Colloquium: "On Domination and Subordination"

Lori Watson (WashU)

Abstract: If one consults the mainstream, contemporary political philosophy literature for an account of domination, (neo)republican conceptions serve as a kind of default understanding of what domination is.  According to such republicans, domination consists in the capacity some persons have to exercise arbitrary power over others.[1]  As such, it is characterized as a power to invade or usurp the will of another, and as an invasion of the freedom of choice of the dominated.[2]  This conception has a strong lineage, finding its roots in Machiavelli and Florentine republicanism, and appearing in various forms in the works of Montesquieu, the American Founders (Madison and Hamilton, e.g.).[3]


An alternative conception of domination is a play in less mainstream, though no less important, political theory. The second conception is not systematically theorized in an analogous, unified literature.  The conception I have in mind is found in the work of feminists, critical race theorists, decolonial theory, disability studies, gender and sexuality studies, to name a few disciplinary approaches.[4]  Scholars in each of these respective fields aim to document, excavate, and theorize the concrete ways in which members of socially subordinated groups lack power.  And, as such, they describe patterns of domination, such as of “male domination,” “racialized domination,” “heterosexism,” “ableism,” and so on.[5]  The conception of domination underlying these analyses entails power relations that are broader and more diffuse than the power of arbitrary interference in the choices of others.[6]


This paper aims to defend a general conception of domination that is an alternative to republican theories and grounds the analysis of group-based domination in the theoretical work just mentioned.  That conception is: Domination the enforcement of inferiority. Subordination is assigned inferiority. 


[1] Lovett, Frank. A General Theory of Domination & Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), Pettit, Philip. Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)

[2] Pettit, Philip. On the People’s Terms: A Republican Theory and Model of Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 58

[3] Pettit, p. 7.


[5] Examples include, MacKinnon, Charles Mills, Franz Fanon, Elizabeth Barnes…

[6] Pettit 50