, it may be argued that even the more egalitarian hierarchy today, such as the United States, is similarly drawn to attributing an intrinsic, hereditary quality to leaders. For example, more than one U.S. president has been the son of a former one. In this model of democracy, then, it can be seen that there are profound expectations that the hierarchical order be perpetuated, and much as it has been in the past.


In anthropology, hierarchies are usually objects of distrust and suspicion. They are frequently seen as purely exploitative mechanisms to keep in power those determined to exercise it, and deny others of rights and opportunities. This has certainly been true historically, even as blatant evidence of such strategies exists today. Nonetheless, there is a great deal of reason to suppose that mankind itself insists upon erecting even those hierarchies that deprive his fellow beings, and himself, of rights and privileges. A society inherently involves communal efforts of varying degrees and kinds, in order to survive, and it may well be that recognizing this essential aspect of them has created in humanity the primal need to devise the only effective means of achieving this yet known: the hierarchy. Far from being merely convenient, social construct, hierarchies attend to urgent human requirements and, to better understand mankind, it is essential to consider its ceaseless drive to erect tiers of identity and standing in its cultures.

Posted by December 6th, 2016