If we consider "a society" to be a group of individuals within the same species who cooperate for the benefit of the group as a whole, then it is reasonable to say that all human societies are hierarchical to some degree.

Several well known philosophies aspire to a society entirely without hierarchy. However looking at nature for inspiration doesn't help much as it seems that all social animals from mammals, to birds, to fish to insects have a hierarchical social structure. From an evolutionary perspective it can be argued that this makes sense as without a social structure aggression and violence is much more likely in order to assert access to food and breeding rights, sacrificing rank in society for a low risk albeit slightly reduced access to food and mates could therefore be a sensible trade off. In addition leadership prevents group fragmentation and subsequent vulnerability to predators.

The question is therefore is hierarchy inherent to and/or necessary for the existence of Society?

  • When you talk about "hierarchical (social) structure", are you referring to a specific mathematical structure? Is it one of preorder, total preorder or total order? Commented Sep 9, 2013 at 23:33
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    This question sounds more like a discussion opener than a Stack Exchange question, if I understand the rules correctly. You can ask for books and papers about social philosophy, but I doubt we'll find any consensus here. Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 5:00
  • If society is a mutual agreement then anything can be. You underestimate possibilities though. There can be hierarchical societies which are totally fare. For example the rotating hierarchy. Every member must take every place in hierarchy for some time. Then start over.
    – Asphir Dom
    Commented Sep 11, 2013 at 12:53
  • @Keven Holmes, that's the problem with philosophy.stackexchange. The entire Stackexchange family of sites is designed for questions to be answered. In philosophy none of the questions ever get answered, just discussed. I assume people here have noted this before. Commented Sep 14, 2013 at 2:26
  • @Kevin Holmes yes you're right it was really a discussion opener, I don't think this is really a question that can be definitively answered. Are you supposed to only answer answerable questionsas in "where can I find research on the need for hierarchy in society"? Commented Sep 14, 2013 at 7:17

7 Answers 7


Anthropologist David Graeber did his doctoral work on Madagascar, the 2nd to last large landmass to become permanently inhabited by humans, and gave this great talk about what we can learn about the 'state of nature' from it. He contends that highly unequal societies, eg those with slaves, are unstable & when they dissolve cultural tactics emerge to resist a return to that - that what we see Native American cultures is not simply human 'instincts' manifesting, but the results of long tussles between more & less violent & hierarchial groups, largely settled in the absence of new technologies entering the scene, in favour of minimal hierarchy.

Exactly what is meant by hierarchy is crucial. Graeber says in Native American cultures being a chief meant working harder, getting up earlier every day & doing more, but above all, being pursuasive. So is that hierarchy?

Gobekli Tepe is thought to be the first known megalithic structure, & built by hunter-gatherers - archaeologists suggest it implies there must have been a hierarchy there, to build it. I suspect that argument relates to their definitions, and things like division of labour.

Economists Pickett & Wilkinson wrote 'The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better' and 'The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone's Well-Being'. They make a detailed numbers-based argument about the corrosive effects of inequality, relating it to things like crime & security costs, and multiple measures of internal wellbeing, include haming the wealthy & elite where inequality is still also a net-negative (Markovits analyses that specific issue in more depth in The Meritocracy Trap).

How we perceive human nature nature will have a big impact. Hobbes who lived through the English Civil war, saw a tyrant as essential to stop 'the war of all against all'. Rousseau saw the state of nature as the ideal, and so city living & it's discontents as intrinsically corrupting - he got to live a largely charmed life avoiding consequences of his actions though, like by sending more than half a dozen illegitimate children to the orphanage.

Jonathan Haidt's research has shown links between threat-perception during key formative years, teens to about 25 when our prefrontal cortex is being fine-tuned, to attitudes that shape our whole lives. The schism between Baby Boomers & the World War generation is particularly notable - & Boomer optimism went with the greatest increase in equality ever in human history.

The Dunbar Number indicates humans evolved for social group sizes of around 150. This is supported by archeology, the Domesday Book village sizes, the number of faces we can remember, & other indications. Cities are very modern in evolutionary terms, linked directly to animal domestications & emergence of writing. Very little genetic change has happened in that time. Their utility seems to be about the memetic. Our eusociality, our hive-like behaviour, seems to link to this scale, with reproduction inequality of that order.

Chimpanzees do not have single strongest individuals, like gorillas. Males have to firm a coalition, with substantial grooming services & preferential treatment of supporters. Bonobos, our closest relatives, have greatly extended social grooming to diffuse tensions, they have frequent sex. Humans are not that like either group. Was discussing recently the role of humour in diffusing tensions, allowing feelings to be expressed and tensions relieved in a context defined as play, & this seems like it might be an under-recognised human advantage - 'good sense of humour' was the top requested trait in posting of romance adverts in singles sections of newspapers, suggesting after physical traits it is of uniquely high desirability.

