Social Dominance Theory: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Dr. Douglas Hawks

Douglas has two master's degrees (MPA & MBA) and is currently working on his PhD in Higher Education Administration.

In every society, there is some degree of division that makes some individuals more dominant and others subservient. In this lesson, we'll introduce one theory that tries to explain how those divisions are created and why they continue.

The Study of Social Structures

Sociologists are interested in determining what social norms and customs exist, as well as how they were created in the first place. After identifying those norms and customs, if some seem harmful or unfair, there is the question of why they continue to exist. Social dominance theory is one attempt at answering those questions.

Social Dominance Theory

Social dominance theory was put forth by two researchers, Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto, in 1999. Specifically, Sidanius and Pratto attempted to explain how, and why, social structures seemed to be supported by an unspoken hierarchy of groups based on a number of different traits. These multiple hierarchies may be based on gender, race, age, economic status, and other characteristics - either naturally recurring or obtained.

According to social dominance theory, these hierarchies influence how equitable the allocation of resources is and how the distribution of undesirable work and/or roles are assigned. For example, in modern western society, the white male hierarchy is more dominant than minority racial groups. In turn, the dominant hierarchies (white males) will allocate resources based on their self-interest and assign undesired roles, such as working dangerous jobs or living in undesirable locations, to subordinate groups.

Social Impact of Trait-based Hierarchies

One phrase that is often used when discussing social dominance theory is 'different means unequal.' While the differences may be apparent or hidden, and the inequality slight or painfully obvious, in many cases this phrase is true. Since Sidanius and Pratto published their original theory, further work has identified the influence gender, race, age, economic status, and other factors have on social power, status, wealth, and opportunity.

While there is variance among societies in how these traits influence social status, there is uniformity in the fact that they do. For example, in every society studied, one gender has a dominant role over the other. However, males aren't always the dominant gender - in some Pacific Island and African societies, females have the dominant role. But the fact remains that there IS a dominant gender.

The same is true with age. In many western societies, 40-60 years old is often seen as the dominant age group, while in eastern societies status continues to grow with age. Likewise, however resources (i.e. land, money, assets, etc.) are allocated, the wealthy generally have more influence on society than do the less affluent.

Perpetuating the Hierarchies

One of the questions that emerged from studying social dominance theory is 'why do these hierarchies continue,' especially if they are harmful to a significant portion of society? So, applying that question to the real world may lead many in the U.S. to ask 'why do females only earn 77% of what their male colleagues do in performing the same job?' and 'why do racial minorities, on average, more often have lower paying jobs in areas like agriculture, maintenance, and construction?'

These are very valid questions and they highlight the cyclical nature of the dominance of certain hierarchies, especially when a majority of the population is in a subordinate hierarchy. The reason they continue is that, by nature, those in dominant and powerful roles reinforce their dominance by encouraging and supporting the hierarchy that favors them, and others like them - something sociologists call 'in-group bias.'

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