So I was in a meeting at the OU the other day, talking to this developmental psychology professor and we got onto the topic of status hierarchies. If you go around a class of children and ask everyone who is popular and who is unpopular you can classify the children into accepted (i.e. liked), rejected (i.e. disliked) and controversial. Then you have another group of children – the neglected – who simply aren’t mentioned by anyone else. They don’t appear on the social radar at all! Sadly although kids in the first three categories tend to move around – the rejected can become accepted, the accepted controversial, etc – the neglected category is far and the most stable. And worse than that, belonging to that category is strongly associated with poor academic performance, with behavioural problems and low self-esteem.

So far, so standard sociometry, you say. What it was that this professor said that interested me was that with children’s status hierarchies you can disrupt them most successfully by removing the kids at the bottom (the rejected, that is, not the neglected). If you just remove the kid at the top then the second most popular kid becomes the most popular, and so on down the hierarchy. Remove the kid at the bottom and there is a tendency for the whole thing to reassemble. A whole new micro-social order is created.

He also said that the same thing was true for pecking order in chickens.

I love the way this inverses the way you might think about the importance of people in a hierarchy with respect to the definition of that hierarchy. The guys at the top are immediately replaceable. It’s the guys at the bottom who define the social structure. Speaking to Matt about this he suggested that it was all about the referent classes that the micro-society uses to define itself against. Everyone uses the people at the bottom as the standard they set themselves apart from, the object of their scorn which they use to demonstrate their position on the social ladder. (At least that’s what i think he meant).

Politically the moral is exciting – if you want to change society, don’t replace the leaders, get rid of the oppressed.

It’d like to hear from anyone who can easily reference this, by the way