“Dominator” vs. “partnership” cultures: A profound re-telling of human history

February 10, 2015

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This article was first published on refinethemind.com and is republished here with permission from the author, Jordan Bates

“In sum, the struggle for our future is . . . the struggle between those who cling to patterns of domination and those working for a more equitable partnership world.”
— Riane Eisler tweet

Recently, I’ve written a couple of essays about the present global situation. One of those essays focused on the sociocultural dysfunctions of America and the other elaborated how the 500-year history of Western colonialism and imperialism that birthed our modern world has rendered the “problems of America” inextricable from the problems of the human race.

I consider myself a collector of lenses—mental models I can employ at any time to make sense of the world and my place in it. Yesterday I happened to remember one such lens—a truly remarkable one, I think—that I overlooked in the aforementioned essays. Nonetheless, this lens seems to me a kind of keystone that further contextualizes and reinforces my arguments in those essays and has tremendous implications for the predicament we face in the present historical moment.

A story of “dominator” and “partnership” cultures

Riane Eisler, a world-renowned Austrian-born American systems scientist, writer, and social activist, has proposed that we ought to understand human cultures and societies in terms of two fundamental categories: “dominator” and “partnership.” In her landmark work, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, our Future, she suggests that our conventional social categories—religious vs. secular, right vs. left, capitalist vs. communist, Eastern vs. Western, and industrial vs. pre- or post-industrial, etc.—are insufficient to describe the whole of a society’s values, beliefs, and institutions.

Eisler argues that these categories overlook the fact that, historically, many societies in all of the aforementioned categories have been unequal and violent, whereas some societies—the majority of which existed millennia ago—have been much more equalitarian and peaceful. Eisler points out that we lack a frame of analysis that encompasses the differences between these latter societies/cultures and the vast majority of societies/cultures that are prevalent today. Thus Eisler turns to the historical and archaeological record to argue that throughout human history, sociocultural systems have existed on a continuum between the extremes of “dominator” and “partnership” systems. A couple of passages from her website seem a worthy starting point for understanding the definitions and profound implications of these categories:

In the domination system, somebody has to be on top and somebody has to be on the bottom. People learn, starting in early childhood, to obey orders without question. They learn to carry a harsh voice in their heads telling them they’re no good, they don’t deserve love, they need to be punished. Families and societies are based on control that is explicitly or implicitly backed up by guilt, fear, and force. The world is divided into in-groups and out-groups, with those who are different seen as enemies to be conquered or destroyed.

In contrast, the partnership system supports mutually respectful and caring relations. Because there is no need to maintain rigid rankings of control, there is also no built-in need for abuse and violence. Partnership relations free our innate capacity to feel joy, to play. They enable us to grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. This is true for individuals, families, and whole societies. Conflict is an opportunity to learn and to be creative, and power is exercised in ways that empower rather than disempower others.

I’m guessing that you, like me, see your own society reflected in the description of the dominator system. Most societies existing today are paternalistic, disciplinarian, materialistic, and hierarchy-based. Judgment from peers, guilt over one’s actions, the threat of force, and fear of alienation or punishment are among the primary dictators of most people’s behavior. Groups of people are labeled, marginalized, and discriminated against based on surface-level characteristics.

Many people tend to believe that these sociocultural norms are simply an expression of “human nature” or just “how life is.” Eisler is offering an astonishing and radically different narrative. She’s turned to history, archaeology, anthropology, mythology, and other fields to conduct cross-cultural comparisons and argues convincingly that for the majority of the last ~37,000 years, humans lived primarily in partnership societies, in a global partnership culture—a state of affairs nearly unimaginable today.

For approximately 30,000 years, Eisler argues, partnership was the norm. She points tonumerous societies across continents and throughout (pre-)history that appear to have been devoid of inequality in social relations and without war for many centuries at a time. These societies seem to have cherished the force that gives, rather than takes, life and worshipped the “Great Goddess,” a feminine deity representing fertility, nourishment, and the miracle of creation.

In part because of this recognition of the life-giving feminine, it seems that neither men nor women were considered superior or inferior to one another in these societies. Eisler holds that this most fundamental relationship—between man and woman—formed the basis for all other relationships and institutions in these societies, and thus that people were “linked” by their differences rather than considered “above” or “below” one another. Eisler argues that these various societies were representative of a many-millennia-spanning global trend toward partnership culture.

Rise of the dominator

Around 5000 BC, though, a new model of social organization began to, well, dominate. In anexceptional article on Vice (highly recommended for further study of this topic) regarding Eisler’s work, Tao Lin explains Eisler’s findings:

“It wasn’t until ~5000 BC that the dominator model appeared in the form of “nomadic bands” from peripheral areas that attacked the preexisting civilizations, which were all partnership societies. Defense mechanisms like trenches and ramparts—previously nonexistent—gradually appeared. ‘These repeated incursions and ensuing culture shocks and population shifts were concentrated in three major thrusts,’ wrote Eisler, calling these ‘Wave No. 1′ (4300-4200 BC), ‘Wave No. 2′ (3400-3200 BC), and ‘Wave No. 3′ (3000-2900 BC). ‘At the core of the invaders’ system was the placing of higher value on the power that takes, rather than gives, life,’ observed Eisler. As the dominators conquered, they also began to suppress the old way of living, which meant suppressing worship of the Goddess, which meant the marginalization of women in general. The Goddess, and women, Eisler claimed, ‘were reduced to male consorts or concubines. Gradually male dominance, warfare, and the enslavement of women and of gentler, more ‘effeminate’ men became the norm.’” tweet

Eisler argues that cultures based on domination arose somewhat spontaneously, probably during a period of relative chaos. This period may have been caused by rising populations, scarcity of resources, natural disaster, or a number of other possibilities. Partnership societies, unprepared in terms of both attitude and technology, were naturally conquered, destroyed, and suppressed by dominator peoples/societies.

The cause of the rise of the dominator system is less important than its implications for the world that would develop over the next 7,000 years (and still exists today)—a world in which the partnership model has been all but forgotten, in which war has become the norm, in which women, poor people, various races/ethnicities, and numerous other groups have been systematically subjugated and oppressed, in which the very possibilities of human life have been greatly restricted by the idea that everyone must “know his place” and submit to authority, or else.

Though the historical dominators have tended to be male (and more recently, on the global stage, white), Eisler holds that her theory of dominator/partnership cultures is not ideology-, gender-, or race-specific. In essence, any human has the propensity to dominate other humans under certain conditions. For Terence McKenna, an American philosopher who praised Eisler’s work, this was an important point:

“I don’t see it as a male disease. I think everybody in this room has a far stronger ego than they need. The great thing that Riane Eisler, in her book The Chalice and the Blade, did for this discussion was to de-genderize the terminology. Instead of talking about patriarchy and all this, what we should be talking about is dominator versus partnership society.” tweet

McKenna, who famously coined the meme, “Culture is not your friend.,” also said this of Eisler’s work:

“Her position is that it is the tension between these two forms of social organization and the over-expression of the dominator model that is responsible for our alienation [from nature, from ourselves, and from each other]. I am in complete agreement with Eisler’s view.” tweet


Indeed, Eisler argues that the dominator model of social organization permeates all aspects of life and experience, causing inconceivable pain, repression, and alienation that we take to be normal aspects of the human experience. She asserts that the only way to remedy this situation is to devise social structures and belief systems based on partnership instead of domination:

“We know the pain, fear, and tension of relations based on coercion and accommodation, of jockeying for control, of trying to manipulate and cajole when we are unable to express our real feelings and needs, of the tug of war for that illusory moment of power rather than powerlessness, of our unfulfilled yearning for caring and mutuality, of all the misery, suffering, and lost lives and potentials that come from these kinds of relations. tweet

Most of us have also, at least intermittently, experienced another way of being, one where we feel safe and seen for who we truly are, where our essential humanity and that of others shines through, perhaps only for a little while, lifting our hearts and spirits, enfolding us in a sense that the world can after all be right, that we are valued and valuable. tweet

Our human yearning for caring connections, for peace rather than war, for equality rather than inequality, for freedom rather than oppression, can be seen as part of our genetic equipment. The degree to which this yearning can be realized is not a matter of changing our genes, but of building partnership social structures and beliefs.” tweet

For me, Eisler’s re-telling of history is marvelous and also deeply troubling. Ponder the implications of this work, and you’ll realize that the war, genocide, slavery, oppression, discrimination, and unbounded accumulation of material wealth that have characterized much of recorded history can be traced to this period ~7,000 years ago when the human race began to transition from partnership models of social organization to dominator models. That’s not to say that humans have ever been or could ever be totally non-violent—just that we could arguably be significantly more peaceful, free, and equal than we presently are.

