Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Oppression is when a person or group in a position of power exercises authority or otherwise controls the less powerful in burdensome, cruel, unjust or unfair ways.

explanatory context

In addition to the state of being politically, socially, economically or culturally oppressed, individuals also sometimes claim to be mentally oppressed or distressed.

analytical review

An anonymous, undated paper on the University of Michigan website list the following definitions of oppression [not all citations are referenced, though]:

The dictionary definition ((Webster's Third International Dictionary): "Unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power especially by the imposition of burdens; the condition of being weighed down; an act of pressing down; a sense of heaviness or obstruction in the body or mind." The Latin origin has oppressus as the past participle of opprimere, or to press down. Amongst the synonyms: the word subjugation.
The Social Work Dictionary, ed. Robert L. Barker defines oppression as: "The social act of placing severe restrictions on an individual, group or institution. Typically, a government or political organization that is in power places these restrictions formally or covertly on oppressed groups so that they may be exploited and less able to compete with other social groups. The oppressed individual or group is devalued, exploited and deprived of privileges by the individual or group which has more power." (Barker, 2003)
The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology has an excellent definition of social oppression: "Social oppression is a concept that describes a relationship between groups or categories of between groups or categories of people in which a dominant group benefits from the systematic abuse, exploitation, and injustice directed toward a subordinate group. The relationship between whites and blacks in the United States and South Africa, between social classes in many industrial societies, between men and women in most societies, between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland - all have elements of social oppression in that the organization of social life enables those who dominate to oppress others. Relationships between groups and relationships between groups and social categories, it should not be confused with the oppressive behavior of individuals. A white man may not himself actively participate in oppressive behavior directed at blacks or women, for example, but he nonetheless benefits from the general oppression of blacks and women simply because he is a white man. In this sense, all members of dominant and subordinate categories participate in social oppression regardless of their individual attitudes or behavior. Social oppression becomes institutionalized when its enforcement is so of social life that it is not easily identified as oppression and does not require conscious prejudice or overt acts of discrimination." One of the purposes of the exercise we'll do is to help use better identify the feelings that oppression produces in us and in our clients. (Johnson, 2000b)
Oppression: Charlton (1998: 8) states, “oppression occurs when individuals are systematically subjected to political, economic, cultural, or social degradation because they belong to a social group...results from structures of domination and subordination and, correspondingly, ideologies of superiority and inferiority.” (Charlton, 1998)
Oppression: Johnson (2000a: 39) recognizes that “for every social category that is privileged, one or more other categories are oppressed in relation to it. The concept of oppression points to social forces that tend to press upon people and hold them down, to hem them in and block their pursuits of a good life. Just as privilege tends to open doors of opportunity, oppression tends to slam them shut.” (Johnson, 2000a)
Oppression (Deutsch 2006: 10): “Oppression is the experience of repeated, widespread, systemic injustice. It need not be extreme and involve the legal system (as in slavery, apartheid, or the lack of a right to vote) nor violent (as in tyrannical societies). Harvey (1999) has used the term “civilized oppression” to characterize the everyday processes of oppression in normal life. Civilized oppression “is embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutions and rules, and the collective consequences of following those rules. It refers to the vast and deep injustices some groups suffer as a consequence of often unconscious assumptions and reactions of well-meaning people in ordinary interactions that are supported by the media and cultural stereotypes as well as by the structural features of bureaucratic hierarchies and market mechanisms” (Young, 1990, p. 41). We cannot eliminate this structural oppression by getting rid of the rulers or by making some new laws, because oppressions are systematically reproduced in the major economic, political, and cultural institutions. While specific privileged groups are the beneficiaries of the oppression of other groups, and thus have an interest in the continuation of the status quo, they do not typically understand themselves to be agents of oppression.” (Deutsch, 2006)
Oppression: “Oppression refers to relations of domination and exploitation - economic, social and psychologic - between individuals; between social groups and classes within and beyond societies; and, globally, between entire societies. Injustice refers to discriminatory, dehumanizing, and development-inhibiting conditions of living (e.g., unemployment, poverty, homelessless, and lack of health care), imposed by oppressors upon dominated and exploited individuals, social groups, classes and peoples. These conditions will often cause people to turn to social services for help. Oppression seems motivated by an intent to exploit (i.e., benefit disproportionately from the resources, capacities, and productivity of others) and it results typically in disadvantageous, unjust conditions of living for its victims. It serves as a means to enforce exploitation toward the goal of securing advantageous conditions of living for its perpetrators. Justice reflects the absence of exploitation-enforcing oppression.” (Gil, 1994, p. 233).
Oppression (Turner, Singleton and Musick, 1984, cited by Davis (2002): “a situation in which one or more identifiable segments of the population in a social system systematically and successfully act over a prolonged period of time to prevent another identifiable segment, or segments of the population from attaining access to the scarce and valued resources of that system.” (Davis, 2002; Turner, Singleton Jr, & Musick, 1984)
"Oppression, oppression of a whole people": Cox (1948(1970)) "Although race relations and the struggle of the white proletariat with the bourgeoisie are parts of a single social phenomenon, race relations involve a significant variation. In the case of race relations the tendency of the bourgeoisie is to proletarianize a WHOLE PEOPLE - that is to say, the whole people is looked upon as a class - whereas white proletarianization involves only a section of the white people." (P344) "It is this need to impersonalize whole peoples which introduces into the class struggle the complicating factors known as race problems." (p. 344) MD: This concept of oppression of a whole people is related to the concept of national oppression. (Cox, 1970)

