Social oppression

Social oppression is the socially supported mistreatment and exploitation of a group of individuals. Social oppression is based on power dynamics, and an individual's social location in society. Social location, as defined by Lynn Weber, is "an individual's or a group's social 'place' in the race, class, gender and sexuality hierarchies, as well as in other critical social hierarchies such as age, ethnicity, and nation.[1]" An individual's social location determines how one will be perceived by others in the whole of society. It maintains three faces of power: the power to design or manipulate the rules, to win the game through force or competition, and the ability to write history.

Many political theorists, including Weber, argue that oppression persists because most individuals fail to recognize it; that is, discrimination is often not visible to those who are not in the midst of it. These inequalities further perpetuate themselves because those oppressed rarely have access to resources that would allow them to escape their maltreatment. This can lead to internalized oppression, in which subordinate groups essentially give up the fight to access equality and accept their fate as a non-dominant group.[2]

Social oppression can be inflicted on both a macro and a micro level. The macro level focuses on institutionalized oppression, and how individuals within the dominant group are able to apply their resources so that they continue to remain in power. There are many institutionalized barriers that stand in the way of subjugated groups for progressive movements to overcome. Examples of social oppression on the macro level are the vast differences that occur in education systems, healthcare policies, and adherence to the law.

On a micro level, we look at interpersonal interactions that occur in daily lives. Our perceptions of people shape these conversations as the result of stereotypes and believed social norms. Stereotypical images of African American individuals have persisted in the United States history, due to these micro levels of social oppression, such as the images of Mammy on cleaning or cooking products. From a gender perspective, women have historically been seen as the less dominant of the sexes, and therefore more suitable for home life. With this in mind, most advertisements for domestic products are geared towards women, with more feminine colors on their packaging and humor geared towards a female audience.

Delving further into social oppression on both a macro and micro level, we turn to Black feminist Patricia Hill Collins to what she calls the "matrix of domination".[3] The matrix of domination discusses the interrelated nature of four domains of power, including the structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal domains. Each of these spheres work to sustain current inequalities that are faced by minority groups. The structural, disciplinary and hegemonic domains all operate on a macro level, and deal with issues of social oppression such as education, the judicial/criminal justice system, and elements of power and control, respectively. The interpersonal domain is guided by perceptions due to the spheres in the matrix of domination, and therefore plays out in everyday life.

The interpersonal domain is situated within the perspective of standpoint theory. Standpoint theory deals with an individual's social location in that each person will have a very different perspective based on where they are positioned in society. For instance, a White male will have a very different take on an issue such as abortion than that of a Black female. Each will have different knowledge claims and experiences that will have shaped how they perceive abortion. From an oppression viewpoint, standpoint theory proves to be quite pertinent. Oftentimes certain aspects of society, and the knowledge that they hold, are kept suppressed because they are viewed as inferior points of view. This leaves their voices unacknowledged, and their perspective from mainstream society.

Institutionalized oppression

"Institutional Oppression occurs when established laws, customs, and practices systemically reflect and produce inequities based on one's membership in targeted social identity groups. If oppressive consequences accrue to institutional laws, customs, or practices, the institution is oppressive whether or not the individuals maintaining those practices have oppressive intentions."[4]


Several movements have arisen that specifically aim to oppose, analyze and counter oppression in general; examples include Liberation Theology in the Christian world, and Re-evaluation Counselling in psychotherapy.

See also


  1. Weber, Lynn (2010). Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality: A Conceptual Framework. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Freibach-Heifetz, Dana; Stopler, Gila (2014). "Philosophy and Social Criticism". Sage Journal.
  3. Collins, Patricia Hill (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: New York Routledge. p. 295.
  4. "Definition from pcc.edu" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-08-08.

Further reading

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