What’s the Matter With Hierarchies?

Of course, this seems like a silly question to ask. It is trivial to look out into the world today and find several examples of ‘hierarchies’ that are deeply problematic. But what I am actually asking is this: is there anything inherent to the nature of hierarchies themselves which causes them to be automatically evil and worthy of destruction? Understand, I’m not even talking about hierarchies of Human beings (which by the way, I believe, are justifiable under certain circumstances*); I am speaking about hierarchies in general. Is it, to use a seemingly-trivial example**, somehow immoral to assign capital letters a greater significance than lower-case ones? I admit that this distinction is fairly arbitrary (like so many of the distinctions which go into the formulations of our various social hierarchies), but is it wrong?

More to the point, are all hierarchies (no matter what their basis or how far they are divorced from application to actual human beings or even living creatures) inherently patriarchal? Because judging from what I’ve read, this actually seems to be pretty much the crux of the argument that science is inherently masculine. Now, of course, I’ve beat on this particular drum before, but I’ve recently had cause to read yet another old article of this genre (it’s a PDF, sorry)*** and the main thrust of the author’s argument appears to be:

The epistemology of science is based on dualisms such
as nature/culture, subject/object, and knower/known. The
dichotomy of science leads to hierarchies and control,
which is typical of our male-dominated society. Thus
science has an androcentric bias and a bias in research

Of course, as is typical of this genre, the author does nothing to justify why hierarchies emerging from science are inherently patriarchal, other than by pointing out that patriarchy is also a form of hierarchy. In other words, dolphins are mammals; rats are mammals; therefore all dolphins are rats.

Why, you ask, am I even wasting time reading such ridiculous articles? I am doing so because, sadly, people seem to be bringing them to bear in my defense (or, more accurately, in defense of transgender people): namely, arguing that since biology is patriarchal, biologically-based critiques of transgenderism are automatically invalid****. I honestly don’t know what to do in such situations: I am grateful for the ally, but I could live without that one appalling weak argument.


*For example, in contexts where decisions need to be made quickly and efficiently it makes sense to appoint a (hopefully competent) leader.

**But like all seemingly-trivial examples, there’s actually a deep and fascinating history to this one: interested readers are encouraged to read-up on the history of manuscript lettering during the European middle ages. It turns out that the various choices of size, style and colour are arrived at very meticulously, and are meant to recapitulate the accepted politico-religious hierarchy which permeated all aspects of mediaeval culture.

***Seriously, Post-Modern Feminism of the Early 1990s: Why were you so hung-up on this one issue? Maybe if Science Advocates and Humanities Majors at the end of the last century had spent more time checking-up on what the fundamentalists were up to and less time fighting each other, we wouldn’t be in this dreadful pickle right now.

****I tend to be more of the camp that views such arguments as being biologically illiterate.


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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6 Responses to What’s the Matter With Hierarchies?

  1. zinemin says:

    The idea that science is inherently masculine is one of the things that really bring me up the walls. This is an extremely sexist standpoint. Why not just directly go back to the old stereotype that ‘women cannot think logically’? Of course, it is a different thing to say that the scientific culture is still very male-oriented. That is obviously the case, at the detriment of the scientific output in my opinion.
    Also the idea that hierarchies are patriarchal is a little nuts. As if women as an entire gender were a bunch of free-spirited ideal people who are against hierarchies. I am not crazy about hierarchies myself, but clearly complicated undertakings amongst many people need some kind of hierarchy. If LHC was run by women only, do these people think they would abolish all hierarchies and do things just chaotically? Oh wait, we women would never build an LHC since this is too ‘reductionist’ for us. I see this as an extreme insult to my gender. I am 100% sure that if the world consisted only of women, science and abstract thinking would be as important to our species as it is now, perhaps even more.

    • Indeed, that’s another thing which bugged me about the article: the first part consists (justifiably I think) of decrying the fact that women have been systematically marginalized from the sciences because of old stereotypes of our lack of rationality. But then the author leaps up and immediately starts arguing that science is ‘maculist’ because it values rationality over intuition, and that a more feminist version of science would be less rational. Well, I’m sorry, you can’t have it both ways.
      Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like basing your theories on gender stereotypes isn’t a very feminist perspective.

  2. E A M Harris says:

    IMO hierarchies have their uses (as in getting projects done, as you’ve mentioned). Problems with them arise when people stop thinking of them as just useful and start to believe they have some sort of divine or natural approval and hence are unchangeable.

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