Do people always create the same status hierarchies?


It’s been a while since we talked about the inequality hypothesis on this blog. It’s also been a while since I’ve seen any coverage of it elsewhere. For certain politicians and commentators on the left it seems to have settled into the status of fact (“we know that inequality causes all sorts of social problems”), while everyone else seems to have just forgotten about it. The torrent of academic studies has also slowed to a trickle – like everyone’s got inequality fatigue.

The trouble is that there are still some really interesting questions that need answering. One of the most fundamental for me is whether more income inequality really translates directly into stronger differentiation of social status. Just as a re-cap, the inequality hypothesis basically argues that more economically unequal countries will do worse on a whole range of outcomes (worse population health, more crime, more drug abuse, etc.) because bigger income differences mean bigger social differences. The larger the social gap between the rich and poor (or the slightly richer and slightly poorer), the more the social fabric is stretched and torn, and the more people feel a constant sense of competition and inferiority.   

Central to this idea is the equation of income inequality with status inequality. For the inequality hypothesis to work, a steeper income gradient has to result in a more pronounced status hierarchy – more people thinking of each other as either superiors or inferiors. Given the importance of income in determining social standing, this seems like quite a safe assumption. But until it’s been directly tested it’s just that – an assumption.

Strangely enough, what made me think of this was listening to the last episode of the Radio 5 film programme (presented by Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo). After having received an unusually large number of messages from members of the clergy over recent weeks, they jokingly instituted a segment of the programme called ‘Clergy Corner’, wherein they would read out these various missives. This is a message they received this week from a Church of Scotland priest (I’ve paraphrased it a bit for the sake of brevity):

I’m writing to let you know about the moral problems that have been raised by the establishment of Clergy Corner. Unlike other denominations, all our clergy are meant to be equal. We have no Bishops, Canons, Cardinals, or Popes. However, I regret to inform you that, instead of being content with our equality, we simply look for other means to identify who is the greatest. Who gets to moderate our general assembly? Who preaches for the Queen? Who has the largest Sunday School? Now a new method has emerged in our attempt at establishing hierarchy: Who has had the most mentions on Clergy Corner? [my emphasis]

This is unusually profound email even for Radio 5’s flagship film programme, and it highlights a big potential problem for the inequality hypothesis. What if people just reproduce the same status hierarchies wherever they are, with whatever tools are available? The ‘tools’ in this case being any perceptible social differences (including income). According to this hypothesis, people in the most economically equal countries, like Sweden or Japan, just use smaller income differences (potentially along with other social markers) to produce the same level of social status stratification as found in the most unequal nations (like the UK and the US). People in Japan and Sweden are still feeling the same status anxiety and competition, they are just basing their feelings on smaller absolute income differences (Japan is actually an interesting case here – they are one of the most economically equal of the rich countries, but, at least from a naïve outside perspective, Japanese culture appears to place a strong emphasis on status differences, deference, and respect).

This theory has profound implications for the inequality hypothesis. More pronounced status inequality might well create a lot of the suggested problems, but it might not actually vary all that much between modern economically developed countries. Even if it does, it might have little or nothing to do with the income distribution. I’m saying I think that this theory is definitely true (in fact I think it probably isn’t). But we won’t know until we test it empirically. The first thing would be to come up with a good, comparable measure of ‘status inequality’ that is separate from income. If anyone’s got any ideas, they’d be most welcome!

About Robert de Vries

I'm an Early Career Research Fellow in the Sociology department at the University of Oxford. I'm mainly interested in how people are affected by concerns about their social status; how it colours the way they think, feel, and behave. I try and contribute here regularly, but my addiction to writing excessively long posts keeps getting in the way.
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11 Responses to Do people always create the same status hierarchies?

  1. have a look at the work of Christopher Boehm. We are primates where hierarchies are wired in, yet humans evolved in compulsively egalitarian groups in order to hunt big game and prevent any potential alpha male or freeloader from getting away with unfair shares. see for a review. Richard Wilkinson cites Boehm in various texts.

    • So possibly evolving in both has given us flexibility to calibrate our behaviour within a lifetime to suit the type of social environment we find ourselves in. Hierarchical or unequal environments encourage competitive behaviour, whereas egalitarian or equal environments encourage cooperative behaviour.

