Hegemony is supremely relevant to our students’ lives, it’s central to almost everything sociology has to teach them, and yet it is extremely hard to explain simply. Asking students to understand and recognize hegemony is like asking a fish to understand and recognize the water that surrounds it. Hegemony works precisely because it goes unnamed and largely unseen. How do you teach students to see the invisible?
Hegemony, as Gramsci defined it, is a very complex concept. The first step to helping your students grasp the concept is to define it much more narrowly. I define hegemony in my classes as the ways those in power use their power to control public perception in a way that ensures they will stay in power. Drat. Even that is not too clear cut. Here is an even simpler one: Hegemony is the way rich people get poor people to think and behave in a way that will keep the rich rich and the poor poor.
Thankfully, I have a metaphor that I use in my class that helps my students jump on board the hegemony express.
The Titanic Metaphor:
The sinking Titanic provides a great metaphor for hegemony. Many students have seen the movie and are well aware that many of the less affluent people on the bottom decks of the ship were unable to get off the ship and drowned. In the movie the ships crew seals a door shut to prevent the less fortunate passengers from making it to the top deck, thus ensuring the rich easier access to the lifeboats. This is a powerful metaphor for social stratification and competition for scarce resources.
I ask my students to then imagine what if the people on the lower decks of the Titanic decided that it was in their best interest to seal the doors on themselves, sit, and patiently wait for death. I tell them that if the people on the lower decks had been convinced by the people on the top decks that it was in their best interest to do this, this would be hegemonic.
When talking about any form of inequality or exploitation my students always seem to assume that I am talking about some other unfortunate group of people. Indeed many of my students do come from privileged backgrounds, but all of them have been exploited by those with more privilege and advantage than they have. To help show them what I am talking about I show them the chart below*:
I ask my students, “Why do you have to take the SAT if the test is basically a test of your families income?” I ask my students to tell me what the SAT is supposed to be testing and many are quick to say intelligence or ability to be successful in college. Then I ask my students to write on a piece of paper how the SAT is a form of hegemony. Students can easily see how the SAT is used to hide privilege and convince students of lower socioeconomic classes that they are not smart or not worthy of competing for a spot at Harvard or Berkeley. The SAT is the rationale that is used to get the lower classes to sit down and not compete for the educational opportunities on the top deck.
When students assume they are not the exploited that is a example of the very hegemony that I try to teach them about. It’s hegemonic when the students who suffer from inequality are convinced that they are the benefactor of that inequality.
*Chart was taken from an amazing article by Gregory Mantsios called Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study, Eighth edition