4.7.M Changing Social Hierarchies

team (2)

AP Theme

Social Interactions and Organization

Learning Objective 4M

Explain how social categories, roles, and practices have been maintained or have changed over time.

Historical Development 1

Many states adopted practices to accommodate ethnic and religious diversity, while others suppressed diversity or limited groups’ societal roles. 

Historical Development 2

Imperial conquests and widening global economic opportunities contributed to the formation of new political and economic elites.

Historical Development 3

The power of existing political and economic elites fluctuated as elites confronted new challenges to their ability to affect the policies of the increasingly powerful monarchs and leaders.

Key ideas

At times, some states, such as the Ottomans and the Mughals supported diverse populations.

Some states, such as the Qing empire and the Spanish, placed restrictions on some groups. The Qing placed restrictions on native Han Chinese, while Spain expelled Jewish populations.

There were new political and economic elites, including Europeans in the Americas and the Manchu in China.

Old elite groups such as the European aristocracy and the Russian Boyars saw their power decline.


Some Political Systems Accommodated Diversity and Other Political Systems Suppressed Diversity

Many states adopted practices to accommodate ethnic and religious diversity within their territories. These states also utilized diverse groups’ economic, political, and military contributions to strengthen their societies. Other governments suppressed diversity or limited ’certain groups’ roles in societies, politics, or the economy. 

Socities that sometimes supported diversity

The Ottoman and Mughal empires ruled over diverse populations. At some points in their histories, these Islamic empires included people from diverse backgrounds different from the governing class in their governments and societies. This inclusion did not mean that these diverse populations had equal rights. It also did not mean that there were no significant periods of discrimination against those groups or other groups. Often groups could be more favored under one ruler and less favored under another. This changing status was especially true for Hindus under Mughal governance.

Ottoman accommodation of diverse populations

The Ottoman Empire had a large number of non-Muslim and non- Turkish minority groups within the empire. The treatment of these groups varied across time. While many instances of harsh treatment and the killing of minority groups exist in Ottoman history, the Ottoman Empire had many inclusive policies incorporating religious and ethnic diversity into Ottoman society.

Devshirme: To limit the power of the Turkish nobility, the Ottoman Sultan used the devshirme system. The Ottomans required Christian areas in the Balkans (southeastern Europe) to provide a quota of Christian boys that the Ottomans raised in this system. The boys were forcibly converted to Islam and trained for military or government service. Only Christians were allowed in the devshirme. Most of the highest-ranking members of the Sultan’s government and military were former Christians trained through the devshirme system. The highest-ranking minister in the Ottoman government was the grand vizier. All grand viziers came from the devshirme system.

Janissaries: The Ottoman Janissary was one of the first modern standing armies in Europe and the Middle East. Sultan Murad I (1326-1378) formed the first Janissary military unit. Ottoman leaders pulled Janissary soldiers from the devshirme system. Under the devshirme and Janissary systems, young Christian boys were taken from their families, converted to Islam, and raised with complete loyalty to the sultan.

Millet System:  Under the Ottoman millet system, religious communities each had independent courts of law that governed their communities. The millet system allowed non-Muslim religious minority (Jewish and Christian) communities to judge members of their religious communities on their own spiritual teachings’ rules and requirements. The Ottoman created this system to protect the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities and maintain social harmony between the majority Muslim community and religious minorities. 

Acceptance of Jewish People in the Ottoman Empire: In the 15th and 16th centuries, there was a rise in antisemitism in parts of Europe. In Portugal and Spain, Jewish persecution was extreme. Queen Isabella started a process in 1492 that led to the expulsion of all Jews from Spain. One place that allowed Jews community migration was the Ottoman Empire. Once in the Ottoman Empire, Jewish communities became influential in trading and business within the empire. Jewish communities were incorporated into the millet system and generally allowed to maintain Jewish schooling and court systems.

