In Sociology, oppression refers to the unjust use of power and authority by a group, which results in the control, exploitation or mistreatment of another group.
This means that oppression has a social dimension, and it affects whole categories of people, not just individuals.
This control and subsequent subordination happens through different mechanisms: institutional power and norms, laws, social customs and even stereotypes.
The consequence of oppression is that it creates hierarchies within the social structures, with some groups having more power, status and opportunities than others based on characteristics such as race, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability.
As with other terms, there is not agreed definition, but oppression does have certain traits that help shed light onto this complex phenomenon.
“Oppression” names a social injustice, which is to say that it is perpetrated through social institutions, practices, and norms on social groups by social groups…In this way oppression differs from many kinds of injustices that can be done to individuals as well as to social groups. (Cudd, 2005, p.21)
Oppression is not always deliberate, but rather it is the result of a complex system that incorporates different mechanisms: institutional power, social norms, stereotypes, laws or social customs amongst others.
This results in what can be called “systems of oppression”.
These mechanisms help maintain the privilege of some groups (Taylor, 2016), which is another important aspect of oppression: it is something that is maintained overtime and thus it is an injustice that is repeated and systemic, widespread, vast and deep (Deutsch, 2006).
There are different types of oppression based on the characteristics of social groups: ethnic or religious minorities, women, people with different abilities or those on the lower socio-economic scales of society.
So, oppression has many faces and it manifests in different ways: politically, socially, economically or culturally.
- Racism, which is discriminating people based on the color of their skin or their ethnicity, is a form of oppression as it limits opportunities and life chances. It has its roots in colonialism and the slave trade, and can be endorsed by officials, as with institutional racism.
- Religious oppression happens when governments and society doesn’t allow the expression of religious beliefs through symbology, or when a religion imposes itself over others in a given territory. This results in people not being able to freely practice their religion.
- Class oppression is the prejudice and the discrimination that occurs based on what is commonly known as social class. Also known as classism, it consists of the system discrimination and exclusion of the lower classes.
- Gender oppression is the result of sexism and the patriarcal mandate, which for years have kept women in the domestic sphere and away from the public one. This has limited their access to institutional and economic power and political decision making amongst others.
- Dictatorships are one of the most extreme examples of oppression. Under political dictatorship there is widespread oppression in pretty much every sphere of life, with many groups being discriminated and treated unfairly.
- Disability oppression, also known as albeism, means that people with disabilities are subjected to many discriminatory practices which stops then from accessing housing, employment, education and a host of other pursuits.
- Economic oppression means that certain groups see their economic opportunities restricted and reduced. An extreme example of this would be enslavement, and a more common one employment discrimination based for example on race, gender or sexual orientation.
- Heteronormativity, is “what makes heterosexuality seem coherent, natural and privileged.It involves the assumption that…heterosexuality is an ideal, superior to homosexuality or bisexuality”, which results in the oppression of all those who do not identify as heterosexual.
Case Studies and Research Basis
1. Gender oppression
“Gender oppression is defined as oppression associated with the gender norms, relations, and stratification of a given society. Modern norms of gender in western societies consist of the dichotomous, mutually exclusive categories of masculinity and femininity” (Patil, 2007, p. 1)
The category of masculinity is often associated with the public sphere and power, while femininity is linked to the domestic sphere and the reproductive role (with different cultural nuances).
This gendered way of organizing society has resulted in women having less access to institutional power, leadership roles, education, economic resources resulting in greater poverty, sexual objectification and exploitation or greater risk of suffering domestic violence, amongst others.
2. Minorities and the glass ceiling
While the concepts of the glass ceiling and sticky floor is often thought of as something that affects only women, that is not completely true.
Some minorities, which include ethnic background, sexual orientation or disabilities, have been found to also experience the glass ceiling and the sticky floor.
Just hiring underrepresented minorities doesn’t make for an oppression free workplace.
The presence of these two types of discrimination means that underrepresented minorities cannot progress a the workplace, which results in a majority of minorities in the lower rank positions and none or few in the managerial and higher-level jobs.
3. Women considered property
A very extreme case of oppression, but one that still happens nowdays, are the consideration of women as the property of men.
This can be seen in some cultures in which women are under the rule of their fathers, brothers or husbands.
This has serious implications for the lives of women in those countries, in their day to day and future prospects.
Women may not be allowed to drive cars, have bank accounts or choose how they want to dress. Education and paid employment may be off limits, and they cannot decide who they want to marry, amongst others.
4. Religious oppression
While the reality of many societies is religious pluralism, with different practices and believes co-existing alongside each other, a real freedom of religion in some places is debatable.
Religious Oppression derives from the restrictions that both government and society put on the freedom to practice religions.
Examples of these are the prohibition to wear religious symbols, such as the Christian cross, the Muslim veil or the Jewish kippah or skullcap. Another example would be not providing pork-free meals for Jewish and Muslim children at schools.
Religion can be thus be source of oppression, when restrictions are put in place, or when one religion or governing body (e.g. communism) imposes itself over others in a given territory as this doesn’t allow people to practice freely and fully their religion.
5. Racial oppression
Racial oppression in the modern work has its origins in colonialism and the slave trade and can be considered a bi-product, or a consequence, of racism.
Racism can be considered the root of oppression because “is more than just prejudice in thought or action. It occurs when this prejudice – whether individual or institutional – is accompanied by the power to discriminate against, oppress or limit the rights of others”.
Racial oppression means that those who are discriminated against see their life chances diminish, due to less access to economic or educational resources, less influence at the political level and a general exclusion from society.
Oppression is a complex phenomenon that channels itself through a complex system, made up of institutional power, social norms and customs, laws and stereotypes. All these contribute, sometimes in a non-deliberate way, to oppress groups of people, because of certain traits (which are in themselves the cause of oppression).
Oppression maintains the privilege of some groups over others, and this happens in a sustained way, which makes it systemic and widespread. It is a phenomenon that affects many different groups and also that manifests itself in a variety of ways: politically, socially, economically or culturally.
Oppression can be considered a form of social injustice.
Abberly, P. (1987) The Concept of Oppression and the Development of a Social Theory of Disability. Disability, Handicap & Society, 2(1).
Berberoglu, B. (1994). Class, Race and Gender: The Triangle of Oppression. Race, Sex & Class, 2(1), 69–77. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41680097
Cudd, A.E. (2005) How to Explain Oppression: Criteria of Adequacy for Normative Explanatory Theories. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 35,1: 20 DOI: 10.1177/0048393104271923
Deutsch, M. (2006). A Framework for Thinking About Oppression and Its Change. Social Justice Research, 19(1), 7–41. doi:10.1007/s11211-006-9998-3
Taylor, E. (2016). Groups and Oppression, Hypatia, 31 (3): 520–536, doi: 10.1111/hypa.12252.
Patil, V. (2007) Gender Oppresion in George, R. (ed). The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. New York: Blackwell.
Somasundram, S., Sirag, A., Rasiah, V., Ratneswary, R. & Habibullah, S. (2017). Religious Oppression: Government Regulations and Social Hostilities. The Journal of Asian Finance, Economics and Business. 4. 39-49.