Precedence: The More Things Change…

Philip_Reinagle_-_Spearing_the_Otter_-_Google_Art_ProjectBack in the 90s, I waited tables for a while. It was sometime after my undergraduate degree. The service industry gives a window into the lives of people. Waiting tables is as good as going to the zoo if we’re interested in primates.

I remember one “three top,” with three young men in a booth. They were in their late twenties, and dressed in their near-uniform business suits. There, over the remains of a meal, they discussed a business venture.

The Hunting Party

Unbidden, an image came to my mind of the same three men, but in a very different setting. In a different place, or another time, they would have been just as at home around a fire, planning a hunt. This image was a simple insight into how people, no matter the setting, haven’t changed much from their hunter-gatherer roots.

Culture shapes how we act, in the details, but doesn’t change our underlying commonality. These young men, and others like them everywhere, were indeed the hunters of Western culture, focused on bringing back meat from the hunt, or dollars from the marketplace. Their drives were likely the same: increased status, access to resources, securing a mate, and the survival of a family line.

Those were probably not, however, the thoughts on their mind. From what I could see, they seemed focused on planning a successful venture, minimizing risk, and out-performing competition. They did so over a shared meal that likely both increased their sense of togetherness and marked precedence (acknowledged social distinctions based on status) among them.

Establishing Precedence

Being a waiter, I did not have the time (or IRB approval) to sit and watch them closely. Still, having sat through countless meetings of this type myself since then, I can speculate about the general shape, if not contents, of the meeting.

On one level, it was a meeting about a specific project. But on another level, it was almost certainly rich with symbolism, implication, and uncertainly.

Aztec men sharing a meal. Florentine Codex, Late 16th century.The undercurrent of such a meeting could lead us to ask certain questions. Who is the leader? How does he relate to the other two? Is he accepted as the leader, or does he have to put off challenges from the others?

What of the other two in the meeting? Dollars to donuts says that if the leader is secure in his position, he is sitting beside one participant and across the booth from the other. Where they sit helps determine, as well as reflects, their status. Even among the “equals” at this meeting, there is still some semblance of precedence,  whether it is recognized by the participants or not.

Nearly every time people interact, there is some amount of establishing precedence. Who walks first through a door? Who is the host? Who is the oldest? The prettiest? The strongest? The tallest? The most educated? The richest? The best dressed?

In Japan, when two businessmen meet, about the first thing they do is exchange business cards. Each carefully examines the other’s card, noting company (affiliation) and title (rank). They’re not business card-obsessed. With that information, they can quickly know where they stand in regard to each other. They can quickly establish precedence.

Contesting Precedence

Yet establishing precedence is not always as simple as it sounds. There is not always only one leader, as there might be multiple paths to leadership acting in competition or conflict with each other. One person might have status because of wealth, or martial prowess, or education. Then, depending on the situation, you may have different recognized levels of social status.

Positions of leadership, while common to all cultures, reflect the values of a culture. In one culture, being a shaman might be a status position, while in another, such a person might be made to live on the edge of a village. Having $90 million in the bank means something in New York City, but probably less (or at least something different) in a remote village somewhere in a rain forest. A hundred years ago in the West, the status of a woman was almost always directly related to her primary male relationship (usually father or husband).

But it’s easy to imagine that this is much simpler than it really is. Precedence is not one thing, on a scale from high to low. It is the interaction of many factors, as interpreted through not only a specific culture, but also a specific situation. A football hero might be high status inside the high school as a whole, but within the chess club, the ability to play well will be a much stronger factor in establishing precedence.

Knowing how personal factors, such as education, wealth, and martial status, interact with social and physical territory, can illuminate some of the complexity of human interaction. More than that, being aware of these cultural patterns, we can play with them, adjust them, and even work to change them as necessary.

Power, Hierarchy, and Ritual Inversion

The human world is full of hierarchy. As I touched on last week, hierarchy is anthropologically necessary for groups over the size of a band (approximately 150, not four or five).

