What Is Cultural Hegemony?

A girl chases a dollar sign through a field, symbolizing the way we are socialized to pursue economic success within the rules and norms of the system, an example of how cultural hegemony works.
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Cultural hegemony refers to domination or rule maintained through ideological or cultural means. It is usually achieved though social institutions, which allow those in power to strongly influence the values, norms, ideas, expectations, worldview, and behavior of the rest of society.

Cultural hegemony functions by framing the worldview of the ruling class, and the social and economic structures that embody it, as just, legitimate, and designed for the benefit of all, even though these structures may only benefit the ruling class. This kind of power is distinct from rule by force, as in a military dictatorship, because it allows the ruling class to exercise authority using the "peaceful" means of ideology and culture.

Cultural Hegemony According to Antonio Gramsci

The Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci developed the concept of cultural hegemony out of Karl Marx’s theory that the dominant ideology of society reflects the beliefs and interests of the ruling class. Gramsci argued that consent to the rule of the dominant group is achieved by the spread of ideologies—beliefs, assumptions, and values—through social institutions such as schools, churches, courts, and the media, among others. These institutions do the work of socializing people into the norms, values, and beliefs of the dominant social group. As such, the group that controls these institutions controls the rest of society.

Cultural hegemony is most strongly manifested when those ruled by the dominant group come to believe that the economic and social conditions of their society are natural and inevitable, rather than created by people with a vested interest in particular social, economic, and political orders.

Gramsci developed the concept of cultural hegemony in an effort to explain why the worker-led revolution that Marx predicted in the previous century had not come to pass. Central to Marx’s theory of capitalism was the belief that the destruction of this economic system was built into the system itself since capitalism is premised on the exploitation of the working class by the ruling class. Marx reasoned that workers could only take so much economic exploitation before they would rise up and overthrow the ruling class. However, this revolution did not happen on a mass scale.

The Cultural Power of Ideology

Gramsci realized that there was more to the dominance of capitalism than the class structure and its exploitation of workers. Marx had recognized the important role that ideology played in reproducing the economic system and the social structure that supported it, but Gramsci believed that Marx had not given enough credit to the power of ideology. In his essay “The Intellectuals,” written between 1929 and 1935, Gramsci described the power of ideology to reproduce the social structure through institutions such as religion and education. He argued that society's intellectuals, often viewed as detached observers of social life, are actually embedded in a privileged social class and enjoy great prestige. As such, they function as the “deputies” of the ruling class, teaching and encouraging people to follow the norms and rules established by the ruling class.

Gramsci elaborated on the role the education system plays in the process of achieving rule by consent, or cultural hegemony, in his essay “On Education.”

The Political Power of Common Sense

In “The Study of Philosophy,” Gramsci discussed the role of “common sense”—dominant ideas about society and about our place in it—in producing cultural hegemony. For example, the idea of “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps,” the idea that one can succeed economically if one just tries hard enough, is a form of "common sense" that has flourished under capitalism, and that serves to justify the system. In other words, if one believes that all it takes to succeed is hard work and dedication, then it follows that the system of capitalism and the social structure that is organized around it is just and valid. It also follows that those who have succeeded economically have earned their wealth in a just and fair manner and that those who struggle economically, in turn, deserve their impoverished state. This form of "common sense" fosters the belief that success and social mobility are strictly the responsibility of the individual, and in doing so obscures the real class, racial, and gender inequalities that are built into the capitalist system.

In sum, cultural hegemony, or our tacit agreement with the way that things are, is a result of socialization, our experiences with social institutions, and our exposure to cultural narratives and imagery, all of which reflect the beliefs and values of the ruling class.