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How and why societies assign high rank

How and why societies assign high rank

Summary: this paper is concerned with issues of social rank. We start by noting that rank appears to be a necessity for societies to function amongst the higher animals, and that there are bioloical predispositions that are built into such animals to enforce the recognition of rank. All societies have agreed forms of ranking and status, with which individual citizens may agree or disagree, which they may like or hate. We ask what creates rank, and find that it is not quite what one might think. We then ask how this manifests itself is a number of societies. Finally, we think about the interaction of rank and the idea of national narrative under the challenges that will be raised by the knowledge economy. It turns out that whilst nations such as the US have to make minor changes to these, others - such as Japan, for example - have major alterations to make.

Animal societies

Animal societies

Animal hierarchies have been intensively studied, and are virtually omnipresent in social species that have complex nervous systems. Such hierarchies are established in two ways: by the threat or delivery of physical force and by "social force". Both of these are delivered in bilateral and multilateral ways: for example, a high status animal may beat up an aspirant, or a group of high status animals may attack one or more low status individuals. However, research shows that these attacks are relatively rare, and that rank is policed by social cues, such as body posture, how animals sit or walk as a group, the order in which food sources are exploited and the like. The group establishes norms for this, and polices these with subtle signals which become overt only when an individual persists in flouting these conventions.

It transpires that dominant and submissive animals undergo profound physiological and neurochemical changes. For example, mice which are exposed to a dominant or aggressive individual show marked submissive responses when caged with an unknown peer as compared to mice which have not been dominated, and that this persists for weeks. The behaviour is modulated by specific chemicals, and blocking the synthesis of these prevents the suppressive affects of bullying and stress.

There are other, similar responses which appear to have evolved specifically to complement the spontaneous development of hierarchies. There are good reasons for this: groups without an established dominance structure are riven with sudden disputes and long-running feuds. Hunting bands are poorly organised and sentry duties are ignored. The weak are often completely excluded, rather than being allowed last pick at a food source. In addition, skills for survival in the wild are often learned rather than innate, and it has been shown that - for example - wild dogs are unable to hunt effectively if they are not 'trained' by experienced pack leaders. Chaotic dominance structures constrain what can be taught, not least as there is little predictability in the group and the trainee does not know where to look for learning.

Rank and ability

Rank and ability

There is an important distinction to be made between rank and ability. An animal may be very good at something - detecting predators, catching prey - but have low rank (overall status) in the hierarchy. High status individuals need not be particularly good at any one thing, although their social skills do need to be strong if their position is not to be maintained by violence. Animals which rely solely upon violence do not usually maintain high rank for very long. Lions, for example, assign hunting dominance amongst females in the pride on the basis of qualities that are close to what humans mean by 'reliability', 'courage' and 'steadiness', whilst the flashy fool who runs in too early is treated without deference.

Human societies have a large number of qualities which are used in ranking, and societies differ in the balances that they strike amongst these. Indian society, for example, places great emphasis on a concept that has little resonance elsewhere, that of 'purity'. This is not the same thing as aristocratic breeding or literal cleanliness, but associated with a state of spiritual inheritance, recent behaviour, caste and ritual cleanliness and purgation. Buddhist and Taoist societies have qualities that reflect harmony in the community and the contribution of the individual to this; as well as personal inner tranquillity. Many assign status to the don, sheikh or sirdah, a person who delivers employment and protection in a loosely organised community. Such individuals are given their rank by acclaim, and lose it if they fail their followers.

Underlying these differences are, however, the same animal drives that create alpha monkeys and pariah lionesses. Who stands and who sits, who prostrates themselves and who does not, who can look another in the eye are as much the manifestation of biological hard wiring as they are learned. Military and commercial hierarchies are direct imitations of animal dominance pyramids, no doubt for all of the best of reasons. The insignia of rank and the deference paid to it are, however, far greater than is needed in order simply to define the channels through which information is to flow. This is, however, what information, command and control is in fact intended to do, and such displays of rank and favour are intended both to represent bounds on individualistic behaviour and to police those bounds.

