Social Dominance & Violent Revolt

PS140O: Projecting Power

Prof Wasow



  • Syllabus finalized
  • Groups for next week?
  • Texts & Films
    • bcourses \(\rightarrow\) Modules \(\rightarrow\) Week
  • Slides

Quiz, Midterm and Final Dates

  • Quizzes in Section
    • February, Friday 2/3
    • February, Friday 2/24
    • April, Friday 4/7
    • April, Friday 4/21
  • Exams
    • Midterm, Thursday 3/16
    • Final, Thursday 5/4

How should we think about slurs, violence, etc?

  • Intent
  • Gratuitousness
  • Let’s talk

Schematic Overview of SDT

Institutional-level SDT

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 12 Years a Slave?

Let’s hear from: Jose, John, Josiah, Rose

Law and Order

  • With SDT, law is understood to be written and enforced so as to favor the interests of dominants

  • Order is often defined as those social conditions that disproportionately protect and maintain the interests of dominants

  • Many assume discrimination within criminal justice system is relatively rare and nonsystematic

  • SDT suggests that discrimination within the criminal justice system is quite systematic and comprehensive in its effects

“For my friends, anything; for my enemies, the law.”
— Oscar R. Benavides, President of Peru (1933-1939)

Behavioral Asymmetry

  • There will be differences in the behavioral repertoires of individuals belonging to groups at different levels of the social power continuum

  • Behavioral asymmetry will also be affected by socialization patterns, stereotypes, legitimizing ideologies, psychological biases, and the operation of systematic terror

“Oppression is a Cooperative Game”

  • Within SDT, we do not regard subordinates merely as objects of oppression , but also as people who usually retain some agency and actively participate in the oppressive exercise

  • In other words, within SDT, group oppression is very much a cooperative game

  • Subordinates do resist their own oppression but…

  • Successful social revolution is a rare event and most group-based systems of social hierarchy remain relatively stable over long swaths of time

What are examples of “cooperation” in 12 Years a Slave?

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

Varieties of Behavioral Asymmetry

  • Asymmetrical ingroup bias: Dominant groups will tend to display higher levels of ingroup favoritism

  • Outgroup favoritism or deference: Asymmetrical ingroup favoritism is so strong that subordinates actually favor dominants over their own ingroups

  • Self-debilitation: Subordinates show higher levels of self-destructive behaviors than dominants

  • Ideological asymmetry: HE and HA social ideologies and social policies will systematically vary as a function of one’s position

Ideological-level SDT

Legitimizing Myths

  • Two functional types: Hierarchy Enhancing (HE) and Hierarchy Attenuating (HA)

  • Hierarchy Enhancing Legitimizing Myths (HE-LMs)

  • “What all these ideas and doctrines have in common is the notion that each individual occupies that position along the social status continuum that he or she has earned and therefore deserves. From these perspectives then, particular configurations of the hierarchical social system are fair, legitimate, natural, and perhaps even inevitable.”

Legitimizing Myths

  • Hierarchy Attenuating Legitimizing Myths (HA-LMs)

  • HE-LMs serve to exacerbate and maintain group-based social inequality

  • HA-LMs serve to promote greater levels of group-based social egalitarianism

What are examples of legitimizing myths in 12 Years a Slave?

Let’s hear from: Joe, Fatimah, Sophia, Ava

Individual-level SDT

Social Dominance Orientation (SDO)

  • SDO is defined as the degree to which individuals desire and support group-based hierarchy and the domination of “inferior” groups by “superior” groups

SDO Scale

Subordinate-Male Target Hypothesis

  • “There is overwhelming evidence that intergroup aggression is primarily a male enterprise”

  • Arbitrary-set aggression is primarily directed at outgroup males rather than outgroup females

  • SMTH doesn’t imply absence of discrimination vs women

  • All else equal, subordinate males rather than subordinate females are the primary objects of arbitrary-set discrimination

  • Intersectional but not necessarily “double disadvantage”

What is some evidence for or against SMTH?

