UCL Philosophy


A Theory of Social Hierarchy

Dr Han van Wietmarschen has been awarded a Leverhulme Research Fellowship to work on a theory of social hierarchy. Here is the abstract for the project:

“Hierarchical social relationships are a pervasive phenomenon of social life. In saying this, I mean to refer not just to the explicit hierarchies you might find in the army or the police force, but also to, for example, the relationships between physicians, nurses, and medical assistants in a hospital, or between footmen, squires, and gentlemen in 18th century England. We are all able to recognize and competently participate in many kinds of social hierarchy. We have, moreover, an elaborate vocabulary to talk about them: we say that some people are our superiors or inferiors; we rise and fall in social standing; we are honored and belittled; we belong to classes and castes; we speak of status, prestige, esteem, and rank. The main question of my research project is this: is there a distinctive, unified, social phenomenon of social hierarchy, such that the wide variety of hierarchical social relationships are all examples of this phenomenon? If so, what is social hierarchy?

One might expect this question to be answered in sociology. The contemporary sociological literature on social status is vast, but it is primarily focussed on two main issues. The first concerns the factors which determine one’s social position. One might ask, for example, whether race or gender are determinants of social status. The second issue is whether facts about social status explain individual behavior as well as more systemic outcomes. Whether or not durable economic inequalities are in part explained by differences in social status, for instance, is subject to extensive research.

Moral and political philosophers, meanwhile, have largely focused on the normative evaluation of social hierarchy: when and why are hierarchical social relationships wrong, bad, or unjust? In addition to this, recent philosophical work has distinguished the hierarchy-related concepts of esteem, honor, authority, and deference, and significant work has also been done on specific forms of social hierarchy, such as stigmatization and domination.

Much of this work is, in my view, extremely innovative and illuminating. None of these research projects tell us, however, what social hierarchy is in the first place. I propose to write a monograph which develops and defends a general and systematic theory of the nature of social hierarchy.”

Awarded April 2018.