On Hierarchy and Sociology

The Browser (which, if you can, you should seriously consider subscribing to) recently linked to an excellent article by Malcolm Gladwell.

It’s a very short read, but one paragraph stood out for me.

But before we get to that, here is what I wrote a couple of months ago:

The worst kind of zero sum games are those involving status and hierarchy as end goals. Unfortunately, these also are the most prevalent, no matter where you go and what you do.


And now here’s the paragraph from Malcolm’s article:

The first is a sociological observation. One of the core concepts in cross-cultural studies is “power distance,” which refers to the degree to which a culture values hierarchy. Places such as France and Saudi Arabia and Colombia have high power-distance cultures: authority, in all its manifestations, matters a lot there. Places such as Australia and Israel are low power-distance cultures. A friend of mine, who was the Middle East correspondent for a major newspaper, once told me that he would sometimes call the Israeli Prime Minister’s residence, and the Prime Minister would pick up. That’s low power distance. I guarantee you that the President of France does not answer his own phone.


What is “power distance’? As Malcolm himself points out, it is the degree to which a culture values hierarchy. This can be the number of “layers” you must get through before you are able to reach somebody with the ability and willingness to make a decision in an organization, it can the insistence on the use of honorifics, or something much more subtle (but all too noticeable if only your antennae are attuned enough to be able to see).

Consider this explanation:

Power distance refers to the extent to which less powerful members of organizations and institutions (including the family) accept and expect unequal power distributions. This dimension is measured not only from the perspective of the leaders, who hold power, but from the followers. In regard to power distribution, Hofstede notes, “all societies are unequal, but some are more unequal than others.”
In a large power distance society, parents teach children obedience, while in a small power distance society parents treat children as equals. Subordinates expect to be consulted in small power distance societies, versus being told what to do in large power distance societies.


I debated about whether or not to include that second paragraph in the excerpt, because you might be tempted to go down a whole new discussion about parenting (god knows I’m tempted!). But I’ll park that second paragraph here, and maybe return to it in another blogpost.

But a later excerpt from the same article is even more telling: “Individuals with a low power distance cultural background may more openly express agreement and disagreement”

Particularly from the viewpoint of organizations, this ought to set off alarm bells. Any organization that is “high power distance” is likely to be an organization that doesn’t allow bad news to filter up to the highest level, and in my opinion, this is therefore an organization doomed to eventually flounder.

But this is also true in classroom settings! “Ashish, I think you’re talking crap” is far easier to say, and far more honest a comment than “Professor Kulkarni, I’m not sure I understand”. Because let’s be honest, you really want to say the former, but a high-power distance setting like a classroom will almost force you to say the latter. This is why I ask all my students to call me Ashish!

The point for me – and a point I hope you agree with – is that I like to set up for myself low-power distance environments. At home, among my friends, with my colleagues and among my students – it makes sense (to me) to have low power distance settings. Life just seems better that way.

Although I’m not sure I would have been allowed to wear an apron over my kurta pyjama on my wedding day:

The people serving the meal were the wedding party. The bride’s father gave us our picnic basket. The bride’s sister made the pulled pork sandwiches. The groom did the cole slaw. And at the end of the line, the bride—who had put an apron on over her wedding dress—served the mac and cheese. The receiving line was turned into a service line.


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