Are dominance hierarchies always maintained through violence?

Is there a species in which a dominance contest cannot escalate to a fight? I don't know of any but I'm not a biologist.

Biological factors in violence are important but complex and often misunderstood. This article provides a framework for understanding an evolutionary analysis of human behavior and its potential contribution to understanding the role of the family in the development of aggressiveness. An example is given of the evolutionary analysis of family patterns in the perpetuation of criminal violence.

Key words: aggression, violence, family, kinship

Glenn Weisfeld, Ph.D., is Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan, 48202.

Donald M. Aytch, Ph.D., is a Certified Forensic Examiner, Detroit Recorder's Court and Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Detroit Mercy, Detroit, Michigan, 48219.

Biologists have identified several distinct types of aggression which will be reviewed in this article. Consideration of the biological functions of these discrete forms may help family professionals to understand aggression as a whole and to analyze particular instances of it (e.g., family patterns in the perpetuation of criminal violence). However, in order to appreciate biological approaches to the study of aggression, practitioners first need to understand the rationale of the much-misunderstood evolutionary perspective. [3]


Ethology and its congeners (e.g., sociobiology, evolutionary psychology) study behavior from an evolutionary standpoint. They reason that behavior is a property of living organisms and hence within the scope of biology, whose central theory is Darwinism. Since human beings have evolved, our behavior must have been guided by the forces of natural selection. Attempts have been made to deny or minimize the role of genes in human behavior, but the evidence for their role is overwhelming. We share over 98% of our genes with the chimpanzee, our closest relative thus our behavior cannot be divorced from that of other species. Even our capacity for language, which mediates the transmission of culture, depends on brain structures that develop via genes. Furthermore, genes influence behavior continuously throughout development. For example, the heritability of personality traits—the amount of variance across individuals due to their genetic differences—remains stable from early childhood into adulthood. About half of individual variance in personality traits is due to genetic differences and half to environmental ones—even in adults (Plomin, 1980). In short, all human behavior is mediated by the brain, which develops through the influence of genes that are the products of natural selection.

On the other hand, evolutionists recognize that environmental factors are indispensable to every behavior: Darwinians are not genetic determinists. Every behavior takes place in an environment that might, if altered, change the behavior. Even before birth, intrauterine factors can influence brain development and hence behavior. Furthermore, behaviors that are fairly hard-wired and stereotypic, such as imprinted responses, depend upon crucial experiences such as exposure to the mother. Genes and behavior interact inextricably. Both are essential, and hence neither is more important than the other: We must study both.

One common objection to studying the genetic basis of human behavior is that since genes cannot be altered, we ought to concentrate on environmental factors that can be manipulated. The evolutionists' answer is that we usually need to understand how a behavior works before we can intervene effectively, and a full understanding must take genetic factors into account.


How do ethologists proceed to study behavior, and why? A two-step process is generally followed. The first goal is to identify species-wide behaviors, so that the broadest possible generalizations about human behavior can be established. Thus, human ethologists emphasize our commonalities as a species, rather than individual or group differences among people. Human behavior is indeed highly variable, but there are quite a few universals (e.g., care of children by both parents, favoritism of relatives over nonkin, appreciation of the arts, sexual jealousy, and friendship). These are basic observations about human behavior that hold true everywhere. They tell us about—indeed, they comprise—our human nature.

A general model of human behavior provides a framework for understanding variation, including pathological variation. It is easier and more systematic to establish general laws than to focus initially on differences. Analogously, physiologists describe and explain normal bodily processes. These descriptions provide normative models for understanding pathological processes, or pathophysiology. Another reason to seek generalizations about human behavior is that species-wide traits are almost sure to have biological functions. Evolutionists believe that it is particularly important to identify the adaptive function of a given behavior, to answer the "why" question about it.

How is this goal of identifying species-wide, evolved traits reached? One method is to test for universality by means of cross-cultural research. If a behavior occurs in all of the hundreds of far-flung cultures that have been described, it probably originated when humans were still a single population in East Africa. It is unlikely that the behavior arose in a single culture and then spread throughout the world by cultural diffusion. This biological theory is particularly supportable if the behavior is also seen in our primate relatives, as is often the case. These and other research strategies for identifying evolved traits in humans were developed by Darwin himself, and are described elsewhere (Weisfeld, 1982).


The second goal of ethologists is to identify the functions of these evolved behaviors. If we understand why a behavior evolved, we can appraise its utility under current circumstances, and possibly intervene constructively. For example, if homicides occur frequently because of sexual jealousy, which is true throughout the world (Daly & Wilson, 1988), then we can perhaps take preventive measures. We can advise people of the danger posed by sexual jealousy, both as potential victims and as victimizers. This is not to condone these homicides, but to understand their causation so as to intervene more effectively. Prevention of a behavior may be preferable to punishment after the fact, and prevention rests upon identifying precipitating causes.

How are functions identified? Ethologists determine the function of a species-wide behavior or anatomical trait by comparative analysis. They try to figure out what distinguishes those species with the trait from those without it, just as an epidemiologist isolates the cause of an outbreak. For example, biparentalism—care of offspring by both parents—occurs in those animals with highly dependent young that apparently require both parents' efforts to survive. Since children need many years to reach maturity and even then continue to associate with their parents, it is not surprising that biparentalism is a human universal.

In determining the function of a given behavior, evolutionists try to discern its utility in enhancing survival and reproduction for example, parental care functions to enhance the survival of offspring. Evolutionists limit their use of the notion of function to direct biological exigencies—such as feeding, energy conservation, defense, and reproduction. Thus, explanations of a behavior in terms of self-fulfillment, self-expression, energy release, developmental stage attainment, resolution of psychological crises, and the like are not considered true biological explanations. A proper evolutionary explanation must show how the trait enables its bearer to pass on its genes more successfully to the next generation. Biological fitness is measured as number of offspring.

