The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

The Ups & Downs of Social Status

Authored by Stephanie Ferrera, M.S.W.

The “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal” is a cornerstone of American democracy, and an ideal toward which our society strives.  We hold individuals to be equal under the law; we legislate equal rights for all to access opportunities and participate in society.  However, despite the talk of “a level playing field,” progress toward equality has come slowly and only with concerted, organized effort.

Biologists have an explanation for the difficulties.  According to Edward O. Wilson, the dominance hierarchy is “a general trait of organized mammalian societies.” (Wilson, E. O., 1998.  Consilience, p. 259) That includes us.  We are like other mammals in our sensitivity to rank and our instinctive tendencies toward dominance and subordinance.

The study of chimpanzees offers unvarnished examples of hierarchical behavior.  In a rank competition between two males who are closely matched in size and strength, one takes a dominant posture—hair-raising, stomping, barking—and the other a submissive posture—bowing and pant-grunting.  Displaying rank in this way makes it unnecessary for them to actually fight.  However, the winning male needs more than bluff and bravado to hold the alpha position.  He needs the support of allies as well as intelligence and social skill.  Frans de Waal in his classic Chimpanzee Politics describes the intricate alliances and shifting triangles involved in chimpanzee social life.  His concept of triadic awareness refers to the level of social awareness that one must develop to navigate a system based on coalitions.  This includes awareness of one’s own relationships and relationships between others, as well as awareness of kinship, rank, close association, and alliances.  “One must constantly keep track of the presence or absence of allies as well as the presence or absence of the opponent’s allies.”  (de Waal and Embree, “The Triadic Nature of Primate Social Relationships.”  Family Systems, Vol. 4, No. 1)

The ways in which human social life is like that of chimpanzees is quite obvious, although we try to be more subtle about it.  What is different about humans is the far greater size and complexity of our societies and the level to which we have taken the social hierarchy.  We produced SES:  socioeconomic status.  Robert Sapolsky considers this “the most permeating form of status any primate has invented.”  And further:  “When humans invented material inequality, they came up with a way of subjugating the low ranking like nothing ever before seen in the primate world.”  (Sapolsky, 2018, Behave, pp. 441-2)

Murray Bowen was keenly observant of the fact that resources, opportunities, and advantages are distributed unequally in families and societies.  He was clear about the emotional processes that operate automatically to the advantage of some at the expense of others.  We can use this knowledge to manage our own hierarchical behavior and make the systems we live in fairer for all.

Social status cannot be ignored.  There are extensive studies showing that a person’s place on the socioeconomic ladder (SES) is a significant factor in his or her health and longevity, as well as stress levels and quality of life.  What also matters, as importantly or more so than material security, is subjective socioeconomic status, how people think and feel about their status.  According to Sapolsky, “subjective SES predicts health at least as accurately as objective SES, meaning that it’s not about being poor.  It’s about feeling poor.”  (Sapolsky, 2017 Behave, p. 441)

Given the reality of the permeating influence of social status on our lives, what choices do we have about living with this fact without being overly anxious and preoccupied with it?  Bowen theory is full of ideas on this question.  For starters is the concept of differentiation of self.  Asked whether increasing level of differentiation is equated with power, Dr. Bowen explained the difference.  Power has to do with “exerting control and domination over others.  The concept of differentiation has to do with self and not with others.  Differentiation deals with working on one’s own self, with controlling self, with becoming a more responsible person, and permitting others to be themselves.”  (Bowen, 1978, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, p. 409)

One can work on differentiation by awareness of the natural, automatic tendency to dominate others and managing that tendency within self.  It may be expressed with aggression and coercion, or with seduction or force of personality, or lining up allies (aka triangling).  Hierarchies work well when rank is based on merit, on the level of contribution one makes and responsibility one takes toward the welfare of the family or community.

One can work on differentiation by awareness of the natural, automatic tendency to take a subordinate position.  When under threat, it is hard not to do this.  The impulse is to defer to others, let someone else make the decision and take the responsibility.  It is expressed by going silent, or retreating, or leaning on others rather than thinking for self.  Hierarchies work well when members step up and take the lead in areas where they have knowledge and expertise.  Do not deprive your family or group of your best thinking.

One can work on differentiation by awareness of the triangles and projection process that operate in all families and societies.  It takes careful observation to see these powerful, instinctual mechanisms that result in undermining the functioning of some members, and, further, to recognize and stop one’s own participation in these patterns.

Human societies reflect the groupiness of human nature.  We form groups for every conceivable purpose.  One can be less defined by social class and more defined by self by joining with others on common ground of shared interests, values, and principles.  Status is based on being a respected contributor to the group.  David Sloan Wilson writes:

“In any animal or human society, social status can be achieved in two ways:  by physical intimidation or by cultivating a reputation as a cooperator.  Status is taken in the first case and bestowed in the second case.  In most animal societies, status is mostly of the taken variety.  In most hunter-gatherer societies and many other small-scale human groups, status is mostly of the bestowed variety. …Unsurprisingly, societies where status is bestowed work much better than societies where status is taken.  In fact, the human ability to bestow status and resist having it taken is arguably our most distinctive quality and a precursor…to all forms of cooperation.”  (Wilson, D.S., 2017 “Sexual bullying and the power of norms” in The Evolution Institute Newsletter)

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2 Comments on "The Ups & Downs of Social Status"

  • Kelly Matthews-Pluta says

    Excellent essay on status. I see the ideas you describe at work in society. When thinking about its relationship to family life, I was thinking about the social status in parenting. Some parents who lean toward authoritarian methods would seem to “take” status. Yielding difficult, distant relationships with offspring. Others embrace a open and flexible leadership style which allows for the development of offspring as individuals. Thank you for thought provoking ideas.

  • Stephanie Ferrera says

    I really like this observation about how status works in the family. Adults can use their greater size and strength to dominate, but with risk of alienating their children. Adults can use their greater knowledge and experience to guide children while also leaving room for children to discover and master the world on their own. Bowen seemed to think that the more harm was done by oversympathetic benevolence than by harshness. Something to think about.

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