Culturally, some people have more status than others, and it leads to different levels of access to resources, from food and shelter, to knowledge and education, to political decision-making. In less complex societies, such status is usually achieved. That means that people who have status earned it themselves. This is contrasted in with ascribed status, which is inherited. Usually, ascribed status is the hallmark of social classes, as it allows people’s children to inherit their wealth and power.

Hierarchy and Hegemony

Hierarchy does not always work as advertized. Sometimes we are called on to believe things that are not true or are not in our immediate best interest. Sometimes we are called on to “sacrifice for the greater good” when that “good” is simply support of the status quo. Hegemony occurs when people of higher social status and power manipulate the beliefs of those beneath them so that their power is protected. That doesn’t mean that those on the bottom are without recourse.

Cultures have a way of allowing people to blow off some of that steam without resorting to overwhelming violence (riots and civil war) and massive disruption. Everything from employees griping about bosses behind their backs (a venerable tradition everywhere) to the Occupy Wall Street movement count as ways to express resistance to these power imbalances.

Power and Inversion

When the people on the downside of a power imbalance take part in resistance to it in a formal way that is by a culture, this can be done in a form called “ritual inversion.” In ritual inversion, the rules of society are reversed or ignored. This can be anything from late-night comedians commenting on politicians as the voice of the “common man,” to a day at your job where the bosses serve the employees lunch with their own hands, to a protest march, where those without the social power to make political decisions express themselves and judge their country’s leaders.

Ritual inversions are different from open rebellion. These expressions of social power happen within specific contexts, and follow their own rules. While these rules can invert certain social power structures, at the same time they have their own sets of rules.

On a political march in America, for example, members may say and do things that rebel against cultural hegemony, but at the same time they are likely to avoid open violence, and lawbreaking happens in a ritual context. When protesters sit down in a road, blocking it, knowing that they will be arrested for their actions, it is an example of ritualized rebellion. People of less social status are standing up to those in power, showing their lack of fear and using their own social power to publicly call that power structure into question. At the same time, they are not rioters, using indiscriminate violence to try to tear down the larger system. Protesters are not going to war; they are engaging in ritualized action.

What is Ritual?

Ritual doesn’t only refer to what happens in a church, but any set of actions that are prescribed. Rituals allow for the limited rewriting of the rules of culture within a certain context. Sure, ritual can mean those formalized, stiff ways of talking and acting in certain social situations. It can be the activity of high mass at Christmas, but it can also be a high school graduation, or even something as simple as the “ritual” of meeting someone new, introducing yourself, and shaking hands.

Rituals are activities that change the social world. The religious rituals that we are most familiar with are only a subset of these, often changing the social world by incorporating deities and such into “social” relationships.

Rituals are specific contexts where the rules of culture are changed for a limited time…and they can also, through their completion, reinforce cultural rules, either old ones (status quo) or new ones. A high school graduation changes the social status of the graduates, and is also one of the ways that students can enter adulthood. There’s no coincidence that the end of high school roughly coincides with the transition of children to adults at age eighteen. High school graduation is a rite of passage in Western culture.

Ritual Inversion

When we take the rules of culture and turn them on their heads, but only in specific circumstances, we are usually working with “ritual inversions.” A protest movement, like Occupy Wall Street, that follows social rules even while breaking the written laws, is a perfect example of this process. So, while we can talk about the necessity of hierarchy among humans living in groups higher than about 150, it can be important to recognize that human cultures have methods for both changing and critiquing power structures in ways that prevent total collapse, widespread violence, and civil war.

Human on Human Predation

It is common wisdom to believe that humans, by and large, lack natural predators in their current environments. That is not true; what humans lack is predators outside our own species. Yes, there is the occasional psychopathic hunter of people who gets dolled up in camouflage, grabs a knife or gun, and makes some trouble. More common, however, is behavior that is predatory but not illegal.

The origin of the idea that we, as humans, lack predators can be traced from a combination of the Darwinian scientific concept of evolutionary adaptation, along with the pseudo-scientific idea of Social Darwinism. But if we trace the idea backwards, we find an underlying reliance on the Great Chain of Being, which dates back to Plato.

Usually when we talk about predation, we’re touching on the nature of relationships between species (or groups). “Natural” predation is a moral justification for violence: predators should not be judged as mean or cruel, they just are what they are.

