Social Hierarchy: Meaning and Conversative Values

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Strangers In Their Own Land" by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is a social hierarchy? How does the social hierarchy meaning help explain

The social hierarchy meaning is a system that gives some people power over others due to social and economic factors. Much of the conservative belief system is about maintaining the social hierarchy.

Read more about the social hierarchy and its meaning in politics.

Social Hierarchy Meaning: Regulation, Hierarchy, and Honor

It might seem baffling why Louisiana voters would keep electing politicians who allow oil companies to poison their air and drinking water, expose them to lethal chemicals, and wreak havoc on their state’s budget and social services. The social hierarchy meaning helps put it in context.

But if we’re going to overcome the empathy wall, we need to delve deeper and understand the deeper story behind why these voters believe what they do. The ire that conservative Louisiana politicians and voters reserve for regulation and “Big Government” is about more than fiscal policy and spending priorities.

The emotional force that truly animates support for conservatism is a desire on the part of white conservatives to uphold their honor, dignity, and perceived rightful place in the social hierarchy. Even though they would likely benefit from the more pro-worker, pro-regulation policies favored by the Democratic Party, conservative Louisiana voters feel culturally alienated from it.

Hochschild interviews voters in southwestern Louisiana who share their resentment toward urban, secular liberals who they believe sneer and look down upon rural conservatives like themselves as racist, sexist, Bible-thumping, bigoted reactionaries. For them, liberal values are an affront to their honor and dignity—and they believe that the Republican Party, for all its faults, better represents their values. So, what is the social hierarchy meaning? Let’s find out.

Maintaining the Hierarchy

In conservative states like Louisiana, pursuits and cultural totems associated with a certain form of white male masculinity are indeed lightly regulated.

Highly individualistic, risk-taking behavior receives a light regulatory touch. Thus, state laws regarding the consumption and sale of liquor (even open containers in vehicles), the ownership of firearms, and the wearing of motorcycle helmets are indeed quite lax. For many Louisiana white men, being able to drink, own as many guns as you want, and ride your motorcycle without a helmet speak to the heart of what it means to be a man. They are near-sacred privileges and birthrights and any perceived infringement upon them represents a deep affront to their masculinity, pride, and honor.

While the white conservatives who champion these policies claim to be doing so in the name of freedom, it is a very specific type of freedom they have in mind. It is freedom to rather than freedom from. Louisianans may be free to buy and openly carry firearms or not wear seatbelts. But they are not free from environmental catastrophe, poverty, and poor health.

On the other hand, Louisiana employs some of the nation’s most heavy-handed and harsh regulation when it comes to the rights and prerogatives of women and minorities. For example, the state has some of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the country, with access to abortion practically unavailable for poor women (who are disproportionately Black). The state also incarcerates a larger share of its population than any other state—and those prisoners are also disproportionately Black. This shows that the social hierarchy meaning doesn’t always benefit the people who want to uphold it.

Against “Big Government”

When we look at these deeper underlying attitudes, blue-collar conservative voting behavior begins to make more sense. 

Despite Lee Sherman’s ordeal (which we discussed earlier in the chapter) and his outrage at his treatment by the petrochemical industry, he remains a living embodiment of the conservative paradox. Although he is a direct victim of the unregulated capitalism that he so vehemently champions, he refuses to see himself or his life story in such terms. 

Instead, he is an ardent Tea Party supporter who canvasses for right-wing Republican politicians and rails against high taxes and a Democratic Party that he believes exists to steal his hard-earned money and give it to the undeserving and lazy poor. This part of the social hierarchy meaning further shows how it harms those who want to uphold it.

Traditional Values and Political Loyalty

Like Lee Sherman, Harold Areno (who, as we saw, has witnessed nearly his entire family succumb to pollution-related cancer) remains trapped in the conservative paradox. While he dislikes big business and laments the loss of the natural environment and the old Cajun way of life at the hands of the petrochemical industry, he insists that he is grateful for the jobs and economic opportunity that these companies bring. 

He and his wife say that their faith in God and their belief in traditional family values are most important to them—and that their commitment to these values is what cements their loyalty to the Republican Party.

Instead of big business, Areno sees the federal government as the far bigger threat to his way of life. To him, liberal politicians like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton represent a direct affront to his values, representing urban elites, secular ideals, and abortion on demand. For Areno, “Big Government” is not, and can never be, the solution. God—and only God—is the source of salvation.

Social Hierarchy: Meaning and Conversative Values

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Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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