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The Origins of Status Hierarchies: A Formal Theory and Empirical Test1

Yale University

This article offers a formal theoretical model of the emergence of hierarchy that bridges the division between individualistic and structuralist accounts of inequality. In the model, actors reproduce status hierarchies by adjusting their own status‐conferring gestures according to collective attributions. These collective attributions are just the aggregate of individual gestures, leading to a self‐reinforcing status ranking. Winner‐take‐all hierarchies are discouraged, however, when people prefer reciprocation of their status‐conferring actions. The model therefore depicts a status ranking as an equilibrium resulting from individual responses to the trade‐off between social influence and the distaste for making unreciprocated gestures. Analysis of the model generates several precise predictions about the patterns that social networks should exhibit at equilibrium. Data on interaction in task groups, friendship ratings in a fraternity, and play in a set of infant quintuplets is used to show that the formal theory makes unusually accurate predictions about network structure.