This is as opposed to anarchy where there is no concept of higher or lower items (or people) -- everything is considered equal.
The first use of the word "hierarchy" cited by the Oxford English Dictionary was in 1880, when it was used in reference to the three orders of three angels as depicted by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Pseudo-Dionysius used the word both in reference to the celestial hierarchy and the ecclesiastical hierarchy. His term is derived from the Greek for 'Bishop' (hierarch), and Dionysius is credited with first use of it as an abstract noun. Since hierarchical churches, such as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, had tables of organization that were "hierarchical" in the modern sense of the word (traditionally with God as the pinnacle of the hierarchy), the term came to refer to similar organizational methods in more general settings.
A hierarchy can link entities either directly or indirectly, and either vertically or horizontally. The only direct links in a hierarchy, insofar as they are hierarchical, are to one's immediate superior or to one of one's subordinates, although a system that is largely hierarchical can also incorporate other organizational patterns. Indirect hierarchical links can extend "vertically" upwards or downwards via multiple links in the same direction. All parts of the hierarchy which are not vertically linked to one another can nevertheless be "horizontally" linked by traveling up the hierarchy to find a common direct or indirect superior, and then down again. This is akin to two co-workers, neither of whom is the other's boss, but both of whose chains of command will eventually meet.
These relationships can be formalized mathematically; see hierarchy (mathematics).
Organisms are also commonly described as assemblies of parts (organs) which are themselves assemblies of yet smaller parts. When we observe that the relationship of cell to organ is like that of the relationship of organ to body, we are invoking the hierarchical aspects of physiology. (The term "organic" is often used to describe a sense of the small imitating the large, which suggests hierarchy, but isn't necessarily hierarchical.) The analogy of organ to body also extends to the relationship of a living being as a system that might resemble an ecosystem consisting of several living beings; physiology is thus hierarchically nested in ecology.
In physics, the standard model of reasoning on the nature of the physical world decomposes large bodies down to their smallest particle components. Observations on the subatomic (particle) level are often seen as fundamental constituent axioms, on which conclusions about the atomic and molecular levels depend. The relationships of energy and gravity between celestial bodies are, in turn, dependent upon the atomic and molecular properties of smaller bodies. In energetics, energy quality is sometimes used to quantify energy hierarchy.
In this system, the three (or four with Algonquian languages) persons are placed in a hierarchy of salience. To distinguish which is subject and which object, inverse markers are used if the object outranks the subject.
In music, the structure of a composition is often understood hierarchically (for example by Heinrich Schenker (1768–1835, see Schenkerian analysis), and in the (1985) Generative Theory of Tonal Music, by composer Fred Lerdahl and linguist Ray Jackendoff). The sum of all notes in a piece is understood to be an all-inclusive surface, which can be reduced to successively more sparse and more fundamental types of motion. The levels of structure that operate in Schenker's theory are the foreground, which is seen in all the details of the musical score; the middle ground, which is roughly a summary of an essential contrapuntal progression and voice-leading; and the background or Ursatz, which is one of only a few basic "long-range counterpoint" structures that are shared in the gamut of tonal music literature.
The pitches and form of tonal music are organized hierarchically, all pitches deriving their importance from their relationship to a tonic key, and secondary themes in other keys are brought back to the tonic in a recapitulation of the primary theme. Susan McClary connects this specifically in the sonata-allegro form to the feminist hierarchy of gender (see above) in her book Feminine Endings, even pointing out that primary themes were often previously called "masculine" and secondary themes "feminine."
In all of these examples, there is an asymmetry of 'compositional' significance between levels of structure, so that small parts of the whole hierarchical array depend, for their meaning, on their membership in larger parts.
In the work of diverse theorists such as William James (1842–1910), Michel Foucault (1926–1984) and Hayden White, important critiques of hierarchical epistemology are advanced. James famously asserts in his work "Radical Empiricism" that clear distinctions of type and category are a constant but unwritten goal of scientific reasoning, so that when they are discovered, success is declared. But if aspects of the world are organized differently, involving inherent and intractable ambiguities, then scientific questions are often considered unresolved. A hesitation to declare success upon the discovery of ambiguities leaves heterarchy at an artificial and subjective disadvantage in the scope of human knowledge. This bias is an artifact of an aesthetic or pedagogical preference for hierarchy, and not necessarily an expression of objective observation.
Feminists, Marxists, anarchists, communists, critical theorists and others, all of whom have multiple interpretations, criticize the hierarchies commonly found within human society, especially in social relationships. Hierarchies are present in all parts of society: in businesses, schools, families, etc. These relationships are often viewed as necessary. However, feminists, marxists, critical theorists and others analyze hierarchy in terms of the values and power that it arbitrarily assigns to one group over another. These scholars look at hierarchy in terms of how it promotes and stabilizes the oppression of women, racial and ethnic minorities, the poor and working classes, gays, lesbians and other sexual minorities, children, the elderly, etc.
A containment hierarchy of the subsumption kind is a collection of strictly nested sets. Each entry in the hierarchy designates a set such that the previous entry is a strict superset, and the next entry is a strict subset. For example, all rectangles are quadrilaterals, but not all quadrilaterals are rectangles, and all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. (See also: Taxonomy.) A containment hierarchy of the compositional kind refers to parts and wholes, as well as to rates of change. Generally the bigger changes more slowly. Parts are contained in wholes and change more rapidly than do wholes.
Many human organizations, such as governments, educational institutions, businesses, churches, armies and political movements are hierarchical organizations, at least officially; commonly seniors, called "bosses", have more power. Thus the relationship defining this hierarchy is "commands" or "has power over". Some analysts question whether power "actually" works in the way the traditional organizational chart indicates, however. This view tends to emphasize the significance of the informal organization. See also chain of command.