What Is Social Oppression?

A man drawing a circle around a group of people symbolizes the concept of social oppression.
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Social oppression is a concept that describes the relationship between two categories of people in which one benefits from the systematic abuse and exploitation of the other. Because social oppression is something that occurs between categories of people, it should not be confused with the oppressive behavior of individuals. In cases of social oppression, all members of the dominant and subordinate groups are involved, regardless of individual attitudes or behavior.

How Sociologists Define Oppression

Social oppression refers to oppression that is achieved through social means and that is social in scope—it affects whole categories of people. This kind of oppression includes the systematic mistreatment, exploitation, and abuse of a group (or groups) of people by another group (or groups). It occurs whenever one group holds power over another in society through the control of social institutions, along with society's laws, customs, and norms.

The outcome of social oppression is that groups in society are sorted into different positions within the social hierarchies of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Those in the controlling, or dominant group, benefit from the oppression of other groups through heightened privileges relative to others, greater access to rights and resources, a better quality of life, and overall greater life chances. Those who experience the brunt of oppression have fewer rights, less access to resources, less political power, lower economic potential, worse health and higher mortality rates, and lower overall life chances.

Groups that experience oppression within the United States include racial and ethnic minorities, women, queer people, and the lower classes and the poor. Groups that benefit from oppression in the U.S. include white people (and sometimes light-skinned racial and ethnic minorities), men, heterosexual people, and the middle and upper classes.

While some people are conscious of how social oppression operates in society, many are not. Oppression persists in large part by camouflaging life as a fair game and its winners as simply harder working, smarter, and more deserving of life's riches than others. While not all of the people in dominant groups actively participate in sustaining oppression, they all ultimately benefit from it as members of society.

In the U.S. and many other countries, social oppression has become institutionalized, meaning it is built into how our social institutions operate. Oppression is so normalized that it does not require conscious discrimination or overt acts of oppression to achieve its ends. This does not mean that conscious and overt acts do not occur, but rather that a system of oppression can operate without them once the oppression itself has become camouflaged within the various aspects of society.

Components of Social Oppression

Social oppression is produced through forces and processes that permeate all aspects of society. It is the result not only of people's values, assumptions, goals, and practices but also of the values and beliefs reflected in organizations and institutions. Sociologists view oppression as a systemic process that is achieved through social interaction, ideology, representation, social institutions, and the social structure.

The processes that result in oppression operate at both the macro and micro levels. At the macro level, oppression operates within social institutions, including education, media, government, and the judicial system, among others. It also operates through the social structure itself, which organizes people into hierarchies of race, class, and gender.

At the micro level, oppression is achieved through social interactions between people in everyday life, in which biases that work in favor of dominant groups and against oppressed groups shape how we see others, what we expect from them, and how we interact with them.

What ties oppression at the macro and micro levels together is the dominant ideology—the sum total of values, beliefs, assumptions, worldviews, and goals that organize the way of life as dictated by the dominant group. Social institutions reflect this group's perspectives, experiences, and interests. As such, the viewpoints, experiences, and values of oppressed groups are marginalized and not incorporated into how social institutions operate.

People who experience oppression on the basis of race or ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, or ability often internalize the ideology that produces the oppression. They may come to believe, as society suggests, that they are inferior to and less worthy than those in dominant groups, and this, in turn, may shape their behavior.

Ultimately, through this combination of macro- and micro-level means, oppression produces widespread social inequalities that disadvantage the vast majority for the benefit of the few.