Comment & Analysis: In a presentation I gave at the Cycling & Society symposium at Trinity College Dublin on 7 September 2023 I did something unusual. I inserted a blank slide in the place where presenters would often discuss possible solutions or applications of what they just presented. The text that went with that slide was:
This is the place where usually you discuss solutions, and I’m sorry but I don’t have any. Social Dominance Theory is bleak and pessimistic. Sidanius and Pratto argued that it has never in recorded history been successfully challenged. We do have a chance on our roads because we can shape the environment, but we will need to shape it to protect the vulnerable, not from deliberate malice but from a dynamic that is as powerful as a river in flood and affects our thoughts and actions whether we like it or not. We should be aware that asking people nicely to not speed and to share what everything else around us screams is rightfully theirs is not going to work.
A week later someone who had attended the presentation asked me about this blank slide, and what it meant. Was I just being coy?
In the moment it was difficult to really get into it, and I also had to go look up the exact definition of “coy” to make sure I understood it correctly. Even after thirty years of English being my first language, I still double-check at times as it is not my mother tongue. The conversation bothered me since, and I am privileged to be able to revisit it here for anyone else who may be wondering the same thing.
I was not being coy, no. I meant it when I said Social Dominance Theory is not something you want to get into for inspiration and joy. Where it exists, it cannot be extinguished. I reiterate that the way forward lies not in trying to change the dynamics, but in being aware of them and acting accordingly.
We need to understand that we’re not going to make a dent in the way this river of social forces flows by asking it to change course. We have a wonderful chance, though, in the context of the road network, because we can shape the actual physical environment to combat the tendencies we know people are pushed towards by these forces.
As with so much of sociology and social psychology, the heart of Social Dominance is power. There are few other situations where the imbalance of power is as profound as it is between a person encased in a motorised vehicle and a person using a bicycle or simply walking on a road (in this context everything from the outer edge of the footpath to the outer edge of the footpath opposite).
Don’t misunderstand me: I am not saying that all drivers will inevitably be anti-cyclist, not at all. Being a member of a dominant group does not automatically make you the worst of it. These situations are very complex and messy, but a comparison may make it clearer.
Not all men are sexist, but even men who consciously and actively resist sexism are advantaged by the widespread sexism that exists almost everywhere, while all women are inevitably and unavoidably disadvantaged by it. The management of a large corporation cannot change this, even if they try. However, management can implement systems to combat the effects of sexism.
A good example is when screens started being used to conceal the identity and gender of musicians auditioning for orchestras. Those with the power to take action on the gender imbalance in orchestras did not try the impossible task of selecting judges truly unbiased by the appearance of the musician. They didn’t waste tons of money on trying to train a social tendency as strong as a river in flood out of the judges. They didn’t ask the judges nicely to not be affected by gender bias. They recognised that no matter who we are, no matter how hard we try, no matter how well-intentioned we are, these forces are almost guaranteed to affect us.
They therefore changed the physical structure to control for this influence by concealing the candidate with a screen so that their characteristics were unknown and therefore could not affect the judges’ decisions. It worked: The proportion of female musicians in these orchestras increased once this practice was put in place.
There is no way to change the stark power imbalance between people driving and people cycling, to make the plain physics of that difference not exist. There is also no way to extinguish all the cultural elements that affect people’s experience on the road. We need to stop spending money and energy trying to change these unchangeable.
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Instead, we need to accept that this is the reality and build or retrofit roads to take it into account. A segregated cycle track is an example of this: It recognises and accepts that the vulnerable shouldn’t be mixed with the relatively invulnerable, and keeps them safe by keeping them separate. This is not a course of action that implies all drivers are hostile, it is a course of action that recognises the power imbalance and the general flow of the stream of reality towards unawareness or deprioritisation of the needs of the vulnerable.
Asking drivers to please share the road is an example of trying to change the unchangeable. The belief that roads are the rightful territory of drivers to do with as they please, can and should be combated by regulating car advertising. However, even if that could be achieved it would not be enough on its own.
In my opinion, the answer lies in design, in the tarmac and concrete shape of the roads we are all supposed to share. There may be some value in also recognising the role of Social Dominance in resistance and hostility to proposed infrastructure changes aimed to make better provision for vulnerable road users, and using that knowledge to add to the toolbox of those managing communication around these projects.
I could go on (and I do, in an entire thesis), but hopefully, this expansion on my blank slide clarifies that I meant exactly what I said.
Nadia Williams is a PhD candidate investigating the role of social dynamics in cycling uptake and safety. Her day job is related to active travel infrastructure. She lives in Cavan with her husband, dog, and four cats.