Developing Skills as a human ecologist

1. Understanding Rank and Privilege.

In order to work with people it is really important to become fully conscious of the roles of both rank and privilege. Unless this awareness is held it may be impossible to avoid causing abuse.

In advanced, liberal democracies such as Australia, rank and privilege can become almost invisible and few are aware of the enormous power which can lie therein. It is this subtle nature which makes raising the topic so difficult. For example, not only are most men unconscious of their rank and privilege but they can be also highly resistant to any acceptance or recognition even when it is pointed out to them.

Perhaps a story may illustrate. A South African friend once told me of his growing up in a large, well provisioned house on a farm not far from a major city. He told of the black cook and gardener and how on Boxing Day the family would pass on hand-me-down clothing as gifts to the house help (who received board and food but very little actual payment). It never occurred to him that that this cook and gardener were individuals with their own lives, families and responsibilities; he only saw them as useful additions to the running of the family home. Although it was not his fault as such, merely the result of his upbringing, this man was blinded by his total lack of awareness around both rank and privilege. He had not then recognised the benefits and opportunities that were available to him as a white person but not available to the house-help.

Privilege is what one received by birth. In England for example, this might include a hereditary title. In the USA it might include being born into a household of great wealth. These are extreme examples as we shall see.

Rank is that which is bestowed by society or institutions. Most countries have annual award ceremonies, often on the national day, but also rank is bestowed by almost all institutions. In Government highest rank is held by the President or Prime Minister, in business the CEO, in the church it is a bishop or cardinal, in the military it is the general and so on. In each of these organisations rank increases as one is promoted towards the highest ranking position.

With rank and privilege comes power. With power comes responsibility. Thus when used without awareness both can inflict enormous harm upon others. Let’s consider an actual example which occurred recently where the writer lives. An African migrant enrolled in a course for social welfare training as he wanted to work with other migrants and needed the requisite welfare certificate qualification. One evening, while driving home from class, he was pulled over by the traffic police. The officer made the assumption that this man was Aboriginal and began to harass him. When he failed to get the response he was after this officer manhandled the driver forcing his face down onto the car’s bonnet while twisting his arm behind his back. “Where did [he] get the money for this car?” was typical of the questions asked.

The Officer involved carried power bestowed on him by the Police Service on behalf of the society yet he was unaware and thus became abusive. He could have just as easily used this power appropriately by asking for the driver to show his licence/carry out a random breath test then, assuming no traffic breach had been committed saying something like “thank you sir, have a nice day”. When used correctly rank can be helpful but so often, as in this instance, rank is unconscious and therefore abusive. But it doesn’t end there. The Officer was a white, heterosexual male who denigrated the driver on the basis of being an Aboriginal (how anyone could make this mistake is anyone’s guess).Thus the Officer was also unconscious of his rank as a member of the dominant group in a society which does not bestow equal rank on the indigenous people or other people of colour.

Our responsibility is to become aware of how pervasive such power is within a society based on hierarchy. So before going any further why not start to clarify your own privilege and rank? The following questions are offered to help you define this accurately.

i. what ethnic group do you belong to and is this the dominant ethnic group? What is your educational history, profession, sex, sexual orientation, religion, economic class, relationship status, age, physical condition?

ii. what advantages such as access to housing, employment, services and legal privileges might you suffer as a result of your identity? Can you access social power? Are you the target of subtle prejudice because of identity?

iii. what privileges can you readily access with your identity? If you are not sure ask someone, particularly someone from another group (eg a recent migrant, an ethnic minority, a person of colour). Consider how freely you can travel; do you feel you belong to the majority? Can you exercise intellectual, social or financial power? What privileges come with being able bodied and well or young? What can you do that others perhaps cannot or cannot do as easily?

iv. was your childhood happy, safe and well provisioned? Are you optimistic, free from anxiety and supported socially? If so you have psychological rank which others lack.