Rank is, of course, policed with great fervour in some societies, from the order in which people were to enter a room to the esoterica of the court of the late Bourbon Kings. Penalties for defection could be savage: a Japanese samurai could and would decapitate a commoner who looked directly at him up until the Meiji restoration in 1867. The last Peruvian landlord known to have amputated the hand of a worker who looked him in the eye - in this case, a seven year old girl - did so in the 1920s.

What confers rank in the societies of the rich nations?

What confers rank in the societies of the rich nations?

The developed economies have extremely complex systems by which rank is assigned. Very often, several parallel and rival system of assessment and potential ranking are active, ranging from how much money a person has to how 'old' is that money, and from fame to power. In contrast to the poor nations - where rank can be concerned with personal qualities such as spirituality or wisdom - rank is almost always about the situation occupied, not about the person occupying it. Fame is any way not rank, and is a construct of the media that is (sometimes) built upon talent, but never made of it.

It is, perhaps, a tautology to say that situations which command high rank are rare, and are also desirable to the majority of people. These also represent an interface, a portal between the space in which they live their lives and a space in which important but occult things occur. Milord stands between us, the peasants, and his peers, who can shape our lives. The premier, the CEO, the general or the high priest all can be seen as intercessors and mediators between the everyday and 'higher realms'. A curious kind of rank is conferred on people who attain celebrity, for they stand at the doorway to an artificial, media-created world, once again as the public's conductor and guide to it.

Rank is assigned to individuals by the society, much as status is assigned to dons and sheikhs. The media greatly strengthen the universality with which this is done, and weaken it by erosion and dissent. People whose capacity to mediate is weakened lose rank. People who mediate into spaces in which the public fears or which it does not value or understand do not acquire rank unless gilded by publicity. This is, perhaps, why a Nobel prize confers an abrupt change of status on its recipient, but a lesser know but equally valuable Fields medal does not. Much the same can be said of humanitarian activities or all of the other worthy categories in which people can excel, but for which status and rank are withheld.

Rank, intermediation and the death of deference

Rank, intermediation and the death of deference

Animals, including humans, are predisposed to generate ranking systems, and to defer to those who are highly ranked. However, unlike other animals, we live within several parallel ranking systems at any one time: national, corporate, family, neighbourhood, religious... We adopt what may be quite different value systems when facing one icon of high status or another. Some agonise over how to reconcile this or that system or values, whilst others are adept at changing "hats" with altered circumstances. The consequence is, however, that no one system is sovereign in most people's lives.

In addition, our idea of rank dates back to a time when most people were ignorant of almost everything which affected them, and so necessarily solicitous towards any intermediary that might put in a word for them in "higher circles". The intermediary did whatever was necessary, and gained rank from the results that obtained. Today, if one is personally ignorant of a domain of knowledge, one can usually find a ready interpreter, and often enough of them to sense in which way truth is to be found. There are, as a consequence, very few true gate keepers left who inspire generic awe, who have rank simply by dint of who they are and what they know. The formerly isolated domains interact in much more complex ways than can be captured by any one person or office. (Indeed, the true gatekeepers exist only in areas which are genuinely "exclusive" - that is, which are attractive but which deliberately exclude the otherwise-qualified. These are usually connected to the "in crowd", and attract the unimaginative achiever who wants to prove to themselves that they have arrived.)

The task of intermediation has not, however, gone away: rather, it resides in professions and in complex organisations. These demand skills of their highly ranked individuals and teams which are extremely demanding, and are based on judgement, experience and "art". To this degree, these people are intermediaries and earn high rank, but this is not a rank which is assigned by the judgement of the community but by small groups and formal processes. Judgement of their performance is (fairly) objective and relatively swift: certainly, there is nothing of deference to the person in the assessment that a market passes on a chief executive.

The upshot of this process is, perhaps, that we have public and private, fake and real systems of ranking in place. The public systems by which rank is assigned to celebrity and 'exclusivity' are, for the most part, flawed. The hidden systems are much closer to the origins of rank, but are apparent only to small groups of insiders. This is as true of how complex systems are run as to how science or other knowledge is collected. Our biological need for authority figures is thwarted, at least in the public domain. The intermediaries and intercessors to whom we are programmed to extend rank are all too ordinary, and have career to tend and personal reasons for seeking power which are all too clear.

