Black feminism

The Matrix of Domination and the Four Domains of Power

Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins coined the concept matrix of domination in her book Black Feminist Thought to describe four interrelated domains organize power relations in society. This approach to an analysis of power informs us about how structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal domains of power shape human action.

According to Collins, these four interrelated domains of power serve different purposes in relation to maintaining the status quo. In this blog post, I summarize these four domains of power based on the chapter in Black Feminist Thought titled “Toward a Politics of Empowerment.”

The Structural Domain of Power

The structural domain of power in the matrix of domination organizes oppression in society. Collins argues that the organization of interlocking, large-scale social institutions reproduce the subordination of Black women. For example, residential segregation prevents most Black women in the United States from having access from certain educational and job opportunities. I myself had to travel about an hour each way from my predominately Black suburban neighborhood to a predominately white Magnet program in suburban Atlanta from the time I was eight years old until I graduated high school.

Collins suggests that the way to empower Black women through the structural domain of power involves transforming social institutions. One way to go about this involves dispensing with colorblind or gender-neutral rhetoric and instead of acknowledging how social systems impart different outcomes depending on one’s social status.

The Disciplinary Domain of Power

The disciplinary domain of power manages oppression. The organizational practices of social institutions manage power relations and control certain subpopulations. Collins notes that social policies and rulings determined by government bureaucracies and surveillance technologies shape the modern social organization. For example, Black women academics who embrace Black feminist thought might find themselves relegated to the academy and subject to monitoring of their radical potential.

To empower Black women within this domain, resistance to such practices must come from within the organization itself.

The Hegemonic Domain of Power

Hegemony refers to the system of ideas developed by a dominant group that justifies their practices. Collins writes that in this domain of power old ideas that uphold the system get refashioned as society changes over time. Through ideology, culture, and consciousness, the beliefs of the dominant group get normalized as common sense ideas that support their position. Additionally, many members of subordinated groups might endorse these ideas as well. 

Social institutions that perpetuate these ideologies include schools, churches, community organizations, families, and mass media. These social institutions shape consciousness through the manipulation of ideas, symbols, and images of various social groups. After the Civil War, for example, the characterization of Black men as hypersexual brutes seeking to rape white women justified the lynching of countless Black men.

Empowerment within the hegemonic domain of power comes through choosing self-definition over societal definitions about one’s personhood.  For Black women, this means generating ideas that inspire disbelief in racist and sexist ideologies about Black womanhood. Furthermore, they have to develop a dynamic, critical consciousness that unpacks hegemonic ideologies and constructs new knowledge about what Black womanhood means.

The Interpersonal Domain of Power

The interpersonal domain of power in the matrix of domination affects all of us in everyday life. This domain of power refers to how our individual consciousness perpetuates the subordination of others. Collins states that through routinized daily practices of interaction at the microlevel of social organization, individuals uphold the subordination of others.

Empowerment in this domain looks like taking conscious actions to change everyday relationships. According to Collins, this looks like adopting a point of view that embraces a sociological imagination that empowers individuals rather than using one’s knowledge to exploit, commodify, or objectify members of marginalized groups.

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