In simple terms, cultural hegemony refers to the way in which the powerful shape a society’s norms, values, and other institutions, and how that particular shaping becomes accepted as default, natural, perpetual, and inevitable. That is, people tend to regard the way we currently run things in society as the only way to run things in society. Instead of regarding our background systems as just one set of institutions among thousands of possibilities, people appear to think of them as default constants.
One consequence of cultural hegemony is that when people think about changing things, they only think about how they can make change within the parameters of the existing institutions. That is, they rarely think about changing the fundamental systems that structure our society; they only think about making changes within the confines that those systems have established.
A fantastic example of this comes from the hit Lifetime television show Dance Moms. For the unfamiliar, Dance Moms is a reality show that films a team of young dancers who enter into dance competitions. The star of the show is Abby Lee Miller, the eccentric, brutal, and apparently sadistic coach of the young dance team. Early in season one of this show, Abby introduces The Pyramid, which ranks the girls on the dance team. These rankings are changed episode to episode, ostensibly to track changes in the dancers’ relative abilities, but sometimes the changes are arbitrary or punitive measures used to strike out at the mothers of the dancers.
When The Pyramid was first introduced, the dance moms objected to it outright. This was not an institution they wanted to come into existence for obvious reasons: it pits their kids against each other and every week’s change in rankings psychologically harms those who are given bad spots. So for a brief period, they could imagine a world without a rankings pyramid, and they wanted to make a fundamental change to eliminate The Pyramid altogether.
After maybe 6-7 weeks, the mothers stopped grieving about The Pyramid itself, and began exclusively grieving about their kids’ spots on the pyramid. The change they now sought was not a structural change, but one within the confines of the pyramid system. They wanted their kids to be higher on The Pyramid and for The Pyramid to be controlled by fairer standards. They had seemingly erased from their minds the possibility of a world without The Pyramid. And since The Pyramid must exist, the only changes possible are altering positions and pyramid administration.
At one point in the series, a new dance mother and her kid join the studio. That mother, having not yet internalized The Pyramid as a necessary feature of reality, complained about The Pyramid itself, something the other parents had stopped doing. The other mothers then recalled a time when they too could imagine a world without The Pyramid, and remarked that they wished that was the world they lived in. But that world was now regarded as somehow beyond reach. All they were left to do then was fight for change within The Pyramid, and that’s what they have done.
That’s cultural hegemony in a nutshell really. Instead of looking beyond the system you find yourself in, you accept it as somehow constant and perpetual. Having assumed it fixed and unchangeable, if you think about change at all, it is only within the narrow confines that the system allows.
For a real life example, consider the way we think about poverty reduction in the US. Income inequality is, after all, a kind of socially constructed pyramid. Instead of rejecting our system of economic distribution that leaves so many in poverty, we assume that it has to stay. Therefore, the only thing we can hope to do is make other kinds of changes that might reduce poverty without altering our present system of income distribution. For the most part, that has led people to advocate cramming more kids through college and a number of education reform gimmicks. Putting aside the fact that those solutions don’t work, it is also important to recognize why minds fixate on education instead of fundamentally altering our background system of income distribution. I think the culprit is cultural hegemony.