Mughal accommodation of diverse populations

Like in the Ottoman Empire, the treatment of non-Muslim religious minorities in the Mughal Empire varied across place and time. However, under many Mughal emperors, there were religious tolerance policies from the Muslim ruling classes toward their non-Muslim subjects. 

  • Under some Mughal Emperors, Hindus and other groups could reach senior government or military positions. 
  • Emperor Akbar was tolerant of varied religious beliefs. Under his rule,  non-Muslims did not need to obey Islamic law. 
  • Akhbar created the new religion of Godism, which contained various Islamic, Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist teachings with himself as a deity. The religion did not spread and died when Akbar died. 
  • Many Hindus held high positions in Akbar’s government.
  • When the Islamic fanatic Aurangzeb became emperor, he ended religious tolerance for India’s majority non-Muslim communities. 

Some states created systems of oppression to limit the power of certain populations

States adopt restrictive policies for a variety of reasons. The most common reasons include the desire of one group to place themselves in a superior position to another group and attempting to scapegoat one group for social problems. Societies also use systems of oppression to create classes of people stripped of rights that can remain subservient to the dominant classes.

Restrictive Qing policies against the native Han Chinese

The Ming dynasty collapsed in 1644. The Manchus from Manchuria to the North of China used the opportunity to invade and conquer China from the rebellion’s inexperienced leaders. They spent the next 40 years subduing China under their leadership. China was once again under the control of non-ethnic Chinese. However, this time, foreign rule over China endured. The Qing ruled China for over 250 years until the Chinese imperial system collapsed in the early 20th century.

China’s new Qing rulers worked to make their culture and political position dominant in China. 

  • Qing emperors placed Manchus in the highest government positions. 
  • Chinese men had to adopt Manchu clothing styles and wear their hair in the traditional Manch style of braided ponytails. The Manchus executed those who refused. 
  • Initially, Qing emperors forbade marriages between Manchus and native Chinese. Qing emperors later relaxed these restrictions. 
  • The Manchu adopted the Eight Banner System to distinguish themselves from commoners and non-Manchu. Under this system, all Manchu families received a designation under one of the eight banners, each with different colors. Manchu families, especially those in the three upper banners, enjoyed political and economic privileges unavailable to non-Manchus. 
  • The Manchu later created separate banner classes for elite native Han Chinese.
Expulsion of Jews from Spain

In late 15th century Spain, the Spanish Inquisition sought to “purify Catholicism” from corrupt influences. Jewish communities got caught up in the inquisition. In 1492, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand accepted the Catholic priest Tomas de Torquemada’s argument to remove Jewish communities from Spain forcibly. Torquemada believed that Jewish people who refused to convert to Christianity would continue to influence Jews who had earlier converted to Christianity if allowed to stay in Spain. Many former Spanish Jews moved to the Ottoman Empire, where they found some acceptance and economic opportunity.

Racial classifications and exclusion in the Americas

With the European conquest of the Americas, entirely new social systems arose. This social system varied between North America and Latin and South America. However, one commonality across these locations was the privileged position of white European ancestry. While mixed-race people had some status in Portuguese and Spanish American colonies, natives and African slaves lacked basic rights.

Race in the North American colonies:  In the North American colonies, racial divisions were most oppressive. You were either white or non-white. There was no mixed-race status like in Latin America and South America. Whites were the privileged classes, and non-whites had no status. Whites prevented people of color from working in all levels of colonial administration. Non-whites could neither hold high or low government office. Separation of the races was also strictly enforced. By the 17th century, colonial America had begun passing laws to prevent interracial marriages and interracial sexual relationships (anti-miscegenation laws). 

Race in Portuguese and Spanish Latin America:  In Latin America, a much more complex racial dynamic developed. Because it was less common for white women to immigrate to the Portuguese and Spanish American colonies, European men commonly married and had children with women of color or had children outside of traditional marriage. These relationships resulted in a significant mixed-race population. Unlike in North America, mixed-race ancestry did not strip an individual of all social status or opportunity. By the 19th century, mixed-race peoples had obtained positions of significant influence within the Latin and South American social structure. Unlike in North America, those of mixed race could find their way into government employment and decision making–at least at the lower levels. However, like other American colonies,  natives and African slaves lacked all social and political rights. 

