Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Environment and Society

Committee Chair(s)

Stefani A. Crabtree (Chair), Jacob Freeman (Co-Chair)


Stefani A. Crabtree


Jacob Freeman


Jacopo Baggio


Brent Chamberlain


Mark Brunson


Hierarchy is ever-present across countless human societies, a seemingly inescapable reality of small organizations and national governments. However, there is a lot about hierarchy we don’t understand, and if we want to make better organizations and better society, it is crucial we learn more about it. This dissertation investigates three questions: 1) “What is hierarchy?” 2) “How is hierarchy useful?” 3) “How does hierarchy vary?” I find that social scientists do not all mean the same thing by hierarchy, even within the same fields; yet, they do consistently write of hierarchy as control (like boss-employee relations), hierarchy as rank (like social class relations), and hierarchy as nested structure (like cities in states), so future scholars can and should be clear in what they mean. Next, I use a computer simulation to show that control hierarchy can be useful in changing environments where workers see local views of change and managers see the big picture—a tension that is unavoidable in such environments. Hierarchy can make this tension useful if and only if the workers have autonomy to weigh the manager’s information about the environment in their decisions; if they must obey the manager no matter what, then they do very poorly in nearly all types of changing environments. Lastly, I use workforce data from US federal agencies to look at organizational structure and control hierarchy in agencies from 2004 to 2021. I find that hierarchy is similar across most agencies, suggesting that overall, hierarchy relates more to scale than function. However, agencies with offices spread across the nation are different from the others, with more and broader management at higher levels. I also find that agencies vary in their organizational structure in other ways, such as the number of distinct occupations they have, and the number of formal rules they must follow, in patterns that are predictable based on their mission statements and agency type; form does follow function. Overall, this dissertation shows that the use of computational techniques in the study of hierarchy can provide great insight, and help us understand organizations more generally.



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Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 License.