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Oppression, Dehumanization and
Exploitation: Connecting Theory
to Experience
This presentation is in two parts:
1. A lecture about recent theories
which distinguish between
oppression, dehumanization
and exploitation.
This presentation is in two parts:
2. An exercise in which we identify
words and affective phrases
associated with our own
experiencs of oppression,
dehumanization and exploitation.
In the exercise….(later)
• Participants identify the words and
affective phrases describing the feelings
we have experienced due to acts of
oppression, dehumanization and
exploitation. These are shared on 3x5
cards that are shuffled, redistributed, and
For Example
beaten down
being left behind
being used
boot in the face
A similar list of words….
In the textbook written here in Minnesota,
Direct Social Work Practice: Theory and Skills,
a similar list was developed. But in my
teaching of a course on oppression at
Fordham University in 1989, I found that these
lists didn’t seem to match the words and
affective phrases my students were coming up
with to describe their experience of
A similar list of words….
In addition to the lists in the text, why not create
a list about words and phrases describing the
experience of oppression, my students and I
decided? Over the years, we concluded that it
was not just feelings of oppression we were
identifying, it was also feelings of
dehumanization and exploitation.
A similar list of words….
The final list of words is available on course
reserves or the course website, with the latest
entries bold-faced from the exercise I did last
Summer. I’m hoping that new words can also
be added from this presentatation!
Speaking of words…..
In this presentation, some of the words and
names mentioned will be bold-faced. Those
are the words that are in the glossary of key
terms and concepts on course reserves and
the course website. I’ll be going through them
pretty quickly because as you know we have a
busy schedule today.
Speaking of words…..
But since they are in the glossary, you don’t
need to take notes other than to perhaps jot
down any words which interest you. Later,
when I double check which concepts from the
glossary I’ve covered in class, I’ll give you the
glossary terms you need to try to understand
in this course.
Speaking of words…..
Then, you can study these concepts for the
midterm questions that match words with
definitions. And you can use them in the
short essay questions. You will be able to
choose two short essay questions from among
six, each of which has bold-faced within it one
of these concepts. You answer will need to
show you understand this concept well
enough to answer the question effectively.
A similar list of words….
Some of the words in the compendium are
words we felt at the time, at very present
moment of the experience of an act or
situation of oppression. If you are interested
in this concept of the present moment, I
highly recommend The Present Momen in
Psychotherapy and Everyday Life by the child
psychiatrist David Stern.
A similar list of words….
Other words are referred to as reactive
emotions, which we defined and coded as
emotions we experienced seconds or minutes
Finally, some were feelings that evolved over
time from our experiences of oppression,
dehumanization or exploitation, including
both adaptive emotions like solidarity and
maladaptive emotions like sense of defeat.
A similar list of words….
So, while I’m talking about theories of
oppression, dehumanization and
exploitation, feel free to start thinking back to
experiences you have had. You won’t be
asked to describe them or discuss them. But
try to remember how you felt at that very
moment, and begin to jot down the words
and phrases which describe how you felt.
• Bertha Capen Reynolds said in
Uncharted Journey, "Oppression
produces the resistance which will in the
end overthrow it ... We shall learn how to
struggle when we care most what
happens to all of us, and we know that all
of us can never be defeated.” For more
information, see the Social Welfare
Action Alliance website or the
NASW website.
• So today, what we’ll be covering is that we will
by defining and discussing theories of
oppression, dehumanization and
exploitation. Then we move beyond theory,
beyond the “isms”, and share and discuss the
feelings produced by these experiences.
• Would anyone like to take a shot at explaining
what the difference is between oppression,
exploitation and dehumanization? (Students
• How about dehumanization? Who would like
to try to define or describe dehumanization?
After all, anyone who has worked a minimum
wage, non-living wage job knows what
exploitation is like. And oppression is a
concept that is fairly well covered in social
work and social sciences courses, and you
have likely studied it before.
First, however, I want to discussion oppression.
In their article in the Encyclopedia of Social
Work, Wambach and Van Soest cite an
excellent metaphor for oppression, one which
explains why it is so hard to theorize and to
observe a structure of oppression. That
metaphor is the cage.
They point out how hard it is "to understand
that one is looking at a cage and there are
people there who are caged, whose motion
and mobility are restricted, whose lives are
shaped and reduced." A well designed cage
has a strong structure, but the actual wires
that keep the birds in are as thin as possible to
enable people to see in.
Mechanisms of Oppression
• The authors argue there six mechanisms of
oppression. I’m going to go through them pretty
quickly, as you aren’t responsible for understanding
them; I just want to make a point about them:
• (1) violence and the threat of violence,
• (2) rendering the oppressed group or their existence
as an oppressed group as invisible, so that their
status is taken for granted and not questioned,
• (3) ensuring that the group is ghettoized so as to be
out of sight, out of mind,
Mechanisms of Oppression
• (4) Engaging in cultural oppression by treating the
group as inferior,
• (5) When oppressed groups are easily visible, they
argue that the oppression can be rationalized or
excused or
• (6) keeping oppressed groups divided within
themselves or from other oppressed groups.
On second thought….
Just because this is in the Encyclopedia of Social
Work doesn’t mean we should agree with this,
however. We should always engage in critical
thinking about social theories, by which I
mean think analytically. We might end up
agreeing or not agreeing, being critical or not
critical. Thinking critically means thinking
analytically and systematically about the
concept, not being critical of it or not.