Political power once came with an almost unlimited palette with which to pain, and all the glitter that you could wear. Winning the Imperial throne of Rome gave one total power over all of its citizens. There were no constraints on policy: one could declare one's brother a god or one's horse a governor. Today, we have wisely separated the glitter from the hard work. Politicians have, in fact, very little room to manoeuvre when considering policy. We understand how things work much better. There is tightly contested competition for resource. Connections ramify, are better recognised and policed by factions who give tongue whenever their interests are damaged. At the same time, the person of the politician is under intense scrutiny, and they sacrifice a great deal of freedom - and time - in public service.

This is a sharply unattractive career goal, yet there is no shortage of people motivated to pursue it. The kind of person who is motivated to climb these intensely uncomfortable and slippery poles is, therefore, highly defined. They may well score highly on an innate factor, usually called "dominance", where they are biologically-driven to acquire rank. (US citizens who were given psychometric tests as students, and who went on to be politicians, do indeed score highly for dominance. It is well-demonstrated through that such traits do exist and are extremely important to individual behaviour in humans, and it has proven possible to breed them in (and out) of domesticated animals.)

People who score highly for dominance are usually assessed badly when others are asked to say how much they are trusted. The hidden agenda - to dominate, to capture as a part of my tribe - is all too obvious to us. Indeed, being able to perceive this must have been selectively important in our prehistory. This does not, however, link well with the relentless scrutiny on politicians, nor with our trust in them.

National approaches to rank

National approaches to rank

How a nation thinks about rank has a great deal to do with its history, from which current hierarchies of course evolved. However, there is a strong distinction to be drawn between those societies for which rank adheres to the individual and not the post and - not coincidentally - where the newly rich want to present themselves either as having transcended their roots, or as being essentially unchanged by wealth. The story which the evolu tell themselves about who they are a has a great impact on how the society as a whole thinks about aspiration and rank. Such national narratives underpin how power is handled, for example: held by those who have proven themselves able, or held for the collective by powerful people who are mere agents of the popular will.

Such aspirations may be towards elite values, as is frequently the case in developing nations. What tends to emerge from this is a superficially polite society, genteel and politely repressive. Rules are followed closely by the elite, for it is socially embarrassing to be seen to default, and to do so weakens personal status. By contrast, the attitude towards success may be that it is appropriate to present oneself as unchanged by wealth, as being 'still one of the lads'. Under these circumstances, something quite different happens. In essence, instead of the society stratifying and changing, the established pattern of community life under poverty is simply intensified, often in ways which are vulgar and unreflective. Such a society is often awkward with rules and standards. Working class people often have irksome rules imposed on them and may see these as alien, to be evaded or ignored when this is possible. Projected onto a society as a whole, this attitude accepts that rules are needed but that one should be flexible, 'street smart' and evasive of these where they affect the individual. This, of course, makes policing the rules more costly, and leads to a tendency to litigiousness and to increased public expenditure on law and order. Commerce needs to frame everything it does with legal formality, and tasks in the public sector must be addressed with transparent rigor.

Both forms have their pathologies: the polite society can become smug and unable to change, and can be corrupted into insider dealing. Elites are often unkind to those they have left behind, and the general population feel themselves looked down upon and unworthy. The vulgar society can find that it lacks a core narrative about who it is and what it is about, beyond economic production and consumption. It becomes anxious about itself, and tends to set up shallow ideas and icons as badges of national identity. It is prone to moral panics, populist politics and unbalanced responses to events. Its leadership is selected as a representative of these thought patterns and flags of identity, rather than as part of a cerebral policy engine.

It must be emphasised that these differences are not innate national stereotypes, but learned responses and narratives with which nations indoctrinate themselves. There are always several narratives in play at any one time - even under totalitarian systems - and no nation is a monoculture. This said, the story of the Twentieth century has been one in which the industrial societies have shifted their emphasis from the "polite" to the "vulgar" narrative. It is curious, however, the industrial societies now have far more people - numerically and proportionately - who are naturally suited by their education, wealth, age and interests to life in the polite society than when this was at its peak. In addition, several new middle class people will emerge in the industrialising economies, for whom 'elite' is still a term of compliment. It may be that the tide will turn. If such a trend develops, it will probably manifest itself in patches, chiefly in Europe, but also in various focused areas along the US coastline. It will have to co-evolve with the consumerist-vulgarian model, not least as this has huge economic momentum behind it in entertainment, the arts and government.

