1.4.1 State of the Art

For the sake of not constantly inflicting my awful prose style, I will unashamedly cut, paste and translate a scientific publication that I found on the internet. It deals with the concept of dominance from an ethological and sociobiological perspective. This post is meant to get a detailed grasp of what dominance is.

Source : Henri Roussel, “La valeur biologique de l’organisation sociale en hiérarchie de dominance chez l’animal”. Les cahiers psychologie politique. Numéro 4, décembre 2003.
In ethological material, different interpretations of the social interaction phenomena does not usually match each other. Some refer to the cognitivist paradigm, some others, on the contrary, follow the behaviorist one. The behaviorist advocates the Morgan framework and proposes a game theory based model. In any case, the biological value of the social organization, understood as an emerging and complex property of the social systems, is founded upon the fact that, in such organizations, some individuals have better access to reproduction than the others. In an animal group, the organized life seems unable to exist without a natural selection based principle. This principle rests on the dominance hierarchy notion, which is the key word in a majority of studies addressing the social behavior of gregarious animals. The dominance hierarchy seems to play a filtering role in which only the fittest are retained. This role is fully integrated in the natural selection concept.

According to the original definition of Schjelderupp-Hebbe (1922), the dominant/submissive relationship is measured in chickens by counting the received and given beak strike (“Pecking order”). It results from agonistic behavioral patterns between two individuals. It will always yield the same result in favor of a given individual. Absence of adversary retaliation will prevail on violence escalation in most cases. A unique combat is generally sufficient to establish the statuses of the belligerents: The winner will be the dominant and the loser will be the subordinate. According to the interaction result, the social status of an individual will be dominant or subordinate, that is in a given dyad. However, the social rank determines the position in the dominance hierarchy and depends upon the structure of the group.

When studying dominance, it is sufficient to focus on situations where an individual prevails on another one. The approach will consist in comparing the number of attack made against the number of hits received in an environment where two individuals will have access to a limited amount of food (Example bones, meat for dogs). After several trials, the designated dominant is the one that repeatedly managed to get the food. From a broader perspective, the dominance hierarchy in animals has been very often studied using limited access to food or water. For instance, the water bottle test was used to reveal the Macaque hierarchical structure. This technique is more efficient at establishing the dominance hierarchy than the first one mentioned. Experimental isolation of dyad is avoided and thus does not impact the group. The result match with observations made during the “natural” feeding practices: the omega animal control the feeding area until it reaches satiety, then access is granted to the beta individual. This continues until the omega individual is reached.

The social ranks are calculated after the determination of social statuses in all possible dyads in the group. The position in the hierarchy can be expressed using ordinal level or numerically using Greek letter (alpha = highest rank, omega = lowest rank). It can be represented qualitatively using appraisal like high or low dominance.

Hierarchy can be linear. Dominance is then a chain where one dominant dominates another one that dominates another one… This is a particular type of hierarchy (Jameson, 1999)

Despotism is another form of dominance, in which one individual, called the despot, dominates all others which get all the same rank.

Triangular hierarchies as well as parallel hierarchy within one hierarchy are the most frequent particularly in primates. The dyadic dominant/subordinate relationships and the dominance hierarchy are not always linked. The former do not imply necessarily the latter (Silk, 1999).

In the ethological debate, the Schjelderupp-Hebbe definition is still a reference. However, precisions, nuances or even criticism are express by the scientific community. Dominance refers quite frequently to:

  • A)The privileged role of one or many individuals (reproduction, queen bee in a group of insect), with or without open aggressiveness toward the rest of the group (Dawkins 1976)
  • B) The aggressiveness of individuals (Johnson, 1998)
  • C) The social “attributes” that makes a dominant a winner beating the random odds in any combat (Jameson, 1999)

These conceptions consider that dominance is a kind of individual attribute. Others, still focusing on agonistic behaviors, maintain that dominance is a relative measure, an attribute of dyadic encounters rather than an individual attribute. Among these definitions, it is stated that dominance hierarchy is shaped on the basis of a social dynamic process. The “Winner/Loser conditional effect” is used to describe evolution of dyadic encounters as a function of the previous one.

  • D) Dominance ranks are established through combat that resemble contest leading to “finales”. Each dyad compete each other several times triggering the decisive effect. Robin round or contest method (Chase 2002).
  • E) Or, on the contrary, dominance is achieved without aggressiveness in peaceful encounter in which conflicts are solved by submissive attitude resulting from a single decisive combat. (Hsu, 1999)

The definition of Schjelderupp-Hebbe must be enriched because dominance statuses are established not only through agonizing competition but also in a natural and historical environment (territory, social context, seasons, and history of relationship between participants…).

  • F) One individual prevail on another one in all types of conflict. Dominance is thus characterized by asymmetry in a series of encounters of any kind
  • G) Or, on the contrary, one individual prevail on another one in a determined context. This means that dominance relationships are established for each competitive context.
  • H) Some individuals have a preferred access to resources which can be obtained with or without combat. (Aron, 2000)

In all cases, there is an agreement among authors to assert that that dominance needs to be distinguished from leadership or control. In Macaques, females can control some male behaviors in some decisions like direction of moves. They can even dominate the males (Silk, 1999).

In our study of Lypophrys pholis captive fished, we were trying to see if a societal cognition can be spotted at this first level of complexity in vertebrates (Bsahy 2001). We applied the definition method (Beaugrand, 1984) which helped us to extrapolate the existence of a dominance hierarchy in Lypophrys pholis group from the analysis of the rank evolution of the males. The rank is linked to their access priority to female (the frequency of egg-laying, its distribution across males…). We wanted to challenge the current thinking (Almada, 2000) according to which the behavior in Lipophrys pholis is only determined by physical parameters (Size, weigh, location) rather than by a an organization defined as a dynamical evolution of the social dominance hierarchy (Roussel, 2003)


In social sciences, inter-individual behaviors within a community can be characterized as social, and not only collective, because they depend on institutions like laws, rules, norms, values (Ethical, aesthetical, political) or taboos like incest prohibition. These constraints in human society are valid for all individuals living within the community, except norms and values which depend on the social classes. Whatever the circumstances, they apply and everybody is aware of them. They are objectified. These factors make it possible to qualify such constraint as social in human.

In an animal group, individual behaviors do not depend on such factors. Individuals know the existence and the activity of other individuals but they are determined by an empirical form of “societal cognition”: the dominance hierarchy constraint. The essential topic addressed in ethological study is to know whether animals involved in hierarchical relationship with other members of the group are aware of these relations, and to which intentionality extent…

Zodiac Mindwarp / Prime mover
Sex Fuhrer Baby I’m A Love Dictator
Blitzkrieg Romance I’m A Cool Dominator
I’m a the prime, Prime Mover
Baby You’re mine
I’m The Groover

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