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"Institutional hierarchy" redirects here. For social institutions, see Social hierarchy. For other potential uses, see Hierarchy (disambiguation).

A hierarchical organization is an organizational structure where every entity in the organization, except one, is subordinate to a single other entity. This arrangement is a form of a hierarchy. In an organization, the hierarchy usually consists of a singular/group of power at the top with subsequent levels of power beneath them. This is the dominant mode of organization among large organizations; most corporations, governments, and organized religions are hierarchical organizations with different levels of management, power or authority. For example, the broad, top-level overview of the general organization of the Catholic Church consists of the Pope, then the Cardinals, then the Archbishops, and so on.

Members of hierarchical organizational structures chiefly communicate with their immediate superior and with their immediate subordinates. Structuring organizations in this way is useful partly because it can reduce the communication overhead by limiting information flow; this is also its major limitation.[citation needed]


A hierarchy is typically visualized as a pyramid, where the height of the ranking or person depicts their power status and the width of that level represents how many people or business divisions are at that level relative to the whole—the highest-ranking people are at the apex, and there are very few of them; the base may include thousands of people who have no subordinates. These hierarchies are typically depicted with a tree or triangle diagram, creating an organizational chart or organigram. Those nearest the top have more power than those nearest the bottom, and there being fewer people at the top than at the bottom. As a result, superiors in a hierarchy generally have higher status and command greater rewards than their subordinates. ...

Common models[edit]

All governments and most companies have similar structures. Traditionally, the monarch was the pinnacle of the state. In many countries, feudalism and manorialism provided a formal social structure that established hierarchical links at every level of society, with the monarch at the top.

In modern post-feudal states the nominal top of the hierarchy still remains the head of state, which may be a president or a constitutional monarch, although in many modern states the powers of the head of state are delegated among different bodies. Below the head, there is commonly a senate, parliament or congress, which in turn often delegate the day-to-day running of the country to a prime minister. In many democracies, the people are considered to be the notional top of the hierarchy, over the head of state; in reality, the people's power is restricted to voting in elections.

In business, the business owner traditionally occupied the pinnacle of the organization. In most modern large companies, there is now no longer a single dominant shareholder, and the collective power of the business owners is for most purposes delegated to a board of directors, which in turn delegates the day-to-day running of the company to a managing director or CEO. Again, although the shareholders of the company are the nominal top of the hierarchy, in reality many companies are run at least in part as personal fiefdoms by their management; corporate governance rules are an attempt to mitigate this tendency.

Studies of hierarchical organizations[edit]

The organizational development theorist Elliott Jacques identified a special role for hierarchy in his concept of requisite organization.

The iron law of oligarchy, introduced by Robert Michels, describes the inevitable tendency of hierarchical organizations to become oligarchic in their decision making.

Hierarchiology is the term coined by Dr. Laurence J. Peter, originator of the Peter Principle described in his humorous book of the same name, to refer to the study of hierarchical organizations and the behavior of their members.

Having formulated the Principle, I discovered that I had inadvertently founded a new science, hierarchiology, the study of hierarchies. The term hierarchy was originally used to describe the system of church government by priests graded into ranks. The contemporary meaning includes any organization whose members or employees are arranged in order of rank, grade or class. Hierarchiology, although a relatively recent discipline, appears to have great applicability to the fields of public and private administration.

—Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond HullThe Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong

The IRG Solution - hierarchical incompetence and how to overcome it argued that hierarchies were inherently incompetent, and were only able to function due to large amounts of informal lateral communication fostered by private informal networks.

Criticism and alternatives[edit]

In the work of diverse theorists such as William James (1842–1910), Michel Foucault (1926–1984) and Hayden White, important critiques of hierarchical epistemology are advanced. James famously asserts in his work "Radical Empiricism" that clear distinctions of type and category are a constant but unwritten goal of scientific reasoning, so that when they are discovered, success is declared. But if aspects of the world are organized differently, involving inherent and intractable ambiguities, then scientific questions are often considered unresolved. A hesitation to declare success upon the discovery of ambiguities leaves heterarchy at an artificial and subjective disadvantage in the scope of human knowledge. This bias is an artifact of an aesthetic or pedagogical preference for hierarchy, and not necessarily an expression of objective observation.

Hierarchies and hierarchical thinking has been criticized by many people, including Susan McClary and one political philosophy which is vehemently opposed to hierarchical organization: anarchism is generally opposed to hierarchical organization in any form of human relations. Heterarchy is the most commonly proposed alternative to hierarchy and this has been combined with responsible autonomy by Gerard Fairtlough in his work on Triarchy theory.

Amidst constant innovation in information and communication technologies, hierarchical authority structures are giving way to greater decision-making latitude for individuals and more flexible definitions of job activities and this new style of work presents a challenge to existing organizational forms, with some research studies contrasting traditional organizational forms against groups that operate as online communities that are characterized by personal motivation and the satisfaction of making one's own decisions.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Zhao, Rosson, Rosson (2007). The Future of Work: What Does Online Community Have to Do with It? 40th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS'07)

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21 news items

History News Network
Sat, 16 Aug 2014 23:00:00 -0700

The male Stuart monarchs—James I, Charles I, Charles II, and James II—were all determined to impose the hierarchical organization of the Church of England, with its powerful archbishops and bishops, upon the established Church of Scotland, which was ...


Thu, 31 Jul 2014 19:52:31 -0700

“But we think that hierarchical organization and the way that information flows between those scales is the defining feature of biological complexity.” In the last 100 years, there's been a lot of work done on how to synthesize the chemical building ...
Arizona State University
Fri, 08 Aug 2014 11:45:00 -0700

“To many researchers, the complexity of the chemistry is what really defines life,” said Walker. “But we think that hierarchical organization and the way that information flows between those scales is the defining feature of biological complexity ...
National Catholic Reporter
Wed, 30 Jul 2014 04:48:45 -0700

Confronted by these changed circumstances, those in charge search for a response and are hampered by the very factors that characterize their power: their size and their bureaucratic hierarchical organization. Asymmetry prevails. Change is nimble, its ...
Daily Sabah
Fri, 01 Aug 2014 16:24:13 -0700

There were two possible explanations: First, the Gülen Movement had ample manpower at its disposal and such momentary updates could be transmitted through the ranks of a hierarchical organization. It was, however, quite obvious that manpower alone ...


Thu, 31 Jul 2014 03:30:00 -0700

Though Hamas is a hierarchical organization, decisions are made through consultations in which ego and personal ambition play a role, as in Israel and other states. Moreover, there is a deep and bitter rift between Fatah and Hamas, which wants not only ...
Cihan News Agency
Sat, 02 Aug 2014 02:47:00 -0700

Second, since Hizmet is not a hierarchical organization, it does not have a headquarters. As a result, it is difficult to talk about Hizmet's mistakes. One can talk about the mistakes of some Hizmet volunteers or institutions that are affiliated with ...

War on the Rocks

War on the Rocks
Tue, 29 Jul 2014 02:49:33 -0700

It's a seemingly natural element of military life. If not a facilitator of discipline within the hierarchical organization of command relationships, it is at least an inevitable byproduct of it. But when this attitude is carried over into Professional ...

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