Political Settings

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Jonathan Barker
University of Toronto

The venues of political action are changing dramatically with the proliferation of new kinds of non-governmental organizations, the broadening coverage of the Internet, and the actions of governments to redefine and often reduce the scope of their direct interventions. We need concepts to describe these changes and assess their implications, both negative and positive, for democratic participation.


Innovative political or social action fits into the existing field of popular and governmental activity. What political settings—as gatherings to inform, discuss, assert, dispute, debate, and decide important public matters—are available? What are their biases about who can participate, how matters are discussed, and what issues can be raised? Where do particular settings fit in the hierarchy of power? How do economic and cultural forces and physical threats influence the process? Will a new action create a new setting or alter an existing one? By asking questions like these, activists will better grasp the changes they are asking people to make, and researchers can analyze the changing shape and structure of political space over long or short spans of time. 


Political settings are the basic physical units of collective political action. Each instance of a political setting has its own unique location in space and time. Many recur on a regular basis. Meetings and demonstrations are common types of political setting. Here are two recent examples from reports about political change in Venezuela. One is a small-scale political setting, a barrio meeting; the other describes two large-scale, competing political marches:

The Meeting
Nidia Lopez stood on one side of the brick built shack. It was like one of the thousands that made up the barrio of Andres Bello. The barrios, or slums, are where the majority of the Venezuelan population lives. Thirty people looked at Nidia. Some of them stood outside in the mud. The building was too small to fit them all.
Nidia spoke and her voice was clear and loud. She said, "There are 23 families living on the street in this barrio. In eight years what has this government done for them? In three years what has this Committee done for them? They need help now! What are we going to do for them now?"
The "we" that Nidia was talking about was the Urban Land Committee for the Andres Bello barrio. The Urban Land Committees...exist everywhere there are barrios in Venezuela and barrios are everywhere in Venezuela.
When barrio problems are discussed...the most common suggestion is to get organized. At the Andres Bello meeting, barrio resident Hector Madera said, “When the people of our barrio have a problem they mustn’t rely on the media, or go and whisper in the ear of a friend in a Chavista party, we need to organize ourselves.”
Nidia Lopez felt the best way the Andres Bello CTU could help the 23 homeless families was to take the appeal to the President. Everybody else in the meeting argued it was more important that organization happen first.
The families should...discuss with each other about what they wanted. They should also talk with the owner of the mansion. Only then should they approach the government for assistance if they still needed it.
Madera said the barrios needed to organize together, "When organized we can involve the people from nearby barrios, like Chapellin, and get their support. We will help them and them us. Together we solve our problems ourselves. We can march together."
( Source: Entitled to Democracy:Venezuela’s Urban Land Committees and Participatory Democracy. Saturday, Feb 11, 2006. By Alex Holland –

The Marches
Venezuelans celebrated International Worker’s Day yesterday with two large marches that wound through the streets of Caracas. One in support of the Chavez-led "Bolivarian Revolution," and the other with the opposition. This marks the sixth year in a row that Venezuelan workers have held separate marches on May 1st.
The opposition march was led by the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) which, according to the Venezuelan daily El Universal, called for the participants to march for increased salaries, back-pay, a dignified social security system, and freedom for CTV President Carlos Ortega, who was sentenced last year to 16 years in prison for his role in the two-month 2002-3 oil industry shut down.
"Things are turbulent. With this government everything is turbulent," yelled 15 year- CTV veteran, Israel Masa, from the opposition march. "That’s why we are marching -- to demand transparency in the next elections, because we in the opposition know that we are the majority and that we are the true democrats."
The pro-government march was led by the National Workers Union (UNT) and officially entitled, the "Bolivarian March Against Imperialism and Free Trade Agreements," highlighting the international importance of today’s celebrations, and calling attention to the recent motives for Venezuela’s withdrawal from the Community of Andean Nations.
"This demonstration is a struggle against imperialism and the conspiratorial plans of US imperialism against Venezuela," announced Venezuelan National Assembly Representative Dario Vivas the start of the march. "The people of Venezuela are ready to do whatever necessary to guarantee our liberty."
(Source: Opposition and Chavez Supporters March Separately for Mayday in Venezuela, Tuesday, May 02, 2006. By Michael Fox -

As these two examples show, the respective contexts -- social structure, rules of entry and action, physical layout, and cultural expectations -- heavily influence the quality of participation and the content of decisions and messages. “Political setting” is a particularly useful concept for describing political action in context, the venues of face-to-face political communication that are the building-blocks of public political life. They encompass all occasions in which issues and needs of general importance to a community or a society are discussed, contested, and decided. They may be open and democratic, but very often they explicitly or implicitly bar certain groups, certain perspectives, and certain issues. It is important to investigate how they filter participants and ideas.

