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Institutional Advantage/Disadvantage

A page within CATL Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence


Researchers who study social hierarchies note that hierarchies function at both the individual and the societal levels.

Individuals may harbor prejudice, defined by the American Psychological Association as "A learned attitude toward a target object, involving negative affect (dislike or fear), negative beliefs (stereotypes) that justify the attitude, and a behavioral intention to avoid, control, dominate, or eliminate the target object."   Individuals may harbor prejudiced attitudes against the members of a group, including attitudes of which we are not consciously aware (called "implicit attitudes").  Individuals might even discriminate (usually a legal term) if they act on a prejudice in specific ways. 

But social hierarchies that wrap around race, gender, social class, disability status, age,  operate at their most powerful level when human beings construct social institutions and cultural practices that tend to advantage some groups and disadvantage others. 

  • Social institutions include things like laws, political systems, and education.  National Public Radio's "School Money" project found that even the means of funding public K-12 schools still tends to disadvantage whole groups of people (see the entire archive of stories on this topic up to 2016 here).  Most researchers agree that the disparities are vast enough to affect the educational success and life opportunities of most students in underfunded schools.  That is but one example of the ways in which institutions predetermine who wins and who loses.
  • Cultural practices include things like using racial stereotypes to set up an example in lecture, unwritten rules in workplaces like the same people sitting at the best lunch table, and classroom dynamics such as students choosing group partners only from those they know best.

Higher education still uses a variety of ranking mechanisms to reinforce hierarchies based largely in historical social and cultural practices and stereotypes that equated higher intelligence with European aristocrats and lower intelligence with peasants, slaves, and "primitives."  Starting with the reputation of the "Ivy Leagues" over all other U.S. colleges and universities, consider where else you see these remnants of our historical past.

Learn More

Banji, M. R., and Greenwald, A. G. (2013). Blindspot:  Hidden biases of good people.  Delcourt Press.

Dovido, J. (n.d.). "Speaking of Psychology: Understanding your racial biases" APA website, episode 31. (11 minutes, audio, strategies to reduce racial biases).

McIntosh, P. (1988). "White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack" and "Some notes for facilitators." National SEED Project. 

Smith, S. and Ellis, K. (2017). "Shackled Legacy: History shows slavery helped build many U.S. colleges and universities. Retrieved December 6, 2017, from

Hoskins, D. (2017). Inequality in higher education: Institutional advantage/disadvantage. In Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse, Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning.  Retrieved from