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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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22 news items

National Catholic Reporter

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 ...
Wed, 16 Jul 2014 08:11:15 -0700

Also given the small number of users actually on Windows 8.1 it seems unlikely that Apportals is going to be a big hit. How Microsoft could ever have concluded that users didn't need a hierarchical organization for their apps is a big puzzle and to ...
Tue, 29 Jul 2014 22:48:45 -0700

There is no historical indication that if the latter would somehow manage to survive, it would not eventually revert to its economically hierarchical organization based on intra-species violence. Why? Because [as I have discussed elsewhere (here and ...

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 ...


Tue, 29 Jul 2014 08:45:00 -0700

The paper, “Key players and hierarchical organization of prairie dog social networks,” is published in the journal Ecological Complexity. The paper was co-authored by Dr. Rob Dunn, an associate professor of biological sciences at NC State. The research ...
MediaPost Communications
Mon, 21 Jul 2014 10:15:00 -0700

By the same token it's also worth noting that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, currently the world's most prominent terrorist group, appears to have a traditional hierarchical organization, as demonstrated by the emergence of its self-proclaimed ...
Wed, 16 Jul 2014 00:07:30 -0700

During its time in opposition, the Brotherhood focused on the creation of a parallel state of its own—a strong hierarchical organization that rested on ideological adherence to Islamist principles and a tight network of supporters and sympathizers.
Dallas Observer (blog)
Thu, 10 Jul 2014 09:46:35 -0700

The prison-based Aryan Brotherhood of Texas is a hierarchical organization, with leaders exerting lots of power over their subordinates. The group breaks the state up into five regions, based on the prison system, and the generals of each region are ...

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