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Hierarchies: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the term hierarchies. Hierarchies are present everywhere, in the societies of the past and present, and understanding what they are and how they work can help us gain a better understanding of history.

Organizing History

How organized of a person are you? Perhaps you are one of those rare folk who always seem to have everything in the right spot and know exactly where everything is, down to the individual paper clip. However, chances are your house is a little less than orderly, with books here and DVD cases there, and the only thing to distinguish your birth certificate from last week's junk mail is a manila folder marked 'IMPORTANT.'

History is messy like an apartment can be messy. People, ideas, and the rules people used to define themselves and the world they lived in constantly changed throughout history, making it hard for the average person to recognize any order. Fortunately, one type of tools historians have to help them make sense of past societies are hierarchies. Hierarchies are used to describe the way past and current societies structured themselves, differentiating one group of people from another. Hierarchies are always stratified, meaning that society was separated into groups of people and that those separate groups were determined to be either better or worse than one another, often dependent on ancestral lineage, occupation, wealth, and other factors.

Hierarchies are present everywhere in past and present societies, and once you understand them you will begin to see them everywhere! In order to better understand hierarchies and how they function, let's examine a society from history where hierarchies can be used to describe the society's structure.

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt was a highly stratified society with a rigid hierarchy. Children were born into their station in life - they were expected to do for a living whatever their parents had done - and very few people were successfully able to move up or down the social ladder. If they were able to move up within their lifetime, it was likely only a single step.

Ancient Egyptian society was structured like a pyramid, with the lowest social group making up the largest proportion of the population in relation to the others. At the very top of Egyptian society were the Pharaoh and his family. Not only was he the supreme, omnipotent leader of Egypt, he was also considered a direct descendent of the Egyptian gods and often a god himself. Directly beneath the Pharaoh was the vizier (think the Pharaoh's 'right-hand man'), the high priests, and the most senior secular officials. This select group often followed the Pharaoh wherever he traveled, in order to advise him on the issues of the realm.

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