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What Is Dominance Theory?

By Jacob Queen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Dominance theory, also called social dominance theory, is a way of looking at societies that attempts to explain institutionalized inequality. The theory suggests that nearly all societies will tend to gravitate towards different kinds of institutionalized discrimination, including racial, sexual, or age-based discrimination. They believe that these social structures tend to rise naturally due to certain human tendencies that are often magnified by certain belief systems. The experts behind dominance theory see societal inequality as a self-perpetuating engine that constantly supports itself by generating beneficial ideas and sub-systems.

According to dominance theory, singular discrimination among individuals has a tendency to propagate naturally into the power structure of the society. This may lead to all sorts of unequal practices, including unequal treatment by judicial powers and societal restrictions that exclude those in the lower classes from gaining a foothold in the upper class. For example, educational institutions may make it harder for certain groups to gain acceptance, and this may happen on a wide scale due to the magnification of individual prejudices among key decision makers.

One of the most basic aspects of dominance theory is the way it categorizes the different kinds of social dominance. According to people who agree with this line of thinking, there are always three basic types of discrimination present in nearly every society. First of all, these experts believe that most societies tend to see adults as superior to children and usually create institutions and laws that reinforce this idea. Secondly, there is generally some kind of hierarchical system based on gender, and this might be spread throughout the society in the form of social mores or underlying belief systems that permeate the way most people think. Thirdly, there are other arbitrary hierarchies that societies impose that might be based on regional, cultural, or racial elements, and these can be quite variable from one society to the next.

Another part of social dominance theory is the belief that people will tend to align themselves either for or against the existing social hierarchy, and there is some attempt in the theory to explain how those alignments happen. According to the experts behind the theory, most people will tend to align themselves with viewpoints that favor their own personal way of viewing themselves. So, those who see themselves as insiders might generally favor the powerful forces, while those who see themselves as outsiders may tend to favor movements that might overthrow those forces.

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Discussion Comments
By discographer — On Jul 26, 2012
I don't agree with dominance theory because it's fatalist. If we believe that discrimination and oppression is inevitable, how can we work towards a society that is free of them? The more you concentrate on these aspects of society, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in my view.

I agree that societies are not perfect and we always have work ahead of us in terms of equality and justice. But I don't think that it's that bad either.

For the sake of supporting this theory, we should not pretend that discrimination exists even when it doesn't.

By bear78 — On Jul 26, 2012

@fify-- You've made it sound like all discrimination in society emerges on its own. But dominance theory also includes institutionalized discrimination that is promoted, even initiated by social institutions and leaders. It's usually done through various ideologies that justify to society the differential treatment of certain people.

So, for example, in patriarchal societies, it may be the case that the individuals in society, men and even women, believe that men are superior to women. In addition, leaders might feed into this by promoting an ideology which says the same thing. The may use this to justify treating women differently-- not giving them equal rights as men. This is also called male dominance theory but it's a part of the dominance theory in general.

By fify — On Jul 25, 2012

I learned about social dominance theory in my social identity class and I completely agree with it. I also believe that discrimination exists in all societies. Even if countries claim that there is no discrimination or prejudice, there is.

All societies have a history of discrimination. You can make laws and set social norms banning discrimination, but it's something that's deeply embedded in society. It can't be completely removed, it will show up in one way or another. And even if one discrimination ends, a different one will start.

The alignments that the dominance theory talks about makes sense too. After all, people will support whatever it is they benefit from. Discrimination and prejudice can only happen if someone has the luxury of doing it. That is, the powerful tend to discriminate against the less powerful. So when parts of the society is more powerful than others, there will be always be discrimination. And there has never been a society where every individual was just as powerful as the next. At least, this is my opinion.

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