    • Robert de Vries says:

      Thanks Sebastian. Yes – it does seem that small hunter-gatherer groups have a remarkably egalitarian social structure (group members are chastised if they attempt to hoard goods, or if they attempt to wield too much authority over the group). This would seem to be a strike against the ‘people reproduce social hierarchy’ theory. But I’m not familiar enough with the literature to know how much hierarchy of ‘prestige’ there is in these groups, or how much it varies between different societies.

  2. mel bartley says:

    Very nice bit of thinking Robert. I will show it to Noriko if she has not already seen it.
    An ex-student of David’s is now a senior academic in Hong Kong. once when he was looking for some new research topics I suggested he could analyse class difference in health. “But we have no social classes in Hong Kong!” he protested. So I asked him if his daughter brought home a potential husband, what kind of young man would be and his wife most like it to be. “Well, Chinese of course” he replied. I asked rather insistently if there was anything else that would make a more or less desirable suitor. Finally he exclaimed ” Ahh! You mean colour!”. I have got similar reflections from Sikh (Sikhism abjures caste) and Moslem (not supposed to have castes either) friends. So I wonder if in, say Cuba (at least up to recently) you would find people with different skin colour being more likely to belong to the same friendship groups, eat together and marry each other.

    Only other comment I would make is that the Scottish clergy still have to exist within a very unequal society. In the old days revolutionaries used to say “You can’t have socialism in one country”.

    • Robert de Vries says:

      Thanks Mel. Speaking to people about the inequality hypothesis, sceptical people do sometimes say that people will just use whatever markers are available to differentiate themselves as better or worse than others. I think it’s pretty clear that this happens to an extent, but I’m not convinced it would lead to the same level of status hierarchy being reproduced in all societies at all times. – still, it’s worth testing.

      Incidentally, the one idea I had about comparing status stratification in different societies is the extent of marital homogamy. You might expect that societies with more pronounced status hierarchies would have smaller, tighter intermarrying groups.

  3. Frank Popham says:

    Goldthopre interestingly highlights Japan, less income inequality and high status stratification here – (probably paywall if your uni doesn’t subscribe).

  4. I think you’re right in identifying this as the crux of the inequality hypothesis. To test this would appear to need a cross-national study of how people perceive their social status! A problem with this is that people could ‘big themselves up’ if they feel low-status, or be modest if they feel high status. As you suggest, the theory that status inequality doesn’t vary with income inequality feels intuitively wrong, but it hasn’t been tested yet! It’s more difficult to measure status in people, as primate behaviours like grooming and threat displays have become much more abstract due to language and culture. But the trends in more unequal countries of celebrity worship, conspicuous consumption, and the demonization of lower status groups, would suggest that status is indeed stratified by economic inequality.

    On hierarchy forming itself, some people will always be more equal than others, even in groups that are meant to be egalitarian. But few people think complete equality is possible or desirable any more. The ‘model’ societies of Scandinavia are still unequal, but much less than other countries, and it seems this is enough to avoid most of the burden of health and social problems. Low status may only matter if the people at the bottom of society have insufficient income, no meaningful employment, and no sense of community. But inequality does have effects throughout society – perhaps because in our evolutionary past, hierarchy would have meant a bigger threat of violence from dominant individuals, and insufficient access to resources.

    • Robert de Vries says:

      You’re quite right to say that measuring social status hierarchies in different countries is be difficult! The problem you mention about people who feel inferior ‘bigging themselves up’ (and vice-versa) is a real issue that hasn’t been addressed that much in the literature (at least not in the sociology or social epidemiology literature I’ve seen, maybe some social psychology studies have done something…).

  5. Fr. says:

    Isn’t your final request answered in _Status Syndrome_ and numerous texts on health inequalities of psychosocial origin? I might have misunderstood your “status inequalities” call, because there’s tons of regressions out there with net effects of status on health after controlling for income (e.g. Kawachi must have reviewed the topic).

  6. Do the Presidents of pigeon fancying clubs live longer than the lower status members?

  7. akif akalın says:

    I think that the hypothesis has already been tested:

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