The most common use of the term “rank” in anthropology is to designate one type of society among three (the others being egalitarian and class) regarding the people’s access to economic resources, sociocultural power, and status. As stated in Cultural Anthropology (2004), “Rank societies do not have very unequal access to economic resources or to power, but they do contain social groups with unequal access to prestige. Rank societies, then, are partly stratified.” The most complex ranking systems are found in Polynesia.
Status (or prestige) refers to a social position with a distinction usually made between “ascribed” and “achieved.” Ascribed status is assigned, often on the basis of birth, with age and sex being important markers and with some societies using perceived “race” and ethnicity to assign status. Achieved status is attained through the behavior of an individual, often in terms of occupation and skills and actions. The king of England is an ascribed status; a professor of anthropology is an achieved status. These types of statuses may, however, intermix; we now have third-generation anthropologists, and the line of succession in some royal families is in question.
Membership in social groups can also be ascribed or achieved. In ascribed groups, membership is acquired at birth and is non-voluntary. Assembling people into multipurpose groups on the basis of ascribed categories is one of the chief principles of group formation in nonindustrial societies. The most common types of ascriptive multipurpose groups are also based on age, sex, ethnicity, and kinship. Groups based on achievement are usually called voluntary groups or special-purpose groups. These voluntary associations are found less often in nonindustrial societies, and when they are found, such as hunting groups, they are quite temporary.
Typically, social groups are ranked, not individuals, though the literature often uses the position of chief as an example. More accurately, the chief belongs to a social group that is ranked high in status. And the position of chief is at least partially hereditary. Typically, each kin group has its own unique rank in relation to the other kin groups, and within each kin group, individuals are ranked by genealogical seniority. In any case, the chief is treated with deference, as has been noted in most ethnographies from Oceania, such as Raymond Firth’s excellent study in the 1920s of the Tikopia. People may have to keep their head lower than that of the chief, and chiefs may receive gifts and have substantial storehouses, but these surpluses are usually given away in public feasts. And the chief cannot order people to work or to give him gifts.
Citing a study of Ifaluk by Laura Betzig (1988), which found that the chiefs seem to be economically better off than the commoners, Carol R. Ember and Melvin Ember caution, “Is this true in other societies conventionally considered to be rank societies? We do not know….But rank societies may not have had as much economic equality as we used to think.”
- Ember, C. R., & Ember, M. (2004). Cultural anthropology (11th ed.). New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.