Anarcho-syndicalism in Spanish Civil War-era Catalonia was very successful in running the economy and militarily, Franco arguably only won because of Nazi support.

I like this comic strip framing very very much:


Define your terms, pick your discourse, state what you wish to determine specifically, to reach a settled answer. But I hope here are some alternative perspectives you might not have encountered that play against the seeming 'default' of Jordan Peterson-esque appeals-to-nature (lobsters do it so we must), or Randian championing of the status quo untethered from any research whatsoever.

  • "humans evolved for social group sizes of around 150." -- less than that, probably (< 100 on average), and it wasn't a "social group", it was a family Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 0:39
  • "like this comic strip framing very very much" -- and I get it... I understand what you are struggling with, because that same issue effectively defined our "civilization" since the Bronze Age collapse 3,000 years ago -- you don't have no concept of truth*! <== that is NOT to say you don't know what IS true -- of course you do, everyone does! But, you don't know what it means to be true, what makes something true. Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 0:56
  • ... and if you ask how could we even survive for millennia without something as basic, as fundamental as truth? -- I would say it has definitely been a challenge. Not a single day without war. Our lives have been defined by never-ending violence and oppression, and you know what is funny? -- none of it could be justified rationally. It benefited no one in terms of happiness. It only added to everyone's misery, made everyone suffer. <== that's the price for living without truth, for not seeing where one is going, for not knowing what one is doing. Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 1:26
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    @YuriAlexandrovich Please stop having off-topic discussions in comments. Feel free to discuss your marginal view in chat.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Dec 10, 2020 at 15:45
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    Upvoted just for the cartoon!
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 10, 2020 at 16:41

Humans are always trying to gain as much control over the world and its resources as they can. We are always obsessed with science and engineering in order to gain knowledge of our world, so that we can control it even further. We even have social sciences to attempt to control our own species.

Humans will take any opportunity they can to gain more control over their natural environment, and other humans who form part of the environment are no exception. If a human can control another human with limited repercussions, he will attempt to do so, either subtly or through a formal institution.

Because all humans are not made equal (I do not mean this as an ethical statement about human rights, but about the human genome), they will naturally compete for control of each other, and there will be a victor. The victor will naturally dominate the others, simply because he can - and humans will never pass up an opportunity for further control of their available resources.

  • I think this is a good partial answer to the question, possibly because I asked the question badly! You seem to be saying that you think that humans will naturally try to dominate each otehr given the opportunity, which I pretty much agree with, however the question is more general than that and relates to society human or animal and whether hierarchy is necessary for it to function. Is society without any form of intra-group dominance something that can ever exist? Commented Sep 9, 2013 at 8:44
  • "Humans will take any opportunity they can to gain more control over their natural environment", but then why do people who believe in hierarchy-less society exist? E.g. I wouldn't take an opportunity to gain control over natural environment through hard force, therefore am I exception?
    – rus9384
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 17:53
  • "Humans are always trying to gain as much control over the world and its resources as they can. " Is that justifiable? We have been modern humans for more than 100,000 years, but only hoarding more than we can possibly use in modern times. Many societies stayed largely the same for longer than continuous European civilisation has existed."because he can" Our social structure is not that of gorillas.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 0:24

As the examples you point out show societies do not exist without some form of social differentiation. Aristotle, for example, marked out five kind of political organisation - from monarchy to tyranny.

I'd be very surprised if any social philosophy in its mature form discounted social differentation of any kind. The question usually is to what extent and to what forms.

For example, ideally, all persons are equal before the law; which one can consider as an egalitarian concept - does not mean that there is no social differentiation; for then there are citizens (those who are under the law), judges (who apply the law), police (who enforce the law) and prisoners (whose citizenship is curtailed).

  • Equal before the law is an absurdity in today's context. This is practically now a lie. Laws are created by the ones in power to prevent the rest from getting too much power. While that, stealing a bread gives you more jail time than stealing millions of $ in many 'democratic' countries.
    – Overmind
    Commented May 15, 2018 at 8:57
  • @overmind: Sure; unfortunately the finance-business lobby have far too much power as the recent financial crash only too clearly showed. The law, at that level, does not have enough teeth. Commented May 20, 2018 at 10:36

Do cells have hierarchy (neurons, schwann cells, glial cells)? Do atoms have hierarchy (electrons, protons, neutrons, iron, copper)? Are these not natural occurring phenomena? Speaking as someone with limited sociological knowledge yet as someone with psychobio knowledge, the only societies which exist without hierarchy are basketball courts and soccer fields. A forward, defensive player, rebounder, goal tender are not hierarchical, they are "positions" the same way that a proton, neutron and electron are not hierarchical - but without their existence in the organism, it collapses. Hierarchy may change with the adjustment of the construct and the language itself - "positions" versus hierarchical "titles". I.e. a "King" or "president" is a hierarchical title, but an "Engineer" or "forward" or "coach" is not hierarchical - it is "positional" in a sense. In short terms, no one is higher than another on a baseball field (more skilled is a different story which is also arguably subjective at times) - but if we can agree that a baseball pitch, soccer pitch, or basketball court can be a platform for a society, there is no hierarchy there. I invite thoughts.

