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Social Dominance Theory

I’ve had the book, Social Dominance, by Jim Sidanius and Felecia Pratto, lying around my house for a couple of years now. I hadn’t gotten around to reading it because I wasn’t ready for the ideas that it contains, apparently.

I started this blog back in September of 2008, in reaction to the horror I felt about the candidacy of Sarah Palin for the Vice Presidency of this country. That started a long quest to re-examine and organize my thoughts about this country and its history. After my initial euphoria over the election of Obama dissipated, I began to realize that nothing had changed, after all. That led to a lot of reading and thinking about social-structural issues – issues that had fascinated me when I was completing my degree in Anthropology twenty years ago. For a time, I railed against the failure of the Democrats to “do the right thing” until I realized that the Democrats were part of the problem, too. Then, I came to the conclusion that we are all part of the problem. That led to a re-acquaintance with the ideas of anarchy, which had briefly attracted my interest many years ago. Back then, of course, there was no such thing as the Internet, so the resources to understand the philosophy of anarchy were hard (and expensive) to come by. After immersing myself in studying anarchism, I came to realize that it, too, offered no real answers.

So. I was finally ready to read what Sidanius and Pratto had to write about. Their book is an academic book, filled with statistical analysis and it is rather tough slogging at times. But it is an eye-opening body of work – ideas that have pretty neatly tied up a lot of loose strands in my thinking and experience over the years. I can’t offer a summation of their ideas (if you are interested, you could do a search on the words “social dominance theory”), but I did want to share the author’s Personal Statement, which appears at the end of the book.

“Our discussion of SDT (Social Dominance Theory – ed.) would not be complete without a discussion of the political values of its authors. We feel this is especially important because, in describing how ‘well’ group dominance works as a system and in reminding people that group dominance is one of the most predominant forms of social organization, we might also appear to be justifying social dominance. However, rather than trying to support and justify social inequality, our personal political biases are decidedly egalitarian.“We have focussed on the problems of inequality for two major reasons. First, it is exactly because we would like to see societies with democratic and egalitarian pretensions actually live up to these ideals that we have been so focussed on trying to better understand why the achievement of equality appears to be so mind-numbingly difficult. Second, we hope that by directing scientific attention on this problem, group dominance will be recognized for what it is. Calling social dominance by more palatable names, pretending that it is only a feature of other people’s societies, assuming that it is due only to the actions of a ‘misguided’ few, and presuming that it is merely a dying legacy of the past not only are exercises in self-delusion, but also contribute to the tenacity of group dominance by obfuscating its very existence, and thereby making it that much more difficult to change.

“We judge it as considerably more harmful to the cause of equality and the fulfillment of democratic ideals to pay too little than too much attention to the dynamics of group dominance. It strikes us as slightly foolish to believe that the achievement of democratic ideals and true equality of opportunity can be realized by building our analyses on na├»ve or patently false assumptions. We suggest that it is also wrongheaded to assume that we are inevitably and inextricably moving towards more inclusivity and greater equality of opportunity. The historical record shows that movement towards equality is decidedly not a linear or an inevitable process. Rather, the record shows that periods of greater equality are often followed by periods of greater inequality. Therefore, it is exactly because we are committed to the principles of inclusiveness and social equality that we feel it is so crucial to truly understand how group dominance systems actually work. In trying to better understand the nature of group dominance, even to the point of revealing some uncomfortable similarities between so-called egalitarian and clearly nonegalitarian societies, we hope our work has helped reveal some of the consensually approved social practices and beliefs that prevent us all from realizing our collective democratic and inclusionary ideals.”

This book has been quite helpful to me – it has enabled me to make sense of a great deal that hasn’t made sense for a very long time. I would recommend it with reservations because it is not an easy read. It is an academic book, after all. Perhaps I will be able to write some posts in the future that incorporate some of the principles of Social Dominance Theory in a way that makes it easier to understand. Now, that’s a project!

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