I spoke with Dr. Jim Sidanius, the John Lindsley Professor of Psychology and African-American Studies at Harvard University just a couple of days ago. In the time since, I’ve had some opportunity to re-listen to some of his words and think more about the ideas he had been expressing. Particularly notable for this journey, was the candor with which Dr. Sidanius described parts of his life and how they shaped his ideas — providing exactly the stories of context and background I had hoped to uncover.
Eventually this led him to his most notable theoretical achievement: the development of Social Dominance Theory. It is a theory that has been written in his papers and cited thousands of times, with a clear influence on our understanding of the mechanisms that precipitate bigotry. While I recommend looking directly at some of the fantastic articles published by Dr. Sidanius and his colleagues (see the references below), the theory posits some human universals (and really, across all hominids) that underlay bigotry relating to our creation of structural hierarchies. There are individual factors relating to attitudes and behaviors, but these are conceived as subserving larger, structural inequalities embedded within social hierarchies. Acts of racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry tend to enhance existing elements of the hierarchy and may be used by one group to increase access to resources. These are balanced against the actions of groups attenuating/reducing those hierarchical imbalances to more equitably distribute resources. There is a lot to this theory and its implications, and I strongly suggest reading more about it in the referenced works below…
Most major theories of racism or sexism (e.g., Social Identity Theory, Symbolic Racism) use individual personality and behaviors as the overriding mechanisms of bigotry. Hence, Social Dominance Theory stands in contrast by its emphasis on universals and social structures of existing hierarchies.
Having said all this, I am providing two extracted anecdotes from Dr. Sidanius. The first is his description of a horrible incident that occurred while he was a junior in high school. At that time, the young Jim Brown (the name Sidanius came later — see my first post on Dr. Sidanius) was assaulted by police and introduced to institutional brutality.
The brutal treatment he received and describes above was exacerbated by several more incidents, leaving him disillusioned with his life as a second-class citizen living in New York. He sought a better future and a more egalitarian society. In pursuit of that goal he traveled to northern Africa, France, Denmark, before finally finding his way to Sweden, where he eventually completed his PhD and became a citizen. This journey instilled in him the perspective that he used in theorization of the Social Dominance Theory. Dr. Sidanius describes this journey and how it contributed to his future theory in the clip below:
It is the story of a man transformed and that transformation eventually led to the development of a critical contribution to cross-cultural Psychology and our current understanding of bigotry in society.
For more on Dr. Sidanius, there are many great articles. Here are a few selections…
Sidanius, J. (1993). The psychology of group conflict and the dynamics
of oppression: A social dominance perspective. In W. McGuire & S.
Iyengar (Eds.), Current Approaches to Political Psychology (pp. 183—
219). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Sidanius, J., Liu, J. H., Shaw, J. S., & Pratto, F. (1994). Social dominance orientation, hierarchy attenuators and hierarchy enhancers: Social dominance theory and the criminal justice system. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 24(4), 338-366.
Sidanius, J., & Pratto, F. (1993). The inevitability of oppression and the dynamics of social dominance. In P. Sniderman, P. E. Tetlock, & E. G. Carmines (Eds.), Prejudice, Politics, and the American Dilemma (pp. 173–211). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Sidanius, J., Pratto, F., & Mitchell, M. (1994). In-group identification, social dominance orientation, and differential intergroup social allocation. The Journal of Social Psychology, 134(2), 151-167.
Sidanius, J., Pratto, F., Van Laar, C., & Levin, S. (2004). Social dominance theory: Its agenda and method. Political Psychology, 25(6), 845-880.