The Great Chain of Being

Great Chain of Being by Didacus Valades
The Great Chain of Being

The Great Chain of Being arrays all existence on a hierarchical continuum. From rock and stone at the bottom to God at the top, the Chain ascends from pure matter to pure spirit. On this continuum, humans occupy a position at the edge of spirit and animals. By holding this position, they are simply defined as being “above” all other animals.

Humans hold the right to have power over other creatures and the physical world. It is, effectively, a hunting license. But by the same token, people higher on the chain within the “human” category have a similar license regarding those below them. On the chain, there is always hierarchy.

The chain is infinitely hierarchical. Even within each category or subcategory (like “animals” or “dogs” or “members of this pride of lions”) there are ever finer subcategories, whether species or social class. Lions are over gazelles, and kings are over peasants. Leaders are over those they lead, and eaters are over their food.

Medieval scholars believed that within the category of humans, some were higher than others. Thus, a King was higher on the chain than a peasant, and naturally had power over the peasant. In the same way, a husband had power over a wife, and parents over children.

[As a side note, when people say that something, like gay marriage, goes against the “natural order” of things, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, this is exactly the idea that they are referencing!]


Theodore Roosevelt – American Hunter
Predation, or preying on something or someone, is conceptualized in Western culture by referring to this same “natural order.” Humans get to eat animals and plants because they are lower on the food-chain (a biological reductionist version of the Great Chain)  than the others. In a scientific and biological sense, this whole idea of predator/prey really is much more complex. We can add in (at least!)  symbiotes and parasites, and not every relationship is wholly consistent. After all, the Chain says that humans rank above polar bears, but I don’t recommend telling a polar bear to his face! “Sometimes you eat the bear…”

In a cultural sense, the Great Chain of Being becomes the moral and ethical justification not only between humans and their prey, but also for unequal relationships between people. We move from an theoretically rule-free competition (as biology really dictates) to a justification of hierarchy. And part of that hierarchy is that people higher on the ladder get to use those lower on the ladder.

Human on Human!

Is there a difference between competing with other humans for resources and treating them as prey? When we think about it at all, we usually figure that we’re not hunting other humans, we’re just competing with them for resources—food, mates, and all the other biological and psychological necessities. And in most cases that is correct.

However, that distinction does not always hold true. The moment that someone, as a human competing for resources, begins to treat other people as resources rather than as fellow competitors, it begins to look more like predation than competition. Looking back at the idea of the Great Chain, we compete with those on the same level, but hold a different kind of relationship with those above or below us.

Why do so many Americans love "Downton Abbey"?
Why do so many Americans love “Downton Abbey”?

Above? Below? Americans have a love / hate relationship with the idea of social class. To look at fiction and literature, they also generally have a very poor idea of its basis. On the one hand, social class is not some inherent feature passed on by “blood,” but is also not some inherent evil.

Social stratification is a necessity when it comes to functioning in complex societies. At the same time, it goes against the democratic ideals of America, and at times can be used to cover all sorts of abuses.

Remember the idea of the “band“? The approximately 150 people that we can effectively link to socially for cognitive and evolutionary reasons? Any group of people that is larger than that requires social hierarchy. So, social hierarchy can’t be all bad, can it?

Democracy tries to counterbalance the tendency of humans, as primates, to hierarchy. It asserts that there is equality, knowing that this is an ideal to be striven for. American democracy doesn’t promote equality, but equality of opportunity. It does not cast aside social hierarchy, but makes a virtue of social mobility.

Yet that does not change the nature of these hierarchical relationships. It just means that, at best, we’re not stuck in the one we were born to.

Intraspecies Predation

There is some distinction that we, as humans, make: between socially acceptable forms of predation and those that are unacceptable. Further, some forms of predation are acceptable by those who are higher on the Chain against those who are lower.

It is almost entirely acceptable to behave in a predatory manner against other humans, as long as it is done so on a financial level rather than a mortal one. Western culture accepts that unequal relationships exist, that they are good, and that they drive “progress.”

