What Is a Social Hierarchy?

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In both the animal kingdom and human society, social hierarchy exists. You can think of social hierarchy as a type of ladder that categorizes people. Hierarchy is often based on factors like race, gender, and socioeconomic status.

How Do Social Hierarchies Work?

Generally, social hierarchies group people based on factors like wealth, race, education level, jobs, and overall social standing. For instance, people in the United States are often divided into groups based on wealth, including capitalistic, upper middle, working, and working poor classes.

Social Hierarchy Based on Wealth

One of the most common types of social hierarchy is based on income and wealth. When you look at social hierarchy as it is divided by wealth classes, you can see that the capitalistic class is made up of people who work in leadership, politics, investing, and real estate. This class also includes executives and large business owners. 

The upper middle class includes professionals in business and managers. Accountants, lawyers, and doctors are often in this class. Middle class workers include those in lower management, teachers, and other professionals, like plumbers and electricians.

The working class consists of people who work in unskilled positions. For members of this group, the only income tends to come from regular wages. They may not have investments and savings. These people include servers, childcare professionals, administrative assistants, and factory workers.

The final rung on the ladder consists of the working poor. These are people who work in low-paying positions and do not have job security like those in other economic classes. These employees include custodians and fast-food workers. Some of these people may rely on government assistance to make ends meet.

Social Hierarchy in Humans

Human societies all around the world form social hierarchy. Hierarchy allows the community to understand who its leaders are, and then it creates a pecking order for all others.

One of the biggest examples of social hierarchy is the caste system associated with India. India had five castes, which were social classes. The top caste included teachers and religious leaders. Next were the rulers and warriors as they were tasked with protecting society and establishing laws. Next came merchants, traders, and farmers, who were followed by laborers. Laborers, while part of a lower caste, were those who performed some of the most important work in the country. Last were the outcasts, who were tasked with cleaning streets and toilets. 

Social Hierarchy in Animals

Animals also present social hierarchies. Unlike with people, social hierarchy in the animal kingdom is often based on physical strength and size.

Wolves provide a great example of social hierarchy in the animal kingdom. An alpha pair leads the pack of wolves. They are selected for their size and strength compared to the other animals, and they are essentially the head of the family. The beta wolves are second in command. They may get to this position through combat with other wolves. Other wolves in the pack are lower in rank. They may have tried to beat the beta wolves in a fight but failed.