Social dominance theory

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Social dominance theory (SDT) is a theory of intergroup relations that focuses on the maintenance and stability of group-based social hierarchies.[1] According to the theory, group-based inequalities are maintained through three primary intergroup behaviors—specifically institutional discrimination, aggregated individual discrimination, and behavioral asymmetry. SDT proposes that widely shared cultural ideologies (i.e., legitimizing myths) provide the moral and intellectual justification for these intergroup behaviors.

There are two functional types of legitimizing myths: (1) hierarchy-enhancing and (2) hierarchy-attenuating legitimizing myths. Hierarchy-enhancing ideologies (e.g., racism or meritocracy) contribute to greater levels of group-based inequality. Hierarchy-attenuating ideologies (e.g., anarchism and feminism) contribute to greater levels of group-based equality. People endorse these different forms of ideologies based in part on their psychological orientation toward dominance and their desire for unequal group relations (i.e., their social dominance orientation; SDO). People who are higher on SDO tend to endorse hierarchy-enhancing ideologies, and people who are lower on SDO tend to endorse hierarchy-attenuating ideologies. SDT finally proposes that the relative counterbalancing of hierarchy-enhancing and -attenuating social forces stabilizes group-based inequality.


Social Dominance Theory was first formulated[1] by psychology professors Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto. The theory begins with the observation that human social groups tend to be organized according to group-based social hierarchies in societies that produce economic surplus. These hierarchies have a trimorphic (3-form) structure. This means that these hierarchies are based on (1) age (i.e., adults have more power and higher status than children), (2) sex (i.e., men have more power and higher status than women), and (3) arbitrary-set, which are group-based hierarchies that are culturally defined and do not necessarily exist in all societies. Arbitrary-set hierarchies can be based on ethnicity (e.g., Whites over Blacks in the U.S.), religion, nationality, and so on. Human social hierarchies consist of a hegemonic group at the top and negative reference groups at the bottom. More powerful social roles are increasingly likely to be occupied by a hegemonic group member (for example, an older white male). Males are more dominant than females, and they possess more political power (the iron law of andrarchy). Most high-status positions are held by males.[1] Prejudiced beliefs, such as racism, sexism, nationalism and classism, are all manifestations of this same system of social hierarchy.

Legitimizing myths[edit]

Various processes of hierarchical discrimination are driven by legitimizing myths (Sidanius, 1992), which are beliefs justifying social dominance, such as paternalistic myths (hegemony serves society, looks after incapable minorities), reciprocal myths (suggestions that hegemonic groups and outgroups are actually equal), and sacred myths (the divine right of kings, as a religion-approved mandate for hegemony to govern). Pratto et al. (1994) suggest the Western idea of meritocracy and individual achievement as an example of a legitimizing myth, and argues that meritocracy produces only an illusion of fairness. SDT draws on social identity theory, suggesting that social-comparison processes drive individual discrimination (ingroup favouritism). Discriminatory acts (such as insulting remarks about minorities) are performed because they increase the actors' self-esteem.

Biological Sex and Dominance[edit]

Consistent with the observation that, in patriarchal societies, males tend to be more dominant than females, SDT predicts that males will tend to have a higher social dominance orientation (SDO). As such males will tend to function as hierarchy enforcers, that is, they will carry out acts of discrimination such as the systematic terror by police officers (Sidanius, 1992) and the extreme example of death squads and concentration camps. This is supported by evidence such as police officers possessing measurably higher levels of SDO.[2] SDT also predicts that males that carry out violent acts have been predisposed out of a conditioning called prepared learning.[3] This learned fear readily enables males to commit acts to groups they fear.

Hegemonic group[edit]

Social Dominance Theory is a consideration of group conflict which describes human society as consisting of oppressive group-based hierarchy structures. The key principles of Social Dominance Theory are:

  • Individuals are stratified by age, sex and group. Group identification is based on ethnicity, religion, nationality, and so on.
  • Human social hierarchy consists of a hegemonic group at the top and negative reference groups at the bottom.
  • As a role gets more powerful, the probability it is occupied by a hegemonic group member increases (Law of increasing proportion).
  • Males are more dominant than females; they possess more political power (the iron law of andrachy). Most high-power positions will be held by males.
  • Racism, Sexism, Nationalism and Classism are all manifestations of this same principle of social hierarchy.

