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When dealing with the analysis of power relations in the Americas, hegemony is one of the most frequently-employed concepts. Nevertheless, its popularity obscures the fact that there is no consensus on what hegemony actually stands for. Its application to a large variety of areas and contexts on both the micro- and macro-level goes with diverging perceptions concerning the actors and resources, the relation between consent and coercion, as well as spatial and temporal dimensions. For instance, hegemony refers to such different issues like the predominance of one state upon others, class rule, the subordination of women or the constitution of subjects or identities. Differences also arise from the fact that the term is used by critical as well as conservative ideological strands. In the following, some major debates since the post-war period are traced back in order to illustrate central understandings of hegemony in both North- and South-America.

In the context of the Cold War, hegemony acquired popularity amongst U.S. American and Canadian scholars of international relations studies. From a conservative point of view, debates centred on the so called hegemonic stability theory, claiming that the hegemony of one powerful state over others had desirable outcomes for all states (Kindleberger 1973). In this version, hegemony referred to the benevolent leadership of one state, based on the necessary resources and will to provide public goods like peacekeeping, economic stability and free trade on an international scale. From a slightly different perspective, (neo)realist scholars defined hegemony as leadership through political and military control (cf. Gilpin 1981/1999). Both versions are based on the assumption that the interstate system is anarchic in character. Because of each state pursuing its own interests and searching for domination over others, the existence of one powerful, hegemonic state would be the only way to establish and maintain order on an international scale. This hypothesis in turn was disputed by neoliberal institutionalism, which claimed that international institutional arrangements and therefore cooperation between states could function as a substitute for the hegemony of one state over the others (c.f. Keohane 1984). Despite differences regarding its coercive or consensual content, the perspectives mentioned before traced hegemony back to access on resources and / or economic performance. On a theoretical level, they reflected the growing economic problems of the U.S. since the late 1960s. In this context, especially (neo)realist approaches adopted a normative position regarding the geopolitical role of the U.S., defending foreign policy aimed at ensuring the country’s supremacy.

From a critical point of view, these positions were refuted by Robert Cox and the neogramscian school. Mainstream usage of the term hegemony was criticised as referring to mere dominance of one country over others or as being a euphemistic expression for imperialism (Cox 1983/1993). Drawing on the work of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, neogramscian scholars defined hegemony as a world order based on consent rather than coercion. Moreover, they objected the one-sided focus on states as the central actors of hegemonic struggles, pointing at the underlying social relations. As for them, states have to be considered as state-civil society complexes where social groups and classes are the main actors of hegemonic struggles. Although Cox and the neogramscian school developed a more sophisticated understanding of north-south relations than other perspectives, their work, too, has hardly been acknowledged in the south. Latin American scholars in general have had little influence on international relations studies. As an exception to this rule, world systems analysis has proliferated to a greater extent both in the north and the south, due to its roots in dependency theories and the direct contribution of Latin American scholars. As for Wallerstein (1983), hegemony refers to the supremacy of a powerful state. Its ability to impose interests in the economic, political, military, diplomatic and cultural arenas goes along with the exploitation of semi-peripheral and peripheral countries. Arrighi (1994), in contrast, placed more emphasis on the consensual dimension of hegemonic relations, arguing that hegemony had to include measures which at least partially benefit other states. Both perspectives, however, join the widely spread state-centrism in international relations studies, without elaborating a more sophisticated theoretical comprehension of the state itself. As a consequence, hegemonic rise or decline tends to be explained as a mechanical or even economic matter by simply referring to disposal over military or economic resources (Hübner 1990).

While the debates on hegemony in the north centred predominantly on the rise or decline of U.S. supremacy, the discussions in Latin America took a different direction. Although in general usage the term often stands for U.S. regional dominance or imperialism, hegemony has rather been used out of a politico-sociological perspective in order to analyse relations of force on a national scale. This understanding basically referred to Antonio Gramsci and was adopted especially by heterodox leftist groups and parties (c.f. Aricó 2005). In a sense, the increased application of the notion reflected the growing divisions within the Latin American left. Both the Cuban Revolution and newly-emerged social movements related to democratization processes questioned the role of a narrowly-defined proletariat as the central revolutionary subject, one of the cornerstones of the traditional communist parties. In the following struggle against Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, Gramsci and his concept of hegemony were major points of reference. Gramscian hegemony was believed to provide an alternative revolutionary model, regarding revolution not as the literal assault on the winter palace but rather as a process termed a war of position. From this perspective, the revolutionary subjects could no longer be derived only from their position in the relations of production but were believed to constitute themselves in the hegemonic struggles (Laclau 1998). The refusal of proletarian essentialism allowed the new social movements to be ascribed a revolutionary character, bridging the gap between socialism and democracy (Riz, Ípola 1998). The direction of these debates already indicated the subsequent poststructuralist and often post-marxist curve, which linked hegemony to the fields of cultural studies, discourse analysis and feminism (c.f. Butler, Laclau, Žižek 2000). Scholars of these strands employ hegemony in order to analyse the way in which power influences people’s perceptions and approvals of social relations in their everyday lives. On a micro-sociological level, they use it to refer to questions of language and culture or the constitution of subjects and identities, problems which Gramsci had already outlined in his notion of common sense.

Stefan Pimmer

Please cite as:
Pimmer, Stefan. 2012. “Hegemony.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives.


Aricó, José. 2005. La cola del diablo. Itinerario de Gramsci en América Latina. Buenos Aires: Siglo veintiuno.

Arrighi, Giovanni. 1994. The Long Twentieth Century. Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times. London: Verso.

Butler, Judith / Laclau, Ernesto / Žižek, Slavoj, (Ed.) 2000. Contingency, Hegemony, Universality. Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. London et al.: Verso.

Cox, Robert. 1983 / 1993. "Gramsci, Hegemony and International Relations: An Essay in Method." In: Gill, Steven (Ed.) Gramsci, Historical Materialism and International Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 49-66.

Gilpin, Robert. 1981/1999. War and Change in World Politics. Cambridge et al.: Cambridge University Press.

Hübner, Kurt. 1990. “Wer Macht hat, kann sich alles erlauben!” Anmerkungen zu den Konzepten Hegemonie – Dominanz – Macht – Kooperation in der globalen Ökonomie. In: Prokla, Vol. 81, Nr. 4, pp. 66-90.

Keohane, Robert. 1984. After Hegemony. Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kindleberger, Charles. 1973. The World in Depression. 1929-1939. London: Lane.

Laclau, Ernesto. 1998. "Tesis acerca de la forma hegemónica de la política." In: Labastida Martín del Campo, Julio (Ed). Hegemonía y alternativas políticas en América Latina. Mexico City: Siglo veintiuno, pp. 19-44.

Riz, Liliana de / Ípola, Emilio de. 1998. "Acerca de la hegemonía como producción histórica." In: Labastida Martín del Campo, Julio (Ed.): Hegemonía y alternativas políticas en América Latina. Mexico City.: Siglo veintiuno, pp. 45-70.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1983. "The Three Instances of Hegemony in the History of the Capitalist World-Economy." In: International Journal of Comparative Sociology, Vol. 24, 1-2, pp. 100-108.

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