Valuing hierarchy, valuing autonomy

Can a person value hierarchy and autonomy simultaneously or are these concepts at odds?

As many of you know, in this research in Cambodia, I aim to try to understand concepts and their relationship to women’s empowerment, empirically, through conversations and observations.  Are underlying values of autonomy, individualism, freedom, equality–what I’m calling liberal values–necessary for women’s empowerment?

As any amount of time in Cambodia shows and many other Cambodia scholars have attested to: hierarchy is important in Cambodia. (This is clear from Chandler’s famous essay, “Songs at the edge of the forest” and reaffirmed by many others.)

I have presented on the possibility of having a feminist ethics that values hierarchy (SEASSI student conference in 2009) and now, reflecting on my fieldwork observations, I’m wrestling with hierarchy again.

More recently, I have been pondering the larger question of whether there exists a type of empowerment that is not based on liberal values or a liberationist framework.

How do we approach the question, “Can a person value hierarchy and autonomy simultaneously or are these concepts at odds?”

As one friend has implied, these concepts are at best vague outside of a context.

Granted, I’m thinking about a Cambodian context.  Autonomy is, at first thought, acting in one’s self interest (not considering others‘ interest or limitations imposed by others).  This feels a lot like the way “rights” is understood around here as in “I have the right to marry who I want even if my parents don’t approve.”

Similarly, my first thought on hierarchy is that it is a respect for the limitations imposed by those higher up rather than solely following one’s self interest.  Or, perhaps it’s more helpful to think about attention to a system, a group, institution, family of which you are a part, rather than your individual desire.  Surely, doing what your parents say might be in your self interest.  But choosing to “follow your own heart” instead of the wishes of your parents might be–for me–valuing autonomy over hierarchy.

In some cultural contexts, it would be unheard of (or at least generally disapproved of) for the parents to refuse to let their daughter marry who she wanted.  Maybe this is not a denial of hierarchy but a redefinition of which aspects of life should be subjected to it.  (This makes this concept of rights seem a little culturally contrived.)

Thinking on a broader level, even institutions which depend on liberal presuppositions or profess liberal values need hierarchy.  It’s not bad to make some decisions on your own and defer to the higher ups for others, right?  While people have tried, it’s proven laborious if not impossible to conceive of another way of running a system like an institution.

Is strictly following the procedures and checking with superiors about some decisions beforehand valuing hierarchy over autonomy?

Another friend suggested my question itself makes a categorical mistake.  He suggested we think of four cases, systems with autonomy and hierarchy, or just one, or neither.  Because he could think of examples of each, he concluded they are independent concepts.

I still think there’s something there.  There’s something about limiting the autonomy of the individual or conditioning one to think first of the whole and only second of the individual self that goes against liberal values, like the idea of the liberation of the individual.

Feminism with which I’m most familiar is steeped in these liberal values.  Many activist organizations want to empower women (to seemingly follow their self interest or exercise their rights).  Is there another type of empowerment possible that values hierarchy over autonomy?  Is the question merely a false dichotomy or does it provide a helpful lens for thinking of which values are necessary for women’s empowerment?

2 comments on “Valuing hierarchy, valuing autonomy

  1. Glenda Schubert says:

    My thought is that total autonomy is anarchy. If everyone did as he/she pleased only considering oneself, society could not function. Hierarchy must be defined more specifically than just “listening to one’s parents or teachers or bosses. Both of these concepts have validity for people to live side by side peacefully.

  2. Alan England says:

    I suspect autonomy is more a western than a universal human value, and that more traditional societies wouldn’t really grasp what you are talking about when you talk about autonomy. Traditional societies tend to put more value on the group than the individual, and group goals are conventionally met through a hierarchical structure. “We,” rather than “I,” is the normative term.
    That said, even in the West, societal institutions organize themselves by hierarchy. When I worked in the probation system in California, as I rose through the ranks I was ever mindful of hierarchy. When as an autonomous individual I felt it incumbent to tweak the system in a different direction, I generally found that trying to influence the groupthink to move to the left, e.g., was more effective than putting on the boss-hat and doing an “That’s what we’re going to do because I said so.” In western hierarchies, Question Authority is something many do by upbringing. Democratic (small “d) values so permeate our culture that many allow the man on the top (sexist, but historically accurate term) to lead only by “consent of the governed.” Many an autocrat has learned that the hard way
    Even in western societies, there is always a built-in tension between social/hierarchial structure and the individual that functions in that structure. Autonomy, I suspect, may be relative. We can–even must–assert our autonomy to preserve our self-respect (a western value?), but we usually do so within the subtle limits on behavior imposed formally or informally by the social system.
    I think many in the West struggle with this dichotomy, but perhaps none more so than those who straddle more than one culture.
    Alan England

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