Social Dominance Attenuation

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

Social dominance is arguably at the heart of many — if not most — of humankind's most shameful enterprises. It is embodied in ideology, economics, policy, education, the media, social perception and interactions, culture, and, even, our technological artifacts. In general the less-dominant group will have fewer opportunities for advancement, have poorer health and shorter life-spans, smaller incomes, higher likelihood of being incarcerated and live under more violent conditions than people do in more-dominant groups. Society as a whole too suffers from high level of inequality: the more equal the distribution of assets, the more economic growth the society will have (Dugan, 2004; World Bank, 2004). Political violence is also tied to social inequality (Gurr, 1971). At its most extreme, social dominance encourages oppression and wars, genocide, mob violence, and environmental destruction.


This pattern pertains to any society, region, or organization where social dominance is entrenched; in other words, virtually everywhere.


As humans evolved our species unwittingly took on characteristics that have persisted for centuries. Over the millennia, some aspects of our genetic makeup, as well as some psychological and cultural characteristics were encouraged while others were halted or slowed. As we all know, these basic changes generally came about hundreds of thousands of years ago when humans lived in small numbers and clung together in small bands for survival. That situation, once the norm, is now present only in the rarest of circumstances. We have been bred for a time and place that existed eons, an era that could only be recreated through pandemics, global war, massive climate change, or some combination.

One consequence of this is the myriad institutional structures that perpetuate dominance of one group over others. The authors of a recent book on social dominance (Sidanius and Pratto, 1999) make the case that our social psychology seems to propel us naturally towards oppression. Unfortunately at least for those of us who believe that racism and other insidious "isms" would make excellent candidates for the dustbins of history, there are several factors that help keep social dominance in vogue. The first is that there does seem to be a measurable propensity ("generalized ethnocentrism") that shows up in some percentage of any population for strong group identification; people in this group believe that their group is superior to others and that they must stick together. When in positions of power they generally promote laws and attitudes that favor their group over others. They will also encourage and cleave to a variety of "legitimizing myths," such as social Darwinism ("survival of the fittest"), manifest destiny, "clash of civilization" (Huntington, 1993) and a myriad of racial, gender, and ethnic stereotypes, as "social frames" that help perpetuate social dominance. The second is that racial (and other) stereotypes are easily and readily (and subconsciously) learned, generally at an early age before advanced cognitive abilities come into play that could question the accuracy and the value of the stereotypes. Third, the stereotyping "trigger" is effortlessly and (again) subconsciously activated when "appropriate," thus making these people the hapless targets of manipulative politicians and others who can specifically reach out to these people with tailored messages. Finally, unfortunately, there is some evidence that people in dominated groups, due to a combination of factors, will in many cases, adopt characteristics that are specified by the stereotype thus helping unconsciously to reinforce the stereotype ("behavioral asymmetry"). All of these factors, then, help support, at least indirectly, the maintenance of institutions that operate under a variety of processes, mechanisms, and biases that serve to maintain the machinery of social dominance.

Once the holistic model that Sidaneous and Pratto propose (possibly with modifications) is well understood, it should be possible to run society's social domination machine’s "in reverse." Along these lines, it's important to note that according to many people who study this field, approaches to attenuating social dominance will require widespread, multi-sectoral actions that include integrated legislative, economic, and educational efforts among (and across) dominant and non-dominant groups. Here is a list of approaches that can be undertaken — keeping in mind that articulation between these approaches will be critical if any a junction of social dominance is to be sustained over time.

  • Role-reversal exercises (examples include "Walk a Mile in their shoes" where state legislators “became” welfare recipients for a day and an event in Wisconsin where youths in disadvantaged neighborhoods interrogated judges and police officers in a mock courtroom situation.
  • Additional research. Identify, for example, "markers” or other classification schemes that “sort” people into two groups and see how the "markers" are used implicitly or explicitly in policy, the media, etc. etc.
  • Development and promulgation of social frames like "love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, human family, equal opportunity, and multiculturalism help characterize the theme.
  • Fighting local discrimination in, for example, education or public service.)
  • Moving beyond tokenism. There is evidence that hiring one or two people from a less-dominant group can actually backfire.
  • Childhood education. Children need multicultural education and familiarity with different cultures and groups. Seeing a diverse society at an early age and not growing up with active stereotyping is good.
  • Lawsuits as a tool to fight social dominance by business and government.
  • “Disciplining” the media by fighting stereotypes solidarity networks. Establishing networks of people from diverse communities to inform each other, advocate and Religious connection. Remind people of their religion’s commitment to human rights and brotherhood and would with in the church for social change.

According to Sidaneous and Pratto, "Arbitrary-set divisions" (those divisions devised by cultures themselves according to their own decisions like caste, religion, and race, unlike divisions shared by all cultures, basically gender and age, upon which to discriminate) "largely only occur in societies in which people are able to generate and sustain an economic surplus." These societies employ division of labor that, apparently, leads to various forms of arbitrary-set based social dominance techniques and institutions. One of the most difficult challenges of such a society is checking the power of its most powerful members.

While many people would argue (myself included) that some degree of social dominance will probably always occur in society, there are also many people (myself included) who believe that a meaningful attenuation in social dominance is not only possible but necessary. Fighting against social dominance will always be an uphill battle: the forces that will rally against your campaign are, by definition, powerful and well-financed, and cozy with the media, government, and other elites. They will also have a ready supply of slogans handy to bring their minions into the fray. Sometimes trumping our own "intrinsic nature" to favor "our own, ' and, even, going against what may seem like "our own best interest" (maximizing short-term gain at another's expense) is the best long-range approach. And approaches that are actually win-win should be accompanied with public education that pre-empts the inevitable claim that the approach is discriminatory.

Although social dominance may be intrinsic to humankind, there are some grounds for hope. Some countries, Sweden, for example, have more-or-less eliminated social dominance based on gender. Studies relating to health care in Japan, New Zealand, Denmark and Sweden, also show that proper health care can be reached for all of a nation's citizens even if some social inequality still exists within that society.


Serious, ongoing and engaged commitment to social non-dominance is the core to "solving" the problems of social dominance. A society that genuinely wants to reduce its own inequity is obviously more likely to actually adopt new policies and perspectives over the long haul than one who begrudges every dime spend on schools for poor people or health care for the elderly and the foreign-born. Understanding how the “machines” of social dominance function provides important clues for the development of a counter machine.

Pattern status: