Political Analysis: Dominance

I just had my midterm for my Intro to Political Analysis class, taught by the eccentric, chalk-wielding, duck-loving Professor Douglas Dion, and in preparation for it I typed up all of my notes. Over the years I’ve found that the best way for me to remember notes, and be able to easily study them afterward, is by writing them down in full sentences and paragraphs. Sometimes they even end up being readable and well organized, and I think this is one of those cases. So, here is the first post in a probably four-part series of my notes on political analysis from the first quarter of the Spring semester, and specifically, power. This post in particular is taken from lectures on dominance theory.

The word “politics” comes from a treatise by Aristotle, deriving from the word “polis.” A practical definition is: the theory or practice of government. It can also mean a person’s ideology (i.e., “what are your politics?”) It could be a term for the acquisition of power or status. From all these definitions, politics might seem a mess, which is why we need analysis—another Greek derivation, from a term that means “to unravel.”

Dominance Theory

There are some people who run their own lives, and other people who allow others to run their lives. The people who run other people’s lives have dominance. Dominance can be defined as “asymmetry in discretion regarding what parties to the relation will do” (this according to sociologist Roger V. Gould.) Note “will do,” not “will think.” Of course people will very often retain free thought, but not be free to do what they want. And even if a dominant person tells the dominated party they can do as they please, the dominant person is still dominant because they can take that concession back. The discretion is still theirs.

So why do some people dominate others?

Aristotle theorized that in nature, superior rules inferior. Soul rules body, birds rule insects, adults rule children. This happens because the relationship is advantageous to both sides, as is most evident with the adult and child example. Aristotle believed some people were natural slaves if they were designed by nature for the service of others. And how do you determine a natural slave? A natural slave is unable to use reason—they can do what they’re told, but can’t figure it out on their own. Another sign of a natural slave is a strong, tall, bulky body, suitable for manual labor.

There’s another idea about dominance though, and it involves chickens.

This zoologist Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe observed that some chickens pecked others, and who pecked who (the pecking order) formed a clear dominance hierarchy. In this and other studies of animal behavior, dominance and submissiveness were communicated through height, posture and bowing, eye contact, and voice.

The pecking order is an example of a total dominance hierarchy. In a total dominance hierarchy, three conditions must be met.

  1. For any two elements, X and Y, either XDY (X dominates Y) or YDX. That is to say, there’s no ambiguity, and no ties—dominance is total.
  2. If XDY, Y does not dominate X. Dominance is asymmetric.
  3. If XDY and YDZ, then XDZ. Dominance is transitive.

So in any set of elements, the total dominance hierarchy will always look like a ranked list.

Then there are partial dominance hierarchies. A partial dominance hierarchy, as you might expect, follows the same rules, except the totality one.

  1. If XDY, Y does not dominate X.
  2. If XDY and YDZ, then XDZ.

In a partial dominance hierarchy we can have a ranked list with ties.

So, how do all these letters and chickens relate to humans?

Well at the 1815 Congress of Vienna, after a bunch of people had died in the Napoleonic Wars, all these nations wanted to figure out how to interact with one another and not end up in another big mess. They settled on a total dominance hierarchy, using seniority rule to determine precedence for ambassadors. This dictated where ambassadors would sit relative to the host, and thus their ability to network with representatives of other nations.

From this example you can see that dominance hierarchies need not be based entirely on Aristotle’s ideas about natural slaves and masters, or on animal behavior theory. This type of hierarchy, established by clear rules, is fairly stable. And even hierarchies that arise naturally don’t fluctuate much. A study examining kids at a summer camp saw that a dominance hierarchy emerged within three days, and remained stable throughout the whole five weeks of the summer camp.

However, dominance can shift through the use of dominance challenges (just look at the presidential primaries this year.) If someone has won multiple challenges, they’ll be more stable as a dominator.

Gould argues that violence, which is a form of a dominance challenge, occurs when there is conflict in rank and there are no external cues to resolve the situation. Conflict in rank means people are unsure of who should dominate who.

So let’s say MaleDFemale, and WhiteDBlack (purely hypothetical, of course.) So when we have a white male and a black female, the dominance is clear. But if we have a white female and a black male, who dominates who?

When relations are symmetric, conflict is likely, which is why divide and rule works—the divided are more likely to fight each other than the party dominating them. Conflict is also likely when relations in rank are inconsistent with apparent power, like if a rookie gets promoted above a more experienced party. And conflict is likely when relations in rank are unstable, which is why, during election years, there’s greater violence—at least in less developed countries. But probably here too.

While this theory of dominance seems to explain a lot, there are limitations. For a start, the transferability of dominance. Dominance should be tied to natural masters, but this isn’t the case. When a new person is hired as a boss, the hierarchy doesn’t changes based on their inherent dominance. Conversely, someone who is dominant in one situation may not be in another.

Another limitation is the role of others. Much of dominance theory focuses on two-person relationships—but what about other people? Coalition-forming throws a wrench in things.

Which is why we need network theory to understand things that dominance theory can’t explain. And that’s what the next post will be about.


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