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Social Dominance Theory

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Social Dominance Theory is a social psychological theory of group conflict which describes human society as consisting of oppressive group-based hierarchical structures. According to the theory, individual people possess varying levels of preference for social dominance, which can be measured by the social psychological measure Social Dominance Orientation.

History of SDTEdit


Social Dominance Theory was first formulated[1] by Psychology Professors Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto. The key principles of the theory are that societies are stratified by age, sex and group. These group divisions are based on ethnicity, 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], 1992). Prejudiced beliefs such as racism, sexism, nationalism and classism are all manifestations of this same principle of social hierarchy. The origin of social hierarchies is given an evolutionary explanation: prehistoric human societies organized in hierarchies were more efficient at combat than non-hierarchical groups, giving a competitive advantage to groups disposed towards social hierarchies ([1], 1992).


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 - 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.

Gender and dominanceEdit

Consistent with the assumption that 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 posits that males will tend to have a higher social dominance orientation.

The biological reason for this difference in dominance is the relationship with androgens, primarily testosterone. Male levels of testosterone are much higher than that of females. Higher levels of androgens are correlated with sexual aggression, dominance, spontaneous aggression and decreased restraint of aggression. There is also a correlation between gains in social status and increased testosterone. Interestingly, the asymmetry of social groups comes into consideration here too. High-testosterone males in negative reference groups are much more likely to be delinquent criminals, and end up in jail, or victims of homicide. High-testosterone males in the hegemonic group will tend to quickly climb the social ladder and be rewarded with social/political power.

Hegemonic groupEdit

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 hierarchyEdit

The reason that social hierarchies exist in human societies is that they were necessary for survival of inter-group competition during conflict over resources. 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, opposition to interracial mixing increases)
    • self-handicapping (low expectations of minorities are self-fulfilling prophecies)
    • ideological asymmetry (as status increases, so do discriminatory political beliefs eg conservatism)

These processes are driven by legitimizing myths, which are beliefs justifying 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 dominanceEdit

It is suggested 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 "Its probably a good thing that certain groups are at the top and other groups at the bottom."

SDT and MarxismEdit

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. Sidanius has similar ideas of oppressive social hierarchies, albeit broadened to include many more types of group, but is pessimistic about change; social dominance is described as a permanent state of society caused by human nature.

Socio-biology views human psychological traits to be ultimately understandable in terms of evolutionary fitness. SDT views group hierarchies as an evolutionary adaptation. Similarly the androgen-mediated dominance of males is explained by reproductive strategy differences between men and women.


Some attend that recent examples of women in positions of high power disproves the iron law of andrarchy in which positions of high-power tend to be filled by men. While such instances do suggest the continuing trend of attenuation in gender-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. Social Dominance Theory suggests that extreme gender-group discrimination arises in societies where economic surplus creates the opportunity for large power dynamics. This view suggests gender based hierarchy will persist in some form until radical political, economic, and cultural changes take place.

Some see Social Dominance Theory as inherently negative because of its focus on oppression, and that it dooms society to endless oppression and exploitation. The stated purpose of the authors, however, 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 argue that oppression is only a result of past historical injustices and will work itself out naturally. While social dominance theory 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 AuthoritarianismEdit

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's modelEdit

Duckitt proposes a model of RWA and SDO including their production by socialization in childhood, personality, and worldview beliefs. Punitive socialisation causes social conformity. This leads to a view of the world as a dangerous, dog-eats-dog place. This fits with RWA beliefs, which influence ingroup and outgroup attitudes.

Similarly, unaffectionate socialisation causes a tough-minded attitude. The world is then viewed as a competitive place, similar to the jungle of the evolutionary past. A desire to compete fits with social dominance orientation, which, again, influences ingroup and outgroup attitudes.

There is a close interaction between the two streams. Firstly the two parenting styles, punitive socialisation and unaffectionate socialisation, are not mutually exclusive but are potentially both present. A competitive-jungle worldview is entirely compatible with seeing the world as a dangerous place. Also, once a person has RWA beliefs, it is likely that they will adapt matching, compatible SDO beliefs, and vice versa. Finally, outgroup and ingroup attitudes influence each other.

Testing the modelEdit

After developing this extensive theoretical model, Duckitt tested his model using more than 500 Auckland University students. He used structural equation modeling with correlational data to test the predictions of relations between the SDO, RWA, worldviews, parenting styles, and ingroup/outgroup attitudes. All the predicted pathways were found to have significant (p < 0.05) correlational connections in the correct direction, vindicating the theoretical model.

There were a few unpredicted significant correlations. Dangerous-world beliefs directly affected anti-minority attitudes. Unaffectionate socialization had a negative correlation with social conformity - unaffectionate parenting style reduces social conformity beliefs. These correlations were significant at the p < 0.1 level. A repetition of the study in South Africa produced broadly similar results, with differences in the level of overall prejudice (higher in South Africa).

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 stable status situations)
  • Outgroup liking is best predicted by similarity to 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 an examination of anti-authoritarian-libertarian and egalitarian-altruistic ideologies.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto: Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression
  2. Pratto, F., Stallworth, L., Sidanius, J. & Siers, B. The gender gap in occupational role attainment: A social dominance approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1997

See alsoEdit

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