Dominant Culture

The Basic Idea

Take a minute to consider the social fabric of your environment. How would you describe it? Perhaps you would focus on the people you encounter and consider diversity – different ethnicities, religious beliefs, or political affiliations. What if you were asked to describe the “average” person? Your answer may vary depending on your experiences and how you define “average”.

Specifically, your answer is likely to reflect the dominant culture, which is the group that holds more power relative to other groups in society. Dominance can come in the form of religion, language, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or a combination of such factors. The dominant culture will have a strong presence in institutions such as education, governance, business, law, and communication. Importantly, the dominant culture can change in response to the social landscape, and can sometimes result in the oppression of minority cultures.

In the animal kingdom, the rule is, eat or be eaten; in the human kingdom, define or be defined.

– Thomas Szasz, author of The Second Sin

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Key Terms

Culture: The characteristics that make up a particular group of people including, but not limited to, religions, political beliefs, languages, attitudes, socioeconomic status, and behavioral customs. Cultures are learned and shaped by one’s environment, so they can vary between groups.

Dominant culture: The group whose members hold more power relative to other members in society. Dominant cultures may or may not hold a quantifiable majority of the population.

Minority culture: A group whose members hold characteristics that afford them less power than the dominant culture. Members will experience relative disadvantages to members of the dominant culture.


If all societies are made of people with different backgrounds and ideologies, how does a dominant culture form? Throughout history, the most salient examples of forming a dominant culture have centered around race and colonialism, which refers to the practice of obtaining political control over a physical area or group of people. Such examples include the relationship between Indigenous peoples and white Europeans in Canada, and apartheid in South Africa. Often, colonialism involves forcing a dominant culture’s values and language upon the colonized group. Colonialism has been practiced since antiquity, by empires such as Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece. Modern colonialism began in the 15th century during the Age of Discovery, when European nations set out to explore and obtain other regions.1

In 1493, the Doctrine of Discovery was applied to the Americas, which was essentially a legal doctrine that justified European settler colonialism. In other words, the doctrine sought to replace Indigenous populations with a new society of settlers. Having occupied the land now called North America for thousands of years before European explorers arrived in the 1500s, an informal trade system was developed with First Nations peoples, exchanging European goods for furs. As the British and French became the dominant political and economic powers in North America, several colonies were established in the early 1600s. Both powers used their alliances with the First Nations peoples to support their commercial needs for furs. However, conflicts arose as the British and French struggled to obtain more power over North American lands, ultimately resulting in Britain becoming the primary European power.

Once British administrators realized that the success of North American colonies depended on relations with First Nations peoples, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 was issued, establishing a western boundary for the colonies. Any lands past this boundary became “Indian Territories,” where no settlement or trade could occur without permission from the Indian Department. The Royal Proclamation intended to slow down the western expansion of colonies, and to control the relationship with First Nations peoples. Such alliances continued into the War of 1812, a war the First Nations and the British fought against the American invasion. However, new immigrants and colonists started to settle in Canada, to the point that they outnumbered First Nations peoples. As settlers demanded more property, First Nations lands were surrendered for settlement. First Nations peoples were seen as an impediment to growth and prosperity.

The 1820s saw an emergence of new attitudes: British culture was perceived as superior and Indigenous peoples were thought to lack civility. First Nations peoples were forced to abandon their traditional lifestyles and adopt lifestyles aligned with British and Christian society. Assimilation efforts became forced and stripped Indigenous peoples of their identities, including the development of residential schools in Canada. At these schools, Indigenous children were forced to practice Christianity, were restricted from speaking traditional Indigenous languages, and were frequently abused. Driven by the desire for political and economic power, British colonists settled on and displaced Indigenous peoples from their lands, enforcing assimilation efforts that resulted in intergenerational trauma, ongoing today. Through these acts of settler colonialism, the dominant culture in Canada formed to be one of European and Christian descent.2

While the history of Canadian settler colonialism resulted in a dominant culture aligned with the physical majority, this is not always the case. Apartheid in South Africa, for example, was a system of institutionalized racial segregation developed in 1948. Although South Africa’s white population was a physical minority at the time, apartheid ensured that this minority population became the dominant culture in the political, economic, and social spheres. Apartheid was also based in colonialism and resulted in not only a dominant white culture, but also the specific discrimination of black Africans, not unlike that of the Canadian Indigenous peoples.3


