Social Dominance

PS140O: Projecting Power

Prof Wasow



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

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

Where do we see ‘two children’ in Sami Blood?

Let’s hear from: Anata, Felicia, Aissata, Sara

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: Dunyia, Zayar, Olivia, Nawel

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

Individual-level SDT

Ideological-level SDT

Institutional-level SDT

Aggregated Individual Discrimination

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

  • Example: decision of a boss 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

Discussion: What were examples of individual discrimination in Sami Blood?

Let’s hear from: Allen, Margaux, Chris, Tamara

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

Discussion: What were examples of institutional discrimination in Sami Blood?

Let’s hear from: Jovana, Tristan, Luca, Elijah

Institutional Discrimination: Science

Institutional Discrimination: Language

Language fights today

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

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

Legitimizing Myths

  • Two functional types: HE and 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

Discussion: What are examples of legitimizing myths in Sami Blood?

Let’s hear from: Layla, Ian, Alisa, Wilfredo


  • 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

Revisiting Schematic of SDT


  • 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)