Although many of meetings and debates that seek to influence community-wide matters take place in government institutions, an increasing proportion occur in voluntary associations, social movement groupings, and invitation-only meetings. Internet discussions demonstrate the growing importance of virtual political settings and raise questions about how they differ from face-to-face meetings and how uneven access to computers affects political outcomes. The rules and culture of each setting influence the quality of communication, deliberation, and decision-making it embodies. Are they open or secret? Which voices do they amplify or exclude? What about women, poor people, people of low status, different cultures and religions? What is their impact?

The idea of political setting draws upon ecological psychology’s concept of "behavior settings," but it puts the focus on activity that aims to influence public policy. It opens the door into exploration of the evolving pattern language exemplified in the face-to-face political actions from below that are emerging in meetings and demonstrations around the world with all their limitations as well as their strengths.


Seeing and analyzing popular politics through the lens of political settings promises to generate a useful and realistic view of the political resources available for popular action and of the obstacles that such action faces.

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Political action venues are changing with the proliferation of new kinds of nongovernmental organizations, the broadening reach of the Internet, and the actions of governments. Political Settings are the basic units of collective political action.The idea of political settings opens the door to exploration of evolving civic intelligence exemplified by political actions from below.

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Social Dominance Attenuation

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Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

Social dominance is arguably at the heart of many — if not most — of humankind's most shameful enterprises. It is embodied in ideology, economics, policy, education, the media, social perception and interactions, culture, and, even, our technological artifacts. In general the less-dominant group will have fewer opportunities for advancement, have poorer health and shorter life-spans, smaller incomes, higher likelihood of being incarcerated and live under more violent conditions than people do in more-dominant groups. Society as a whole too suffers from high level of inequality: the more equal the distribution of assets, the more economic growth the society will have (Dugan, 2004; World Bank, 2004). Political violence is also tied to social inequality (Gurr, 1971). At its most extreme, social dominance encourages oppression and wars, genocide, mob violence, and environmental destruction.


This pattern pertains to any society, region, or organization where social dominance is entrenched; in other words, virtually everywhere.


As humans evolved our species unwittingly took on characteristics that have persisted for centuries. Over the millennia, some aspects of our genetic makeup, as well as some psychological and cultural characteristics were encouraged while others were halted or slowed. As we all know, these basic changes generally came about hundreds of thousands of years ago when humans lived in small numbers and clung together in small bands for survival. That situation, once the norm, is now present only in the rarest of circumstances. We have been bred for a time and place that existed eons ago, an era that could only be recreated through pandemics, global war, massive climate change, or some combination.

One consequence of this is the myriad institutional structures that perpetuate dominance of one group over others. The authors of a recent book on social dominance (Sidaneous and Pratto, 1999) make the case that our social psychology seems to propel us naturally towards oppression. Unfortunately at least for those of us who believe that racism and other insidious "isms" would make excellent candidates for the dustbins of history, there are several factors that help keep social dominance in vogue. The first is that there does seem to be a measurable propensity ("generalized ethnocentrism") that shows up in some percentage of any population for strong group identification; people in this group believe that their group is superior to others and that they must stick together. When in positions of power they generally promote laws and attitudes that favor their group over others. They will also encourage and cleave to a variety of "legitimizing myths," such as social Darwinism ("survival of the fittest"), manifest destiny, "clash of civilizations" (Huntington, 1993) and a myriad of racial, gender, and ethnic stereotypes, as "social frames" that help perpetuate social dominance. The second is that racial (and other) stereotypes are easily and readily (and subconsciously) learned, generally at an early age before advanced cognitive abilities come into play that could question the accuracy and the value of the stereotypes. Third, the stereotyping "trigger" is effortlessly and (again) subconsciously activated when "appropriate," thus making these people the hapless targets of manipulative politicians and others who can specifically reach out to these people with tailored messages. Finally, unfortunately, there is some evidence that people in dominated groups, due to a combination of factors, will in many cases, adopt characteristics that are specified by the stereotype thus helping unconsciously to reinforce the stereotype ("behavioral asymmetry"). All of these factors, then, help support, at least indirectly, the maintenance of institutions that operate under a variety of processes, mechanisms, and biases that serve to maintain the machinery of social dominance.