Antonio Gramsci

This Italian philosopher coined the term cultural hegemony: the act of a dominant culture gaining superiority through the spread of ideologies – including beliefs, assumptions, and values – from institutions such as churches, courts, and schools. Due to their prominence in society, these institutions socialize people to the values and norms of the dominant culture. It is in this way that dominant cultures gain power in society.4

W.E.B. Du Bois

The first African-American to earn a PhD from Harvard, Du Bois was also the first to view race as a sociohistorical phenomenon, rather than a biological category. His concept of double consciousness explored the experience of “twoness” for minority races: synthesizing who they are within their social networks, as well as how they are perceived by the majority race. His work focused on the social experiences of African-Americans in post-slavery America, which were shaped by marginalization and dominant culture influences.5


Having a dominant culture can influence individual identity development as well as societal perspectives of acceptable behavior.

Broadly speaking, dominant cultures construct a societal narrative that sidelines minority voices and casts their experiences through a lens that reinforce the dominant culture’s norms and values.6 Dominant narratives are tied to ethnocentrism, which refers to a predisposition for in-group favoritism. As dominant behaviors become widespread and garner higher levels of cooperation, ethnocentric attitudes strengthen.7 It can thus be easy to turn a blind eye to the consequences of dominant cultures, such as ideological domination. It may seem normal and even natural that some people will always hold power over others, and that an uneven distribution of resources allows members of the dominant culture to be granted special privileges.8 Dominant cultures thus make it easier to hold onto prejudiced thoughts and behaviours, and cultivates a sense of “us versus them,” impacting personal and professional interactions.

The societal consequences of having a dominant culture can influence individual experiences. Individuals who belong to a minority culture may internalize the values and norms of the dominant culture in hopes of gaining access to dominant culture privileges. In other words, minority identity development may involve attempts to assimilate by changing one’s appearance, mannerisms, or even name, in order to fit in. On the other hand, individuals who belong to the dominant culture may not realize that a social hierarchy results in different and preferential treatment of certain groups. If they are aware of such differences, they may either actively or passively accept it as reality and avoid taking action against it. Members of the dominant culture have the privilege of not acknowledging their social positioning, which is a luxury that members of minority cultures cannot afford.9


When we consider the history and consequences of colonialism, we begin to understand the historical hurdles faced by minorities in reaction to dominant cultures. As a result of settler colonialism, minority cultures experienced forced assimilations and segregations, lost their livelihoods, and above all else, had no power or autonomy. Concepts like dominant cultures, cultural hegemony, and double consciousness were difficult to spread considering that the dominant were the ones controlling the spread of information, and would not want to alert people of such disparities. However, the importance of such social concepts was recognized by pioneers such as Du Bois, immortalized in writing and his legacy.

Of course, dominant cultures still exist, and those who do not fit into the dominant culture face systemic disadvantages in virtually every aspect of life. That being said, some progress has been made since civil rights leaders insisted for equality in the 1960s. Born into slavery, Booker T. Washington was a prominent figure in the civil rights movement who believed that African Americans would not obtain equal rights through political protest. Rather, according to him, equality would only be possible if African Americans attained more economic success. To do this, Washington recommended they stop fighting racial segregation and focus on building their own institutions. On the other hand, Du Bois led a group of “radicals” who believed that African Americans should explicitly struggle against segregation. If not, he believed it would appear that they were passively accepting racial inequality. This led Du Bois and the radicals to establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which played a significant role in the pre-civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. Fighting to improve the economic and social conditions of African Americans, the NAACP penetrated white institutions and protested explicitly against the denial of equal rights.10 Although challenging and controversial, it was through such actions that Du Bois gained respect and solidified his legacy, allowing for his stance on race and dominant culture to be authentically considered.

As a whole, efforts and persistence during the civil rights movement improved social and economic outcomes, providing greater access to resources for women, African Americans, lower-income individuals, and religious minorities. While the movement put an end to public segregation and formally banned employment discrimination, minority cultures continue to face significant barriers to equality, particularly for employment. According to this study, resumes with white-sounding names are twice as likely to receive a call for an interview relative to those with Black-sounding names. Even when not trying to discriminate, hiring practices are informed by cognitive biases, which can run rampant with implicit racism if unchecked.

