Rank and Rank Roles

Rank and Rank Roles

If Status dynamics are the easiest layer of the onion to observe, the next layer which we call Rank is more hidden. The elusive nature of the Rank layer is part of its mystique, the reason we find it hard to identify in action. We use the word Rank to invoke two associations. One is the idea of something that is no longer fresh, that has an unpleasant smell. The other is the association with military Rank. Social Rank is made up of memberships in social groups and the ways in which those memberships influence our social conditioning. We use the word “role” to describe the parts of us that are most shaped by socialization.

We speak of oppression as outmoded supremacy. Can supremacy ever be anything other than smelly? We will offer the idea that there are functional, circumstantial reasons for overvaluing certain people in certain situations. In a disaster-at-sea movie, it makes sense to have the strongest swimmer dive into the already flooded part of the upside down ship in order to save the cluster of protagonists. So we will coddle, support, privilege, and overvalue the star swimmer to make sure that they have all their nutrition and strength as they represent the best chance for our survival. Once we’re rescued by the helicopters and safe on land, it no longer makes sense for us to advantage that swimmer. In other words, in that particular context, it’s supremacist but not oppressive.

As human collectives, we have a tendency to institute supremacies much more easily and readily than we dismantle them. All societies are burdened with practices of unfair advantage of some, which may have been functional at some point in history but now exist as part of the social weave and tend to go unexamined. This is the Rank system. Rank the system under which some of us are systematically valued more than others is closely connected with roles. Rank systems exist in all human societies; the specific groups that are valued more or less highly across the globe and across time. Our focus here is mainly on Rank as it currently exists in the United States.


We associate the word “role” with the theater that maybe where the concept originates. In ancient Greek drama, players wore masks that let the audience know what land of character they were playing comic or tragic, Icing or warrior. Behaving appropriately according to social role is quite similar to playing a character in a play. Characters may do and say only certain things, according to the script, stage directions, and director the actor has a limited ability to determine how their character will appear, at least in conventional theater.


According to Dr. Nieto, as a result of social conditioning, there is an insect like consciousness, a crusty, robotic, mechanistic layer that interrupts our personhood. It is in place by three to five years of age. The chances of this not happening or of preventing it are nil. It is ascribed, applied, and installed without critical thinking or reflection. Rank is heavy.

Julia Maxwell

Roles, Continued

Jacob Moreno (1993) suggests that people in post-industrial societies like ours are socialized to a narrow scope of behavior and a rigid, limited role repertoire. Such societies tend to restrict members to prescribed roles with rigidly defined rules of behavior (businessman, soccer mom, rebellious teenager). Where roles are predetermined, many behaviors and ways of expressing are outside the role description. Much of socialization is to teach and learn congruence with social roles.

For example, it could be out of role for an adult to sit on the floor and pull off their socks and shoes with delight, or for a woman to sprawl in a chair and smoke a cigar. Some out-of-role behaviors and attitudes can be hard to discern. Some social roles demand primarily high Status stances, others low Status ones. We all get more practice in the land of Status play, be it low or high, associated with our prescribed social roles than with the other kind. Our role and social assignments maybe comfortable or uncomfortable for us, depending on the situation and on the fit with our personality or temperament.

Societies have mechanisms designed to train us in our roles as soon as possible after birth. All elements of our environment, family, school, media, peer culture, etc., conspire together to socialize us. This process, socialization, is not free of bias quite the opposite. We internalize the particular biases of our social context while very young. By the time we are three years old, we demonstrate fluency with social values and norms. Children’s play is rich with social roles practice, explicit performance of social norms, and the mechanisms for enforcing them, such as ostracism.

Consider children playing at being parents, young adults experiencing relief at the mastery of at least some social expectations, and middle-aged adults comfortably living into unexamined lifestyles. Initially, we may feel we are adopting a character or putting on a costume, but eventually the roles come to feel quite natural. We enjoy our newfound competency, knowing “how to be,” whether as a college student, an up-and-coming employee, a hot date, or even a total failure. Knowing what is expected of us and how to do that very thing can open doors to the social world. Like a well-worn pair of shoes, our roles may feel natural. Yet, until we step out of them, we may not have a feel for our own true footprint. We may not know the extent to which the shoes have shaped our gait. We often don’t even “feel” our roles. Instead, we may readily identify with them as a central definition of who we are.

“I’m an addict.”

“I’m the vice-president of finance.”

“I’m a college drop-out.”

“I’m a happy mother of three.”

