Social structures: Hierarchical versus Network Organization


Hierarchy is the very general organization principle that characterizes our physical, biological and social systems.21 Such systems are structured in layers or levels. An excellent example for the success of interdisciplinary science is an explanation of the evolution of complex hierarchical human societies through combining the collection and analysis of traditional historical data with mathematical modeling. The core of the hypothesis is that there are two main governing factors, warfare and the so-called “multi-level selection,” which have propelled human evolution for centuries. 22 According to anthropological scholars, human society evolved from small-scale, relatively egalitarian tribes to the complex social entities of advanced industrialized nations through a multilevel selection mechanism combining competition and cooperation. Historically, tribal social groupings resulted in competition for scarce resources, and tribes had incentives to act selfishly for the benefit of their group members. However, historians and anthropologists have noted that during periods of intensive competition, like wartime, tribal groups have tended towards cooperative practices. Increased cooperation among group members induces firmer social
cohesion, drives technological progress (including military and organizational applications), and results in population expansion. Due to cognitive bounds that limit the number of social relationships any single person can maintain, evolutionary mechanisms have promoted demarcating social groups along cultural, linguistic, religious, and other lines, and constructing ever-larger social hierarchies that have grown to encompass societies of quite literally billions of people.
These interdisciplinary studies show (i) that both altruism (benefiting others at a cost to
ourself) within a community, and hostility (toward individuals outside of our own ethnic, racial communities) are common human behaviors; and (ii) the intersection of the two (called ”parochial altruism”) 23 led to an evolutionary mechanism well-labeled with the slogan ”cooperate to compete” to generate large-scale hierarchical social structures.

Some social hierarchies

Social hierarchies can be traced throughout history, and here are illustrative examples:
Toga and rank Roman society was strongly hierarchical. Among the patricians there were wealthy landowners, politicians, as consels, senators, judges. They could veto on laws. Among the most famous patrician families you can find Julia (Julius Caesar), Cornelia, Claudia, Fabia, and Valeria. The plebians, i.e. the ordinary citizens had to pay tax. A common job was to be shop owner. The plebians cannot participate in government. (One of Rome’s most famous senator, Cicero, however, was a plebeian). The freedmans may have jobs, as craftsmen and traders, while they were free from slavery, they had little rights. Slaves, had not any rights, they worked in mines, farming, road construction etc. During many years of work they could save up to pay to get out of slavery. The hierarchical organization was well-reflected by the types of toga worn.24 Figure 3.1 shows that the color of the toga is a symbol of social status.

The strict social hierarchy of the Aztecs Aztec society was structured by social, political, and religious hierarchies. The election system ensured continuity: emperors were usually chosen from among the brothers or sons of the deceased rule, and they were elected by a high council of four nobles who were related to the previous ruler. The nobles had many privileges, including
full educations and fancier clothes. They might have held government offices, but craftsmen, or even servants, could belong to the nobles. There was some class mobility, since servants with distinction could move up in the ranks. The commoners were farmers, artisans, merchants, and low-level priests. Slaves typically had more rights than we would often think. They had the right to form a family and even to buy their freedom. (Actually, poor and free people could sell themselves as slaves.) 25. Fig. 3.2 illustrates their social structure.

Hierarchies in the Medieval Europe The feudal system in the Medieval Europe implemented a strict ”pecking order”, everyone from the pope to the king to the peasant knew his or her place in the hierarchy.26 The King was on the top of the hierarchy, he had the maximal power. The system is based on the belief that God owns the land, and the King, who rules with the God’s wish, could use this land. So, the King grants the land to nobles for military services. Nobles granted further the land to peasants, to who made the agricultural work, and
other services. Land and privileges were subdivided based on the hierarchy shown at Fig. 3.3.

Symbolic actions of social status
”It’s believed that bowing in Japan started sometime
during the Asuka and Nara periods (538-794 AD) with the introduction of Chinese buddhism. According to those teachings, bowing was a direct reflection of status—if you met a person of higher social standing, you would put yourself in the more “vulnerable” position of a bow, much like a friendly dog rolling over on its back, to prove that you didn’t harbor any ill will towardthem.”27

How does our brain help us to know our social rank?
Do you remember how you spent the first days in your newest job? I would guess many of you collected information about the formal and informal relationships among people. Modern neuroscience has combined brain imaging devices and computational techniques to uncover some mechanisms about how people’s
brain processes information on social hierarchy. 28 An exciting field, social neuroscience uncovers the brain regions and neural mechanisms
related to reflecting ranks and dominance. A brain region called dorsolatereal prefrontal cortex might play a significant role in the prevalence of employment discrimination against women or ethnic minorities, which is directly related to the conservative and hierarchy-enhancing attitudes indexed by SDO scale. So what? Should an ultraconservative guy should tell, ”it is not me, only
my prefrontal cortex”. I leave the story here and let the Reader to think on it.

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