Another important consideration is that functional explanations must refer to the fitness of the individual, not the group or species. Traits do not usually evolve for the good of the group, but for the good of the individual. A trait must benefit the individual for the genes that underlie it to be selected. Biological competition takes place mainly among members of the same species, who have similar needs. Those individuals who reproduce most successfully are the fittest. One important modification of this original, Darwinian definition of fitness concerns behavior toward relatives. If a man saves his sister from drowning and if, as a result, she lives to produce two children, he will have helped to pass on his type of genes to the next generation. In this example, he will have passed on as many of his type of genes as if he had had a child himself—including genes for aiding one's kin. Thus, a tendency toward kin altruism will be favored by natural selection under some circumstances, and has been observed in many animals from bees to bats. This evolutionary reasoning makes sense of the universal tendency of people to favor their blood relatives—the closer the better. It also illustrates the advantage of comparative analysis: that we can learn from studying the behavior of other species.

This introduction may suffice to allow the reader to follow the evolutionary analysis of aggression below. Many good introductions to ethology and sociobiology are now available, including a bestseller by Wright (1995). The evolutionary approach is gaining adherents within traditional social science as well as among the lay public. It complements other approaches in its emphasis on generalizations about human behavior rather than differences, on the role of genes rather than learning, and on function—the "why" of behavior rather than just the "how" and "when."

Example 1—A Poor Definition

Example 1: “In animal behavior, dominance is defined as a relationship between individuals that is established through force, aggression and submission in order to establish priority access to all desired resources (food, the opposite sex, preferred resting spots, etc.). A relationship is not established until one animal consistently defers to another.”

The author states that dominance is one kind of relationship: (“dominance (…) is a relationship”) with the function to “(in order to) establish priority access to all desired resources.”

The statement does not tell us explicitly what dominant behavior is, but leaves us guessing that since dominance “is established through force, aggression and submission,” it must be related to these behaviors but it does not define aggression and submission, which are technical terms.

The statement seems either biased or too restrictive. One individual can establish a dominant (priority access, according to the author) relationship with another through motivation, persuasion, argumentation, bluffing, bribing, all without the use of force or aggression (aggressive behavior), independently of how we understand these terms.

Most social parents establish their dominance status over their offspring not by using aggressive behavior, but because they are better (older, more experienced) at solving problems (this is persuasion and argumentation) or only a limited and inhibited amount of force, which is quantitatively and functionally so different from aggressive behavior, that it deserves a new name (dominant behavior).

In some cases and for many reasons, most commonly age and experience, it is even the lower ranking (in need of protection) that bestows a higher ranking to the other (it is a “you decide”). Aggressive behavior and dominant behavior are, thus, not the same.

A hierarchy maintained employing aggressive behavior tends to be unstable, either because some of the lower-ranking leave the group (estimating that the costs of group membership out-value its benefits), or because they repeatedly challenge the higher ranking. Any hierarchy maintained by dominant behavior tends to be more stable because the lower-ranking individuals have greater benefits at relatively low costs.
The sentence “to all desired resources,” is too daring. We would not dare to say ‘all’ and we doubt very much that any individual ever controls ‘all’ desired resources (depending on the number, of course, but ‘all’ suggests many). No hierarchy is ever more consistent than it is regularly subject to changes. Even in established hierarchies, the highest ranking individuals do not always gain access to particular resources on particular encounters. Persistent dominant behavior from one individual toward the same other individual tends to turn their relationship hierarchical, but regular displays of dominant behavior must maintain it.

The sentence is not a definition of dominant behavior because to be so we would have to substitute dominance with dominant behavior and aggression with aggressive behavior, and we would get “dominant behavior is established through aggressive behavior,” which does not explain anything.

If dominance and aggression are the same, there is no need to call it something else: aggression would do. The term submission seems misplaced: “dominance is established through submission” is a contradiction since one is the antonym of the other. The sentence does not seem to make sense once we begin analyzing it, but we have a hunch of what the problem is: the author is confounding hierarchy with dominance. If we substitute one term by the other, then the sentence makes sense—a relationship can be hierarchical—though, it is still wrong because a hierarchical relationship does not necessarily involve force and aggressive behavior it can include many other aspects, as we saw.

The sentence “A relationship is not established until one animal consistently defers to another,” is misleading. It gives the impression that no relationship at all exists between two individuals unless one consistently defers to the other, which is not true. There are many examples of relationships (most, as a matter of fact), be it between humans, wolves or dogs, where one of the parties does not consistently defer to the other. Quite the contrary, in most stable relationships, both parties consistently defer to one another.

In the statement above, and in general, we confound dominance with dominant behavior we confuse a defining characteristic with an attribute.

A dog is not dominant as it is black or short-legged. A dog shows dominant behavior toward (condition 1) when (condition 2).

“A knife is a cutting tool” indicates a defining characteristic (permanent). “This knife is sharp” indicates an attribute (temporary). The correct is: “This knife is sharp to cut meat (=condition 1) today (=condition 2).”

Likewise, “Bongo is dominant toward Rover (=condition 1) when they find a bone (=condition 2).” More correctly, we should write, “Bongo showed today dominant behavior toward Rover when they found a bone.” We can also say, if it is the case, “Bongo shows, more often than not, dominant behavior toward Rover when they find an edible item.”

That is characterizing the behavior, not the individual. What we cannot say is “Bongo is dominant, Rover is submissive” because these are not defining characteristics of an individual.” These are attributes of their behavior under certain conditions even when these conditions seem to be rather encompassing.

Bottom line: The statement is not good because: (1) it defies observational data (aggression is not a necessary condition in a dominance relationship). (2) if aggression is a necessary condition, then we do not need to call it dominance, we can directly call it ‘an aggressive relationship’ (or antagonistic if you prefer a nicer name). (3) it is too restrictive (‘all desired resources,’ ‘a relationship is not established,’ ‘consistently defers’).

Are dominance hierarchies always maintained through violence? - Biology

When it comes to their social behavior, people sometimes act like monkeys, or more specifically, like rhesus macaques, a type of monkey that shares with humans strong tendencies for nepotism and political maneuvering, according to research by Dario Maestripieri, an expert on primate behavior and Associate Professor in Comparative Human Development and Evolutionary Biology.

&ldquoAfter humans, rhesus macaques are one of the most successful primate species on our planet our Machiavellian intelligence may be one of the reasons for our success&rdquo wrote Maestripieri in his new book Macachiavellian Intelligence: How Rhesus Macaques and Humans Have Conquered the World, published by the University Press.

