The term hegemony stems from the Greek words for ‘to lead’ and ‘leader’ and is used in several ways in research in the social sciences. In Marxist theory, it refers to the power exercised by a leading social class in addition to its economic and political dominance, for example through the educational system, the media and other cultural channels. The concept was developed in order to understand how the bourgeois, or owners of capital, in Western Europe were able to maintain their power over the working class not by using violence but instead by presenting their worldview as the correct, normal and natural one (see also discourse). This establishing of the right of interpretation can be viewed as a soft exercising of power in contrast to the harder way of using violence.

In feminist theory, the concept of hegemony has been used in the analysis of a certain form of masculinity as hegemonic (see also feminism(s)). This so-called hegemonic masculinity is understood as a norm that nobody can live up to, and the normative traits are found in different groups of men to various degrees (see also norm/norm criticism). In addition , the hegemonic masculinity changes over time, and different types of masculinity are preferred in different cultures and socioeconomic groups. One group of men strive for the hegemonic masculinity, and this enables them to reap the benefits in the form of power that the hegemony offers even if they themselves do not live up to the ideals. Another group of men are seen as inferior, such as homosexual and feminine men, and the defining of these individuals as norm violators reinforces the ideal for those who aspire to it (see also othering).

Although hegemony can be seen as a more discreet exercising of power than violence, there is always an element of violence involved. It can be used in order to reinforce hegemonic ideals, such as violence against LGBT people, but violence is used in particular when other resources are unavailable. The condemnation of those who resort to violence can be used to reinforce the hegemonic power. Historically, the leading social classes have let people in the inferior classes kill each other, a situation of which World War I (1914–18) is a clear example, while they themselves exercise their power by means of economics, culture and society’s institutions.