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What is hegemonic discourse?

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I concur with the other answer: it is well said.

In a nutshell, a hegemonic discourse is the story that the ruling class tells. It justifies their power. It says they deserve their wealth. In anthropology, it might be a story in which European powers are doing "primitive" people a favor by taking over their territory, converting them to Christianity, and forcing them to toil in mines or factories. A hegemonic discourse might also justify not paying them properly by saying "primitive" people don't need much money or would be "corrupted" by it. Gramsci talks about a hegemonic discourse in which coal mine owners in Sicily refused to give the workers Sundays off—working them seven days a week—because, supposedly, the workers would only get drunk on their day off. This discourse did not mention that the owners would make less money if the workers got a day of rest and relaxation.

Of course, Western society is not the only one to develop hegemonic discourses. Despite our tendency to idealize them, indigenous peoples also developed stories that kept one group down in order to benefit another.

Connected to hegemonic discourses is ideology. An ideology is the set of beliefs that a society accepts as true and normal. In Marxism, the word "ideology" means a false consciousness. Ideology is the false story the ruling class concocts to explain its wealth and power. Often ruling class ideology insists that the social order cannot change: it must be the way it is.

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In order to understand what hegemonic discourse is, you first have to understand the term "hegemony."  This is a term that is typically used by people who are influenced by Marxist ideas.

Marx (and others like Gramsci) believed that the dominant classes in a society have many ways to keep the other classes and groups down.  The best of these is hegemony.  Hegemony is a means of maintaining social order without using force.  If hegemony is achieved, the oppressed classes obey the dominant classes not because they are forced to, but because they believe that it is right to do so.  In this way, the oppressed classes "participate in their own oppression" because they believe that they deserve to have less power than the dominant classes.

Hegemonic discourse, then, is a way of talking about things that supports hegemony and makes it seem as if the current social order is inevitable and natural.  In the context of anthropology of development, a hegemonic discourse would be one that makes it sound as if the developed nations inevitably and naturally should be on top and that any development in other parts of the world must proceed along lines that are acceptable to the developed world.

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