When Inequality Fails: Power, Group Dominance, and Societal Change


  • Felicia Pratto
  • Andrew L. Stewart
  • Fouad Bou Zeineddine


Social dominance theory was developed to account for why societies producing surplus take and maintain the form of group-based dominance hierarchies, in which at least one socially-constructed group has more power than another, and in which men are more powerful than women and adults more powerful than children. Although the theory has always allowed for societies to differ in their severity of group-based dominance and how it is implemented, it has predicted that alternative forms of societal organization will occur rarely and not last. This paper revisits aspects of the theory that allow for the possibility of societal alternatives and change. We also consider boundary conditions for the theory, and whether its current theoretical apparatus can account for societal change. By expanding the typical three-level dynamic system to describe societies (micro-meso-macro) into four levels (including meta) to consider how societies relate to one another, we identify political tensions that are unstable power structures rather than stable hierarchies. In research on institutions, we identify smaller-scale alternative forms of social organization. We identify logical, empirical, and theoretical shortcomings in social dominance theory’s account of stability and change, consider alternative forms of social organization, and suggest fruitful avenues for theoretical extension.