Group hierarchy[edit]

The reason that social hierarchies exist in human societies is that they were necessary for survival of inter-group competition during conflict over resources.[4] Essentially, groups organised in hierarchies were more efficient at combat than groups who were organised in other ways, giving a competitive advantage to groups disposed towards social hierarchies.

Social Dominance Theory explains the mechanisms of group hierarchy oppression using three basic mechanisms:

  • Aggregated individual discrimination (ordinary discrimination)
  • Aggregated institutional discrimination (discrimination by governmental and business institutions)
    • Systematic Terror (police violence, death squads, etc.)
  • Behavioural asymmetry
    • systematic outgroup favouritism or deference (minorities favour hegemony individuals)
  • asymmetric ingroup bias (as status increases, in-group favoritism decreases)
  • self-handicapping (low expectations of minorities are self-fulfilling prophecies)
  • ideological asymmetry (as status increases, so beliefs legitimizing and or enhancing the current social hierarchy)

These processes are driven by legitimizing myths, which are beliefs that justify social dominance:

  • paternalistic myths (hegemony serves society, looks after incapable minorities)
  • reciprocal myths (suggestions that hegemonic and outgroups are actually equal)
  • sacred myths (Divine right of kings – religion-approved mandate for hegemony to govern)

Meritocracy and social dominance[edit]

[citation needed]

It is suggested[by whom?] that the Western idea of meritocracy (individual achievement) is an example of a legitimizing myth, i.e. meritocracy is false and produces only an illusion of fairness. SDT draws on social identity theory, suggesting that social comparison processes drive individual discrimination (ingroup favouritism). Such acts are performed because they increase the actors self-esteem.

SDT states that an individual's level of discrimination and domination can be conceptualised, or measured, with the social dominance orientation. This is an individual set of beliefs, sometimes viewed as something akin to a personality-trait, which describes the actors views on social domination and the extent to which they will aspire to gain more power and climb the social ladder. For instance, the SDO6 scale measures social dominance orientation by agreement with statements such as "Sometimes other groups must be kept in their place" and "It's probably a good thing that certain groups are at the top and other groups at the bottom."[5]

Relation to Marxism[edit]

SDT is influenced by Marxist and socio-biological ideas. Marx described the oppressive hierarchy of hegemonic group(s) dominating negative reference groups, in his examples the bourgeoisie (owning class) dominate the proletariat (working class) by controlling capital (the means of production), not paying workers enough, and so on. However Marx thought that the working class would eventually grasp the solution to this oppression and destroy the bourgeoisie in a revolution.


Some contend that recent examples of women in positions of high power disproves the iron law of androcracy in which positions of high-power tend to be filled by men. While such instances do suggest the continuing trend of attenuation in sex-based hierarchy that has been evident in western culture for centuries, no example of a non-subsistence society where males do not dominate in positions of high power or that is free of sex-based discrimination has yet emerged.[citation needed] Social Dominance Theory suggests that extreme sex-group discrimination arises in societies where economic surplus creates the opportunity for large power dynamics. This view suggests that sex-based hierarchy will persist in societies in which it is the status quo unless some form of radical political, economic, and/or cultural changes take place.

Some[who?] consider Social Dominance Theory as inherently negative because of its focus on oppression, and that it dooms society to endless oppression and exploitation. However, the stated purpose of the authors is to illuminate the means by which oppression is reinforced in order that it might be lessened, and the theory notes hierarchy-attenuating ideologies and structures as well as those that extenuate hierarchy.

Some[who?] argue that oppression is only a result of past historical injustices and will work itself out naturally. While SDT incorporates inequality and injustice as an important component to the maintenance of group-based hierarchy, defining the unequal distribution of social value, the theory also recognizes the importance of a variety of factors in maintaining oppression which are both empirically and theoretically supported.

