Social Dominance

PS140O: Projecting Power

Prof Wasow



  • Syllabus being revised (no change for next week)
  • Texts & Films
    • bcourses \(\rightarrow\) Modules \(\rightarrow\) Week
  • Slides

Jim Sidanius

Sidanius & Pratto Ch 2

  • Combining aspects of multiple theories and constructing “social dominance theory” (SDT)

  • All complex human societies tend to be structured as systems of group-based social hierarchies

  • At the very minimum, this hierarchical social structure consists of one or a small number of dominant and hegemonic groups at the top and one or a number of subordinate groups at the bottom

Positive and Negative Social Value

  • Dominant group is characterized by its possession of a disproportionately large share of positive social value

  • Subordinate groups possess a disproportionately large share of negative social value

What are examples of positive and negative social value?

Let’s hear from: John, Sofia, Giovanni, Oscar

Group- vs Individual-Based Hierarchies

  • Individual-based social hierarchy:
    • individuals might enjoy great power, prestige, or wealth by virtue of their own highly-valued individual characteristics
  • Group-based social hierarchy:
    • one’s social status, influence, and power are also a function of one’s group membership and not simply of one’s individual abilities or characteristics

Imagine Two Children

  • Two children with the same level of native talent, individual drive, and personal ambition
  • However, if one child is of the upper class, has ambitious and well-connected parents, and attends the “right” schools, the chances are that this child will do quite well in life
  • For the other child growing up in an impoverished, dangerous, and sociogenic neighborhood and afflicted with inferior schools, chances are that that child will not do quite as well in life

Trimorphic Structure

  • Age system
  • Gender system
    • males have disproportionate social and political power compared with females (patriarchy)
  • Arbitrary-set system
    • socially constructed and highly salient groups based on characteristics such as clan, ethnicity, estate, nation, race, caste, social class, religious sect, regional grouping…

Can we really reduce such deep divisions to just arbitrary-set?

Let’s hear from: Mia, Sara, Natalia, Valeria

Arbitrary-set Emerges with Surplus

  • Hunter-gatherer societies much more egalitarian

  • Hunter-gatherer societies lack sufficient economic surplus for specialization and wealth accumulation

  • Societies producing substantial and stable economic surplus are also those that have arbitrary-set systems of social hierarchy

Ancient, Modern, Every Continent

  • Partial list would include nations and societies such as Mexico, Japan, Sumeria, Nigeria, Germany, Israel, France, Canada, the United States, Taiwan, Zaire, Korea, Israel, the Zulu empire, the former USSR, South Africa, ancient Rome, ancient and modern Egypt, Greece, China, Scandinavia, Benin, Persia, and the pre-Colombian societies of the Inca, Aztec, and Maya

  • Every attempt to abolish arbitrary- set, group-based hierarchy within societies of economic surplus have, without exception, failed

Arbitrary-set Most Violent

  • Arbitrary-set system is also, by far, associated with the greatest degree of violence, brutality, and oppression

  • While the age and gender systems are certainly no strangers to very brutal forms of social control, the brutality associated with arbitrary-set systems very often far exceeds that of the other two systems in terms of intensity and scope

  • Besides Holocaust, twentieth century alone has witnessed at least seven major episodes of genocidal, arbitrary-set violence

Three Basic Assumptions

  1. Age- and gender-based hierarchies will tend to exist within all social systems. Arbitrary-set systems of social hierarchy will inevitably emerge within social systems producing sustainable economic surplus

  2. Most forms of group conflict and oppression (eg, racism, sexism, nationalism, classism) can be regarded as different manifestations of the same basic human predisposition to form group-based social hierarchies

  3. Human social systems are subject to the counterbalancing influences of hierarchy-enhancing (HE) and hierarchy attenuating (HA) forces

Schematic Overview of SDT

Aggregated Individual Discrimination

  • Simple, daily, and sometimes quite inconspicuous individual acts of discrimination by one individual against another

  • Example: decision of an employer not to hire or promote a person from a given minority group

  • Cumulative effect of individual acts of discrimination are aggregated over days, weeks, years, decades, and centuries

Aggregated Institutional Discrimination

  • Rules, procedures, and actions of social institutions

  • Institutions may be public or private, including courts, lending institutions, hospitals, retail outlets, and schools

  • Sometimes conscious, deliberate, and overt, and sometimes it is unconscious, unintended, and covert

One Institutional Dynamic: Systematic Terror

  • Use of violence or threats of violence disproportionately directed against subordinates

  • Systematic terror functions to maintain expropriative relationships between dominants (ie, members of dominant groups) and subordinates (ie, members of subordinate groups)

  • Enforces the continued deference of subordinates toward dominants

Three Types of Systematic Terror

  • Official terror is the public and legally sanctioned violence and threat of violence perpetrated by the state

  • Semiofficial terror is the violence or intimidation directed against subordinates, carried out by officials of the state (eg, internal security forces, police, secret police, paramilitary organizations) but not publicly, overtly, officially, or legally sanctioned by the state

  • Unofficial terror is that violence or threat of violence perpetrated by private individuals from dominant groups against members of subordinate groups

What are examples of systematic terror in Battle of Algiers?

Let’s hear from: Santiago, Daisy, Miguel, Charlotte