Look around, and in every area of our societies—the family unit, the government, the military, the school system, religious institutions, business organizations—you will find hierarchy-based, authoritarian systems in which some people are considered to be “above” other people. Observe how people tend to interact with or talk about other people, and you will find gossip, judgment, belittling, and manipulation—constant leveraging for a fleeting sense of power and control. Think for a moment about how openly loving, caring for, and being kind to other people is often considered a sign of being “soft” or “weak,” whereas showing little affection, acting “macho,” and never needing another’s help or tenderness is glorified as the image of strength and heroism.

We are living on a planet in which the dominator model of social organization has become ubiquitous throughout most of the human race, shaping our fundamental assumptions about how to design institutions, how to act, and how to treat one another. This is a frightening and tragic situation that has driven our species to the brink of extinction and planetary destruction.

Thankfully, we seem to have managed at least temporarily to quell our urges to drop city-melting warheads on each other, and large-scale war may actually be disappearing. However, environmental catastrophes yet loom on the horizon, and, even if the disasters can be averted, who wants to live in a world where inequality, manipulation, conflict, exploitation, alienation, and violence are so commonplace that we often hardly notice them? Not this human.


We might be in luck, though. Eisler argues that the last three hundred years or so have seen a strong trend toward a re-discovery of partnership values, and that there may be hope for a kind of renaissance:

“The last three hundred years have seen a strong movement toward partnership. One tradition of domination after another has been challenged – from the rule of despotic kings and male dominance to economic oppression and child abuse. tweet

But this forward movement has been fiercely resisted, and punctuated by periodic regressions. That is the bad news. tweet

The good news is that we do not have to start from square one. Though we still have a long way to go, in bits and pieces the shift from domination to partnership is underway. tweet

There is also strong evidence from archeology and the study of myth that the original direction in the mainstream of our cultural evolution was in a partnership direction. So much that today may seem new and even radical, such as gender equality and a more peaceful way of life, has ancient roots going back thousands of years, before the cultural shift toward domination about 5000 years ago. tweet

During much of recorded history, rankings of domination – man over man, man over woman, race over race, nation over nation, and humans over nature – have been the norm. But in our time of nuclear and biological weapons and high technology in service of the once hallowed ‘conquest of nature,’ high technology guided by an ethos of domination could take us to an evolutionary dead end. tweet

In sum, the struggle for our future is not between East and West, North and South, religion or secularism, capitalism or socialism, but within all these. It is the struggle between those who cling to patterns of domination and those working for a more equitable partnership world. tweet

Each one of us can contribute to the partnership movement. We can change by example, education, and advocacy. We can shift our relations from domination to partnership – starting with our day-to-day relations all the way to how we relate to our mother earth.” tweet

If you pause and reflect, you’ll note that in a little over 150 years, the United States has seen the end of slavery, the attainment of suffrage for all citizens, legislated equality for all genders and races/ethnicities, major strides toward legislated equality for all sexual orientations, paradigm-shattering environmental initiatives, and major steps toward the legalization of cannabis and a saner drug policy generally. The Occupy Movements have challenged systemic economic and social inequality worldwide, and in many places ideas such as universal health care, free higher education, and a Standard Basic Income have been implemented or are taking hold. I take these facts to be indications that a renaissance of partnership values is presently occurring on this planet—that the human race has begun collectively to realize that it now faces an ultimatum: cooperate with each other and the planet, or self-destruct.

Pushing this movement forward begins with each of us—with the day-to-day, unglamorous decisions we can make to treat people as equals, to show respect and kindness, to try to imagine the lives of others, and to openly express and demonstrate love and affection. We can have candid, gentle conversations with others about these ideas. We can support humanitarian projects and political reforms that aim for a more equal, compassionate, open, sustainable society. We can create videos, blogs, music, social media content, and other art or projects that challenge the status quo and contain messages of love and togetherness. The Internet can help us and might just be the supreme tool for greatly accelerating this transition/renaissance. In these ways, we can continue to re-orient the collective human enterprise away from division, inequality, alienation, and domination toward unity, equality, openness, partnership, and love.