Maestripieri has been studying monkeys for more than 20 years and has written extensively on their behavior. He has studied them in Europe, at a research center in Atlanta, and on an island in Puerto Rico, where researchers established a rhesus macaque colony for scientific and breeding purposes.

Rhesus macaques live in complex societies with strong dominance hierarchies and long-lasting social bonds between female relatives. Individuals constantly compete for high social status and the power that comes with it using ruthless aggression, nepotism, and complex political alliances. Sex, too, can be used for political purposes. The tactics monkeys use to increase or maintain their power are not much different from those that Machiavelli suggested political leaders use during the Renaissance.

Alpha males, who rule the 50 or so macaques in the troop, use threats and violence to hold onto the safest sleeping places, the best food and access to the females in the group with whom they want to have sex. Like human dictators intent on holding power, dominant monkeys use frequent and unpredictable aggression as an effective form of intimidation. Less powerful members of the rhesus macaque group are marginalized and forced to live on the edges of the group&rsquos area, where they are vulnerable to predator attacks. They must wait for the others to eat first and then have the leftovers they have sex only when the dominant monkeys are not looking.

&ldquoIn rhesus society, dominants always travel in business class and subordinates in economy, and if the flight is overbooked, it&rsquos the subordinates who get bumped off the plane,&rdquo Maestripieri said. &ldquoSocial status can make the difference between life and death in human societies too,&rdquo he pointed out. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, for instance, the poorer members of the community accounted for most of the hurricane&rsquos death toll.

Male macaques form alliances with more powerful individuals, and take part in scapegoating on the lower end of the hierarchy, a Machiavellian strategy that a mid-ranking monkey can use when under attack from a higher-ranking one.

Altruism is rare and, in most cases, only a form of nepotistic behavior. Mothers help their daughters achieve a status similar to their own and to maintain it throughout their lives. Female monkeys also act in Machiavellian ways when it comes to reproduction. They make sure they have lots of sex with the alpha male to increase the chances he will protect their newborn infant from other monkeys six months later. &ldquoBut while they have lots of sex with the alpha male and make him think he&rsquos going to be the father of their baby, the females also have sex with all the other males in the group behind the alpha male&rsquos back,&rdquo Maestripieri said. They do so just in case the alpha male is sterile or he dies or loses his power before the baby is born.

Struggles for power within a group sometimes culminate in a revolution, in which all members of the subordinate monkey families suddenly attack the entire dominant family. These revolutions result in drastic changes in the structure of power within rhesus societies, not unlike those that occur following human revolutions.

There is one situation, however, in which all of the well-established social structure evaporates: when a group of rhesus macaques confronts another group and monkey warfare begins. Rhesus macaques dislike strangers and will viciously attack their own image in a mirror, seeing their reflection as an intruder that is threatening them. When warfare begins, &ldquoEven a low-ranking rhesus loner becomes an instant patriot. Every drop of xenophobia in rhesus blood is transformed into fuel for battle,&rdquo Maestripieri wrote.

&ldquoWhat rhesus macaques and humans may have in common is that many of their psychological and behavioral dispositions have been shaped by intense competition between individuals and groups during the evolutionary history of these species&rdquo Maestripieri said. Rhesus groups can function like armies, and this may explain why these monkeys have been so successful in competition with other primates. Pressure to find Machiavellian solutions to social problems also may have led to the evolution of larger human brains.

&ldquoOur Machiavellian intelligence is not something we can be proud of, but it may be the secret of our success. If it contributed to the evolution of our large brains and complex cognitive skills, it also contributed to the evolution of our ability to engage in noble spiritual and intellectual activities, including our love and compassion for other people&rdquo, Maestripieri said.

4. Intersectionality

The sociology of race uses historical records and empirical investigation to theorise how racial ideologies become established and how they are used to maintain stratification. For example, how they are enforced, how they change over time, and how this varies across societies. Sociologists also analyse how social institutions produce and maintain inequality across race categories. This encompasses how racial inequalities are impacted by other social identities such as gender, class, and sexuality. We also study how institutional processes are influenced by the history and impact of colonialism in the present day. Sociology also analyses how race patterns affect socioeconomic mobility, migration, nationalism, globalisation and intersectionality (how gender and race inequalities are interconnected, and impacted by other social identities).

Having spent decades researching the lives of migrant women, in 1989, sociologist Professor Gillian Bottomley and anthropologist Dr Marie de Lepervanche published Ethnicity, Class and Gender in Australia, a volume that focused on the intersections of social identities that impacted women’s experiences of inequality. The collection showed how racist ideology normalised migrant women’s social position, but it also showed how culture, religion and class were used by migrants to mobilise change. Three years later, Intersexions examined the relationship between gender, class, culture and ethnicity, showing how migrant and Indigenous women were simultaneously negotiating gender inequality in their ethnic communities as well as racism from broader society. This body of work before and since emphasised the need to empirically explore multiple forms of oppression with gender and racism as the focus.

At the same time, most academic analyses still separate the concepts of race and gender, unless they are studying the lives of minority women. This leaves Whiteness as the default position for all other research, which, in turn, reproduces racial inequality in academia.

In Talkin’ Up to the White Woman, Dr Aileen Moreton-Robinson, a Geonpul woman, illustrates exactly this point, by showing how Australian feminism is governed by Whiteness. White privilege and power become normalised and colonialism is reproduced. White women are allowed to represent all women, often in ways that denigrate, silence or damage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges. Dr Moreton-Robinson argues that Indigenous perspectives need to be brought to the centre of academia, to reformulate Australian feminism and academic practice more broadly. Similarly, examining sexuality from an Indigenous perspective opens up a more cohesive understanding of race and colonialism.

Explore our final case study on intersectionality, and find further resources below. (Or jump up. ↑)

Case Study 4: Intersections of identity

Like race, ethnicity is a social construction, because again, it describes how groups come to define their cultural belonging. Some notions of ethnicity may encompass ideas of an innate sense of social kinship, bloodlines, ancestry, and the inheritance of a local culture. More to the point, however, ethnicity is made distinct by shared beliefs about a common descent: what people do together to maintain their cultural heritage. Ethnicity relies on social interaction, both amongst members of the ethnic group, who come to agree on certain cultural traits, as well as between minority and majority groups, who delineate their similarities and differences. That is to say, there can be no notion of “us,” without “them.”

As Gillian Bottomley puts it in her paper, “Identification,” ethnicity is a claimed identity (it’s about how we feel about our cultural origins), but it is also “a combination of self-identification and identification of others.” Some groups are not allowed to easily claim their ethnicity due to racist processes, such as migrant-Australians who might feel equally Greek-Australian, or a second-generation migrant born in Australia who has no strong connection to their parents’ birthplace. They might feel “fully Australian,” but are nevertheless, not considered “Australian” by the White Australian majority.

We can see how ethnicity is socially constructed, but also impacted by race, gender, sexuality, class and other social dimensions when we think about the role of social context.

In my early research, I studied the intersections of identity for young, heterosexual migrant women of Latin and Turkish backgrounds. They lived in predominantly working class, and multicultural Western suburbs of Melbourne. Most were tertiary educated. The women had strong connections to their families’ background culture. The Latin women mostly identified with their parents’ country-of-origin (for example, they had an identity of being Argentinian) and they also connected with a panethnic identity of being “Latin.” Some of these women said they called themselves Latin-Australian, but only one felt solely Australian (that is, she rejected her Chilean background due to negative gender experiences).

The Turkish women saw themselves as being equally Turkish-Australian, though some identified more as Muslim-Turkish-Australian. For these women, religious identity was more important than being Turkish or Australian. Like the Latin participants, the Turkish women had trouble expressing their Australian identities because people didn’t consider them Australian. They were constantly told they didn’t “look” Australian. Both the Turkish and Latin women were constantly questioned about their ethnicity in Australia, with people asking “where are you from?” so often, many were weary of this question and its implication that they would never be accepted as Australian. All the women faced racism, which also made it harder to call themselves Australian, even though most of them felt partly-Australian. As one Latin woman said, in order to be accepted as Australian, “You have to be Anglo and not look like me [laughs]. I know that’s really superficial but that’s what people see initially. They’re not going to stop to think about your personality when you first introduce yourself.” (Jump up. ↑)

When they travelled overseas, however, all the women felt their “Australian side” strongly. Even during visits with family in their parents’ country-of-origin, other people noticed they were different. Overseas, most people called them Australian: they dressed and talked differently to everyone else, and they had different ideas about life. One woman explains:

“In Uruguay I’d be called ‘The Aussie’, ‘The Kangaroo’, coz they knew I was from here. They’d be like, ‘You’re Aussie, you’re Aussie!’ And to be quite honest, when I was over there I was actually quite proud to be Australian!”

In Australia, despite not being seen as Australian, all the women were engaged with Australian values which they defined as egalitarianism and multiculturalism. Gender equality in particular informed their idnetities, as they worked to transform gender norms in their families, ethnic communities and broader Australian society. Focusing on multiculturalism was also a way to reject notions of Whiteness, which marginalised their experiences. They emphasised the ways in which their cultures contributed to the nation, as a way to make sense of the racism and sexism they were exposed to.

Good and Tentative Definitions

The art of making a good definition is to find the right balance between too much and too little and to state only the necessary conditions. A too restrictive definition has fewer chances to be adopted than a broader one, and a too broad definition risks losing its defining function. This definition of dominance is more likely to be accepted and adopted by a more significant number of people than the first one.

A proper definition defines precisely what it is supposed to define, and nothing else. A good definition gives an if-and-only-if condition for when an object or a term satisfies the definition. It is conclusive and exclusive. A good definition should also involve simpler terms than what we are defining.

Sometimes, we are compelled to use working definitions. A working definition is a definition we choose for an occasion and may not fully conform to the final definition. It is a definition at a stage of being developed—a tentative definition that in due time may turn into an established definition.

Undoing Inequity

If Sidanius and Pratto are correct in their assumption that social dominance based on arbitrary-set hierarchies exists in all societies in which there is economic surplus (i.e., all societies except for hunter-gatherer societies), the situation may appear hopeless. Inequity, like the poor according to the Bible, will always be with us.

But even if there is a pervasive orientation toward social hierarchy, a substantial difference in degree may approximate a difference in kind. One suggestion of this comes from the work on the connection between income inequality and health. Subramanian and his colleagues have found no relationship between the two in more egalitarian societies such as Japan, New Zealand, Sweden, and Denmark. Finding such a relationship in less egalitarian societies such as Chile and the United States, they discuss the possibility of a threshold above which inequity is related to poor health and below which it is not. Perhaps this is also true of other consequences of inequity.

"There are only two families in the world, as my grandmother used to say: the haves and the have-nots." -- Sancho Panza in Cervantes' Don Quixote de la Mancha

Seeking greater equity is a large and important task and deserves the attention both of those who benefit from the system as it currently exists and those who suffer because of it. Their tasks, however, are different.

"For any oppressed group, the primary task is to overcome the moral authority of the sources of their suffering and to create a politically effective identity."[25] Moore discusses the need "to reverse the kinds of solidarity among the oppressed that aids the oppressor." This dovetails well with Sidaneus and Pratto's identification of behavioral asymmetry as a hierarchy-enhancing agent. A more popular take on the concern is captured in the focus on "internalized racism" or internalized oppression" in efforts to undo racism in the United States. The flip side -- efforts to make members of the dominant group more aware of "white privilege" and how to overcome it -- is also beginning to receive substantial attention.

Those already in decision making positions might benefit from the following caution:

[A]ttempting to benefit the underclass by piecemeal social legislation is likely to be both ineffective and dangerous, so long as structural conditions remain that effectively isolate the underclass from power and decision making. This implies that the underclass cannot be dealt with as mere victims but must actively participate in their own empowerment.[26]

It may be an overly utopian dream to seek a society in which there is no inequity, this does not mean, however, that much greater levels of egalitarianism can not be achieved. In particular, we can certainly make substantial headway in reversing current trends toward increased inequity.

[1] Taylor, Marylee C. "Social Contextual Strategies for Reducing Racial Discrimination," in Reducing Prejudice and Discrimination, Stuart Oskamp, (ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 2000, pp. 71-89.

[2] Sidaneus, Jim and Felicia Pratto. Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[3] Sidaneus and Pratto, p. 38

[4] Sidaneus and Pratto, p. 33

[5] Sidaneus and Pratto, p. 39

[6] Sidaneus and Pratto, p. 41

[7] Sidaneus and Pratto, p. 41

[8] Sidaneus and Pratto, p. 44

[9] Dallmayer, Fred R. "Globalization and Inequality: A Plea for Global Justice," International Studies Review, 4/2 Summer 2002, p.138-56.

[10] Huntington, Samuel P, "The Clash of Civilizations?" Foreign Affairs 72 (Summer 1993), pp. 22-50.

[14] Krugman, Paul, "The Death of Horatio Alger: Our Political Leaders Are Doing Everything They Can to Forify Class Inequality. Economic Factors in Social Mobility." The Nation. Jan. 5, 2004, v. 278, p. 16.

[15] Venkataramani, G. The Hindu. Online edition of India 's National Newspaper, May 15, 2002.

[16] Subramanian, S. and I. Kawachi. "The Association between State Income Inequality and Worse Health Is Not Confounded by Race," International Journal of Expidemiology. December 2003, v. 32, i. 6, pp. 1022-1029.

[17] Sidaneus, Jim and Rosemary C. Veniegas. "Gender and Race Discrimination: The Interactive Nature of Disadvantage," in Reducing Prejudice and Discrimination, Stuart Oskamp, (ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 2000, pp. 47-69. A review of the evidence is in Sidanius and Pratto, 1999.

[19] The World Bank Group, "Inequality, Poverty, and Socio-economic Performance,"

[20] Struble, Marie Boyle and Laurie Lindsey Aomari. "Position of the American Dietetic Association: Addressing World Hunger, Malnutrition and Food Insecurity." Journal of the American Dietetic Association, August 2003, v. 103, i. 8, pp. 1046-1057.

[21] Gurr, Ted Robert. "Model building and a test of Theory," in When Men Revolt and Why: A Reader in Political Violence and Revolution, ed. James Chowning Davies. New York: The Free Press, 1971, pp. 293-313.

[22] Zimmermann, Ekkert. "Macro-Comparative Research on Political Protest," in Handbook of Political Conflict: Theory and Research. Ted Robert Gurr, ed. New York: The Free Press, 1980, pp. 167-237.

[23] Harff, Barbara. "Could Humanitarian Crises Have Been Anticipated?" in Journey through Conflict: Narratives and Lessons. Howard R. Alker, Ted Robert Gurr, and Kumar Rupesinghe, eds. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001, pp. 81-102.

[25] Moore, Barrington, Jr. Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt. White Plains, NY: M.E. Sharpe Inc., 1978, p. 87.

[26] Shephered, George W., Jr. and David Penna, "Discrimination, the Underclass, and State Policy: An Assessment," in Racism and the Underclass: State Policy and Discrimination against Minorities. Ed. George W. Shepherd, Jr. and David Penna. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991, pp. 161-166.

Discussion and conclusions

We started this paper by highlighting the fact that competitive interactions between rival gangs often appear imbalanced. Some gangs are net exporters of violence (i.e., more often aggressors in homicides), while others are net importers (i.e., more often targets in homicides). It is reasonable to suppose that such imbalances in violence reflect imbalances in competitive ability since violence appears central to how gangs “jockey for positions of dominance” (Papachristos 2009, p. 76). Exactly how these dynamics unfold remains an open question, however, since we do not have formal expectations about how competitive dominance, gang size and directionality of violence should be related.

To rectify this situation, we turned to mathematical models first developed to deal with analogous problems observed in plant ecology (Tilman 1994). The key advantage of Tilman’s model is that it allows us to make strict assumptions about competitive dominance and follow those assumptions through to their empirical expectations. The key assumption is that a superior competitor can always displace an inferior competitor wherever they are encountered and always hold a site against any incursion by an inferior competitor. Under such conditions inferior competitors can persist if they can quickly exploit space as soon as it is vacated by superior competitors and/or if they can hold onto empty space longer before they are displaced. In essence, inferior competitors are able to survive in the “interstices” between superior competitors. We mapped Tilman’s model onto the case of criminal street gangs by focusing on activity patterns. Many of our general observations parallel exactly those of Tilman. Our unique contribution was to extend the model to produce expectations about the relationships between competitive ability, gang size and the directionality of violence.

The model suggests that gang size, when measured as the proportion of space used by a gang, is not a simple proxy for a gang’s competitive rank (see especially Figs. 2, 3). Gang size and competitive rank are only positively correlated if all gangs in a competitive hierarchy adopt a pure strategy for coexistence. That is, all of the gangs must either have identical activity cessation rates and leverage variable activity spread rates, or have identical activity spread rates and leverage variable activity cessation rates. If individual gangs adopt mixed strategies, then gang size fails to track competitive rank. The largest gangs can be competitively inferior and the smallest competitive superior in terms of absolute displacement ability. The models also suggest that the directionality of violence, as measured by the homicide in- and out-degree per gang, is also not a simple proxy for competitive rank (see especially Fig. 5). Large gangs typically experience more overall violence (cumulative in- and out-degree), compared with small gangs. However, variation in competitive rank (and random noise in activity cessation and spread rates) can cause a gang to flip from being a net-importer to a net exporter of violence.

We examined the implications of the models using homicide data from LAPD’s Hollenbeck Community Policing Area. Territory size is not strongly correlated with the directionality of violence between rivals, as measured by in- and out-degree over the homicide network. Territory size is only marginally better at predicting the total volume of violence. The model presented here suggests that we should not be surprised by this result as competitive ability, gang size and directionality of violence need not be strongly connected, even where absolute competitive dominance exists. The observed in- and out-degrees for the Hollenbeck homicide network is perhaps more consistent with gangs leveraging faster activity spread rates to circumvent competitive asymmetries than an alternative model of slower activity cessation rates. However, we have not performed rigorous model evaluation as there remain many unknowns that deserve further theoretical discussion (see below). Nevertheless, it is reasonable to hypothesize that gangs such as El Sereno, and perhaps Clover, are net importers of violence as a result of large size and relatively high-rank in competitive ability. By contrast, gangs such as KAM and Lincoln Heights may be net-exporters of violence because of an intermediate size and relatively low competitive rank. However, there are gangs that do not neatly align with model expectations. These outliers either have observed in-degrees that are much larger than expected for the small territory size (e.g., Primera Flats, Tiny Boys), or much smaller than expected for their large territory size (e.g., Metro 13). Assuming that the in- and out-degree counts are accurate, alignment with model expectations would require that territory sizes be adjusted upwards or downwards.


This study has several important limitations. First, the use of homicide data may not be the best metric to assess gang dominance given that these acts of violence are likely rare when compared to other less severe options that may accomplish much the same thing (e.g., aggravated or simple assault). However, since most acts of gang-related violence involve firearms (Huebner et al. 2016 Maxson et al. 1985 Maxson and Klein 1990 Pizarro 2017 Rosenfeld et al. 1999 Valasik 2014), the only difference between a gang-related homicide and a gang-related aggravated assault may be random. Thus, more dominant gangs may attempt to utilize less severe acts of violence, however, the results may still be a homicide. Furthermore, research has shown that the investigation of homicides by law enforcement is likely to be the most robust, given that there is almost always a victim, with a specialized police unit that dedicates substantially more investigative time and effort to their resolution (Petersen 2017 Pizarro et al. 2018 Regoeczi 2018). In this study, the thoroughness of investigating gang-related homicide is expected to provide a much more complete picture of the violent event including reliable data on gang affiliations of both the target and the aggressor, two crucial pieces of information needed to the current analyses. As such, the use of gang-related homicides as the sole metric of violence is likely to be conservative measure.

It is premature to conclude that territory size is not at all a useful predictor of competitive rank. Part of the problem may be with the way that gang territories are recognized and measured in real-world settings. Recording gang territories as bounded, convex polygons may be pragmatic. However, there is good reason to question whether this is a realistic representation of the distribution of gang activity, gang areal control or gang competitive position. It has long been recognized that gangs may claim a large swath of land, but that most hanging out occurs at only a handful of locations, termed ‘set spaces’ by Tita et al. (2005). In fact, Valasik (2018) finds that areas with high concentrations of gang member residences and gang set space locations are most at risk of experiencing a gang-related homicide. It might be more appropriate to think of gang territories as a network of placed-based activity nodes and corridors or pathways between them. This would be a group-level analog of crime pattern theory (Brantingham and Brantingham 1993). Some nodes and corridors might be common to the gang as a whole (i.e., set spaces), while others might be tied to the activities of single gang members (e.g., gang member residences). Gang territories seem to overlap quite substantially when drawn as convex polygons. For example, in the entire city of Los Angeles approximately 40% of all documented gang turfs overlap according to 2010 gang territory maps. However, if territories are really a “mesh” of shifting nodes and corridors between them, then the actual equilibrium size distribution of gangs may be quite different from (and lower) than that measured using territory maps.

This concern over defining territories raises a related issue about modeling both spatial and temporal patterns of gang behavior. The models presented above are spatially implicit. They deal only with the proportion of space occupied by a gang, not the actual spatial arrangement of those gangs. The models do imply, however, that the spatial arrangements of gangs are subject to constant change. Even though gangs occupy a stable proportion of the landscape at equilibrium, there is regular turnover in which gangs occupy which sites. Such change is not consistent with the “turf-as-polygon” view of gang territoriality. It may be more consistent with the idea that gang territories are a shifting mesh of nodes and corridors. Spatially implicit models also do not take into consideration any constraints of mobility (Hubbell 2005 Turchin 1998). How far people move plays an important role in the generation of crime patterns (Brantingham and Tita 2008) and presumably plays and important role in the formation and maintenance of gang territories (Brantingham et al. 2012 Hegemann et al. 2011 Valasik and Tita 2018). Including mobility in the current model would require a spatially explicit approach. Such models are much more challenging mathematically, but frequently lead to novel insights quite different from spatially implicit models (Kareiva and Wennergren 1995 Tilman et al. 1994). Thus, it is premature to claim that faster activity spread rates will be a decisive property in a spatially explicit systems of gangs.

The models developed here offer only a limited view of competitive dynamics. We recognize that it is extreme to assume that gangs form a strict competitive hierarchy. This assumption is theoretically valuable as a form of counterfactual. It is much more likely, however, that competitive ability is context dependent (Hubbell 2005). Who has the upper hand in any one dyadic interaction may depend as much on where an interaction takes place, or who is present, as on some global competitive ability of the gang. A more detailed assessment of the costs and benefits that arise in competitive interactions across contexts is needed. For example, it is perhaps unrealistic to assume that inferior gangs will continue to attack superior gangs if such attacks never yield successful displacements. The contexts in which attacks are successful and unsuccessful may carry great importance for understanding competitive dynamics.

A related concern is whether it is reasonable to model a community of gangs as a single competitive hierarchy. Competitive interactions may be restricted to smaller clusters of gangs that exist in close spatial proximity to one another. A broader community of gangs may in fact be best modeled as a multiscale system composed of several competitive hierarchies that sometimes interact. These concerns again point us in the direction of spatially explicit models where the competitive ranking of gangs may shift across the landscape. It also suggests a role for game theory in modeling competition as strategic interactions that might include behavior other than acting as a superior (or inferior) competitor. Specifically, we believe it will be important to relax the assumption that activity spread and cessation rates for each gang are unchanging in time. These traits, if important, presumably would be under heavy selection via some learning mechanism. Inferior gangs might be put at an even greater disadvantage if superior gangs seek to close off spatial opportunities in response to competitive interactions by evolving their activity spread and cessation rates. These possibilities will require further examination.


The concept of The Other highlights how many societies create a sense of belonging, identity and social status by constructing social categories as binary opposites. This is clear in the social construction of gender in Western societies, or how socialisation shapes our ideas about what it means to be a “man” or a “woman.” There is an inherently unequal relationship between these two categories. Note that these two identities are set up as opposites, without acknowledging alternative gender expressions. In the early 1950s, Simone de Beauvoir argued that

Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought. Thus it is that no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself.

de Beauvoir argued that woman is set up as the Other of man. Masculinity is therefore socially constructed as the universal norm by which social ideas about humanity are defined, discussed and legislated against.

Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him she is not regarded as an autonomous being… She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’ – Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex.

Heterarchy: An Idea Finally Ripe for Its Time

While browsing a recent issue of Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, I came across an essay titled, "Towards a heterarchical approach to biology and cognition," and my heart soared. "What a strange heart," you say. "What an odd person to be so moved by such esoterica!" But there's a story behind my leaping heart, and it's one that has increasing relevance to the geopolitical pickle we find ourselves in today.

The story starts just over 70 years ago with polymath Warren McCulloch's 1945 publication of an essay titled, "A heterarchy of values determined by the topology of nervous nets." The term "heterarchy" is best defined by its opposition to hierarchy. In a hierarchy, if A is over B, and B is over C, then A is over C -- your basic pecking order. In a heterarchy, though, you can have A over B, B over C, and C over A.

Think of the game "Rock, Paper, Scissors." Paper covers rock rock crushes scissors scissors cut paper. Think also of the system of checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution. Different branches of government have supreme authority in some situations, but not in others. And no one is above the law. No kings or tyrants allowed.

After reading McCulloch's essay, I made much of his concept of heterarchy in a book I published in 1977, Many Dimensional Man: Decentralizing Self, Society, and the Sacred. Then a friend and I convened a series of meetings during the 1980s under the title, "Making heterarchy work," because it was not immediately clear to us that heterarchy would work.

The History of Heterarchy

The problem was nailed by McCulloch, who actually dissected minute, circular configurations of neurons he called "dromes of diallels." While the flesh and blood realities of brains are a lot messier, the essential logical core could be captured in the ideal case of just six neurons arranged in a circular configuration such that A would stimulate B and inhibit C. B would stimulate C and inhibit A. C would stimulate A and inhibit B.

Interestingly enough -- and here's where both problems and possibilities start popping up -- this circular logic is identical to what Nobel economist Kenneth Arrow described as the "Voter's Paradox." The problem goes all the way back to the late 18th century when it was identified by Marquis de Condorcet. Consider the case in which one faction prefers candidate A over B and candidate B over C a second, equal faction prefers B over C and C over A and a third faction prefers, you guessed it, C over A and A over B. The choice that eventually gets made will not be a reflection of the real preference of the whole society, but will instead result from "irrational" and arbitrary issues like who voted first and who voted last. And over time and subsequent elections, the decision may cycle from one choice to another with no apparent reason.

Why the quotation marks around "irrational"? Because in the analysis of the relationship between hierarchy and heterarchy, it is precisely the definition of what counts as rational that is at stake. As McCulloch explained:

"Circularities in preference instead of indicating inconsistencies, actually demonstrate consistency of a higher order than had been dreamed of in our philosophy. An organism possessed of this nervous system -- six neurons -- is sufficiently endowed to be unpredictable from any theory founded on a scale of values. It has a heterarchy of values, and is thus internectively too rich to submit to a summum bonum [highest good]."

Now there is a phrase to conjure with: "internectively too rich to submit to a summum bonum." This sounds like the Middle East. Or the geopolitical, global problematique. Or the Republican primaries in the United States. Or the problems of the European Union.

The problem with heterarchy, and the challenge to making it work, is not the lack of hierarchy, but too many competing hierarchies. And that's the reality we live in.

Heterarchy, Hierarchy and Anarchy

"Heterarchy" is an unwieldy word. Our ongoing discussion group on making heterarchy work eventually abandoned the word when one of our members looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary and found the definition to be "rule by aliens." That's not what we meant at all. Despite its unwieldiness, and shadows of aliens, though, the term recommends itself for the way it mediates the dialectic between hierarchy and anarchy.

The root "archai" is Greek for "principle" or "guiding rule." In a hierarchy, as defined, there are clear principles in an unambiguous pecking order. Wouldn't it be nice if things were that simple? The word "anarchy" uses the privative "a-" to say "no principles, no highest good, anything goes." Most anarchists are disappointed hierarchists. From Mikhail Bakunin to Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, anarchists have taken potshots at the failings of hierarchy: They shoot holes in the purported legitimacy of exercises of authority, whether by the divine right of kings or the use of violence to impose subordination.

As Francis Fukuyama showed in The Origins of Political Order, the first hierarchies were imposed by "strongmen" and then later justified by ancestor worship and a priestly caste. From all we can determine, primitive hunter-gatherer bands were heterarchical. Teamwork joining different skills was necessary to bag a woolly bison. But no one leader called for deference to a summum bonum.

With the transition from nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers to larger settlements with agricultural surpluses, patriarchy and hierarchy were required to maintain some degree of order. As my colleague in this space, Ian Morris, argues in his several books, the bargain we humans made with hierarchies might strike a visiting Martian as odd once it compares the life of the unencumbered hunter-gatherer with the lives of later citizens suborned under often onerous hierarchies. But once you start down that road toward hierarchy, from the point of view of defense and security, bigger is almost always better. So there is a natural logic of larger, more powerful hierarchies conquering and subsuming smaller, less powerful hierarchies.

Next thing you know, people are talking about "the American Century," or "the Chinese Century," as if it is perfectly natural that some nation must be number one. I recall an invitation to give a talk at Rand a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union. The concern at Rand was how to manage a "unipolar world" now that the bipolar order of the Cold War had come to an end. I tried to tell the researchers at Rand about heterarchy . but they were not interested. There was a mindset there, a hierarchical mindset, that insisted that somebody must be "number one," and it better be us.

You see this mindset at play in the well-worn epithet of the lion as "king of the jungle." Who says that the jungle has to have a king? The jungle is not a political order, however many alpha male gorillas may roam its paths. The jungle is an ecology -- an incredibly complex web of metabolisms, relationships and interactions, some of which may be hierarchical. But there is no summum bonum in the jungle.

