55th Meeting Cluj/Napoca, 2012

This meeting had its own homepage. See programme.

The Concept: Hierarchy and Status in the Altaic World

The Altaic world shows highly differentiated social status of his members. Hierarchy is indispensable in any social group, including in our egalitarian-orientated modern societies. The word “hierarchy” means etymologically « sacred order », in other words designates an external reference that can transcend social life and make the group into a society. Still, despite strong forms of hierarchy, Altaic societies could be considered as “open societies” in comparison with “closed” societies with casts, such as the classical Indian model analysed by Louis Dumont. He characterized Indian society by a dichotomy of status and power and by the supremacy of ideology on the political and economical level. In contrast, Altaic societies tend to show that a certain amount of social mobility is possible as hierarchies could be overturned, individual destinies could emerge, and new legitimacies could be built. Kingship, aristocracy, imperial state or feudality allowed fusion of status and power instead of their dichotomy, in a way reminiscent of ancient Western traditions rather than Indian ones.

Hierarchical relations and differences in status could be seen in various aspects of social life in the Altaic world, based on age, gender, kin, political organization, law, religious institutions and practice, language, etc. Differences were expressed through behavior, gestures, linguistic and/or religious taboos, spatial organization within the tent, precedence rules in sharing meat, dividing and food handing out drinks at banquets, ways younger people or daughters-in-law address elders, inflicting different punishments for equal crimes according to aristocratic or common birth, etc.

The brutal shift from traditional (be it clanic or feudal) societies to communist regimes, themselves based on hierarchy and a predominance of ideology, then to modern egalitarian societies characterized by an exaltation of the individual  raise also interesting questions as to what has become of the ancient hierarchies of these status-centered societies.