In this quest, I have had many allies. Talented sociologists, past and present, have contributed to building a wealth of unexpected insights. Nevertheless, a large proportion of contemporary sociologists function more as moralists than social scientists.
These latter folks are more concerned with promoting pre-established moral agendas than unearthing new facts. An example of this tendency has been provided by a shift in how they conceive of their subject matter. Thus, where once they talked about social stratification (i.e., social class differences), today they study inequalities.
“Inequality” is, of course, a loaded term. It is tendentious, that is, it incorporates an unstated moral judgment. We in the United States, given our Jeffersonian heritage, cannot but assume that inequality is bad. Having been told, from our tenderest years, that equality is an unalienable right, we believe it is.
Now whether it is, or isn’t, is not my current concern. The issue I wish to address is whether pursuing an unexpressed moral agenda is inimical to good science. When one’s moral goals take precedence over the search for truth, is it possible to discover the truth?
One of my professional idols, Max Weber, insisted that sociology should be value-neutral. He contended that whatever our personal commitments, we must leave them at the door when we put on our scientific hats. Yes, we can have moral convictions, but these should not blind us to unwelcome realities.
For me, this is the bedrock of genuine science; hence I try to utilize it as a beacon while navigating the shoals of unexplored knowledge. As a result, instead of studying “inequalities,” I have investigated the ins and outs of human hierarchies.
In particular, I have studied how social hierarchies are created and maintained. Rather than assume that equality is the normal human condition — as many sociologists do — I have explored what people do when they engage in ranking themselves relative to others.
As a consequence, I have come to the conclusion that we are hierarchical animals. All of us, the elites and the underclasses, seek to improve our status in comparison with others. We want to be winners and not losers. Indeed, so important do we find this that we sometimes put our lives on the line in its pursuit.
My conclusions have recently been published in a book entitled “Human Hierarchies: A General Theory” (Transaction Publishing). Much to my amazement, this title seems not to have previously been utilized. Apparently the idea that we are an inherently hierarchical species has had limited appeal.
Yet, if I am correct, it is impossible to understand why we behave the ways we do without placing our conduct in a hierarchical perspective. Thus, we today find ourselves in the midst of class warfare. This could not happen if we did not divide ourselves according to differences in social power.
Are the wealthy bad people? Are the poor sainted victims? Why do some people come to these conclusions? And are the lessons they draw valid? Without disinterestedly examining what is taking place, it is doubtful that the truth can be reached.
For my own part, I have concluded that ranking systems are inevitable and that everyone, from the top to the bottom, participates in perpetuating them. What is open to change is how they are constructed — not whether they will exist.
This is not to say that hierarchy is always fair. Clearly, it frequently is not. But neither is it to suggest that we can totally eliminate unfairness. We cannot. Moral improvements can be effectively pursued, but only if we recognize the limits of what is possible.
Melvyn L. Fein Ph.D. is a professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University