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On Dominant and Subordinated Group Dynamics

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

By Marcus Robinson, Joan Buccigrossi, Carol Brantley, Delyte Frost, and Charles Pfeffer

The myth of American culture suggests that we, as individuals, define our own freedom

and success. This myth assumes that all achievement is attained or lost by virtue of our

potential and individual limitations . This notion plays out in our lives as “I can be

whatever I want to be; my success or failure is realized according to my own mental,

emotional, spiritual, and physical abilities and the application of my will to achieve.” As

Americans (America, and American, signifies the United States of America and its

citizens), we are brought up to believe that freedom and equality exist for all people. We

cling to the idea that wealth has no legitimate claim to privilege and that race cannot limit

an individual’s potential in the eyes of the law.

We are raised to believe that the only thing that differentiates us is our individual, natural

ability. That is to say that Jane or John Doe may be better at a particular thing than I am

and therefore should reap the benefits of that natural advantage. On some other measure,

I hold the advantage and therefore should reap the rewards. In this way, it is an American

cultural belief that all success is predicated on individual action alone. Those willing to

fully apply their potential can reap the rewards according to their natural ability and

individual advantages.

This is the American myth. It is a myth because the promise of America, freedom and

equality for all, is not fully realized by every American. The reality is that there are

significant forces, which are often invisible, that shape our choices, experiences, and

opportunities in ways that affect our potential. These forces play out in our lives at

various levels of the human experience. The ultimate impact of these forces is on us as

individuals, but the true power is wielded at the level of groups and societal

institutions. These social influences shape our identity at the various levels and provide a

range a privileges and reinforcements (positive and negative) to maintain a particular

balance of power, privilege, and influence in our society.

The Nature and Power of Group Membership

An individual’s identity is not strictly limited to his or her attributes. Each of us has

membership in a variety of groups by virtue of birth and choice. For example:

You and I, as individuals, have narratives or life stories that describe the full collection of experiences, attributes, backgrounds, names, and other information about ourselves in relationship to the various groups to which we belong by virtue

of birthright or choice and distinguish us from all others—it is who you say you

are. This is called individual identity.

We also have narratives that describe the full collection of our experiences,

attributes, backgrounds, names, and other information about us that distinguish the

groups to which we belong by virtue of birthright or choice, from all others – it is

who we say we are and how others see us as a member of a group or groups in the

social context. This is called group membership or social identity.

Groups come together as collectives to create communities, organizations, and

societal institutions. Even at this level, we have narratives that describe the full

scope of our collective group experiences, attributes, backgrounds, names, and

other information that distinguish our collective-group identity from all others. It

is what the larger “We” say about ourselves and project in all areas of our

collective control and influence. This level of identity is also shaped by how

others see us in the greater social context. This is called institutional identity

(also called societal level or organizational level identity).

All three levels of identity are fully engaged in our daily experiences in varying degrees.

These multiple identities shape our worldview, which defines our choice and selection of

a variety of life experiences and opportunities. Since only individual membership is

under our direct control, it is clear that the dynamics of group membership and

institutional action exert enormous pressure on individuals in our society. The impact of

these forces varies based on group membership and individual identity. Learning about

group membership is a useful tool for understanding the visible and invisible forces that

shape our lives at home, at work, and in the community-at-large. Understanding

individual experience in the context of group level patterns of behavior provides us with a

powerful tool for creating greater vitality in every aspect of our lives.

Multiple Group Memberships

We are all individuals, who are also members of multiple groups. We belong to some

groups by virtue of our birth. Examples of these membership include race, gender,

national and/or geographic origin, skin color, sexual orientation, and style. We also have

membership in groups based on individual choice and prerogative. Examples of these

groupings include marital status, parental status, education level, religion, and career. It is

helpful to sort these various groupings into Core Membership and Preferred Membership.

Core Memberships Preferred Memberships

Race Martial Status

Gender Geography

Color Education Level

Ethnicity Religion

Ability Career/Profession

While there are many possibilities for preferred group membership, the core

memberships tend to play the largest role in shaping our experiences at home, at work,

and in the Community.

Addressing the Tensions Between Dominant and Subordinated Groups

There are potentially serious and costly tensions between dominant and subordinated

groups. The systematic hording of power, privilege, and influence at the expense of

others requires a great deal of force by dominant groups. The negative impact of this

dynamic has been chronicled in the history of nearly all human societies. This negative

impact can be summed up as the oppression of peoples based on group membership. The

impact of this oppression is now beginning to be understood in terms of the real costs to

businesses, organizations, communities, and the individuals that populate them. There is

much work to be done by dominant and subordinated group members to address these


For dominant and subordinated group members, this work entails becoming:

- Educated on the issues facing dominate and subordinated groups in the community

and inside organizations

- Aware of the impact of bias on subordinated groups

- Aware of group-level expressions and behaviors in one’s own way of being

- Able to track the patterns of group membership among dominant group members

- Able to track the patterns of group membership among subordinated group


- Capable of working with dominant group members to create new and more vital

ways to remove arbitrary and capricious barriers that negatively impact

subordinated groups

- Capable of partnering with subordinated group members toward their full

empowerment without disadvantaging dominant group members

On Dominant and Subordinated Groups. By Marcus Robinson, Carol Brantley, Delyte Frost, Joan Buccigrossi, and Charles Pfeffer, (2003-2020). wetWare, Inc. Rochester, NY.

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