Eat_The_Bankers By Adam Smith from United Kingdom (Eat the Bankers) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Ritual Inversion?
Now, a lot of people may disagree that it should be legal, but that is a different matter from whether it is. Even where Western laws exist to prevent abuses, they are often either relatively toothless or poorly enforced. Human on human predation is “allowed” by society (whether legal or not) as long as it doesn’t threaten to collapse the culture as a whole.

As long as people in the West act in accordance with the Western tradition of the Great Chain (reinterpreted for local culture, assuredly) they will remain relatively free to behave however they like. By contrast, it is socially unacceptable, or “against the law,” to hunt other humans with a gun—at least without the specific permission of those higher up the Great Chain of Being / social hierarchy.

Law, Government, Violence (not what you think)

The purpose of government regulation is not to create a utopia. It is to get a bunch of primates to get along…at least most of the time.

There’s a lot of talk about the “role of government” in this or that. But let’s take a step back for a moment and talk about the role of government, any government, when we look at these primates we call humans. Government allows humans to live in large groups.

I’m with the Band, Man

Humans, evolutionarily, do not do well in groups over about 150 people. Most of human evolution took place in groups that anthropologists call “bands.” These bands are small groups of humans, under 150 members, who are generally attached to each other by kinship—by descent and by marriage.

With these bands, only two types of social distinctions were made. One was gender, and the other was age. It was not until the rise of horticulture that people started developing ways of solving social conflict that allowed everyone to stay together. Even this early farming required a certain amount of investment in the land and staying together. Before that, if the groups grew too large, they tended to fragment into two or more smaller groups.

Getting people to work together in groups larger than band size requires hierarchy—at least rudimentary government. If two or more bands had to live together and get along, this meant a certain amount of social organization. This led to the advent of the “big men” (and “big women”) as social leaders. These “big” people were leaders, but their children did not inherit their power. Effectiveness, and not lineage, marked people as leaders.

As the groups working together became larger, the forms of leadership became more strict and more formalized. In time, humans developed cities, and eventually states. The important thing to remember is that basic human behaviors didn’t change much. Our situations changed, but not our basic drives.

A Monopoly on Violence

One of the most basic functions of government, especially state government, is defined in its monopoly on violence. The state tells us who we can kill, and under what circumstances. Yet, as people, we are prone to violence when we find our livelihoods, our persons, and our own “bands” threatened.

The state requires a trade-off. It takes away our freedom to seek redress through violence. In return, it offers to solve those same problems in other ways. This is one of the basic purposes of law, and the reason that law not only restricts violence, but also controls financial interaction, from contract enforcement to theft. Modern law, at its root, takes away our right to violence. It also attempts to regulate and solve the problems that we, as primates, would usually address with violence.

For example, say that a typical Joe-schmoe invests in an enterprise, and that enterprise is a rip-off. Now, as a primate whose livelihood is threatened, Joe wants to solve the problem with a club. But the state, holding a monopoly on violence, says, “Hold on! That is not your responsibility!”

By forming a monopoly on violence, “government” has taken away Joe’s ability to effectively (or ineffectively) respond with violence to threats against his livelihood. If we remember that humans are violent primates, then one of the main functions of government is regulating violence.

Governments never say “no violence.” Instead they regulate it. Perhaps violence in self-defense is okay. Or violence against certain groups. Or violence against outsiders. The point is that government decides what is, or is not, legitimate violence.

The Trade-Off

In order for thousands or even millions of humans to live together in close quarters as we so commonly do, we have emplaced rules against violence. However, at the same time, we have rules and regulations there to prevent the very situations that lead to violence.

In order to live together, we have to give up the right to use violence individually. We relegate this power to the state, and then rely on the state for redress.

That should be the perfect system. Except, as with all things that touch the real world and human nature, the reality is much coarser, and messier. Institutions, including governments, tend to be reactive. If we recognize, however, that the purpose of regulation is generally the need to stem violence, rather than the need to “promote fairness” or any other high-minded goal, then we can see where the slippage comes in.

While law may have its own purposes, government (in its basest form) has no pressing need to address a problem until it threatens to spill over into violence. When we see this clearly, then we can more calmly address what seem to be “failures” in government. Though the system may not work as advertized, it certainly works as designed.