From a human development point of view, we first focus on fulfillment of expectations of our assigned Rank roles; we work to become our roles. As we mature, if we develop skills that take us out of conventional attitudes, we may begin to feel the limits and edges of our socially ascribed roles. We may wish to express a more authentic self, to discern chosen values from inherited ones, and to act on our deepest passions. Many people spend the latter part of their lives getting out of the mold that they worked so hard to fit into. This shift beyond our socially conditioned role selves is what we identify with anti-oppression and true Power. Moving to more authentic expression can be a huge risk one that anyone might hesitate to take yet worth everything.

The River of Oppression

Picture a river, flowing along with a strong current. A member of a Target group is in the river managing life against the current. Part of Target socialization is to normalize the conditions of living against the current of the river. This is how the world feels and looks; this is how much effort it takes to move for­ ward — or even to stay in place. The member of a socially devalued group does not necessarily pay attention to the force or quality of the oppressive current. In order to work, participate, shop, and live each day, the Target group member needs to navigate the river unconsciously as if in a trance.

But at any moment an incident can happen. An incident is an event that disrupts the trance and causes the Target group member to be swept down the current, forcing them to engage more consciously with the river. The incident reminds the member of the socially devalued group that Rank is always active. It “puts them in their place.” While status play is reversible and anybody can play high or low, Rank is not like that, Rank is like a river: it flows in one direction only, The hierarchically dualistic river of oppression is always there, advantaging members of Agent groups who can move with the river, in the direction of the current and disadvantaging members of Target groups in complex, cross­cutting, and internalized ways.

Roles, Continued 2

We cannot shed our roles until we master them. Before we can move beyond our roles, we must learn to inhabit and fulfill them well. We can’t skip any stage of development, and adequately fulfilling social roles is a necessary skill that marks adulthood. Fulfilling these roles enables us to participate in work, partnerships, and public life.

As we move into increasingly conscious living, we may find it harder to fit into social expectations and Rank roles. Concerns and self-identity shift. Even as we gain authenticity, integrity, and Power, we may be perceived as losing something rather than gaining something. We may seem somehow less sturdy, less predictable, less delineated. Performing roles we have mastered can bring social rewards money, influence, belonging, and safety which discourage us from changing even when the mold becomes uncomfortable. Role compliance can provide psychological safety and physical safety from violence, hunger, or need. Our cultural rules can prevent people from claiming the wisdom of their later years, a wisdom that society desperately needs.

When we identify with roles that no longer fulfill our needs for growth, roles that once fit us well can become a kind of prison, an obstacle to authenticity and Power. Identifying with narrow, socially defined roles limits our perceptions and prevents us from accessing the fullness of our creativity and our truth.

Agent & Target Group Memberships

In our discussion of Status play, we reviewed high Status style and low Status style. Status dynamics are changeable; that is, within the same context, a person can use high Status one moment and low Status the next. They are also situational; a person may play low Status in one context and high Status in another. In contrast, Rank roles are neither changeable nor situational. They are fixed. They show up consistently from one context to another and hold continuity across time. Within the Rank system, two roles are central: we refer to them as Agent and Target.

As individuals, we likely hold both Agent and Target group memberships. Social groups that are overvalued and normative we term Agent groups. As members of social groups that hold Agent Rank, we are overvalued and receive unearned advantage and benefits. Examples of Agent groups include adults, heterosexuals, Whites, biological males, or the U.S.-born. As members of Agent groups, we receive affirmation and support and have ready access to rewards. As Agent group members we have an easier time getting jobs, are more likely to see people “like us” on television, and can expect that our concerns will be taken seriously by public institutions.

Social groups that are devalued and “otherized” we term Target groups. As members of social groups that hold Target Rank, we are undervalued and subject to marginalization. Examples of Target groups include children/ elders, gay/lesbian/bisexual people, People of Color, women, and people born outside the U.S. As members of Target groups, our access is limited and our movement restricted. For example, we experience difficulties finding work appropriate to our education and abilities, we often see people “like us” depicted negatively in the media, and public institutions rarely address our concerns.

Role-bound Agent-Target Dialogue

When both Agent and Target are fully in-role, plugged in to the system, the conversation itself becomes part of the system. They enact a scripted play, with no consciousness and no freedom to change their roles.

A: I don’t even think of you as a kid. You are so much more mature than any other 14-year-old I know.

T: I bet you don’t know a lot of 14-year-olds.

A: You don’t have to be rude. I was paying you a compliment.

