Rank and privilege in a nutshell

The following text, written by Alexandra Vassiliou, Lane Arye, Stanya Studentova and Lukas Hohler, is an excerpt of the handout for Worldwork 2014 in Warsaw. As we are living in troubled times, I didn’t have time to ask them for permission to publish it here, but I’d be very surprised if they didn’t appreciate it. <3

You can find my German translation here.


Rank refers to the power we have relative to one another in relationships, groups, community and the world. Some kinds of rank are earned, while others are unearned. Unearned rank we acquire through birth, or by membership in a particular race, class, gender, etc., while earned rank is acquired by dealing with our life circumstances and by following and working on our inner and outer life paths. Rank creates privilege. Privilege refers to the benefits and advantages that come from one’s rank.

Types of rank

Social rank is based on consensus reality factors like race, class, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, language, nationality, ethnicity, religion, age, health, physical ability, body size and shape, religion, education, class and economics, to name a few. Some social rank can be global, e.g. in general men have higher social rank than women.

Structural rank is the power that belongs to your position in an established hierarchy, for instance in an organization, in a family, in a community, etc.

Situational/contextual rank – if you went to a party where you did not know anyone, and maybe didn’t speak the language, you would have low situational/contextual rank regardless of your social rank. Contextual/situational rank is fluid. We notice it when we move to another context and are seen differently.

Psychological rank is personal power we acquire through life experience. It includes how we feel about ourselves. It comes from many sources including: having your perceptions validated as a child; having a loving parent; overcoming obstacles or finding ways to deal with challenges in one’s life; surviving suffering and coming out stronger and more compassionate; having worked through abuses from childhood; self-awareness, knowing oneself; receiving love and positive feedback from friends, colleagues, community; living in a community that supports who you are; confronting your greatest fears.

Spiritual rank is independent of culture, family and the world. It comes from feeling connected to something divine or transcendent and from feeling supported by this. Being part of an oppressed group can sometimes lead individuals to reach for something divine or transcendent, which can in turn lead them toward spiritual connection and higher spiritual rank.

Unconsciousness of rank and privilege

Generally those who have rank and privilege are often unconscious of it. Those who don’t have rank and privilege know very well that they don’t have it and that the other people have it.

One of the biggest privileges is not to have to suffer about an issue. Not to have to deal with it and think about it every day. Of course, those with the privilege don’t realize this!

Unconscious privilege exacerbates conflicts. Having no idea why the others are complaining, or assuming that everyone has the same access to power inflames those with less privilege or less access to power.

Rank & escalation of conflict

One way conflict escalates is if the people involved only identify with their low rank and are unconscious of their high rank. If we want to resolve conflict, it can be helpful to be aware of where we have high rank. This means that we recognize our rank, as well as the power and privileges that come with it; we embody it, feel it, use it with awareness, and notice how it impacts other people.

It is also possible to escalate conflict by identifying only with our high rank, while also marginalizing our own vulnerability and weakness. In this situation, it can be helpful to notice the places we have low rank, and get in touch with the feeling we tend to push away. In either situation, awareness, fluidity, and openness to our wholeness are vital.

Complexity of rank dynamics

Rank is a fluid experience in relationship. One important thing to remember is that rank dynamics are complex: There is never a situation where only one side has higher rank in relation to another side. There is always high and low rank on both sides, although the intensity of the difference and the impact of the difference varies. This can be true for social rank (e.g., a white man can also be poor or uneducated). And it can be true for other types of rank as well (e.g., a street person can have a lot of inner freedom and communication skills). As we explore ourselves in relationship, rank shifts. Working with rank enriches relationship; it is a way to learn about each other, and to bring out different parts of ourselves.

The dreaming potential of all rank experiences

We tend to view power from the perspective of high and low—we have it or we don’t. Viewing rank from a consensus reality perspective only, has its limitations. Let’s begin to look at rank through a new lens. Rank is neutral, not high or low, good or bad. Every rank experience is a doorway into our dreaming process. Every rank experience can help us access our deepest personal powers.

From this perspective, no one is only a victim. All of our interactions are opportunities. This viewpoint can help us get beyond the experience of blame, shame, guilt and victimization.

