Diversity and Inclusion

Dominant Culture: What does it mean? [2023 DEI Resources]

Understanding the concept of a dominant culture helps us navigate the complex socio-cultural ecosystems we live in.

You’ve likely heard terms like “cultural hegemony” or “mainstream culture” buzzing around social media or in academic circles. Knowing what a dominant culture is, and how it can both unify and divide, gives us valuable tools for navigating our ever-complex world.

What is Dominant Culture?

The term “dominant culture” refers to the cultural norms, values, and practices that are accepted and pervasive within a particular social, economic, or institutional context. Imagine it as the “default setting” of a society, the background noise that influences how we behave, speak, and even think.

The formation of dominant cultures is no accident; they are products of historical happenings and the intertwining of various social factors.

Take the global dominance of the English language as an example. English isn’t just prevalent because it’s easy to learn or sounds poetic; its pervasiveness has roots in the colonial era, where British imperial reach extended across continents from Asia to Africa. Even today, the language is an international business and diplomatic standard.

But the influence of a dominant culture goes beyond language. In the U.S., for instance, the ideals of democracy and capitalism permeate not just political institutions but daily interactions and public discourse. Similarly, in India, despite its immense cultural diversity, the philosophies of Hinduism serve as a dominant cultural narrative affecting social norms and laws.

Source: Fukuyama, Francis. “The End of History and the Last Man”. Free Press, 1992.
Source: Sen, Amartya. “The Argumentative Indian”. Penguin, 2005.

Source: Phillipson, Robert. “Linguistic Imperialism”. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Dominant Culture

Positive Aspects

Ah, the silver lining. While the idea of a dominant culture may bring to mind negative images of suppression or cultural erosion, it’s not all gloom and doom.

Take Denmark, for instance. Ever heard of ‘Hygge’?

It’s a uniquely Danish concept representing a sense of comfort and communal well-being. This cultural gem is so potent that it’s been credited as a cornerstone in making Denmark frequently rank as one of the happiest countries in the world.

Source: Svendsen, Lars. “A Philosophy of Boredom”. Reaktion Books, 2005.

Negative Aspects

However, the coin has a flip side. Let’s hop over to Australia, where the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture has had devastating impacts on indigenous cultures.

From language extinction to forced cultural assimilation, the effects are long-lasting and deeply troubling. The marginalization extends not just to the social but also to the economic sphere, often limiting opportunities for those outside the dominant culture.

Source: Short, Damien. “Reconciliation and Colonial Power: Indigenous Rights in Australia”. Routledge, 2008.

Dominant Culture vs. Subcultures


Don’t underestimate the underdog. In the vast ocean of a dominant culture, islands of subcultures emerge. Take hip-hop in the United States as an illustrative case.

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Originating in African American communities, it has evolved to be both a product and critique of American mainstream culture. It offers an alternative viewpoint and serves as a cultural and artistic outlet for marginalized communities.

Source: Rose, Tricia. “Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America”. Wesleyan University Press, 1994.

Resistance and Adaptation

Subcultures often have a unique relationship with the dominant culture, navigating a continuum between resistance and adaptation.

For instance, in Japan, the “Kawaii” subculture offers a departure from the nation’s traditionally conservative norms. While some view it as youthful rebellion, others see it as an adaptation, a way to navigate societal pressures.

Source: Kinsella, Sharon. “Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society”. Curzon, 2000.

Dominant Culture in Different Continents

Let’s take a world tour. In North America, particularly in the U.S., the idea of a ‘Melting Pot’ often comes to mind. However, critics argue that this ideal sometimes boils down to a ‘Salad Bowl,’ where ingredients co-exist but one—usually mainstream American culture—dominates.

Source: Schlesinger, Arthur M. “The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society”. Norton & Company, 1998.

Now, shift your gaze to Europe. Here, we see a historical Eurocentric perspective that often emphasizes Judeo-Christian values and Western ideals, sometimes at the cost of overlooking its own multiculturalism.

Source: Said, Edward. “Orientalism”. Pantheon, 1978.

Lastly, Asia, with China as a prime example. The cultural and political influence of Han Chinese significantly shapes societal norms across the region, affecting minority cultures within its own borders and neighboring countries.

Source: Dikötter, Frank. “The Discourse of Race in Modern China”. Oxford University Press, 1992.

So, how do some nations maintain a sense of balance? Canada’s bilingual policies provide a unique approach, counterbalancing its dominant Anglo-Saxon culture with a strong Francophone influence.

Technology’s Role

Digital Dominance

Ah, the digital frontier. You might think the internet is a free-for-all, but even here, dominant cultures emerge. Social networks, dominated by Western companies, set the stage for global conversations, shaping ‘netiquette’ and even how activism is conducted online.

Source: Castells, Manuel. “The Network Society: From Knowledge to Policy”. Center for Transatlantic Relations, 2006.

Virtual Communities

In these digital spaces, we’re also seeing admiration for specific cultural practices and governance models. The Nordic Model—emphasizing social welfare and economic efficiency—frequently gets lauded in online policy discussions, showing that dominant cultures can also emerge in digital realms.


From the cozy corners of Denmark’s ‘Hygge’ to the multicultural tension in Australia, from the rise of hip-hop as a subculture to the influence of the Han Chinese in Asia, we’ve traversed the globe and even ventured into the digital realm. Through it all, one thing is clear: dominant culture is not merely a backdrop but a leading actor on the stage of societal interactions.

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It’s tempting to view dominant culture as something set in stone, but as our journey shows, it’s fluid, ever-changing, shaped by historical circumstances and remolded by technology. It has the power to unite us, give us a sense of belonging, but also the potential to divide, to marginalize.

A deep dive into this topic isn’t just an academic exercise; it’s a lens through which we can better understand equality and equity. Recognizing the nuances of dominant culture gives us the tools to be more compassionate and effective advocates for cultural inclusivity and social justice.

And here’s the kicker—by understanding how dominant cultures evolve, we can become active participants in shaping a more inclusive and equitable future. Now, that’s a cultural melody worth tuning into.

Source for Summary and Final Thoughts: Derman-Sparks, Louise, and Patricia G. Ramsey. “What If All the Kids Are White? Anti-bias Multicultural Education with Young Children and Families”. Teachers College Press, 2011.

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