T: I’m not interested in your compliments. You don’t get it at all.

A: That’s what I get for trying to talk to you.

T: Talk at, you mean.

Social Rank Category Agent Rank Target Rank
Age Adults (18-64) Children, adolescents, elders
Disability * Able-persons Persons with disabilities
Religion (relates to religious culture) ** Cultural Christians, Agnostics, and Atheists Jews, Muslims, and all other non-Christian religions
Ethnicity White Euro-Americans People of Color
Social Class Culture Middle and Owning Class (access to higher education) Poor and working class (no higher education access)
Sexual orientation Heterosexuals Lesbians, Gay men, Bisexuals, Queer, and Questioning
Indigenous Heritage Non-Native Native
National Origin US-Born Immigrants and Refugees
Gender Biologically male Female, transgender, and intersex

* Now identified by Hays as “Developmental and acquired disabilities”

**Now identified by Hays as “Religion and Spiritual Orientation”

The flip side of disadvantage is advantage. You can’t have a down without an up. Tim Wise (Cook, 2009)

Economy of Energy

Imagine a room in a military setting such as a barracks where enlisted personnel are busy working under pressure of a deadline. An officer walks in. What do the enlisted personnel do? They stop what they are doing. They stand and salute. They await orders. The enlisted must suspend their focus and attend to the officer. The officer will either say “at ease” releasing the enlisted back to their task or give them an order. Now imagine an officer and an enlisted soldier, both in civilian clothing, shopping at a grocery store located off the base. The chances that the enlisted person will notice the officer are very high. The officer, on the other hand, may or may not notice the enlisted person. The presence of one of these people will affect the other more. These images are illustrations of a differential economy of energy. We suggest that the enlisted person must use some or much of their energy to tune in the officer and their requirements. The reverse is not necessarily so.

Rank dynamics are not reversible. Because societal systems are set up in ways that advantage members of Agent groups, those individuals can allocate energy focusing on personal interests. Usually, as Agent group members we do not notice the advantage of being free to spend our energy on things like reaching our goals, meeting our needs, pursuing our dreams.

Because societal systems are set up in ways that advantage members of Agent groups, Target group members must use considerable energy dealing with social barriers and restriction of movement, unnecessary suffering that comes from being frequently given devaluing messages: some overt, some not; some intentional, some not. Target group members must also use energy to manage internalized oppression including internalized versions of barriers, restrictions, and devaluation. As we will discuss later, members of Target groups are conditioned to be always aware of and attentive to Agent group members. The extra energy it takes to get through the day, to get a job and to perform at extraordinary levels, drains our life energies. As in the example we gave of the officers and enlisted personnel, Target group members unconsciously or consciously live subordinately, while Agent group members receive un-earned benefits from inequality.

Laurel Collier Smith’s Story

One April day I was on a walk to a therapist’s office. I had all manner of things to work out in my once-per-month appointment with this wise person. That morning I remember feeling particularly inspired.

My walk to the office was interrupted by some men whistling at me from a car window, but I shook it off and returned to my thoughts. Ten minutes later, more shouting from a different car: “Nice Ass!,” they shouted. I scowled and kept moving only sort of able to return to my thoughts. Two blocks from my therapist’s office a third incident: a man pulled up behind me slowly driving there for a few long minutes before pulling up beside me and asking if he could please drive me somewhere scary!

Incidents like these are not infrequent for most Targets of sexism, but three in an hour’s time was enough to take all the inspiration I’d had right out of me. When we say that oppression interrupts the flow of life, this is what we mean. I spent that day’s long-awaited and expensive therapy session sorting out the fear I felt about my safety, and the disgust I felt about being so objectified. What deeper puzzles might I have been able to go after that day had the incidents not piled up one after another? I feel most angry about oppression when / think about how short and valuable life is. So much irreplaceable time is spent by Targets when we have to cope with incidents like these.

Laurel Collier Smith

Gender Target Group Member

Economy of Energy, Continued

Every semester, while teaching a graduate course called Gender and Ethnicity Issues in Psychotherapy, Dr. Nieto hears from female students in their thirties, forties, and fifties about their increasing consciousness of this phenomenon of subordination. The same student who at the start of the semester spoke about never having felt restricted as a woman, particularly in comparison to her mother, later reports that she was and is restricted. She recognizes that she is devalued and marginalized in ways that are different, but no less harmful, than the ways her mother was treated in the past. While some of the experience of marginalization becomes normalized and absorbed, some experiences of restriction and struggle do tend to register in the minds of Target group members. Given social profiles, which for most of us include both Agent and Target group memberships, we are more likely to notice experiences of restriction than experiences of advantage. In this way, we may find that we over-identify with our Target group memberships, to the exclusion of noticing our Agent group memberships. Later in this book we suggest disciplines for attending to both.

