What Is Social Dominance Theory in Sociology?


Jane Flores

Social Dominance Theory is a sociological perspective that seeks to understand the structures and dynamics of social hierarchies. It examines how power, privilege, and dominance are maintained and reproduced within societies. This theory provides insights into the ways in which individuals and groups interact within social systems, ultimately shaping the distribution of resources, opportunities, and status.

The Basics of Social Dominance Theory

At its core, Social Dominance Theory posits that societies are inherently structured in hierarchical arrangements. These hierarchies are shaped by various social categories such as gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and age. The theory suggests that dominant groups maintain their position of power by creating and perpetuating ideologies that justify their superiority over subordinate groups.

Key Terms:

  • Power: The ability to control or influence others’ behavior or decisions.
  • Privilege: Unearned advantages or benefits bestowed upon individuals based on their membership in a dominant group.
  • Dominance: The exercise of power and control over subordinate groups.

Social Hierarchies and Group-Based Oppression

Social Dominance Theory recognizes that social hierarchies exist on multiple levels – from individual interactions to institutionalized systems. These hierarchies serve as the foundation for group-based oppression, where dominant groups maintain their power through various mechanisms such as discrimination, prejudice, and stereotypes.


  • Individual Discrimination: Personal acts of bias or unfair treatment towards members of subordinate groups.
  • Institutional Discrimination: Systemic patterns of inequality perpetuated by social institutions.


  • Stereotypes: Generalized beliefs or assumptions about the characteristics, behaviors, or abilities of members of specific groups.
  • Implicit Bias: Unconscious attitudes or associations that influence our actions and decisions.

The Social Dominance Orientation

The Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) is a concept closely associated with Social Dominance Theory. It refers to individuals’ attitudes and beliefs regarding social hierarchies. Those with a high SDO tend to endorse and justify the unequal distribution of resources and power among different groups.

Characteristics of High SDO Individuals:

  • Authoritarianism: A preference for strong, hierarchical systems of authority.
  • Ethnocentrism: The belief in the superiority of one’s own ethnic or cultural group.
  • Social Conservatism: A resistance to societal change that challenges existing hierarchies.

Social Change and Reducing Social Dominance

Social Dominance Theory also explores strategies for reducing social dominance and achieving more egalitarian societies. These strategies include increasing awareness of systemic inequalities, promoting empathy, challenging stereotypes, advocating for policy changes, fostering intergroup contact, and supporting social justice movements.

In Summary

Social Dominance Theory provides a framework for understanding the mechanisms through which power and dominance are maintained within societies. By examining social hierarchies, group-based oppression, and individual attitudes towards inequality, this theory deepens our understanding of how social structures shape our experiences and opportunities. It also highlights the importance of social change efforts to create more equitable and inclusive societies.