What Is a Social Hierarchy?

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Present in both the animal kingdom and human society, a social hierarchy is the arrangement of individuals into a social ladder. In humans, this falls along lines of a person's gender, race and economic means.

How Social Hierarchies Work
Social hierarchies divide the people in a region or country into different groups according to their social standing, wealth, race, education level and their occupations, among other criteria. In the United States, society is divided into six different classes according to a person's wealth: capitalistic, upper middle, middle, working, working poor and underclass classes.

The capitalistic class is comprised of the leaders of industry, real estate moguls and stock brokers. The top executives at many companies and organizations also help make up this class. The upper middle class is made up of managers and business professionals, including lawyers, doctors, accountants and specialists in a variety of fields in both the public and private sector. The middle class work as lower level management, nurses, teachers and professionals in a variety of necessary career fields, such as plumbers, insurance agents and electricians.

Working class individuals are workers in unskilled positions who generally rely on their wages as their sole source of income, including warehouse workers, secretaries, waitresses and child care professionals. The working poor are those individuals who work in low-paying jobs and lack the job security of higher social classes. Fast food workers, janitors and maids are just some of the people who make up the working poor class. The underclass is the lowest class in the U.S. Most often, individuals in this class rely on government assistance to meet their daily needs, and include welfare recipients and others who receive some form of public assistance.

Social Hierarchies Among Humans
Most human societies have some form of social hierarchy. This allows the populace to know who's in charge and the general pecking order when it comes to who's entitled to what. A classic example of a social hierarchy is the caste system at one time used in India. India had five castes, or social classes: the priests and teachers, who resided at the top; the warriors and rulers, who served as the protectors and lawgivers of Indian society; the farmers, traders and merchants, who served as the primary members of society; the laborers, who performed most of the more important work in India; and the outcasts, a group of individuals who cleaned the toilets and swept the streets throughout India, jobs considered beneath other members of society. Attempts have been made to end this antiquated system, though caste distinctions remain strong within the country.

Social Hierarchies Among Animals
Social hierarchies are present in the animal kingdom as well. The wolf social hierarchy represents a classic example of a social hierarchy in the animal kingdom. In the wolf social hierarchy, the pack is led by the alpha pair, usually chosen due to their size and strength as compared to other members of the pack. Most often the alpha pair leads the pack like the head of a family, though they don't make rules or give orders. The beta wolf's place in the pack is as second in command to the alpha wolf. Usually, the beta wolf is chosen through combat with other potential beta wolves. The lowest-ranking members are made up of the remaining wolves in the pack, including wolves who failed to defeat the beta wolf in a fight.