associated issues

“The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.” Karl Marx


“If tyranny and oppression come to this land it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.” James Madison


“Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people--they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.” Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed


“Weight and body oppression is oppressive to everyone. When you live in a society that says that one kind of body is bad and and other is good, those with “good” bodies constantly fear that their bodies will go “bad”, and those with “bad” bodies are expected feel shame and do everything they can to have “good” bodies. In the process, we torture our bodies, and do everything from engage in disordered eating to invasive surgery to make ourselves okay. Nobody wins in this kind of struggle.” Golda Poretsky


“..the struggle to end sexist oppression that focuses on destroying the cultural basis for such domination strengthens other liberation struggles. Individuals who fight for the eradication of sexism without struggles to end racism or classism undermine their own efforts. Individuals who fight for the eradication of racism or classism while supporting sexist oppression are helping to maintain the cultural basis of all forms of group oppression.” bell hooks, Feminist Theory from Margin to Center


“People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.” Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography


“If the jury have no right to judge of the justice of a law of the government, they plainly can do nothing to protect the people against the oppressions of the government; for there are no oppressions which the government may not authorize by law.” Lysander Spooner


Quotes from (accessed 18 March 2013)

related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section 2.4


Barker, R. L., 2003, The Social Work Dictionary (5th ed.). Washington, DC: NASW Press.
Charlton, J. I., 1998, Nothing about us without us disability oppression and empowerment. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Collins, P.H., 1993, 'Toward a new vision: race, class and gender as categories of analysis and connection', Race, Sex and Class, 1(1), 25–45.
Cox, O.C., 1970, Caste, Class, and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Davis, K.E., 2002, Expanding the theoretical understanding of oppression. Alexandria, Va.: Council on Social Work Education.
Deutsch, M., 2006, 'A framework for thinking about oppression and its change', Social Justice Research, 19(1), 7–41.

Gil, D. G., 1994, Confronting Social Injustice and Oppression, in Reamer, F.G. (Ed.), The foundations of social work knowledge. New York: Columbia.

Johnson, A. G., 2000a,. Privilege, Power and Difference. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Johnson, A. G., 2000b. The Blackwell dictionary of sociology : a user's guide to sociological language (2nd ed.). Oxford, Blackwell;

Turner, J. H., Singleton Jr, R., & Musick, D., 1984, Oppression: A Socio-History of Black-White Relations in America: Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall.

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