Let’s hear from: Jennifer, Natalia, David, Zoe


  • Group-based social hierarchies tend to be highly stable over time but stability is not absolute

  • “Regime smashing” social revolutions are rare but do occur

  • “There is not a single case in which an egalitarian transformation has actually succeeded”

  • Even in cases in which the ancien regime was overthrown, like the myth of the phoenix, some new arbitrary-set order soon rose up to take its place

Social Organization with Primates

  • All primates within hominoid clade (ie, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and baboons) have systems of social dominance

  • Further, there is a group-based nature to these systems

  • Trimorphic structure similar to humans with social status a function of:

    • age (older animals dominating younger animals)
    • sex (males dominating females, with major exception)
    • position in kinship and friendship groups, eg, rudimentary arbitrary-set systems


  • SDT attempts to take elements from the individual, group, institutional, and structural levels of analysis

  • Ubiquitousness of social hierarchy and ethnocentrism are most parsimoniously understood in terms of survival strategies adopted by hominoids, including Homo sapiens


  • While age- and gender-based hierarchies tend to exist within all social systems, arbitrary-set systems of social hierarchy invariably emerge within social systems producing sustainable economic surplus

  • Most forms of group conflict and oppression (eg, racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, nationalism) are different manifestations of same basic human predisposition toward group-based social hierarchy

  • Human social systems are subject to influences of Hierarchy Enhancing (HE) forces and are partly counterbalanced by opposing Hierarchy Attenuating forces (HA)


Worgs: “Beware of the Frustrated…”

“As American as Apple Pie”

  • Violence is central to founding of America

  • African Americans have engaged in an ongoing struggle for liberation—from slavery, discrimination, and the various manifestations of racial oppression

  • In this struggle for liberation, African Americans have often used violence as a tactic or strategy

  • Worgs “examines the phenomenon of fantasies about violent revolt to expand the understanding of why such incidences occur”

Four Themes of Violent Revolt

  • Violent revolt is understood by many as both instrumental (a means to a desired end—usually freedom) and cathartic

  • Themes:

    1. a justification of violence
    2. need to fight to gain the “respect” of the oppressor
    3. the rage of the oppressed as well as yearning for retribution
    4. the humanizing or transformative effect of participating in a violent revolt against an oppressor. Move from object to subject

History of Violent Revolt

  • Evidence of hundreds of incidents where enslaved Africans engaged in or plotted to engage in violent uprisings

  • Including “plots of Gabriel Prosser in 1800 and Denmark Vesey in 1822, as well as extensive violent clashes such as Stono Rebellion of 1739 or Nat Turner–led uprising in 1831”

  • Enslaved Africans seizing control of slave ships

  • Under Jim Crow, African Americans often took up arms to defend themselves, friends, elected officials, schools, churches

  • “Most familiar form of Black violent revolt is the mass riot”

Theme 1: Justification of Violence

  • Concept of self-defense as the primary justification

  • Douglass (1853/1993), for example, locates the slave revolt within the “American” tradition of using violence to obtain freedom as he equates the violence of the slave revolt with that of the American Revolution

  • Robert F Williams in 1960s argued Blacks were in a circumstance in which the law offered no protection against White attacks. As such, they had to defend themselves

Theme 2: Respect

  • Martin Delaney’s (1859/1993) work best expresses the notion that the oppressed must fight to gain the respect of the oppressor.

  • An Indian chief tells the story’s hero, Blake, who escaped slavery and commenced to organize insurrections throughout the South and Cuba, that “If you want white man to love you, you must fight ‘im!’”

  • “The quest for respect is not a desire for sensitivity or inclusion. It is a yearning for a respect for Black life, for Black humanity”

Theme 3: Rage and Retribution

  • Communicate anger

  • In William Wells Brown’s work (1864/1993) the character Glen, an enslaved African who uses violence to seize his freedom, tells of the “volcano pent up in the hearts of the slaves of these Southern states that will burst forth ere long. When that day comes, woe to those whom its unpitying fury may devour!”

Theme 4: Humanizing Power

  • Idea that violent action in response to oppression can have a humanizing power

  • “When the oppressed strike a blow for freedom, they in a sense seize back their humanity.”

  • Jean Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon tell us that the violence of the oppressed against the oppressors is “man recreating himself” (Sartre, 1963).

  • Fanon (1963) argues oppressed find “freedom in and through violence,” it is “a cleansing force”

  • “They move from object to subject.”

What are examples of violent revolt (real or imagined) in 12 Years a Slave?

Let’s hear from: Eli, Emma, Alejandro, Giovanni