  • "without hierarchy are basketball courts and soccer fields" What about star strikers? Magi Johnson's success on court made him hugely rich, differentiating him even on court.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 12:30

If all individuals think the same, there's no need of a leader, and there's no possibility of a hierarchy. But expecting all individuals to think identically is utopic.

Hierarchy is the result of natural differences. When two individuals are different in some matter, one tends to lead the action. The differences could be physical or mental (in fact, depending on the domain, typical leaders are either strong or smart people).

So, the only way for hierarchical structures to disappear is if all individual are identical, which is impossible. In practice, different capabilities tend to result in hierarchies.

Some groups try to avoid hierarchies (the aymaras of the Andes live in extreme conditions, so they need to cooperate constantly, social structures tending to be more horizontal than those of western civilization groups), but the fact is that in spite of such ideal, implicit leaders will always raise, implying more power and effective hierarchies.


Can a society exist without hierarchy?

Yes, absolutely! A human society can -- and should! -- have no power hierarchy. The fact that we routinely resort to imposing our will on others, is but a testament to our failure as human beings. No less.

Just think about it for a second. We share the same reality. We ourselves are a part of it. I would be hard-pressed to think of a valid statement that would not be objectively true or false.

And if we disagree about something objective, it means one of us (at least) is wrong.1

That, in turn, means we would want to get to the bottom of it ASAP! Because until we know exactly whose ideas were wrong and in what way, neither of us can be sure of the soundness of choices -- the past, or the future ones!2, 3

In other words, save different personal tastes,4 we should never be in disagreement about anything! -- much less so about something important.

That simply leaves no room for having conflicts, much less for going through all the troubles of imposing one's will on the others. Not just the hierarchy of, but the very concept of power makes zero sense. You see things differently? -- well, show me your model and let's talk about that!

So no, there is no rational reason for having a power hierarchy. What is the cause, then, for our persistent failure to act rationally? -- well, I have some ideas, but that's a different question.


1 And no, there are no reasons why we would have to struggle to understand what the other person actually meant to say. After all, words are mere references to the concepts in our minds, and those concepts describe the same reality, or people just like ourselves.

2 If there's a better definition of existential crisis, I would love to hear it. And if there is a better example of insanity than responding to it by "agreeing to disagree" -- I would definitely like to hear that too.

3 While our primary motivation (for casually sharing our opinions with others and welcoming others to share theirs with us) might be a rather selfish hope that they might prove us wrong {and thus, patch a gap in our understanding for free), helping others is just as important -- because their mistakes can hurt anyone, and because keeping them up to date knowledge-wise makes them better equipped to return the favor in the future

4 ... which too should be dealt with in the same way we act towards people in general -- with fairness, respect, dignity, and compassion

  • What about knowledge hierarchies, teacher-student? How do you know the essence of being a good human? What about value judgements, like on capital punishment or abortion, can't we disagree in valid ways based on our paradigms?
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 12:27
  • 1. A teacher seeks to be proven wrong just like everyone else... even better if by his own student. 2. I know like everything else -- by having a model and getting every testable predictions out of it (so far, everything checks out). 3. Knowledge is the only virtue. I nerver heard about "paradigms", but feel free to educate me. Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 16:22
  • What about an engineer where a thorough grounding is needed to work safely? And are you familiar with the Dunning-Kruger effect?
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 16:33
  • yeah yeah... here's some insider info for you: Dunning-Kruger = PhD depression + noise (like duh!... of course idiots think they know everything <== that's Socrates, btw) Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 17:02
  • the depression part was, actually, covered earlier -- "The learning of many things does not teach understanding; otherwise, it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and again Xenophanes and Hecataeus." <== i don't know them Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 17:27

All relationships between individuals should be conscious, not behaviouristic and/or based on some external system of values (POV). There are indeed persons of a higher degree of consciousness - more mature individuals with larger life experience. They are natural leaders in any human society.

A human society based on consciousness where the best benefit of the whole has been recognized as stemming from the natural self-interest of human beings. That means that as long as individuals work for themselves, the whole of society will gain maximum growth.

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