Once the holistic model that Sidaneous and Pratto propose (possibly with modifications) is well understood, it should be possible to run society's social domination machine’s "in reverse." Along these lines, it's important to note that according to many people who study this field, approaches to attenuating social dominance will require widespread, multi-sectoral actions that include integrated legislative, economic, and educational efforts among (and across) dominant and non-dominant groups. Here is a list of approaches that can be undertaken — keeping in mind thatarticulation between these approaches will be critical if any a junction of social dominance is to be sustained over time.

  • Role-reversal exercises (examples include "Walk a Mile in their shoes" where state legislators “became” welfare recipients for a day and an event in Wisconsin where youths in disadvantaged neighborhoods interrogated judges and police officers in a mock courtroom situation.
  • Additional research. Identify, for example, "markers” or other classification schemes that “sort” people into two groups and see how the "markers" are used implicitly or explicitly in policy, the media, etc. etc.
  • Development and promulgation of social frames like "love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek, human family, equal opportunity, and multiculturalism help characterize the theme.
  • Fighting local discrimination in, for example, education or public service.)
  • Moving beyond tokenism. There is evidence that hiring one or two people from a less-dominant group can actually backfire.
  • Childhood education. Children need multicultural education and familiarity with different cultures and groups. Seeing a diverse society at an early age and not growing up with active stereotyping is good.
  • Lawsuits as a tool to fight social dominance by business and government.
  • “Disciplining” the media by fighting stereotypes solidarity networks. Establishing networks of people from diverse communities to inform each other, advocate and Religious connection. Remind people of their religion’s commitment to human rights and brotherhood and would with in the church for social change.


According to Sidaneous and Pratto, "Arbitrary-set divisions" (those divisions devised by cultures themselves according to their own decisions like caste, religion, and race, unlike divisions shared by all cultures, basically gender and age, upon which to discriminate) "largely only occur in societies in which people are able to generate and sustain an economic surplus." These societies employ division of labor that, apparently, leads to various forms of arbitrary-set based social dominance techniques and institutions. One of the most difficult challenges of such a society is checking the power of its most powerful members.

While many people would argue (myself included) that some degree of social dominance will probably always occur in society, there are also many people (myself included) who believe that a meaningful attenuation in social dominance is not only possible but necessary. Fighting against social dominance will always be an uphill battle: the forces that will rally against your campaign are, by definition, powerful and well-financed, and cozy with the media, government, and other elites. They will also have a ready supply of slogans handy to bring their minions into the fray. Sometimes trumping our own "intrinsic nature" to favor "our own, ' and, even, going against what may seem like "our own best interest" (maximizing short-term gain at another's expense) is the best long-range approach. And approaches that are actually win-win should be accompanied with public education that pre-empts the inevitable claim that the approach is discriminatory.

Although social dominance may be intrinsic to humankind, there are some grounds for hope. Some countries, Sweden, for example, have more-or-less eliminated social dominance based on gender. Studies relating to health care in Japan, New Zealand, Denmark and Sweden, also show that proper health care can be reached for all of a nation's citizens even if some social inequality still exists within that society.


Serious, ongoing and engaged commitment to social non-dominance is the core to "solving" the problems of social dominance. A society that genuinely wants to reduce its own inequity is obviously more likely to actually adopt new policies and perspectives over the long haul than one who begrudges every dime spend on schools for poor people or health care for the elderly and the foreign-born. Understanding how the “machines” of social dominance function provides important clues for the development of a counter machine.

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Social dominance is at the heart of many of humankind's most shameful enterprises. It is sustained through ideology, economics, policy, education, the media, social perception and interactions, culture, and technology. Understanding how social dominance is maintained can provide important clues as to how it can be countered.

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