A dominant culture is a culture that is the most powerful, widespread, or influential within a social or political entity in which multiple cultures are present. Dominance can be achieved through many different means, including economic power, force or the threat of force, or through more subtle processes of dominance and subordination. The culture that is dominant within a particular geopolitical region can change over time in response to internal or external factors, but one is usually very resilient and able to reproduce itself effectively from generation to generation.
Some societies are made of up largely homogenous cultural groups. There may be distinctions of status or wealth within such societies, but these distinctions are not reinforced by cultural forces that perpetuate patterns of division between generations. Tribal societies, for example, are apt to be culturally monolithic.
In some cases, one culture becomes the dominant culture simply because it is the culture of a large majority of people. This type of dominance can lead to a good deal of conflict, as such cultures often seek to assimilate smaller ones, and smaller cultures struggle to survive. The deeply troubled relations between Basque and Spanish patriots illustrate this process.
Economic power often determines which culture is dominant in a given region. On the one hand, the wealthy have a great deal of power in most societies, and their cultural values are backed by that wealth and power. The views of a billionaire opera lover carry more weight than those of a sincere and gifted, but desperately poor, punk musician.
One school of thought, championed by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, contends that this dominance of elite culture usually becomes more deeply ingrained than simple finance could explain. He argues that elite culture gradually comes to be seen as superior by both the elite and by ordinary people. Those born into the elite, therefore, have an easier time remaining wealthy and powerful, as they have an innate understanding of the cultural practices that everyone in society associates with being wealthy and powerful.
Modern societies are very complicated, and often produce rebellious cultures that protest against a dominant one. Subcultures, such as those championed by punks or hippies, attempt to challenge the established society. Sociologists broadly agree that these challenges are usually doomed to fail, although in some cases, subcultures carve out niches for themselves. In other cases, the dominant culture absorbs some of their habits or ideas, but rarely do subcultures move up to become dominant in a society.