Mechanical Metaphors

In talking about Rank, we find it helpful to associate all things Rank-related with machine-like or mechanical images. We are trying to evoke the sense of automated, impersonal, “in place,” and industrial. These are features of socialization and conditioning. The idea is that we each house a layer of material that operates as if installed, robotic, and remotely controlled. Try on the image of the Rank robot. For Star Trek fans, remember the Borg declaring, “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated” (Frakes, 1996). We can think of the Rank system as a network of machines either as a simple device for sorting, a primitive clockwork or conveyor belt system, or a bar code scanner in a supermarket. The Rank layer of interactions can be thought of as “operating on automatic,” as when we work, drive, or even speak to each other in a highly routinized and unconscious way. Many behavior patterns and actions in contemporary life in the U.S. have this mechanical feeling, lacking in life and authenticity.

“How are you?”

“I’m fine, how are you?”

Consider how much of your day is taken up with mechanical interactions. The view of human beings as machines has history. Images of the world as a machine, God as the great watchmaker, and mechanical models as the most accurate way to conceptualize the universe lie at the root of much medicine, economics, and politics. Societies that place a high value on material production and profit, and a low value on subjective experience, happiness, or even long-term survival, are based on generally mechanical concepts of existence. These “doing versus being” models pervade the consciousness of many people even people who are critical of the results those models create. For example, environmentalists may criticize the mechanical model directly, while still using economic efficiency as a primary measure of value.

Many of us have been trained to understand the world in concrete terms that lend themselves to analysis and dissection. Talcing things apart, seeing the pieces rather than the whole, is central to this worldview. Within this mental framework, we try to solve problems by looking for what’s wrong so that piece can be corrected or eliminated. Problems and challenges are conceived as broken parts in a machine.

The very term “metaphysical” suggests that our primary orientation is to the physical world. We have been trained to conceptualize the subtler aspects of existence like consciousness, spirit, and feeling as “beyond physical.” From the dominant point of view, the physical is central, the basic fact, our home ground. Ironically, we tend to hold this concrete consciousness while living disembodied lives.

The centrality of the mechanistic view can be seen in the ubiquitous use of computer metaphors for all kinds of human experiences. Terms like hard drive, software, feedback, and download are applied to a variety of situations, as if the computer was the ultimate symbol of our lives. People’s minds, in particular, are often compared to computers, both explicitly and by metaphorical implication. The film Office Space (Judge, 1999) provides an image many of us can relate to, of a man who is driven mad by the cold, inhumane, mechanical routines of office life. These mechanical metaphors have come to seem inevitable and natural, even to those of us who question their underlying assumptions. They increasingly are a part of our everyday discourse and way of framing problems and solutions.

The Rank Machine

If the Rank system is a network of machines operating independent of human reflection and input, the Rank robot lives exclusively out of the Rank role. The Rank roles are prescribed scripts, assigned to each of us, which determine how each person is to behave in the world. Rank is an essentially artificial or cultural marker, something determined by society, based on socially ascribed (assigned) memberships, such as gender, ethnicity, and religious culture. While the Status layer of human interaction is obvious and easy to identify, the Rank layer is mystified, covered over, and entangled. Individuals have little or no influence on how they are assigned Rank membership. As influential as it is in determining the course of our lives, Rank is arbitrary and, ultimately, absurd. Our Rank is assigned, in a mechanized way, without input from us. Yet, Rank acts through us. The Rank machine as if installed in every environment including our minds sorts us into Target and Agent Rank roles.

We like to say that the Rank machine is not intelligent. It doesn’t have the complexity to organize and sort human beings based on valid elements. It does not have capacity to learn. It is more like a really large clockwork, filling a whole room. Picture huge gears, chains, and pulleys or factory conveyor belts, chutes, and funnels. Picture a bar-code scanner, which reads information on the label of the products in the store. Unlike a computer, which can do many things, the Rank machine can do only one. It sorts people into two categories, consistently, in every situation and interaction, over and over again.