Duckitt and right-wing authoritarianism[edit]

John Duckitt accepts the concept of Social Dominance Orientation and attempts to pair it to a related set of beliefs, Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA). This is a set of beliefs which include a rigid view of morality, often fundamentalist religious views, but overall the feeling that the government should have a strong leader, taking action to censor certain social groups (often those who are viewed as physically or morally threatening).

Duckitt proposes a model in which RWA and SDO are produced by socialization in childhood, by personality, and by worldview beliefs. Punitive socialisation is hypothesised as a cause of social conformity. This conformity is predicted to lead to a view of the world as a dangerous, dog-eat-dog place. These correspond to high–RWA beliefs, and in turn influence ingroup and outgroup attitudes. Unaffectionate socialisation is hypothesised to cause tough-minded attitudes. This promotes a view of the world as competitive, similar to the jungle of the evolutionary past. The need to compete is aligned with high SDO, and, again, influences ingroup and outgroup attitudes.

These two streams of causation may co-occur. Parenting styles may be both punitive and unaffectionate, and a competitive-jungle worldview is compatible with world–as–a-dangerous-place. Once established, high–RWA beliefs are hypothesised to promote high–SDO beliefs and vice versa. This predicts high correlations between the two, with environmental origins. On top of this, outgroup and ingroup attitudes may reinforce each other.

The model has been tested using structural equation modeling to test the predictions of relations between SDO, RWA, world–view, parenting styles, and ingroup/outgroup attitudes.[citation needed] The predicted pathways were significant (p < 0.05) in the predicted directions, supporting the model. Unpredicted links included a direct effect of Dangerous-world beliefs on anti-minority attitudes. Unaffectionate socialization also had a negative correlation with social conformity—unaffectionate parenting style reduced social conformity beliefs. A replication of the study in South Africa produced broadly similar results, with differences in the level of overall prejudice (higher in South Africa).[citation needed]

Duckitt further examines the complexities of the interaction between RWA, SDO and a variety of specific ideological/prejudicial beliefs and behaviour. For instance:

  • RWA beliefs are activated by social threat or threatening outgroups
  • SDO beliefs are activated by competition and intergroup inequalities in status and power
  • RWA is a stronger predictor of prejudice when the outgroup is threatening
  • When group status is unstable, SDO is associated with higher ingroup bias than when group status is stable
  • Outgroup liking is best predicted by similarity to the ingroup, while outgroup respect is predicted by status and technological advancement

Duckitt concludes that RWA and SDO have been well studied, and points out that this way of examining belief-paradigms and motivation-schemas could also be useful for examining anti-authoritarian-libertarian and egalitarian-altruistic ideologies.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Sidanius, Jim; Pratto, Felicia (1999). Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-62290-5. [page needed]
  2. ^ Pratto, Felicia; Stallworth, Lisa M.; Sidanius, Jim; Siers, Bret (1997). "The sex gap in occupational role attainment: A social dominance approach". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 72 (1): 37–53. PMID 9008373. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.72.1.37. 
  3. ^ Ohman, Arne (2001). "Fears, Phobias, and Preparedness: Toward an Evolved Module of Fear and Fear Learning" (PDF). Retrieved 2017-02-12.  External link in |website= (help)
  4. ^ Grusky, David B. and Ann Azumi Takata (1992). "Social Stratification". The Encyclopedia of Sociology. Macmillan Publishing Company. pp. 1955–70. 
  5. ^ Pratto, Felicia; Sidanius, Jim; Stallworth, Lisa M.; Malle, Bertram (1994). "Social Dominance Orientation: A Personality Variable Predicting Social and Political Attitudes" (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 67 (4): 741–763. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.67.4.741. Retrieved 1 February 2017. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Lewis, Rebecca J. Beyond Dominance: The Importance of Leverage (June 2002). "Beyond Dominance: The Importance of Leverage". The Quarterly Review of Biology. 77 (2): 149–64. JSTOR 343899. PMID 12089769. doi:10.1086/343899. 

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