Social oppression is the concept that describes the relationship of dominance and subordination between different social groups. In such relationships, the dominant group will benefit from the abuse, exploitation, injustice, or inequality that is directed towards the subordinate group.
Oppression exists in societies at individual and institutional levels. At an individual level, in the field of psychology, different types of prejudice are studied as individual beliefs that aren’t inherently oppressive, but may lead to oppression if they become a part of a culture. However in sociology these prejudices are studied at an institutional level as systems of oppression. It is important to understand the difference between the oppressive behaviour of individuals and the oppressive relationship between different social groups: this article will refer to “oppression” as the systematic oppression that occurs at an institutional level.
Glossary of institutional oppression terms
Stereotypes: Stereotypes can be positive or negative, but they all have a negative effect. Stereotypes are socially accepted and widespread attitudes, ideas, beliefs, or feelings about a particular social group. Stereotypes support the institutionalised oppression by validating misinformed beliefs that may be used to justify prejudice or oppression towards a social group.
Prejudice: Having a favourable or unfavourable opinion towards a particular group of people, formed without logic or reason.
Institution: Institutions are stable social arrangements through which collective actions and aims are taken. Examples of institutions: legal, educational, health care, social service, government, media and criminal justice systems.
Institutionalised Oppression: Oppression that occurs when society and its institutions promote prejudice and stereotypes towards a certain social group. Institutional oppression exists regardless of whether or not the individuals maintaining the institution have oppressive intentions or promote oppression at an individual level.
Systemic Oppression: A type of institutionalised oppression that is further engrained into a social system and enforced by the government, laws, and police. It occurs when societies establish laws, customs, and accepted practices that systematically reflect and produce inequities based on oppression that is institutionalised.
How does institutionalised oppression work?
As you can see from the table below, regardless of what type of oppression you look at, the oppression of different social groups is generally manifested through the same fundamental processes:
Institutionalised social oppression always involves members of one group abusing their power to dominate members of another group, which is ‘justified’ by the same arbitrary differences that encourage unequal, cruel treatment.
Types of Institutionalised oppression
Racism: Involves members of one race dominating members of another race. This is usually white or light skinned people dominating black or darker skinned groups of people.
Sexism: Involves members of one sex dominating members of another sex. According to Head, “sexism tends to force women into subservient, restrictive roles that many women do not want, and to force men into dominant, competitive roles that many men do not want.”
Classism: Involves members of one socioeconomic class dominating members of another socioeconomic class. This is usually higher socioeconomic classes dominating those of lower classes.
Hetero-cissexism: Is the combination of heterosexism and cisgenderism- the two concepts are usually combined since the LGBT community fights for the rights of both transgender people and non-heterosexual people as one social movement. Heterosexism involves people with a particular sexual orientation dominating people of another sexual orientation, usually heterosexuals dominating homosexuals. Cisgenderism involves cisgender people dominating transgender, non-binary, and genderqueer people. Cisgenderism forces people who do not identify with their assigned gender to identify with a gender that they don’t identify with or suffer social consequences.
Ableism: Involves members of a group with a particular ability/abilities dominating members without said ability/abilities.
Speciesism: Involves members of one species dominating members of another species. This is usually manifested through the belief that humans ought to be the most dominant species, but also that certain species should be given moral status while others should not.
Forms of institutionalised oppression
There are 4 major forms of institutional oppression that different oppressed groups face within our social systems:
This considers the distribution of four types of capital – consumption, investment, skill, and social.
Firstly, consumption capital refers to the amounts of resources like food, water, housing, healthcare, education, physical mobility (like travel), recreation, and services that are available to members of a particular social group. In most developed countries this is greatly determined by income and usually equates to a particular “standard of living.” There will be different standards of living among different ethnic groups within nations, among the different classes, and between the races, etc.
Investment capital is essentially what people use to create more capital. Just like income is closely related to consumption capital, wealth is closely related to investment capital, and wealth is distributed far more unevenly than income. According to Deutsch, “In 1992 in the US, the top one percent of the population possessed 45.6% of the financial assets while the bottom 80 percent had only 7.8%, and this discrepancy has undoubtedly increased since then,” and “the inequalities among nations, within nations, among ethnic groups, among the social classes, between the physically impaired and unimpaired, and between the sexes are apt to be considerably greater with regard to investment than consumption capital.”
Skill capital refers to any specialised knowledge, social and work skills, or any knowledge and credentials that are developed and obtained through education and/or training. It is obvious that any non-privileged social groups have less opportunities to enter elite universities and acquire the skills and credentials that would increase their skill capital.
Finally, social capital refers to the network of ties between people (like family, friends, social clubs, classmates, acquaintances, etc) that can provide emotional support, or ways of accessing other forms of capital discussed above. According to Deutsch, “The social capital that one can acquire and maintain is affected by such factors as one’s family’s social class, membership in particular ethnic and religious groups, age, sex, physical disability, and sexual orientation. In most societies the ability to acquire and maintain social capital by those who are underclass or working class, disabled, elderly, members of minority, ethnic, religious of racial groups, or women is considerably more limited than the dominant groups.”
Retributive injustice is concerned with the attitudes and behaviours that people with authority employ in response to moral rule breaking. One of the most well known examples is the comparison of the treatment of black and white criminals in societies like the US, where blacks receive far worse treatment.
Moral exclusion refers to who is and isn’t entitled to moral consideration. Individuals and groups who are outside the boundary in which people or social groups allow considerations of fairness are often treated in ways that would be considered immoral if people within the boundary were so treated. According to Deutsch, “When a system is under stress, are there differences in how categories of people are treated? Are some people more apt to lose their jobs, be excluded from obtaining scarce resources, or be scapegoated and victimized? During periods of economic depression, social upheaval, civil strife, and war, frustrations are often channeled to exclude some groups from the treatment normatively expected from other in the same moral community. Moral exclusion is perhaps the most dangerous form of oppression. It has led to genocide against the Jews and gypsies by the Nazis, the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, and the auto genocide by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.”
This refers to the universalisation of a dominant social group’s experiences and culture and establishing it as the norm.
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References & Sources
Boundless. “The Law as an Instrument of Oppression.” Boundless Sociology Boundless, 27 May. 2016. Retrieved 14 Apr. 2017 from https://www.boundless.com/sociology/textbooks/boundless-sociology-textbook/deviance-social-control-and-crime-7/the-conflict-perspective-on-deviance-63/the-law-as-an-instrument-of-oppression-380-1332/
Crossman, A. “Social Oppression.” ThoughtCo, 2017. https://www.thoughtco.com/social-oppression-3026593
Head, T. “Types of Oppression.” ToughtCo, 2016. https://www.thoughtco.com/types-of-oppression-721173
Portland Community College. “Institutionalized Oppression Definitions” PCC Resources, 2006. https://www.pcc.edu/resources/illumination/documents/institutionalized-oppression-definitions.pdf
Deutsch, M. “Forms of Oppresion.” Beyond Intractability, 2005. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/forms-of-oppression>.