If this process is indeed occurring and will continue to occur, it will be a slow one. We shouldn’t conceive of it as something that will occur in our lifetime, but rather, as a revival that began centuries ago and will continue indefinitely into the future. We must think in terms of what one special professor I was privileged to work with calls the “long now”—a term referring to the long-term resonances, amplifications, and ripple effects that can result from the smaller-scale work we are able to do in this moment.

Rather than feeling discouraged by the timescale of this reclamation of partnership values, we ought to feel privileged to be living in the midst of such revolutionary changes, to be working to re-direct several thousand years of cultural momentum, to be contributing to monumental and exciting changes in the human enterprise. Signs abound that this renaissance in human thinking is happening and accelerating, and I for one feel that contributing to its potency and reach is about the most important thing any of us can do.

Note: This summary of Eisler’s work is necessarily reductive and incomplete. I tried to touch on the main premises of her argument, but I’ve hardly scratched the surface of her work. If this topic is of interest to you, I highly recommend further study. Start here:

• Partnership 101

• The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future (1988)

 About Jordan Bates:
Refine The Mind is a radically inclusive community for freethinkers of all flavors. Jordan Bates is the earthling, writer, artist, and activist who created this place. One more thing: he has a rapping alter ego named LOSTBOYEVSKY. Read the mission and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.  

3 thoughts on ““Dominator” vs. “partnership” cultures: A profound re-telling of human history”

  1. Juan says:

    Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest, an anthropological study of chimpanzees and early hunter-gatherer societies suggests a good evolutionary explanation for the human proclivities described above. A quick overview:

    Projecting back to the common ancestor that humans share with chimps, gorillas and bonobos, it is highly likely that this ancestor was predisposed to dominating behaviour. All descendants are inclined, to a greater or lesser extent, to hierarchical social structures, with those having the most power occupying the highest rungs of the social ladder. Typically, it is males who are physiologically more powerful, therefore, society is most likely to be male-dominated.

    Boehm’s suggestion for the emergence of altruism in humans is essentially that selection pressure did not favour ‘dominator’ types in early human society because the rank-and-file, making the cost-benefit analysis that parity is better than submission, were capable of killing off ‘dominator’ types. This dynamic was in force over a genetically significant period of time when humans were living as small hunter-gatherer societies.

    Moving away from hunter-gatherer societies towards sedentary, agrarian societies, people began to be installed in places where they have control over resources that people need. And we know where this goes.

    Boehm quite feasibly explains the mechanism behind the themes of domination/partnership in humans, but makes it clear that even in partnership, our main motivation was still domination – domination of ‘dominator’ types. It is perhaps not coincidental that Russell also converged on Power as his prime motivator.

    My hope is that in understanding the biological source of our motivations and behaviours, humanity can transcend them to do what is right.

    But what is ‘right’?

    1. Phebe Fletcher says:

      Domination is not the only social force that must be talked about. Our most powerful human affect is shame. Shame is a social regulator (Silvan Tompkins, Janina Fisher). It inhibits us so we don’t just walk into frays, it helps us reconsider or pause and regroup. It stops us in our tracks when something adverse and unexpected occurs; it protects life. It is part of the system of survival mechanisms of fight/flight/ freeze. Rather than the b&w, splitting dynamic of domination and its related dichotomies, shame is a limiter. Parents either use or over-use shaming to limit the behavior of young persons. Shame is only recently emerging into public discourse because it has such an averse charge in our memory banks. However, with the pioneering studies and writing of Silvan Tompkins starting in the middle of the last century, our tolerance and understanding of our most negative affective experience is growing. Since shame in essence has evolved to preserve life, I see our hope lies in modulating our use of shame to support life and not unduly overwhelm and undermine it and our developing capacities. Especially in this era of neuroplasiticity, with its understanding that we can grow and change through our entire life span. The more we overcome our reticence to communicate (in part due to our shame), the more we can explain, soothe, and repair misunderstandings and impasses. It’s not so much what happens, as the repair that counts.

