Definition of Social Oppression

An Overview of the Concept and Its Components

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 a relationship of dominance and subordination between categories of people in which one benefits from the systematic abuse, exploitation, and injustice directed toward the other. Because social oppression describes relationships between categories of people, it should not be confused with the oppressive behavior of individuals. In social oppression, all members of a dominant and subordinate categories participate regardless of the 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. (From hereon we will simply call it oppression.) Oppression is the systematic mistreatment, exploitation, and lowering in status of a group (or groups) of people by another group (or groups). It occurs when a group holds power over others in society by maintaining control over social institutions, and society's laws, rules, and norms.

The outcome of 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 healthier life, and overall greater life chances.

Those who experience the brunt of oppression have less access to rights and resources than those in the dominant group(s), less political power, lower economic potential, often experience worse health and higher mortality rates, and have 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 are conscious of how 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 are others. And while not all of those in dominant groups who benefit from oppression actively participate in sustaining it, they all ultimately benefit from it as members of society.

In the U.S. and many other countries around the world oppression has become institutionalized, which means it is built into how our social institutions operate. This means that oppression is so common and normal 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 because the oppression itself has become camouflaged within the various aspects of society

The Components of Social Oppression

To enact oppression through social means is to say that oppression is the result of social forces and processes operating in all aspects of a society.

It is the result of values, assumptions, goals, and practices of people in society, and of how the organizations and institutions that compose it operate. Sociologists thus 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 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, and works to keep those hierarchies in place through the workings of the economy and class structure.

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 dominant ideology--the sum total of values, beliefs, assumptions, world views, and goals that organize the way of life as dictated by the dominant group. Those in the dominant group dictate what that dominant ideology is through their control of social institutions, so the way social institutions operate reflect the dominant 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, ability, or for other reasons often internalize the ideology that helps produce 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 of people for the benefit of the few.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.