Rank and First Impressions

Malcolm Gladwell exposes how our Rank memberships can influence interactions with significant implications when he writes, “If you have a strongly pro-White pattern of associations, there is evidence that that will affect the way you behave in the presence of a Black person. It’s not going to affect what you’ll choose to say or feel or do. In all likelihood, you won’t be aware that you’re behaving any differently than you would around a White person.

But chances are, you’ll lean forward a little less, turn away slightly from him or her, close your body a bit, be a bit less expressive, maintain less eye contact, stand a little farther away, smile a lot less, hesitate and stumble over your words a bit more, laugh at jokes a bit less. Does that matter? Of course it does. Suppose the conversation is a job interview. And suppose the applicant is a Black man. He’s going to pick up on that uncertainty and distance, and that may well make him a little less certain of himself, a little less confident, and a little less friendly. And what will you think then? You may well get a gut feeling that the applicant doesn’t really have what it takes, or maybe that he is a bit standoffish, or maybe that he doesn’t really want the job. What this unconscious first impression will do, in other words, is throw the interview hopelessly off course” (2005, p. 85-86).

The Rank Machine, Continued

The Rank machine operates invisibly and constantly. It operates within us, but it’s really a social mind or collective mind at work, rather than our own individual thought. It reflects programmed behavior, convention, and rolebound unconsciousness. This Ranking mechanism acts instantly, before our conscious thought can catch up. As individuals, we cannot influence the way the Rank machine sorts people, We can become more aware of it, and more resistant to acting on its messages.

The Rank machine is a social mechanism that has been with us since the beginning of human collectives. Lacking intelligence, the Rank machine cannot tell the difference between truth and reality. Human beings cannot actually be sorted into dyadic, dualistie, binary categories. This is not a meaningful or accurate way to organize human features. We are complex, unpredictable, infinitely varied: anything but binary.

Yet the reality of daily life is that our existence, our experiences, our chances of getting our needs met, are strongly influenced by the Rank memberships ascribed to us. To be defined as White or Black, as straight or gay, as biologically male or female, as persons with or without a disability, has a tremendous effect on people’s lives. That’s reality. These categories are not true, but they are real. They make a difference. We may criticize these terms, analyze them, and challenge them, but they remain influential forces.

Status Play Cannot Affect or Change Rank

Status and Rank are two separate realms, but I previously thought that Status maneuvers made me more or less oppressive in matters involving Rank. Status play cannot affect or change Rank. This knowledge means I have to deal with my agency in those areas that I hold Agent Rank, and build Allyship skills, instead of relying on Status play to change dynamics.

Amanda Morstad

The Rank Machine, Reconceptualized

The Rank Machine can be visualized as a large mechanical apparatus like a motorized clock or a culling device in an assembly line. The Rank machine was designed and crafted long agoto do only one thing: to exclude the largest number of people for the smallest possible reason.

Another image for the Rank Machine is a bar code scanner in a supermarket, The scanner reads the nine-digit code for each person to determine his or her Agent and Target Rank roles, This happens very fast, automatically. The speed of this scanning is clear from the Implicit Association Tests (IAT Corp„ 2010) discussed at Harvard University (https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/). The scanner doesn’t stop to investigate whether the coding really fits the person it just picks one and goes on. The point here is that Rank is not an evolving identity, It is simply an assigned or ascribed category.


What if, in the back of your neck, under your skin, imperceptible to you, there was a bar code, nine bars each one identifying you as member of either a Target or Agent group? As you read on, you will find a model describing nine social membership categories that the Rank machine sorts by. In reviewing this model, most of us find at least some of the categories confusing or objectionable. We find it difficult to place ourselves cleanly into the Target or Agent side, Nonetheless, the Rank system operates as if it were possible to tidily classify you as either one or the other. Each of these categories is false. Each is a social construct. It was made up, invented for mercenary purposes, at a time in human history when the understanding of human beings was even more limited than today. We are working here with inherited supremacies, strong tendencies to overvalue particular groups and devalue all others.

We think of oppression as outmoded supremacy. We consider that there may have been a function to the establishment of supremacist practices. It can be possible to trace the origins of these constructs and discover the reasons (moral, amoral, or immoral), for the establishment of supremacies. In the present, though, we live against a backdrop embedded with these outmoded, foul-smelling, supremacies. They are woven into the fabric of our collective life, pervading every aspect of our life and consciousness. So, even though they are false, we must engage meaningfully about the way they shape ourselves and our days.

If you are having trouble determining how your social profile breaks down, that is probably because you are a reasonable person and you are reacting to the false and arbitrary nature of these categories. There are two antioppressive techniques to apply here.