The social class system in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies included the following groups. 

  • Peninsulares (Spanish/Iberian) Aristocrats 
  • Creoles (descendants of peninsulares) 
  • Mestizo (descendants of natives and Caucasians) 
  • Mulattoes (Caucasians and Africans) 
  • Natives (lacked privilege and social standing) 
  • African slaves (lacked privilege and social standing)

New Political and Economic Elites

In this period of conquest and new global connections, dramatic upheavals resulted in a significant restructuring of many societies. In some locations, new ethnic groups replaced traditional elites.

Social changes in the Americas (casta)

In Spanish America, Spanish administrators adopted and adapted the social system used back home on the Iberian peninsula. In this system, the Spanish organized society in large groupings in which different groups had varied legal rights based on where they fit into the racial categorization system.

  • Those with ancestry closest to pure European caucasian had higher social and legal status than those whose ancestors were of native and African heritage. 
  • In Spanish America, pureblood Spanish and mixed-race mestizos (white and native) conferred certain social and financial advantages. For example, men and these groups could become Catholic priests, and all genders were exempt from paying taxes to the Spanish king. 
  • Free blacks, Amerindians, and mixed-race castas were required to pay tribute and barred from the priesthood.

The Manchu Qing dynasty

The Manchu Qing ruling dynasty in China was also an example of a significant shift in ruling elites during this period. The foreign Manchu immediately set themselves apart and above China’s majority Han population. 

  • Han Chinese were not allowed to learn the Manchu language, and they were not allowed to travel to the Manchu homeland. 
  • Manchus got preferential treatment, and Manchus had their legal system separate from the Han. Prosecuting Manchus was difficult, and if they were found guilty, their sentences were less harsh.
  • Manchus were also the most favored group in the Chinese imperial bureaucracy. However, Han Chinese could work their way into intermediate governing positions through the traditional Chinese imperial examination system.

European merchant classes

Merchants gained significant political and economic status within Europe and its emerging colonial empires as their wealth increased from the European commercial revolution. Over time, the wealth of the merchant and business community began to rival the wealth of the aristocratic classes. Many wealthy merchants and large European banks gained wealth that eventually surpassed many European monarchs. When Monarchs needed loans or access to money, they began building relationships with these business communities. Despite the family’s common status, Henry II of France married Catherine de Medici of the wealthy Florence Medici banking family. Henry II’s marriage sought to secure access to her family’s great wealth. 

Certain Old Elite Groups Saw Decreasing Power

Elite groups within societies change over time. As political power and wealth shift, new groups become empowered while other groups see their power decline.

The European Nobility

Aristocratic (noble) families in Europe had developed their wealth and power over generations from extensive agricultural landholdings. During the middle ages, these titled families (lords, ladies, and dukes) owned the manors on which peasants and serfs worked. The aristocrats had complete authority on their manors’ lands and over those that lived within them. Because nobles controlled personal armies of knights, they could challenge a king’s authority if multiple powerful nobles joined together. By the 16th century, monarchs across Europe were looking to limit the power of their aristocratic groups. Monarchs in Western Europe did this by empowering and effectively taxing merchants and commerce as the region entered its commercial revolution. The power of the nobility decreased slowly over several hundred years. Despite their loss of political power, European nobility retained significant social status and wealth.

Russian Boyars

During this period, the Russian Empire was feudal. Real power rested with local aristocrats called boyars. Russian czars were highly suspicious of the loyalty of this group to the Russian crown. Ivan III and Ivan IV sought to weaken these local aristocrats’ power and centralize the Russian state under their leadership. Ivan III deported and executed thousands of boyars from the strategic western Russian city of Novgorod. Ivan IV expanded this policy and deported large numbers of boyars from their estates. As boyars lost power, Russian czars created new elite groups under their authority and loyal to the monarchy, not their personal and regional aristocratic interests.