A hierarchical organisation is any system of relations among entities wherein the direction of activity issues from a first party to a second party, but not the other way around. This is the dominant mode of organization in the world today. Originally hierarchy meant rule by priests. The modern sense of the word came about as a result of the hierarchical way in which the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches were organized. It may be useful to visualize a pyramidal power structure, those nearest the top have more power than those nearest the bottom.

  • In religion, there is one god who commands, but cannot be commanded.
  • In government, the federal section controls the state section.
  • At work, your boss tells you what to do, and his boss tells him what to do, but you don't tell anyone what to do until you get promoted.

The opposite form of organization is that system of relations wherein the direction of activity is not fixed in one way, but flows back in forth between the entities involved. In other words, the parties must consent to each others direction of activity. An example of this is a partnership or a commune.

This term is utilized often by anarchists who oppose it in human relations. However, the term also refers to cognition, where it denotes an ascending series of abstractions, where each set of abstractions is subsumed by a larger abstraction.

Both meanings have in common a structure of diminishing ascendence, where there are more members of the organization at the bottom, and increasingly less as we move up through the levels.

See also Reverse hierarchy

Hierarchical organization is a common way to structure a group of people, where members chiefly communicate with their immediate superior and with their immediate subordinates. Structuring organizations in this way is useful partly because it can reduce the communication overhead.

Not all organizations have this structure. The opposite extreme is described as "flat" or "single-level".

Although it is not always the case, superiors in a hierarchy often have higher status and power than their subordinates.

Organizational development (OD) theorist Elliott Jacques identified a special role for hierarchy in his concept of requisite organization.

Hierarchiology is the term coined by Dr. Laurence J. Peter, originator of the Peter Principle, to refer to the study of hierarchical organizations and the behavior of their members.

Hierarchial organizations include most corporations, governments, and the Roman Catholic Church. In fact the word hierarchy was first used in the religious sense.

One branch of political philosophy is vehemently opposed to hierarchical organisation: the libertarian socialist branch of anarchism.