Status Hierarchies: Tacit Consent and Performance Expectations

What keeps all different types of libertarian socialists together is the belief that minimizing hierarchy generates more freedom and equality. Nonetheless, hierarchy is a word etched in ambiguity. The terms power and status are used carelessly. Historically, libertarian socialists, with some notable exceptions, have tended to only be critical of power hierarchies. Feminists and race theorists have long argued that status hierarchies are active within everyday interactions. Status is argued to be performed in everyday life. For it to be performed implies that there is a tacit consent regarding the established hierarchy that is enacted. Cultural beliefs related to status are internalized by all individuals within a society. Status hierarchies operate much differently than power hierarchies. 

As mentioned, analyses on hierarchy have generally focused on power and authority. Power refers to the control over resources or individuals. While power can take the form of sheer force, it is generally converted into authority.  Authority is where power relations have become legitimated and people accept the power inequality as valid. For example, the institution of property is based on power. Property rights are enforced by a centralized agency (aka the state). The state enforces all property arrangements within its borders, but they also authorize others to take control over property. 

Status, on the other hand, is based on shared cultural beliefs related to prestige and dominance (Cheng et al. 2013). There is substantial research that suggests that humans working together in groups nearly always spontaneously organize themselves into a durable hierarchical status structure (see expectation states theory or status characteristics theory) and that humans rapidly attribute status to others. In fact, recent research has even revealed that recognition of ranking generally occurs within two-tenths of a second (Chiao et al. 2008).

Culturally held beliefs related to status help to explain the persistence of group inequality throughout society. Status reflects “taken for granted” beliefs within a society related to the worthiness or competence of one group in comparison to another. Common examples of status characteristics that are applied to nearly every interaction include gender, race, age, and class. While status beliefs form based on the material conditions of society, they are an independent form of inequality. Even when material conditions have been leveled, there is a lag in the status beliefs which keep inequality intact. Hence, the infamous “glass ceiling” phenomenon (Ridgeway 2014). 

Status hierarchies have been studied in depth in task groups like juries. Group performance expectations arise based on the specific and diffuse status characteristics of the interactants. Performance expectations reflect non-conscious assumptions held by the group regarding how they anticipate group members will perform on a group task. Specific status characteristics refer to expectations for how an individual will perform in specific situations. Diffuse characteristics, however, are not restricted to any specified situations, but apply to a seemingly endless array of task situations. Diffuse status characteristics, like gender, race, class, and age, are social categories that interactants nearly always impute onto the individual they are interacting with. Individuals who possess the advantaged state of diffuse and/ or specific status characteristics will: 1) be evaluated more positively; 2) exert more influence over group decisions; 3) be given more opportunities to contribute; and 4) perform more task outputs (Berger et al. 1998). Hence, status hierarchies act as self-fulfilling prophecies (Merton 1948).

Like power hierarchies, status hierarchies are observable through patterns of behavior. Status hierarchies are largely “taken-for-granted” in that individuals typically do not realize they are being enacted. Incorporating status into critical analyses of hierarchy to understand how hierarchical behavior related to gender, race, age, and class is regularly enacted in daily life. Status beliefs serve to legitimate material inequality throughout society.


  • Berger, Joseph, Cecilia L. Ridgeway, M. Hamit Fisek, and Robert Z. Norman. 1998. “The legitimation and delegitimation of power and prestige orders.” American Sociological Review 63(3): 379-405.
  • Cheng, Joey T., Jessica L. Tracy, Tom Foulsham, Alan Kingstone, and Joseph Henrich. 2013. “Two ways to the top: Evidence that dominance and prestige are distinct yet viable avenues to social rank and influence.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 104(1).
  • Chiao, Joan Y., Tokiko Harada, Emily R. Oby, Zhang Li, Todd Parrish, and Donna J. Bridge. 2009. “Neural representations of social status hierarchy in human inferior parietal cortex.” Neuropsychologia 47(2): 354-363.
  • Merton, Robert K. 1948. “The self-fulfilling prophecy.” The Antioch Review 8(2): 193-210.
  • Ridgeway, Cecilia L. 2014 “Why status matters for inequality.” American Sociological Review 79(1): 1-16.
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