The term dominant culture refers to the group of cultural values and practices that are predominant in a given society. They are often so influential that they almost appear ‘natural’ to most people.
While traditional societies were relatively homogenous in their customs, modern societies are made up of a vast mix of groups and cultures (i.e. they are multicultural). Among these, the culture that is most prevalent and influential is the dominant culture.
The dominant culture is often, but not necessarily, linked to the majority. It has a close relationship with power as the ruling class plays the most significant role in shaping it. At times, the dominant culture can oppress other cultures that exist in a society, which are called subcultures.
Dominant Culture Definition
John Scott, in the Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, defines dominant culture below:
Modern societies are often a conglomeration of different, often competing, cultures and subcultures. In such a situation of diversity, a dominant culture is one whose values, language, and ways of behaving are imposed on a subordinate culture or cultures through economic or political power. (Scott, 2014)
Scott adds that this is often accompanied by a suppression of other values and practices, and it can also involve monopolizing the media of communication. A dominant culture can include several elements, such as religion, language, customs, etc.
Sociologists think that most values and practices of the dominant culture become the norm—the shared standard of acceptable behavior—for the entire society. Such values and practices are widely accepted usually because they are convenient, prevalent, or hold religious significance.
However, many subcultural groups in a multicultural society might also be forced to accept the dominant cultural norms to avoid negative social sanctions.
10 Examples of Dominant Culture
- WASPs in America: Throughout most of history, White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) belonging to the upper class have dominated American society, culture, and politics. Their dominance was supported by cultural institutions like Ivy League universities (which primarily enrolled students from wealthy families) and narratives that placed WASPs as the ideal Americans. But their influence has now declined significantly.
- Heteronormativity: In most societies, heteronormativity—the assumption that all people are and should be heterosexual—is the norm, and other forms of gender expressions are seen as deviant. It leads to a marginalization of those who identify as LGBTQ+, who are made to suffer from internalized homophobia, isolation, and other mental health issues. It also causes structural discrimination & violence against them.
- Patriarchy: Men hold greater power than women in almost all aspects of society, from the tiniest unit of the family to larger units like the world economy. Patriarchy heavily influences the former, where women are expected to prioritize their household over their careers. In workplaces, women are often paid less than men for the same jobs, and they are also underrepresented in leadership positions.
- Christianity in the West: Judeo-Christian values and practices have played a huge role in shaping Western culture. The United States is a secular country, but in court, people still have to swear on the Bible. This is just a small example of how Judeo-Christian values have laid the foundation of many aspects of Western society, including law, literature, cultural celebrations, etc.
- The English language: In many parts of the world, English is the primary language used in education, business, and governance. In other parts, English also often serves as the lingua franca, allowing individuals who do not share native languages to communicate. Individuals who are fluent in English have greater access opportunities, but at the same time, this dominance has caused the marginalization of other languages.
- Colonialism: Colonialism usually involves the colonizer forcing its cultural values and practices on the indigenous people. For example, in Canada, British colonizers introduced schools where native children were restricted from speaking their language and made to practice Christianity. The British destroyed the indigenous culture so firmly that Euro-Christian values eventually became the dominant culture in Canada.
- Capitalism: Capitalism is the dominant economic system in the world. Capitalism examples include private ownership of the means of production and free markets. Its values of individualism and competitiveness have gone beyond economics and now influence our entire worldview. Capitalism has led to globalization and greater opportunities for many, but it has also brought inequalities and environmental degradation.
- Apartheid in South Africa: In South Africa, Apartheid was a system of racial segregation developed in 1948. In many cases, the dominant culture is associated with the majority, but this was not the case here. The white population in South Africa was a minority, and yet, they dominated all aspects of the society. It came out of colonialism, and also led to systematic discrimination against black Africans.
- Hollywood as a Global Force: Globally, Hollywood is the most influential cultural force to the extent that it promotes a global culture and cultural homogeneity. Cultural authority is associated with economic/political power, and so, the Western canon (writers like Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare) has traditionally been seen as the global canon. The same continues today, where English-language films coming out of the United States enjoy the largest financial success and immense global reach.
- Eurocentrism: Eurocentrism is a worldview centered on Western culture and values, and with globalization, it has now become a major influence throughout the world. The global education systems, job markets, and beauty standards are now significantly shaped by European standards. This has led to a marginalization of native cultures, creating a homogenized Western culture on a global scale.
Dominant Cultures and Cultural Hegemony
A dominant culture is usually created by a dominant group (say the ruling class), which has the power to influence social institutions and thereby establish the worldview of the entire society. Antonio Gramsci called this cultural hegemony.
It was developed by the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci who argued that a ruling class was able to exercise its power by controlling the cultural values and practices of a society. This was done through control of various cultural institutions such as media, religion, education, etc.
The ruling class does not simply maintain its dominance by sociopolitical power or physical force. Instead, it uses the indirect tool of cultural hegemony to spread its values and practices, which eventually get established as the norms of the whole society.
As per Gramsci, the dominant ideology thrusts upon people a false worldview. Such a worldview misrepresents the social, political, and economic order as “natural”; in reality, the status quo is a social construct that only benefits the ruling class.
Gramsci argued that this allows the ruling class to perpetuate its power and suppress the subordinate classes (and cultures). Once cultural hegemony is established, the subordinate classes themselves “consent” to their oppression.
Dominant Cultures in Workplaces
Most workplaces have a dominant culture, which can sometimes make the atmosphere exclusive.
For example, in the United States, the dominant culture is Western, success-oriented, male, etc. These constitute the ideals of the professional world, and all aspects of work—from physical appearance to career goals—are in some ways linked to them.
Tema Okun and Keith Jones argue that these ideals come from the “systematic, institutionalized centering of whiteness.” (Gray, 2019). They are reinforced in various ways. For example, several studies indicate that candidates with non-white names receive less employer interest.
Similarly, there is a bias towards Western culture, and our perception of success (as regularly portrayed by the media) is linked to white, wealthy men. Employees with non-European accents also face difficulty getting hired and promoted.
Gray points out that these biases can harm anybody—regardless of race or nationality—who does not adhere to the values of the dominant culture. This can lead to an exclusionary workplace, which will miss out on many talented individuals.
Subcultures vs Dominant Cultures
Subcultures, whether in the workplace or the larger society, play a significant role in creating diversity & cultural pluralism. They provide a space for people to preserve their cultural traditions, instead of being forced to adhere to the standards of the dominant culture.
Through subcultures, individuals can assert their individuality. At times, subcultures can also challenge the values of the dominant culture, which can bring about a larger social change.
At workplaces, subcultures create a sense of belongingness, as people can connect closely to a small group even while being a part of a larger organization. Ultimately, they benefit everyone by promoting cohesion, and they are essential to creating an inclusive world.
Dominant culture refers to those cultural values and practices that are most influential in a particular group.
Often associated with the majority, the dominant culture represents the norms of the entire society. A dominant culture is necessarily linked to power, as the people with the most socioeconomic power control cultural & ideological institutions.
While dominant cultures are inevitable, they can sometimes create an exclusive society or organization. Therefore, it is necessary to allow subcultures to thrive.
Gramsci, Antonio. (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. International Publishers.
Gray, Aysa (2019). “The Bias of ‘Professionalism’ Standards”. SSIR.
https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_bias_of_professionalism_standards Scott, John (2014). A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford.