(Although this article is in my view academically sound, it was written in October, 2003, by which time I had finally lost interest in submitting material to academic journals)
By John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.)
One of the "hot" concepts in the academic psychology literature at the moment is a concept known as "Social Dominance Orientation" (SDO). This is said to be a newly discovered personality variable that predicts both conservatism and racism -- and generally shows conservatives to be a very bad lot.
The whole "theory" behind SDO is however breathtakingly naive and shows a typically Leftist ignorance of history. And calling its chief measuring instrument (the SDO scale) a personality scale is just amazingly dishonest. Instead of asking people what they DO (which is what a personality scale does) the SDO scale asks them what they THINK. It is, in other words, an attitude scale -- not a personality scale. So its ability to predict scores on other attitude scales (of conservatism and racism) is considerably facilitated by that. Attitude scales often correlate with other attitude scales, but getting correlations between what people DO and what they THINK has been known to be difficult ever since the famous study by La Piere in 1934 (La Piere showed that most restaurateurs who said that they would NOT serve an Asian in their restaurant generally DID serve Asians when Asians actually turned up as potential customers). The connection between attitudes and behaviour is generally far from simple and direct.
And what do the statements in the SDO scale say? As Jost & Thompson (2000) have pointed out, fully half of its items specifically ask people whether or not they accept social inequality (Sample items: "It would be good if all groups could be equal" and "We should strive to make incomes more equal"). But anyone who knows the first thing about politics will be aware that "equality" is a great mantra of the Left and that conservatives view the whole idea as absurd. Leftists believe that in some mystical way "all men are equal" and conservatives reject equality as an unattainable myth. Ever since the Pilgrim Fathers, attempts to found societies based on equality have quickly degenerated into pervasive and permanent INequality. So the SDO theory that conservatives reject equality is laughably unoriginal. So it is no wonder that the SDO scale predicts conservatism in other senses. Fully half of the items in the scale relate to what has always been a core conservative belief. The correlation between SDO and conservatism is then an "artifact" (a product of the research design, not new information about the world)
And SDO has also been found to predict the tendency to express racial preferences (e.g. Heaven & St. Quintin, 2003). So let's look at what the other half of the items in the SDO scale say: They say things like: "Inferior groups should stay in their place", "Superior groups should dominate inferior groups" and "Some groups of people are just more worthy than others". So people who believe that there are inferior and superior groups also believe that there are inferior and inferior races. How astounding! Since races are groups, the finding that the SDO scale predicts racism is in fact LOGICALLY ENTAILED. It parades as an empirical finding but it is not. It tells us nothing new about the world. It is merely something that is true by definition. What a fraud!
I posted the above observations on my blog on October 4, 2003. The joint author and principal protagonist of the theory (a generally pleasant guy whom I happen to know) has replied to my critique. I reproduce the reply below:
We have never disputed the connection between classical conservatism (a la Edmund Burke), and the construct of SDO. We have merely tried to distill the hierarchy-enhancing aspects of this old ideology from many other components of "conservatism" which have no central or necessary connection with the disposition of societies to create and maintain group-based social hierarchies (e.g., traditionalism, religiosity, sexual restraint, belief in free-markets, devotion to freedom, etc.).
More importantly, however, social dominance theory (SDT)is NOT centrally about SDO, but rather about the interrelationships among the myriad mechanisms (e.g., individual differences, gendered-predispositions, social institutions, system-wide ideologies) that produce and re-produce group-based social hierarchy (where SDO simply plays one role) and how the tendency for society to organize itself hierarchically expresses itself in systems of racism, sexism, classism, ethnic domination, imperialism, etc. If one has not understood that Social Dominance Theory is about formation and maintenance of group-based dominance and NOT just about SDO, than one has not understood the theory at all.
I suggest you read our book, "Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression" so that any further objections you might have to the theory are at least on a correct understanding of what the theory is about. Unfortunately, you are not the only one to think that SDT is just about SDO. If that were actually the case, then the theory would be thin indeed.
