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What Is a Dominant Culture?

By Gregory Hanson
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments
By SteamLouis — On Feb 17, 2013

One would think that a dominant culture is the culture of the majority ethnic/religious group in a country. But that's not always the case.

For example, in Rwanda, before the genocide, the Tutsis were the dominant culture even though they were a minority group. They dominated the social political arena because that's what the colonizing powers had decided. This is also why the genocide took place. The majority group, the Hutus, felt that a minority group shouldn't be the dominant culture.

By stoneMason — On Feb 17, 2013

@feruze-- I don't know what the statistics are but I'm assuming that the dominant culture in the US is Western European.

United States is very interesting because we're a melting pot. We have many more cultures present in our country than most countries. But since the first major migrants to the US were from Britain and then from other Western countries, it's still the dominant culture.

In several decades however, the dominant culture is probably going to be Hispanic/South American.

By bear78 — On Feb 16, 2013

What's the dominant culture in the US?

Can gender shape dominant culture?

By Monika — On Sep 19, 2012

@ceilingcat - I think you're right about that. Most subcultures do seem to be reacting against something in the dominant culture.

However, what I think is really interesting is how the dominant culture usually absorbs something from most subcultures. For example, although the "free love" ideals of the hippies didn't exactly catch on, I think since the 1960's we've been a bit less repressed as a society.

And of course, a lot of fashion comes from various subcultures too. I can remember certain styles from when I was in high school that started off very subversive, and then a few years later could be found in a Walmart!

By ceilingcat — On Sep 18, 2012

I think it's interesting how the dominant culture in America has managed to spawn so many interesting counter cultures. It's almost a symbiotic relationship, I think. After all, if they didn't have anything to rebel against, most counter cultures would never exist in the first place.

By starrynight — On Sep 18, 2012

@Azuza - That's an interesting point, but I don't think that's necessarily true. While popular culture does have an influence on the majority of people in a dominant culture, it's still not as influential as the elite people that control the dominant culture.

In the example of the billionaire opera lover and the punk musician, even if the punk musician somehow manages to get famous, the views of the opera lover will probably still hold more weight. The billionaire will probably be able to influence politics because of his or her connections, while the punk musician won't.

By Azuza — On Sep 17, 2012

I think it's interesting that the dominant culture definition doesn't mention anything about popular culture. I feel like sometimes, popular culture is even more influential in society than the dominant culture of the social "elites."

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