We can get a fair sense of national narrative differences by returning to the issue of rank. The US has a forthright approach to rank, which is to honour the office but not the individual in it. It is more insistent than many European nations on the clarity of reporting lines, and on the personalisation and accountability of power. Presidents and CEOs have much more personal command than they do elsewhere - save perhaps in France - but they are also held to account for the results. The person of the incumbent is subject to ceaseless scrutiny and critique, although the office is ranked highly. Rank is, however, an objective structure with an organigram, not a vague quality that clings to an individual, like a scent. If a US citizen is rich, then this conveys status but not rank: they are not naturally superior, to be deferred to and placated. If the person has three stars and you two, then he is to be deferred to, without ambiguity or loss of face.

Europe, however, has very distinct attitudes to this. Rank is as much a feature of the individual than the situation in which they operate. Hierarchies are made up from the status of the individual - from le Patron down - and deference is to the person and not the office. A three star general with a two star aristocrat under him would - even a generation ago - been inclined to "take advice" rather than to issue orders. The office was subject to criticism and the incumbent less so: both the French and Prussian systems were fraught with criticism of "the general staff" but it was taboo to personalise this. Much of this is, of course, now diluted, but there is still a sense that rank follows the person and not the task. People enter a charmed circle and then acquire posts that are closed to anyone else; and the gatekeepers of this themselves acquire rank, as discussed above.

Plainly, Europe is extremely varied in these respects and attitudes vary with age, background and national narrative. Areas in which the middle class was late on the scene tend to be the furthest from the US model, whereas those which developed a mercantile centre of power tend to rank outcomes and accountability ahead of individuals.

Japanese and Asian cultures are similarly complex - attitudes to status in India has already been mentioned. East Asian cultures place much more weight on the collective that does much of the rest of the world. Rank was assigned to office, not individuals, much as is true in the US. However, at least historically, the justification that underpinned these was less one of command or control as of intermediation. An Emperor was to stand between the nation and Heaven, thus capturing the essence and acme of rank that we identified in our previous discussion. In companies, a position of authority is less a matter of accountability for operations as accountability for the views and standing of a team. The team undertakes operations, and gains status from other groups by the degree that it excels in helping them further their aims. At meetings, people are always careful to establish for whom they and others speak.

If we are followings a "US" narrative, then any other system of ranking would seem illogical; as it would if we were following a Japanese model. Equally, however, if our system of assigning rank is weakening or changing, then our narrative itself must adapt. The "only in America" model of the self-made individual is a narrative of great strength. That such people do not become aristocrats, innately of rank and suited to give orders on any topic that crosses their line of sight, is a triumph that America - or perhaps British sea captains - essentially invented. The depersonalisation of rank has been a great success, although the centralisation of power within a few offices has presented great risks. These are not the risks of dictatorship but of overload, and - paradoxically - of excessive personalisation of what should be an impersonal and collective enterprise. There are simply too many roles that are bound up in the Presidency, from First Family to arbitrator in civil service disputes, commander in chief and legislative process manager, chief communicator and external face of America. Much the same is true of the UK premiership.

The issues discussed here about the knowledge economy, agile decision-taking and the likely spread of evidence based and rather dirigiste policies all accentuate the problems of current systems of ranking. The US situation and those of its fellows are much better than Old EU or Japan, in that all that has to change are issues of rank, not of narrative. The US narrative is readily adaptable to the knowledge economy - indeed, it is a major factor in the development of it. Much the same is true of the UK and of UK-based companies; or those of, for example, Sweden or Finland, Norway or Denmark. Indeed, it may be that the rank-related issues are significantly less amongst the Scandinavian group, in that responsibility is less focused on a CEO figure and more distributed by process and by deliverable.

By contrast, Old EU, Japan and related nations have issues both with their narrative - of who they are and who they want to be - and with their system of rank, of how they assign power and how they treat such positions and people. There are two sets of change to be made, mutually self-referential and both predicated on 'deep' values that have long historical roots in the language, in folk tales and the arts. The first group, adapting to and shaping the new world, will place great stress on the second, forcing it to re-consider what it has held to be a set of fundamental virtues.

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