Case Study

Misrepresentation in community college

A review of articles published in the Community College Journal of Research and Practice focused on the experiences of underrepresented student groups such as Asian, immigrant, and LGBTQ+ populations, and found two broad themes: (1) dominant culture privilege, and (2) assimilation.11

Dominant culture privilege manifests at community colleges through representation, such that dominant students see themselves reflected in the institution’s faculty and curriculum. When students are surrounded by staff who look like them and share similar values, they are more likely to receive the support necessary to succeed. Alternatively, minority students feel less supported both academically and emotionally; one example provided is counseling services, a service largely offered to students by dominant culture providers. Additionally, several articles from the review identified a perceived pressure to assimilate into the dominant culture, manifested in institution documents reporting student persistence, attrition, and graduation rates. Minority students felt the need to assimilate after making hierarchical comparisons between their minority group and the dominant culture, which was judged to be superior on the basis of mainstream definitions of success. As a result, it was common for minority students to feel stressed about implicit pressures to assimilate.

Such cases highlight the need for effective interventions and improvements to the education system. In order to address the prominence of dominant culture in community college and other higher education institutions, there is need for: (1) diversified staffing; (2) courses built around multicultural perspectives; and (3) training on teaching practices that are sensitive to cultural and ethnic issues.

Black female leadership

While organizational researchers have begun to study women in management positions, African American women remain underrepresented in the literature. Within dominant-culture organizations – formed around white, middle-class norms – leadership expectations often conflict with stereotypical assumptions about African American women. Specifically, African American women’s leadership communication has been generally devalued, negatively constructed as “deviant,” in opposition to a dominant desire for adaptation.12 Resulting from Eurocentric and patriarchal discourses that focus on masculine communication that is direct, competitive, and control-oriented, directness when exhibited by an African American woman in the workforce can be viewed as “non-feminine” and unacceptable. To this end, female African American leaders in dominant-culture organizations face a delicate challenge: exhibiting normative leadership qualities associated with patriarchal values, while remaining inoffensive and “properly” feminine.

A field study of African American women in various management positions at dominant-culture organizations found five themes: (1) interactive communication; (2) open communication; (3) participative decision-making through collaboration; (4) empowerment of employees through the challenge to produce results; and (5) connecting the organization’s mission to the Black community in positive ways. Considerations of African American women with leadership positions in dominant-culture organizations indicate that it is possible to combat the aforementioned challenge, and provide suggestions on how to do so. However, these findings also emphasize a need to incorporate African American conceptions of leadership to existing theoretical frameworks, and extend beyond Eurocentric norms of what it means to lead. Such efforts could improve collaborative and instrumental leadership as a whole.

Related TDL Content

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This article offers a deep dive into what social norms are, their effects, and why an understanding of them is so important. Take a look if you’re considering how and what behaviors are influenced by your society’s dominant culture.

TDL Perspectives: Encouraging Social Justice with Behavioral Science

If we’re aware of social norms and the influences of dominant cultures, can we still work toward social justice and equity? Here are some insights from TDL’s research director, Dr. Brooke Struck.


  1. Blakemore, E. (2019, February 19). What is colonialism? National Geographic.
  2. First Nations in Canada. (2017, May 2). Government of Canada.
  3. Dubow, S. (2014). Apartheid, 1948-1994. Oxford University Press.
  4. Bates, T. R. (1975). Gramsci and the theory of hegemony. Journal of the History of Ideas, 36(2), 351-366.
  5. Dickson, D. B. Jr. (1992). W.E.B. Du Bois and the idea of double consciousness. American Literature, 64(2), 299-309.
  6. Bamberg, M. (2004). Considering counter narratives. In Considering counter narratives: Narrating, resisting, making sense. John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  7. Hammond, R. A., & Axelrod, R. (2006). The evolution of ethnocentrism. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 50(6), 926-936.
  8. Brown, R. H. (1993). Cultural representation and ideological domination. Social Forces, 71(3), 657-676.
  9. Jones, R. G. (2013). Foundations of culture and identity. In Communication in the real world: An introduction to communication studies. University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing.
  10. Vela, R. G. (2002). The Washington-Du Bois controversy and African-American protest: Ideological conflict and its consequences. Studies in American Political Development, 16(1), 88-109.
  11. Harbor, C. P., Middleton, V., Lewis, C., & Anderson, S. K. (2011). Naming the other: How dominant culture privilege and assimilation affect selected underrepresented populations at the community college. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 27(9-10), 829-842.
  12. Parker, P. S. (2001). African American women executives’ leadership communication within dominant-culture organizations: (Re)Conceptualizing notions of collaboration and instrumentality. Management Communication Quarterly, 15(1), 42-82.

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