Hegemony – Power and the powerless

This Think Free entry was last revised in 2011.

A lot has happened since then but I’ve left in the 2011 example of “Occupy DC” and added some recent developments within Canada and the Canadian media.


Back in grad studies the term “hegemony” was bandied about as if it were the gospel truth.

A professor told me to assign students’ grades to fit a bell-curve graph

Grad studies for sociology, that is. Most of the program was incredibly stifling and alienating. And as a teaching assistant, one professor told me papers should be graded to fit within a standard bell curve before I even received them! I just couldn’t fake it and, from my perspective cheat the students, so for those and other reasons I resigned and eventually moved to another university.

However, I picked up a few useful ideas before leaving so my brief stint as a grad student in sociology wasn’t a total waste of time. Turning to religious studies, I encountered a far more serious problem but did manage to complete the program and get the Ph.D.

I’ve never lost my enthusiasm for sociology, though, even if the world is much bigger than that.

A crane lifts a massive bronze statue of Philip II of Macedonia | Radio Free Europe


Hegemony is an odd-sounding word to Western ears. A political science term with an etymology reaching back to the ancient world, the current Wikipedia entry tells us:

In Ancient Greece (8th c. BC – AD 6th c.), hegemony denoted the politico-military dominance of the hegemon city-state over other city-states.¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hegemony 2022 entry

And back in 2011 Wikipedia stated:

In the Greco–Roman world of … Classical antiquity, the city-state of Sparta was the hegemon of the Peloponnesian League (6th – 4th centuries BC); King Philip II of Macedon was the hegemon of the League of Corinth, in 337 BC, (a kingship he willed to his son, Alexander the Great).²

19th-century thinkers used the term to describe one nation’s power over another and, by implication, the whole notion of Imperialism.

Google Images | Students of History

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) was the first to use hegemony to describe the idea of a ruling class socially and economically dominating others within a given society.

In contemporary sociology, the term hegemony points to an entire system of cultural values and practices existing within a web of interconnected and apparently ‘legitimate’ social institutions—e.g. economic markets, the legal system, government, education, religion, and the media. Essentially, hegemony suggests that the powerful use all or some combination of these social mechanisms and relationships to oppress the powerless.

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Or as Leonard Cohen so brilliantly put it back in the 80s:

Now, you can say that I’ve grown bitter but of this you may be sureThe rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor

~ Tower of Song 

Occupy DC
Image by AFSC Photos via Flickr

The French social thinker Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) introduced the idea of “cultural capital” to try to explain the complex relations contributing to societal inequity, discrimination, and domination.

Despite its debatable effectiveness, the “Occupy movement” of 2011 (where protestors swept the globe in protest of being “have-nots” marginalized by a few wealthy “haves”) challenged the notion of institutional legitimacy, which just a few decades prior, was not a mainstream issue and hardly questioned by most people around the world.³

More recently we had the example of the Canadian truckers occupying Ottawa, essentially saying that ‘the powers that be’ – crystallized in the image of Justin Trudeau – are unjust.

And in the Canadian news media we see two very recent incidents possibly involving marginalization through hegemony.

First, we have the unexpected firing of a well-known, veteran female anchor who took pride in not dyeing her silver hair. Second, we see the resignation and pending lawsuit of a younger woman of color who claims she suffered from a ‘systematic pattern’ of discrimination by her employer.

These are pretty salient examples of hegemony where a powerful group allegedly discriminates against a less powerful group but there are many, I would say, subtle cases that never receive attention nor justice.

With ideologies and power balances changing in the 21st century, we also see claims and lawsuits involving so-called reverse discrimination against middle-aged white males.

To my mind, while it may be in vogue to blame and shame the white man for global injustice, it seems discrimination crops up just about everywhere on this planet, and given the chance, those with power will often abuse it—regardless of religion, color, nationality, wealth, status, education, and so on.

‘My Nigerian great-grandfather sold slaves’ | BCC

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hegemony (2022)

² http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hegemony (2011)

³ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupy_movement

Related » Discourse, Foucault (Michel)


What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.