A pecking order is a social hierarchy which spells out the specifics of how the power structure operates.
The term was coined by the Norwegian zoologist Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe in the beginning of the 20th century. Schjelderup-Ebbe spend his childhood vacations at a farm near Oslo, where he became fascinated by the behavior of the barnyard chickens. When he was around ten years old, he produced a detailed diagram of the chickens’ social status – something which eventually came to be known as their pecking order.
Schjelderup-Ebbe found that the chickens had a highly detailed social hierarchy which was based around which of them had the right to eat, and when. He named this the pecking order because, he found, the chickens would give each other a sharp peck when one of them broke the rules of the social structure.
Today, we usually talk about the pecking order in different human groupings. There is a pecking order in the workplace, and a pecking order in schools. Some sociologists have argued that there is even a pecking order in families. Dalton Conley, a sociologist at New York University, said that families establish pecking orders early, and that those pecking orders influence family members throughout their lives:
“Every family has a pecking order independent of birth order, and the differences between siblings are magnified by poverty and disenfranchisement. In these situations, families invest in the sibling most likely to succeed, leading to stark divides, even class differences between family members.”
Not surprisingly, there are complex pecking orders operating in every political body as well. Perks given based on seniority help to establish order among members of Congress. Similar pecking orders exist among the members of the media who report on Congress, of course.
The University of Auburn described the pecking order at Congress this way:
Following the principle of seniority creates a well-established “pecking order” within the Congressional committees and the party caucusses and thus probably helps to avoid a lot of acrimonious conflict over perks and status that might otherwise make it harder for committee members to work together on more substantive legislative issues. The premium placed on seniority probably also tends to ensure that committee members (or at least the most influential ones of them) develop an enormous amount of expertise and detailed knowledge about the policy issues and the administrative problems connected with them in the area of policy supervised by the particular committee. On the negative side, the seniority rule gives disproportionate power to Congressmen and Senators from “safe” districts and thus tends to minimize the impact of shifts in the voters’ choices, since pretty much the same old players will still be dominating the committee’s deliberations after the election as before almost regardless of the outcome.
There is also a pecking order in international politics, of course, and it’s subject to constant renegotiation. Analysts say that the re-examination of the international pecking order gets played out in arenas like the United Nations and NATO, where states jockey for power and access.
In the British House of Commons there’s a pecking order between the top government officials and the backbenchers.