Stories, Learning & Place

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Thinking about hierarchies 6/24
   The way of the teacher

Unfortunately, “hierarchy” has in recent years been frequently misused as something of an antonym for “democracy.” When talking about social groups, “hierarchy” for many people automatically connotes oppression. Christopher Boehm (Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior) is typical in rather insistently associating “hierarchy” with dominance, coercion and despotism. While it’s true that coercive orders are hierarchical, so are noncoercive orders. All complex systems are hierarchical.

The hope that the unjust use of authority and power can be eliminated by flattening social hierarchies into an egalitarian fantasy doesn’t get far in the real world. Hierarchies cannot be eliminated from social life. If I form a partnership with a full equal, and we share all decisions, I have nonetheless become a part of a larger entity: the partnership. Though my partner and I are equals, each on the same level in the new hierarchy, there is a new hierarchy.

Even in this simple, egalitarian partnership, the partners much each accept certain limits to prevent the partnership from becoming oppressive to either member. These limits can be accurately understood as constraints coming from higher in the system. The members grant the partnership itself an authority which the partners willingly obey. The two partners are together embedded in a larger reality, which constrains them.

This larger entity is more powerful than either partner alone and belonging to it can greatly enrich the lives of both members, which is why humans everywhere and always organize themselves into groups. The point, for now, is that whether we are subordinate to a vicious dictator or a benevolent democracy, if we are a part of something larger than ourselves, we are embedded in a hierarchy. The question of whether authority is used poorly or well is quite another matter.

The cruel and unjust social hierarchies that have been a constant source of misery through history are not going to be destroyed by wishing them away. Organization is a source of power, and if good people do not create good organizations, complete with hierarchies, then they will be governed by bad people who will organize and overpower them. The question of how to prevent hierarchies from becoming oppressive, despotic or brutal is a serious question, and the better answers should form a part of our basic education, but trying to solve the problems of unjust authority by attacking hierarchy is sort of like trying to solve the problem of divorce by attacking marriage.

I’m not denying, of course, that hierarchies confer power and status on people unequally, and that this is often abused. Neither am I denying that people who are given power or status by a hierarchy easily start thinking of themselves as some sort of nobility, entitled by superior intellect or genetic heritage or something to lord it over others. I’m just saying that such foolishness is not necessary but that hierarchies are.

When the ambulance crew that I’m part of pulls up to a complex emergency involving several patients, we also establish a team leader immediately. We do this almost at random–whoever is sitting in the passenger seat of the first ambulance on the scene–unless that person is a rookie, in which case the people in the vehicle quickly decide who will manage the incident. Any of us can do it. The important thing is that we have a leader to whom everyone will report, so one person has the big picture–someone not engrossed in the specifics of patient care who can think about whether we have enough resources or need to request more, which ambulances will transport which patients to which hospital, and so on. For the duration of the incident, this person is the boss. But that’s just another role, another assignment. It doesn’t affect our underlying equality.

Representative democracies retain something of this. Though we may hope to elect senators with a little more intelligence than the average guy in the street, and though we normally don’t mind providing such people with resources the rest of us don’t have; we rightfully resent it when congressmen and governors begin acting as if they are “above” us in any essential way. In general, I think we have allowed elected officials to get away with much more of an imperial lifestyle than is good for them or the republic.

Many modern organizations are quite humane, having figured out that one limit on how large and satisfying the orders that we create can become–from marriages to families to schools to corporations to cities– is the degree of trustworthiness we have developed and the amount of trust we feel. Of distrustful organizations, economists say that the “transaction costs” increase. In effect, communication becomes highly inefficient, taxed at every juncture. The amount of energy needed to sustain high order becomes excessive.

Herbert Simon’s classic article of some years ago, “The Architecture of Complexity,” provided the rudiments of a model to help understand the beauty and the power of hierarchies. He told a story of two watchmakers. Each assembled watches that contained a thousand parts. The first watchmaker inserted one part after another, sequentially, so that each time he was interrupted, his watch fell back into its thousand parts. If he was disturbed at step 999, he had to begin all over again at step one.

But the second watchmaker had designed his watches hierarchically so they could be assembled in stages. The first stage was to put ten primary parts together to form a unit. He would lay this unit aside and move on to build the next ten-part unit. He continued working until the thousand parts were ordered into a hundred ten-part units.

Then he would begin the second stage, assembling ten such units into more complex units, each with a hundred primary parts. The final stage was to assemble the ten hundred-part units into a finished watch.

Any interruption to the hierarchical watchmaker’s work disturbed only the stage he was actually working on, which never included more than ten steps. A disruption of the current stage could not be communicated to the other stages. The completed units were isolated from disturbances.

Just as not all hierarchies are bad, so not all communication is good. Hierarchies provide stability by constraining the flow of destructive information. 


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/21 at 06:27 AM
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©2009 Michael L. Umphrey
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