THE REPLY DEMOLISHED
This seems to amount to a large climbdown. Sidanius does not answer my point that he is not measuring personality at all and he does not answer my point that the relationship between racism and scores on his scale is artifactual (built-in). He has now reduced his claim to saying that he is just finding out whether different allegedly conservative beliefs do go together. If that is what he is doing, he is doing a remarkably poor job of it. I have shown many times over the years that conservative beliefs in economic and non-economic ("social") areas are usually very poorly correlated (e.g. here and here) yet Sidanius COMBINES beliefs from these two areas in his scale! He is not only assuming what he has to prove but his assumption (that items from the two content-areas cohere) is demonstrably wrong!
And his claim that the theory is independent of the means used to test it is pretty desperate too. Psychologists normally rely on "operational" definitions -- i.e. they define the concept they use BY the means they use to measure it.
Criticizing Sidanius and his colleagues is only a first step, however. Can the critic himself do better? I think I can -- in at least three different ways:
1). Unlike Sidanius, I HAVE measured social dominance by way of a personality scale (the "Directiveness" scale) and what did I find? Did I find that social dominance was intimately related to conservatism and racism? I have repeatedly found that it is unrelated to overall Left/Right orientation or to racism. See here and here and here (Ray, 1976 & 1983; Ray & Heaven, 1984). Rejection of equality does NOT flow from a socially dominant personality. When tested without all its naive assumptions, the Sidanius theory is FALSE.
2). It could of course be argued that if we strip away the misleading Sidanius talk of "personality", we still have some interesting propositions about attitudes left. That is undoubtedly true but note that we still seem to get the results Sidanius predicts only if we use his own flawed scale. Many year before Sidanius wrote on the matter I too had an "SDO" attitude scale published (the "Egalitarianism" scale). It can be found in Appendix H of Ray (1972a) -- where a report is also given of its administration to a random sample of a large section of the community. It was there found that people who rejected the notion of social equality were the better adjusted ones! I wonder why not a single psychologist has followed up THAT finding in the last 30 years?
3). And the opposite of "social dominance" is presumably "social deference". Yet the concept of social deference was a familiar one in the political science literature long before Sidanius wrote on the subject. Over 30 years ago, I provided a reliable scale to measure that concept too (Ray, 1972b) and, in doing so, I showed that -- in the community at large -- it is a REJECTION of social dominance that is deviant! ANOTHER much-overlooked finding.
So, rather amusingly, it seems that psychologists who find fault with conservatives can do so only by ignoring large swathes of the relevant literature (See also Ray, 2003a & b).
Heaven, P.C.L. & St. Quintin, D. (2003) Personality factors predict racial prejudice. Personality & Individual Differences 34, 625-634.
Jost, J. T. & Thompson, E. P. (2000) Group-based dominance and opposition to equality as independent predictors of self-esteem, ethnocentrism, and social policy attitudes among African Americans and European Americans. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 36, 209-232.
La Piere, R. (1934) Attitudes and actions. Social Forces, 13, 230-237
Pratto, F., Sidanius, J., Stallworth, L.M., & Malle, B.F. (1994). Social dominance orientation: A personality variable predicting social and political attitudes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 741-763.
Ray, J.J. (1972a) Militarism, authoritarianism, neuroticism and anti-social behavior. Journal of Conflict Resolution 16, 319-340.
Ray, J.J. (1972b) The measurement of political deference: Some Australian data. British Journal of Political Science 2, 244-251.
Ray, J.J. (1976) Do authoritarians hold authoritarian attitudes? Human Relations, 29, 307-325.
Ray, J.J. (1983). Half of all authoritarians are Left-wing: A reply to Eysenck and Stone. Political Psychology, 4, 139-144.
Ray, J.J. (2003a) Academic fakers. Front Page Magazine, August 27.
Ray, J.J. (2003b) Van Hiel's psychology of conservatism. Article published on the internet only
Ray, J.J. & Heaven, P.C. L. (1984) Conservatism and authoritarianism among urban Afrikaners. Journal of Social Psychology, 122, 163-170.
Ray, J.J. & Lovejoy, F.H. (1988) An improved Directiveness scale. Australian Journal of Psychology 40, 299-302.
Some earlier Sidanius fantasies are "deconstructed" in the articles below:
Ray, J.J. (1988) Cognitive style as a predictor of authoritarianism, conservatism and racism: A fantasy in many movements. Political Psychology 9, 303-308.
Ray, J.J. (1990) Politics and cognitive style: A rejoinder to Sidanius and Ward. Political Psychology 11, 441-444.