Social Dominance Theory & Biased Practices

It’s such fun to discover a theory!  Here’s today’s find:

Social Dominance Theory is about hierarchical status within social groups.  It describes a characteristic that many individuals within a structured social environment have.  If recent research is correct, it may provide a clue about how to mitigate bias in hiring.  Equally, it offers an explanation of an array of behaviors that can seem puzzling.

Social Dominance Theory describes social dominance orientation,  a widely spread trait in structured social groups, which characterizes those

who will support the mechanisms that produce and maintain {the] group-based social hierarchies [which they are in].

SDO is defined as “…the degree to which individuals desire and support group-based hierarchy and the domination of `inferior’ groups by `superior’ groups” …. Individuals who are high in SDO are motivated to support and adhere to the traditional societal hierarchy such that they express more negative responses toward members of low-status groups than high-status groups. Thus, no matter the basis of group formation (e.g., race, gender) those higher in SDO will tend to support the hierarchy evident among these groups. Consistent with this notion, measures of SDO have been shown to correlate highly with prejudice and negative reactions toward a variety of low-status groups…

The authors present data that supports the effectiveness of a particular mitigating measure:  If someone in authority tells a person high in SDO to hire a (very qualified) low status person, then they are more likely to do so.

If this research is on the right track, you can increase the chances of  hiring women and other minorities into your department by getting your dean to advocate such hiring, given your dean has authority with your department.

Does this just say that people higher up in a social hierarchy tend to work to support the hierarchy?  I think it goes beyond that.  It might offer an explanation of a lot of attitudes and tendencies to behavior that self-interest alone does not.  Of course, one might try to amplify an explanation in terms of self-interest with appeals to other things, so I can’t claim that SDT wins out. 

But here’s one thing it might explain:  The demeaning language that Leiter uses to describe specialities that he thinks are not main stream.  What’s going on with “pander,” “pet” and “mafia,” for example?  (See here and comment 8 on it.)  SDT would say:  He’s really keen on the philosophical hierarchy and is promoting it, not just describing it.

If this diagnosis is correct, then you’d expect to find other behaviors that can seem very puzzling in philosophers:  The persons high in SDO are awfully good at obeying those above them.  And one can expect them to adopt without much judgment the deliverances in assessments the hierarchy issues or embodies. 

Since the hierarchy is so often white male, the women who are high in SDO can seem to be even worse sell-outs, but that might not be quite what is going on.  Rather, they might well support women in a hierarchy, if there were such.

So if you have a hire coming up, see if you can get your dean to support diversity.  If not, try getting the provost to work on the dean.  Etc.

2 thoughts on “Social Dominance Theory & Biased Practices

  1. I think that I was trying to see how social dominance can be used for good. By itself, it seems to encourage existing sexist, racis, hmophobic, ableist behavior. So we agree.

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