How people are socially situated in any given society vis-à-vis others is more than simply a political question, it is an issue of people’s relative “value” as this is determined by the members of a community. In anthropology, issues of rank are often found in chapters concerning political processes. While the consequences of rank invariably filter into the political sphere, the basis for rank may find its roots outside it. In the political sphere, rank clearly identifies the hierarchical relationships of people operating within positions of power and authority. However, the basis upon which these relationships rest may be found within the belief systems of the people.
Rank commonly refers to the social position of people in societies recognizing social hierarchies of one kind or another. These societies are organized according to principles determining the relative value of certain groups or individuals over others. This often has implications for people’s relative access to resources, opportunity, positions of power, and authority within the political or religious sectors. While all societies have some level of status differential where age, gender, and other individual characteristics are markers of relative value, those societies recognizing hereditary rank have more formalized means of attributing value, affording individuals with relative status.
The Trobriand Islands located in the Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea offer a classic anthropological example of hereditary rank established in the mythological origins of the four clans. Each of the clans has relative status to each other, with the Tabalu clan holding the highest rank. As well as each clan being ranked relative to the other three, the clan is made up of subclans that are likewise ranked. Not only does the highest-ranking chief come from the Tabalu clan, but he also comes from the highest-ranking subclan.
The indigenous people of the Hawaiian Islands had a more complex social system based on hereditary rank and classes. In Hawaiian society, people were born into social classes as inferiors, commoners, or nobles. Nobles were hierarchically ranked according to traced descent from the gods, with those more closely linked to godly descent occupying the higher echelons of the society and forming the elite classes of paramount chiefs. The whole system was ranked according to formal rules of hierarchical descent. The ruling elite maintained religious and secular control over the rest of the population, the latter providing tribute in the form of food and other wealth items.
The previous examples illustrate what anthropologists have classified as “ascribed rank,” where individuals and groups find themselves in relative positions of rank by virtue of being born into socially established positions of hierarchy. In other societies, such as the “big man” political systems of Melanesia, men establish their rank by “achieving” status for themselves. In these societies, there is no formal, well-established hierarchical structuring of groups, no positions of rank to be filled. Instead, all groups enjoy relative equality with each other and group consensus is sought in decision making. However, there are some men who seek more status by manipulating relationships of exchange and marriage to build up positions of status. While achieved status gives them temporary “rank” in that people look to them for leadership and direction, their positions are extremely tenuous. They have no official status. Their status is achieved.
- Earle, T. K. (1997). How chiefs come to power: The political economy in prehistory. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
- Kirch, P. V., & Sahlins, M. (1992). Anahulu: The anthropology of history in the kingdom of Hawaii. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.