There is nothing wrong with either rank or privilege. Trouble arises when these advantages are held and used without awareness. Therefore become clear about the rank and privilege you enjoy by virtue of your identity and celebrate it, show gratitude for these good aspects of your life. Also be aware that there is no hidden guilt about holding advantages that others clearly don’t hold. If there was guilt put upon you then root it out by bringing understanding to bear. What motivated this guilt? Now imagine how you can use your rank and privilege to benefit others. What could you begin doing right now in your home, street or shopping-centre, work-place or playing fields to use your rank and privilege wisely? How can you share it without being condescending? Can you raise awareness of rank and privilege among your peers and help others to become aware and proud of theirs?

When a person with social, economic or psychological rank is dealing with someone who is unable to defend themselves, then abuse is almost guaranteed. Only when the one with power is also fully conscious of that can the exchange become helpful. Often in social situations it may be that the human ecologist is required to research among those with lesser education and as a result lower paying jobs and perhaps poorer housing or public housing. Before approaching individuals it is vital that the researcher become fully conscious of his/her rank and privilege in order for the communication to be free of judgment and abuse and helpful also to those being researched. Ensure that what you are doing is explained and shared as fully as circumstances permit; make it clear how valuable and helpful responses are.

One of the steps of research with people (action research) requires the researcher to be aware of the thinking and feeling of those being researched. It is crucial, in order to avoid potential abuse, to be sensitive to the atmosphere and state of those being researched. For example, silence can often be a means of self protection by those who have suffered from high rank individuals and institutions. What can a public housing tenant say to someone about to get back into the big black car to go home to a hot shower and nice dinner in an expensive part of town? So often those carrying rank and privilege are simply not aware that they have inflicted abuse; often they imagine they have done some social good. When your research is met by hesitation and reluctance to speak do not assume the people are stupid or don’t understand. They understand only too well. How often they may have met bureaucratic procedures which frustrate and confuse; official responses full of legalese and complex sentences. So notice the atmosphere carefully and if met by resistance, silence or hesitancy show sympathy. This may simply be demonstrated by expressing for example, “Maybe you have met officials who didn’t listen to you or Police who wouldn’t defend you but I want to tell you why I’m asking these questions.” Also ask for advice and feed-back. Often individuals and groups with low rank and privilege are not listened to. Their negative attitude has been re-enforced time and again by abusive processes. Therefore it is helpful to empower those being researched by showing that you listen and by asking for their views and feed-back and giving that full respect, perhaps repeating back an accurate summary and asking “have I got that right?” The process of feeling heard is valued by every human being.

Finally, become aware around anger and frustration. Perhaps those you wish to carry out research with respond with anger and scream abuse. This is where it is important to remain centred (your inner work will pay off here) or else your reaction will sabotage your own efforts. Acknowledgement is a powerful tool. "I see that you are really angry. Will you tell me why?" Do not assume frustration is aimed at you. The degree you can engage such energy is directly related to the extent that you know yourself and have worked on becoming conscious of your own wounds, prejudices and fears. Also it is common for high ranking white men to speak quietly requiring others to listen. This is a form of unconscious power and control. Marginalised people and those suffering social abuses do not have such a luxury.  When minority people are not listened to and are easily abused again by the media (oh how well off folk like to watch the tv and see those trouble makers yelling and screaming and so call for stronger laws and more policing) and denied access to law, to bank loans, to employment then frustration must be expressed. Learn to sit in this fire, listening and using your conscious awareness of rank and privilege in support of your efforts to improve social conditions for those who are marginalised.


As you go about your business over the next few days pay attention to what is going on around you. Do you notice the different levels of rank and privilege? Do you witness any abuse by those of higher rank or privilege? Watch carefully and see if you can observe how such power works in society. See how the gay person is treated by the establishment or how the recent immigrant or non English speaker is treated by those around. Notice how powerful men talk to women, employees and others with less power. Become aware of rank and privilege and use this to improve your inter-actions as a human ecologist.

(Thanks to “Sitting In The Fire” Arnold Mindell 1995, LaoTsu Press Portland OR)

May 2013