Hierarchy and Inequality in Human Life

Inequality — of resources, status, or power — is one of the most challenging and thorny aspects of human existence. Despite major efforts by numerous revolutionary movements since the Enlightenment, modern society is no exception: indeed, the United States is now more economically unequal than at any time in its history, and hierarchies of power and status are ubiquitous in both modern and historical societies. In this class, we’ll examine the roots of power and status inequalities primarily from an anthropological perspective, examining the social behaviors of our biological close relatives — chimpanzees and other great apes — as well as investigating the basic hierarchical and ranking behaviors that all animals share. From there, we’ll examine power and hierarchy in human evolutionary and cultural history, leading from (supposedly) egalitarian hunter-gather societies to complex, hierarchical civilizations such as our own. Rather than taking a uniformly critical view of power differentials, we’ll cover questions such as “What functions can leadership and hierarchy fulfill, and in which contexts?” alongside questions about the negative effects of subordination within complex hierarchies for human psychology.

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