Social hierarchy

From Academic Kids

Social hierarchy is a phrase used to describe the distribution of political power, wealth, and/or social status among people within a national or cultural group. Usually, the distribution is "pyramidal"— a few people are very powerful, while most have little or no power.

Distribution of power within political systems

There are many models of power distributions, also known as "forms of government". Most real governments exhibit properties of multiple forms. Common forms are:

  • Autocracy: One individual retains complete and absolute power over others. This is also known as despotism.
  • Monarchism: A king or queen has ultimate control over the distribution of power, but does share it with other individuals. Power is usually transmitted by heredity— in the primogeniture system, for example, the eldest son of a king will ascend to that position when the current king dies or resigns.
  • Oligarchy: Political power is vested in a few individuals, who usually pass power by a hereditary system.
  • Republic: Voting citizens have ultimate political power, and elect representatives who propose, make, and enforce laws. Also known as representative democracy.
  • Democracy: Citizens directly vote in lawmaking. In contrast to representative democracy, this is sometimes known as a direct democracy.
  • Anarchy: A system where there is no codified law, and no individual has power over another. While some think this is the natural state of man, most believe such a system to be unstable.
  • Ochlocracy: What some argue to be the end product of an unstable anarchic lawless system, a system known as "rule by organized crime". Such a system emerges when powerful gang-like organizations arrogate power and develop a semi-legitimate status.

These terms describe models of government more precisely than actual governments, and most real systems are complex mixtures of the systems described above. For example, the United States is primarily a republican democracy, but direct democracy is employed on some issues and in some states (see: referendum). As well, its socioeconomic system is a pronounced oligarchy. Likewise, the United Kingdom and many European nations are technically monarchies, but de facto republics or democracies as the monarchs have become largely celebrity figureheads rather than political leaders. Also, even advanced societies can exhibit ochlocratic traits; for example, the Japanese Yakuza and American Mafia families often enjoy such a status (since it is generally not illegal to have associations with crime organizations if one does not commit crimes oneself) and many of these groups' assets are invested in legitimate enterprises. The American Mafia assisted governmental authorities is prosecuting the 666 lottery fraud in Pennsylvania in the 1970s.

Anglo-American scholarship credits the United Kingdom and the United States with the 2nd millennium's evolutionary progress from monarchism to democracy: the evolution is said to have begun with King John's signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 and to have accelerated on account of the English Bill of Rights and Glorious Revolution in the 17th century. At the time of the American Revolution in 1776, while the United Kingdom was technically a monarchy, many historians consider the United Kingdom's political system to have been one of the most evolved systems in Europe at the time.

Distribution of wealth

Distribution of wealth is often used as a measure of the progressiveness and social justice of a society. The Gini coefficient measures the economic equality within a society, and is estimated to be about 0.4 - 0.5 (massive inequality) in the United States.

Critics of capitalism describe it as a system wherein wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few people, the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production and where the majority of people, the proletariat, have none. Others argue that this model is inaccurate, since human and cultural capital are also important in predicting an individual's leverage, autonomy, and eventual fortune, and are more equitably distributed. Similarly, the majority of American middle class adults own homes, automobiles, and financial stake in businesses, making them also possessors of capital.

Opposite to the capitalist system are socialist systems wherein, in theory, wealth is distributed proportionally to one's contribution to society, and communist systems wherein it is distributed according to necessity.

The United States is generally considered to have an embarrassingly inequitable distribution of wealth, income, and ecomonic autonomy among individuals. Business owners, celebrities, high-ranking corporate or government officers, realtors, and attorneys are considered to have the greatest control of wealth, while unskilled workers, unemployed people, and renting farmers are considered to have little or no control of it.

Social status

Social status represents an individual's overall ability to control or influence other people and institutions. Unlike economic status, it is difficult to quantify social status mathematically.

Social status is recognized officially by notions of rank, religious title, or academic title, and informally by notions such as reputation and mind share.


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