Anarchists: The Disappointed Hierarchists

Some political theorists, like our former colleague in this space, Robert D. Kaplan, author of the famous Atlantic article, "The Coming Anarchy," fear that it's a jungle out there in our current geopolitical disorder. Given the strains on existing hierarchies, that conclusion is not implausible.

Other political theorists like Robert Paul Wolff, author of In Defense of Anarchism, defend anarchy, in part by appealing to the Voters' Paradox. But Wolff, a Kant scholar, is clearly a disappointed Kantian. He looks at the world around him, sees that it does not conform to the non-contradictory rational order of the Kantian architectonic, and concludes that if we can't have Kant's perpetual peace, then anarchy is the only alternative. But anarchy is not the only alternative to failed hierarchy. There's heterarchy.

Still others, such as the stealth leader of the supposedly leaderless Occupy movement, David Graeber, insist that anarchy is the only answer to today's overgrown hierarchies. In retrospect, I think we can see that Occupy's commitment to anarchy robbed it of political efficacy.

Impressed in my youth with the work of anarchists like Murray Bookchin, I once hosted a pair of meetings "On the New Anarchism," one at Harvard and one at Yale. For all the Ivy prestige, I ask you: How stupid was I to try to organize anarchists? Talk about herding cats! But, hey, it was the early 1970s when the news of Watergate and the sounds of helicopters over Vietnam were ringing in our ears. We were not about to submit to the reigning hierarchy in Washington. The anti-authoritarianism of the counterculture of the late '60s and early '70s, and the brash intellectual courage of its tradition, made anarchism attractive to many of us back then.

But, as I put it in an email to Graeber, "I got over it." Shouldn't he? Not a chance, came his frosty reply. He is not ready to countenance the need for a monopoly on the application of legitimate violence. Can't we all just get along?

Graeber did his anthropological fieldwork in rural Madagascar. When you are miles away from the instruments of government, I have no doubt that a kind of libertarian, damn-the-government anarchism might be preferable to the iron cage of hierarchical bureaucracy and the threat of violence against outlaws. But if you want to live in a world that has airplanes, airports, hospitals and a banking system, you're simply not going to be able to do so without some form of governance. The question is not whether government. The question for mature moderns who bear the legacy of the long march from heterarchical hunter-gatherers to hierarchically organized citizens is: Which form of government will be least onerous and most effective?

Bobbitt's Real-World Heterarchy

In order to answer this very big question, and if you want a truly beautiful example of a detailed exposition of heterarchy in the modern world, go to Chapter 25 of Philip Bobbitt's Shield of Achilles. In those 60 pages, Bobbitt develops three scenarios:

"The world of The Meadow is that of a society of states in which the entrepreneurial market-state has become predominant. In this world, success comes to those who nimbly exploit the fast-moving, evanescent opportunities. The world view portrayed in The Park. reflects a society in which the values and attitudes of the managerial market-state have prevailed. Governments play a far larger role. Finally, The Garden describes an approach associated with the mercantile market-state. Unlike the regional groupings fostered by The Park, the states of The Garden have become more and more ethnocentric, and more and more protective of their respective cultures."

As you will not be surprised to hear, these scenarios and their names can be associated with certain geopolitical avatars, namely, North America for the wide open Meadow, Europe for the publicly managed Park, and East Asia for the ethnocentric Garden. "In a meadow all is profusion, randomness, variety. A park is for the most part publicly maintained, highly regulated with different sectors for different uses. A garden is smaller, more inwardly turned -- it aims for the sublime, not the efficient or the just."

Bobbitt then explores a range of drivers and trends, possible events and challenging decisions prior to the articulation of the three scenarios in which all of these elements play out in different ways. In my humble opinion, the truly remarkable climax of Bobbitt's very long book is the elegant construction of the heterarchy of choices playing out in the global geopolitical dynamic involving the United States, Europe and East Asia.

"Think of The Meadow as 'A,' The Park as 'B,' and The Garden as 'C.' If we rank these approaches with respect to the security decisions taken in each scenario, A is preferred to B, which is preferred to C. That is, peace with some justice (the protection of nonaggressors, for example) is to be preferred to simple peace (bought at the price of sacrificing innocent peoples), which is still preferable to a cataclysm that would destroy the innocent and guilty alike. Or perhaps we get B/A/C -- no conflict is preferred to frustrating low-intensity conflict, which is still preferable to a high risk of cataclysm. In any case, we can agree that C (The Garden) presents the worst option for satisfying the world's security needs. But if we do the same sort of exercise with respect to the issues raised by the 'culture' scenarios, preferring genuine pluralism to mere cultural protectionism, and yet preferring the protection of minorities to their marginalization, we get B/C/A. Or at least we get C/B/A, for some will feel that the protection of sanctified ways of life trumps pluralism. In any case, we can agree that A -- The Meadow -- is an inhospitable place for the serenity, continuity, and community that protect cultures. And if we conduct this same exercise with respect to the scenarios devoted to economic issues, ranking sustainable growth ahead of recovery, which is still preferable to stagnation, we get C/A/B. Or, if growth alone is our objective, we get A/C/B: the insatiable but impressive engine of dynamic, innovative risk taking is preferred to the methods of mercantilist competition. In any case we must concede that regional protectionism -- the world created in the Park -- is a sure route to high unemployment, slow growth, and the costliness (and uneven diffusion) of new technology."

In short, as some sage once put it, not all good things go together. There are hard choices to be made, and trade-offs to be acknowledged. Each of these scenarios with its respective geopolitical avatars has a different rank ordering of values. And this is the world we live in, not the anarchy of no hierarchy, not the simplistic, rationalist utopia of a single hierarchy, but a heterarchy of many hierarchies.

So that is why my heart soared at the sight of an article on heterarchy in Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology. To see that its authors, Luis Emilio Bruni and Franco Giorgi, had gone back to McCulloch and given scientific rigor to his ideas was, to me, encouraging. Because this concept of heterarchy needs broader exposure and application as a tool for understanding our current situation.

We'll be hearing more about heterarchy. But meanwhile, think about this: What are the several overlapping heterarchies in and around the Middle East?

Watch the video: Lee Dugatkin Winner effects, loser effects and the structure of dominance hierarchies (December 2021).