  2. denise ward says:

    I like the concept of describing culture as dominator or partnership culture. However it is not the same between the genders. There is no evidence showing that matriarchy would be a dominator culture and no evidence provided about this because Eisner’s stance is that there is no difference and that is absolutely incorrect. Though women comply with male domination, the tepid solutions cited, that of essentially just being nicer to each other, would be best served by women because if we look at who does the most caring, it is by far women. And who does the most killing is men. You just can’t get away from that and we need to identify fact from preferential thinking. Perhaps Eisner’s book gets attention because she blurs those facts (or doesn’t mention them) and instead tries to make her conjecture more “palatable” which is a thing women tend to do in order to not harm feelings. But what are the solutions she puts forward? It seems like there are none other than be nice to each other! There is no suggestion of the underlying causes of dominator culture and its perpetuation into modern times. And to leave that one off reveals a bit of mischievousness since her work is so in-depth. The source of the dominator culture is money – an arbitrary slavery system that is built right into the culture and permeates every facet of life. That was a huge omission. You see if we know that it is money, then it gives us a structure to work with, to be able to change. It doesn’t just require men and women to be nice to each other, which essentially is a cop out. Could her work be a piece of trickery itself with the design to steer us off course and thus save face for the patriarchy? Tricks are another common trait of patriarchy. Women seem to be willing enablers but the ones who do the deeds of the destruction of life are overwhelmingly males. Absolutely no comparison there between the two genders, the degree is unmissable.

    Eisner also sounds resigned or invested in the patriarchy by her suggesting that things will not change in our life time. Why not and how does she know? Perhaps that is her preference, steeped that she seems to be in continuing the status quo. To suggest that we are stuck with this brutality implies she may be a victim herself of Stockholm Syndrome. Yes the patriarchy is very, very, insidious like that. For example, women obey male law exclusively and don’t even notice. Indeed not only don’t they notice but they actually defend it. The “founders” were all men and this again was not mentioned and is never mentioned in any academic publications I have ever seen, at least.

    Men don’t notice either when they all gather around to decide for everybody, that there are no or very few women present. And men constantly ignore what women say. But women, since they make up the most caring members of society, you’d think wouldn’t you, that women would be invited to partake in decision-making. Also especially since males have been the dominant decision-makers and have for eons and yet still we suffer from the same human atrocities that societies have suffered throughout history. You’d think men would get it right by now. but here we are at the sixth major extinction period. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that men have a problem with making good judgments.

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Trump: Join us in connecting the dots

The election of Donald Trump has left millions, maybe even billions of us in shock. Although we may be looking with bewilderment at the US today, we should remember that he is not an isolated phenomenon. He is a symptom of a sickness that is raging all around the world. People are hurting, disillusioned with mainstream politics and increasingly angry at a neoliberal economic system that is destroying lives and the planet with increasing ferocity. And in their desperation they are willing to consider extreme measures to make themselves heard.

Demagogues thrive amid fear and insecurity, which is why they paint the world in such dark terms. It’s a strategy that has put right-wing populist leaders in power in an Axis of Egos: from Brazil to Turkey, the Philippines to Russia, authoritarian strongmen like Trump are on the rise. Meanwhile, many centrist liberals, like the Democratic Party in the US, have been so intent on rejecting left-wing populist solutions, and so sure of their ability to beat anyone running on a white supremacy platform with its misogyny and homophobia, that they opened the door for Mr. Trump to walk straight through. Their preference is always to maintain the status quo that has served them so well.

As dangerous as the election of Trump is for the world, we can also see in this moment the truth that we simply cannot rely on the electoral political system to save us, because it is designed to prevent the fundamental change we need. Its own survival is at stake and it will marshal all its champions and resources to defend itself and stop the emergence of a new system. But when we work, or continue working for change from the ground up; when we build or keep on building new ways of living and being with each other where we live; when we construct or keep constructing the future we know is possible with our own hands, rather than hoping distant leaders will build it for us, we find our true power. Finally, when we combine that with the unbending hope that has powered change through the ages, we know our power has meaning.

A 400-year-old economic system is dying and another is struggling to be born. Change on this scale is not going to be smooth or easy. We should not be surprised, then, that moments like this — where the establishment is dealt a body blow — become more and more common. We can despair when that blow comes in the form of right-wing extremists, or we can step-up. We are the ones we are looking for, who can and must grasp the opportunities in these crises that are undoubtedly there.

So it’s time to come together, taking time to remember the earth. Remember all the successful struggles for justice that came before us, and imagine all those to come. Remember that social movements are growing all over the world and realising the common struggle. Remember life. Then, organise. Find each other and help midwife the inevitable transition that brings forth from the ashes of neoliberal capitalism a system that works for the good of all life on Mother Earth. This is not just activism; this is our responsibility as human beings alive as this all unfolds.

This is why we are here.