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Social dominance theory proposes that humans have an evolved tendency to form group-based social hierarchies because such social structures were adaptive in evolutionary history. Influenced by Marxism, the theory observes that group-based hierarchies are cross-culturally universal and are stratified according to three criteria: age, gender, and arbitrary-set group memberships, including socially constructed categories such as ethnicity and social class. Social dominance theory describes how sociostructural, psychological, institutional, and ideological factors interact to produce and maintain hierarchically organized social structures that foster discrimination and oppression within society.
Social dominance orientation is the psychological component of social dominance theory. According to Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto (1999), social dominance orientation reflects the degree to which people are predisposed to achieve and maintain hierarchically organized social structures in which some groups dominate and have more power than others, versus social structures in which all groups are equal and no one group has more power than any other. This global orientation encompasses the competitive-driven motivation to achieve and maintain group-based dominance and unequal power relations between any given set of social groups, regardless of the particular categories or characteristics used to define those groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, social class). Social dominance orientation is measured by assessing the extent to which people agree with ideological/attitudinal items such as “Some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups” and disagree with items such as “No one group should dominate in society.”
Social dominance theory states that the motivation for group-based dominance and superiority (indexed by social dominance orientation) is a proximal cause underlying the many different manifestations of prejudice and discrimination (e.g., sexism, racism, homosexual prejudice), and also explains why some people are more likely to seek out positions of power and status. Consistent with this perspective, research demonstrates that people who are prejudiced toward one group will also tend to be prejudiced toward other (often unrelated) groups, and that the generality of prejudice toward multiple groups is reliably predicted by individual differences in social dominance orientation. These effects occur because, regardless of qualitative differences in content, prejudice and related ideologies (such as meritocracy and cultural elitism) function as legitimizing myths that produce and maintain hierarchically organized social structures. Accordingly, group-based hierarchies should tend toward stability to the extent that such ideologies are consensually shared across both dominant and subordinate groups within society (a phenomenon referred to as behavioral asymmetry).
Social dominance orientation explains an aspect of prejudice that is not accounted for by other constructs, such as right-wing authoritarianism or political conservatism. Individual differences in social dominance orientation are caused by a combination (and possible interaction) of biological factors (men are typically higher in social dominance orientation than women), sociostructural factors (group membership and exposure to competitive social environments), personality or temperament, and schematic beliefs about the competitive (versus cooperative) nature of the social world. Although there is some debate regarding the extent to which social identity might contextually activate social dominance orientation, most researchers nevertheless agree that the orientation functions as a mechanism through which the aforementioned factors produce individual differences in prejudice and hence institutionalized discrimination and oppression.
- Pratto, Felicia, Jim Sidanius, Lisa M. Stallworth, and Bertram F. Malle. 1994. Social Dominance Orientation: A Personality
- Variable Predicting Social and Political Attitudes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67 (4): 741–763.
- Sidanius, Jim, and Felicia Pratto. 1999. Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.
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