Ranking and Social Inequality

The Roots of Unequal Social Organization

Sipan, Peru: Newly Exposed Elite Burial
Sipan, Peru: Newly Exposed Elite Burial. Sipan Archaeological Project

Ranking is a characteristic of complex societies in which different persons within a society have different quantities or qualities of power, rights and responsibilities. As societies grow in complexity, different tasks are assigned to specific people, called craft specialization. Sometimes specialization leads to status changes.

The study of ranking and social inequality in archaeology is based on the anthropological and economic studies of Elman Service (Primitive Social Organization, 1962) and Morton Fried (Evolution of Political Societies, 1967).

Service and Fried argued that there are two ways in which ranking of people in a society is arrived at: achieved and ascribed status. Achieved status results from being a warrior, artisan, shaman, or other useful profession or talent. and ascribed status (inherited from a parent or other relative). Ascribed status is based on kinship, which as a form of social organization ties the status of an individual within a group to descent, such as dynastic kings or hereditary rulers.

Ranking and Archaeology

In egalitarian societies, goods and services are spread relatively evenly among the population. High-ranking individuals in a community can be identified archaeologically by studying human burials, where differences in grave contents, the health of an individual or his or her diet can be examined. Ranking can also be established by the difference sizes of houses, the locations within a community, or the distribution of luxury or status items within a community.

Sources for Ranking

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com Guide to the Characteristics of Ancient Civilizations, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

A fairly brief bibliography of ranking and social stratification has been collected for this entry.