Hierarchies are emergent phenomena.
One of the things that has bothered me with the several “postmodern” discussions about organizational life has been the disregard for hierarchies often expressed by them. Flat oranizations are superior to hierarchical ones, they say, because inforrmation and knowledge flows more freely between equals. I agree that information and knowledge flows better between equals but I do not believe that this makes flat organizations a good idea.
A truly flat organization would not have a CEO. A flat organization is an “association” in Jaques’s terminology. When businesses decide that they do not need a single leader (CEO or Chairman) but are run by democratic vote, they will be Flat Organizations. Perhaps companies that are employee-owned can be flat. I doubt it, having worked in an employee owned firm. I preferred working in the Owner-owned firm that had open accounting.
I believe that hierarchies form spontaneously. Hierarchy is nothing more than an evolutionary development. The question is whether something else should supplant it.
This is not necessarily an argument for bureaucracies. However, we should note that they did not suddenly appear in 1890 in the German states. Bureaucracies had been deployed by the Romans and the Macedonians, the Persians and the Babylonians, created by the Chinese, the Indians, the Middle East and the Native American peoples (who may have invented it multiple times).
Why in “traditional” societies are there matriarches and/or patriarchs? What does having a stratified society with old people at the top get them? Certainly from a survival of the fittest, one could argue that the younger people were better fit. Besides, these people had already lived out their biological usefulness, having passed the time of passing on their genes when they turned forty. Perhaps people never lived long, but they lived longer as hunter-gatherers than they did as farmers. Agriculture actually reduces the lifespan. As did industrialization.
So why did people band together in agricultural communities? Even if Jane Jacobs is right (that stationary societies grew up around mineral resources, not farming, which then allowed them room to think about agriculture), that doesn’t explain why humans would want to live in an agricultural community when they were actually better off before. Why make the change? Why do English peasants move to industrial centers during the industrial revolution when their life expectancy dropped from almost 50 to 35? What explains this? For that matter, why would all these poor peasants in central America move to these cesspool slums? Why not stay out on the farm?
What is the driving need to civilize, to come together?
Emergence helps explain why we want to sit together. We need to be together in order to have these experiences, sit with enough people for a long enough time. Is it sensical to expect people to move to the city so that they can have a more stable life if that life means that they will die in three years rather than thirty? Sure, if there is something about being together, about what can happen.
Does warfare alone explain it? We band together because others have banded together. We create standing armies because it is more effective in defending ourselves against aggressors, and thereby become an aggressor ourselves. But the armies themselves become stratified quickly. Leaders emerge. If they want to run more people, they find leaders beneath them.
See hierarchy form: find a group of random people and give them a task to accomplish. The group will create its own hierarchy based on what it values and knows. Think of pecking orders that are created.
Is hierarchy, something that has evolved over ten thousand years, something that can be tossed over night? Surely that smacks of High Modernist hubris.
Perhaps societies are evolving towards associations instead of hierarchy, that association is the future. If so, then America has already been there: our associative nature, arising from Protestant mores and norms, hit a peak last century. We were a nation of associations. Will we be once more?
Does increased information speed make us more associative or less? Can information replace the dynamic social environments that housed our complex social negotiations in the past? Are there complex social negotiations between individuals any longer? Perhaps George Herbert Mead’s ideas of social construction have run their course. But don’t they sound a lot like Complexity Theory today? “In particular, Mead’s theory of the emergence of mind and self out of the social process of significant communication has become the foundation of the symbolic interactionist school of sociology and social psychology.”
I think that hierarchies exist for a reason. Tossing them simply lets them go underground. Perhaps the problem is not that hierarchies are “bad” or “old-school” so much as we need to use hierarchies where they are appropriate and use aggressive associativeness in others.
Image Credit: Belgian royal conservatory’s dome, interior with sun. © E. Forrest Christian