Conflict and Social Dominance Theory

I have always found Social Dominance Theory, developed out of elite social theory, a dash of Marx and Gramsci and shaken well, interesting and useful. It was developed in the book of that name by Felicity Pratto and Jim Sidanius, and throws some very interesting light on conflict and what I call the vertical dimension in conflict. The conflicting inheritance from our primate ancestors for alpha male types to try to dominate us, and our natural more egalitarian resistance to domination from our hunter gatherer ancestors who were not big on alpha males and once spears were invented could see them off! I got in a lot of fights as a teenager with alpha male candidates and maybe that’s why corporate life was such fun for me too.


I thought it might be helpful to provide one of Top Ten Tips through the lens of Social Dominance Theory.

  1. Lenses. We can use Social Dominance Theory to detect our social lenses, and spot our tendency to distort reality with legitimizing myths and hierarchy enhancing behavior and social policy. Hierarchy is what our lenses make it.
  2. The Dangers of Extreme Hierarchy. We can wonder if the days of extreme hierarchy are numbered, given the impact of global mass media in making differentials very visible, depressing though that may be in the short term for subordinates. Wide spread availability of weapon systems such as improvised explosive devices will play a role in any case where the distortion is revealed and the emperor seen to have no clothes. The 1%/99% movement is all about this danger in my view.
  3. Flatter Societies, Flatter Organizations. We will probably have little choice, but to democratize and flatten our societies somewhat, finding ways to overcome economic incentive issues or collapse into conflict, failed states and the barbarians invasions such as the Roman Empire suffered. I always thought the Roman Empire suffered when it became so unequal and used barbarians as its defense.
  4. Entwined Humanity. The test will be pragmatic: given that dominant and subordinate groups are highly entwined and inhabit the same physical planet, then we had better begin to understand the distortions of social hierarchy if we are to survive in the long run.
  5.  Risk of Environmental Collapse. Jared Diamond in Collapse details what happened to Easter Islands competing groups over-produced symbolic resources until the society collapsed. The way forward is hierarchy attenuating; not vain attempts at its overthrow that merely changes the dominant group.
  6. Social Dominance’s Toxicity. It is the structure of social dominance that needs to be understood and modified to limit its toxicity. Different systems are needed, not merely different drivers at the wheel.
  7. Driving Forces of Hierarchy. The forces that create and maintain dominance structures, like those that are involved in conflict are complex. One of the critical factors is, of course, to what we attribute inequality.
  8. Hierarchy Attentuating. It is on this basis that decisions about remedial action or inaction are taken and political coloration is very much determined by Social Dominance Orientation and its associated mind sets and Hierarchy Attenuating or Hierarchy Accentuating legitimizing myths. From a conflict viewpoint, there are two means that dominant groups maintain their power over subordinate groups.
  9. Force. Firstly there is the threat or actual use of force.
  10. Ideology. Secondly there is the control of ideology and the idea of what is legitimate political discourse. As noted above what is surprising is how legitimizing ideologies for inequality are shared by subordinate groups

Here are Jim and Felicity: their relative photo sizes have no hierarchical implications:


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Processes, Neuro-science of conflict, PERSONAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION: CREATIVE STRATEGIES, Top Ten Conflict Tips from Great Thinkers, US Political Conflict, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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