To empathize more with the concepts of rank and privilege, I also quote from Arnold Mindell’s book Sitting in the Fire: Large Group Transformation Using Conflict and Diversity.

Any single conflict is everyone’s. The problem of rank cannot be solved in one place alone; it must be worked on universally. After all, hierarchy is the social structure of culture. Culture stands behind our unconsciousness.

Consider the whites in Western countries. They forget People of Color, not only because of racism, but because educational systems have been entirely Eurocentric. Consider men. Globally we men have been unconscious of negating women, just as heterosexuals act as though gays were invisible. Those in good health cannot understand the violence of those in poor health. Parents think children go through “phases”. Our culture teaches and reinforces those attitudes.

Rank doesn’t show in the mirror. It results in a subtle state of mind. If you are part of a group which is the most favoured in your culture, you imagine that you are normal and anyoune unlike you is marginal. You ignore the role that belongs to your class and repudiate past evils. “Who me? My forebears were Polish peasants, not the Southern aristocrats. As for me, I wasn’t even around when your ancestors were sold as slaves.”

Rank shows up in countless ways, in feeling confident, for example. The subconscious influence of rank determines how we feel about ourselves and others. High or low self-esteem does not come just from our teachers, family or subculture. Since all of these sources are linked to mainstream culture, the whole world is the final source of our sense of self-worth and the worth of others. Mainstream culture is insidious. It gets into our thinking, our feelings, and even our dreams.

Feeling secure and cared are forms of psychological rank. You may wonder, “These people with all the inferiority feelings, why are they so insecure?” We forget those terrifying moments when no one was there looking after us – not parents, not teachers, not a partner, not friends, not even the gods.

Psychological rank is a drug that suppresses our awareness of other people’s pain and encourages us to look down on others as nothing more than “victims.” It enables us to imagine that we transcend other people’s problems: we are above it all, aloof from the problems of the disadvantaged. Our egos insulate us. Even if we suffered oppression in the past, we don’t demonstrate any willingness to help relieve oppression now. We insist that others be where we are instead of extending ourselves to understand where they are.

As I have said, rank is a drug that makes us feel good. We forget we are on it. Like heroin, we need more and more of it to feel well. We steal from whe well-being of others and the environment to support our habit. Finally, the others can’t take it anymore and they revolt.

Using rank consciously

Rank is not inherently bad, and abuse of rank is not inevitable. When you are aware of your rank, you can use it to your own benefit and the benefit of others as well. You remember your past. You don’t forget that some of us grew up in houses when other children lived on the streets; that it was safe to go to your school, whereas other teenagers went every day to a place of violence and addiction; that your vocabulary reflects an education which others may not have received. Remembering one phase of life after another, you see that you were privileged; somebody else had less than you.

Rank-conscious people know that much of there power was inherited and is not shared. They do not look down on less powerful individuals who don’t have many things or abilities. They are humble and yet can feel good about themselves, for rank can be a medicine as well as a disease.

Power struggles are ubiquitous. People with less power are jealous, hurt and furious when others are not conscious of rank. Rank-consciousness reduces struggle universally.

As children, we transcended rank, and we also transcend it whenever we are near death. At times we have other transpersonal or transcendent experiences. These give us a spiritual rank – power that is independent of culture, family and the world. Using this power unconsciously, we either ignore or marginalize the suffering of others. People who engage easily in transcendent experiences may become elitists. It’s easy to be forgetful of rank in the context of religious belief or spiritual practice. We think we are following the path of love. Peace is so highly valued in many religions that followers may ignore the conflicts caused by thinking others are less spiritual.

The objective in worldwork is not to transcend, but to notice rank and use it constructively.

Some more reading recommendations:

Update from 2020-07-12: To contrast and complement the concept from Worldwork see this long article from a Marxist perspective, What’s wrong with privilege theory? That article is full of war rhetoric though.

Update from 2020-08-31: I had not linked the Passport Index which shows a ranking of how many countries you can travel to with a certain passport without applying for a visa. This list exemplifies the power of social rank.

Update from vom 2021-03-06: Today I became aware of Henley Passport Index.