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  Hierarchy is any structured system of values in which the elements are unequally rank-ordered from the most superior to the most inferior. In an organizational hierarchy, authority is distributed so that distinctions of function (and prestige) are rank-ordered between superordinates and subordinates. The caste system in India represents an exemplary hierarchical form of socioreligious organization and values, utterly at odds with the values of Western egalitarianism and liberalism.

The etymological origin of hierarchy is Greek: it means ‘sacred rule’. Its historical origin is ecclesiastical reflecting the managerial principles of the Christian church (see Catholic political thought), in which the pope and bishops were at the apex of the church with privileged access to sacred truths, and the laity at the bottom. During the Reformation, in 16th-century Europe, the legitimacy of hierarchy was challenged by Protestant thinkers, notably Calvin, who argued that individuals did not need the church hierarchy to mediate between them and God. Nevertheless, church organization in the Catholic church and many Protestant churches has remained hierarchical.

In religious organizations functional distinctions represent ascending gradations of access to divine authority where those at the top are alleged to be closer to the god or gods. In secular organizations the rank-ordering of functional distinctions may be ascriptive, that is hereditary, or achievement-oriented, that is based on merit and ability to perform specific tasks. Modern armies, public bureaucracies and large-scale business organizations are examples of hierarchical organizations where positions of leadership are largely determined by performance and experience. Contemporary examples of hierarchical organizations based on hereditary distinctions of prestige include the British Monarchy and House of Lords.

Liberals and socialists accept hierarchies, like bureaucracies, provided they are based on merit and instrumentally useful for the achievement of goals. However, they remain prone to rejecting hierarchical authority, either on egalitarian or individualist grounds. Conservatives, by contrast, embrace hierarchism as a principle, which they believe is consonant with the natural order of the world. BO\'L

See also conservatism; liberalism; socialism and social democracy.Further reading L. Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus.



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