In any organisation people advance their position by trading status for support. The process typically involves a higher status, or senior, individual identifying lower status, or junior, individuals who are likely to support their aspirations, whatever those aspirations may be. Many lower status individuals, in turn, signal their willingness to participate in such a process. They may for example, offer vocal support at meetings, act out the culture of their seniors, and so on. If a successful partnership appears to be possible, then the senior will delegate some of his or her status to the junior in return for their support. Thus, promotions within a hierarchy often have more to do with “politics” than aptitude.
Social exchange theory holds that the negotiation is based on a risk/cost/benefit analysis for both parties, as described in a previous article. A relationship will be successful if it provides a net benefit for both parties, but will fail if it provides a net disbenefit for one or the other. The former can even apply when the junior partner is coerced, if the disbenefit of the punishment exceeds that of compliance. The relationship is not based solely on the ability of the senior partner to provide something that the junior partner desires, therefore. Rather it is an aggregate of the rewards and punishments that the former can dispense. The same is true of the junior partner, of course, but the options to mete out disbenefits to a senior are often much reduced and, unless done covertly, may prompt reciprocal action.
This form of trading is so commonplace in human society that it is often carried out unconsciously.
Other forms of trading can take place within an organisation, of course, e.g., bribery, corruption, sexual services, etc. Fortunately, however, some forms of social interaction can be tempered by social norms, i.e., what forms of interaction are acceptable and what are not.
In a stratified organisation, the greater the support an individual can provide to the higher strata, the greater the delegated status they receive in return. The higher an individual is in the hierarchy, the more resources they control, the greater the support they can provide and the greater their ability to trade. Conversely, the higher they are in the hierarchy, the greater the threat they can pose, and the greater the adverse reaction if they do so. Thus, they will be more cautious not to upset the status quo.
Trading tends to take place between people in adjacent strata. Those in the stratum immediately below are the most familiar individuals and have the greatest support to offer to those in the stratum above. Those in the lowest strata tend to be of least consequence to those in the highest, and opportunities for trading between these strata are fewer, therefore.
In practice, a balance is often negotiated between the strata. This results in the lower strata being sufficiently satisfied to support the organisation, even though they are denied its full potential benefits. Conversely, the upper strata are denied the full potential benefit that they might otherwise take, in return for a stability which ensures that their benefits are sustained. Thus, degrees of egalitarianism and stratification within organisations can vary.