Thinking Critically (Analytically)
Van Soest and Garcia (2003) themselves, in the
first edition of their CSWE book Diversity
Education for Social Justice: Mastering
Teaching Skills point out that it is important to
critically challenge the assumptions of the
prevailing academic approaches to diversity
On second thought….
And of course I would encourage you to think
critically about the things I say as well. In fact,
if you don’t like the definitions (mine or those
of others) of the concepts in the glossary, find
another one that makes more sense to you
and send it to me. If I feel it would be helpful
to other students, I’ll put it up on the glossary
as an alterative definition! Questions so far?
Thinking Critically (Analytically)
Thinking critically, Van Soest and her colleague
refer to these six processes as the social
mechanisms of oppression. But don’t they
seem to have been things which are done to
maintain oppression after it has already be
put in place. The oppressed group is made
invisible, ghettoized, treated as inferior, and
kept divided only after it has already become
an oppressed group, isn’t it? Let’s see as we
go along.
Thinking Critically (Analytically)
One thing that is clear from history and social
science is that racist beliefs and other
ideologies of oppression serve to justify
oppression after it has been established. For
instance, I’ve just finished a great new book,
Darwin’s Sacred Cause.
Thinking Critically (Analytically)
Charles Darwin was motivated all his life by the
abolitionist views of his family of origin. His
family believed that all people were creatures
of God. Even though Darwin himself no
longer believed in the Biblical account of the
origins of life, he firmly believed that all
human beings share a common origin.
Thinking Critically (Analytically)
Darwin used objective scientific methods, but in
service of his deeper beliefs. He would have
been heartbroken if he had found that people
were not descended from a common origin.
He was able to establish theories of natural
and sexual selection that argued that human
beings were indeed descended from a
common origin.
Thinking Critically (Analytically)
Darwin’s sacred cause was to refute the growing
scientific racism which claimed that people of
African origin were a different and inferior
species and that this justified slavery. But that
scientific racism came after slavery, to justify
slavery. Theodore Allen in his acclaimed book
The Invention of the White Race has also
shown that racism as an ideology came after
slavery to justify it, not before.
Mechanisms of Oppression
So what are the originating mechanisms of
oppression? A mechanism in social science is
the identified set of specific institutionalized
individual and collective behaviors which help
explain how durable social structures like
patriarchy and racism in the social
environment impact our daily lives.
Mechanisms of Oppression
How Wambach and Van Soest’s life possibly
differ from more fundamental mechanisms of
oppression? Or do they? As I said, we’ll see.
First, I would like to discuss one important
mechanism, called closure.
Parkin’s Concept of Closure
• Closure is a mechanism through which one
social group dominates another social group.
By social group I mean a socially constructed
and identifiable group that holds one or more
social positions, either one of dominance and
privilege or or subordination and oppression.
Can we think of examples of such social
Parkin’s Concept of Closure
Frank Parkin theorized that a mechanism called
social closure is a "process by which social
collectivities seek to maximize rewards by
restricting access to resources and
opportunities to a limited circle of eligible." (p.
3 Kinds of Closure
• He defines THREE kinds of closure: One is
what he calls exclusionary closure, which is
the process by which one group excludes
another group. Different kinds of exclusionary
closure are in place in different kinds of
societies. This is the most important kind of
closure to understand for our purposes. I
won’t cover the other two.
Parkin (Weberian Perspective)
• The concept of closure was first introduced in
Parkin’s 1979 book, Marxism and Class theory.
This is perhaps the most salient Weberian
critique of neo-Marxism. Marxist class
analysis, he argues, tends to deny the
importance of "racial ideology", of "ethnic
cleavages" or "communal divisions.”
Weberian Theory
• Parkin argued that it is important to
understand the oppression of social groups by
social groups. Many of the current theories
of oppression we are using today are derived
from Weberian group theory. Weberian group
theory provides a powerful ability to sustain
social critiques.
Classical Origins of Theories of Oppression,
Dehumanization and Exploitation
• Oppression – Weberian group theory
• Dehumanization - Durkheimian institutional
• Exploitation - Marxist class theory
Theories of Oppression, Dehumanization
and Exploitation
Last Fall, I published a chapter, “Oppression,
Dehumanization and Exploitation: Connecting
Theory to Experience,” as Chapter 16 in the
Second Edition of Van Soest and Betty Garcia’s
book, Diversity Education for Social Justice
(Second Edition). Alexandria VA: Council on
Social Work Education. In that chapter I
introduced a typology of theories of
oppression, dehumanization and exploitation.
Basis of Typology of ODE Content
For Social Work Education
• Oppression: Ann Cudd’s Analyzing Oppression
(2006). First unified and philosophically
constructed theory of oppression.
• Dehumanization: Nick Haslam’s social
psychological theories of animalistic and
mechanistic dehumanization.
• Exploitation: Robin Hahnel and Chuck Tilly’s
post-Marxist theories of exploitation.
• First, let’s discussion exploitation, then
oppression, and then dehumanization. On
exploitation, let’s skip any real discussion of
classical Marxist class theory of exploitation,
but there is one great article which explains it
well: Longres, John. Marxian theory and
social work practice. Catalyst. 1986; (20)1334.
But in order to establish a typology of ODE
content, it is necessary to show the manner in
which oppression, dehumanization and
exploitation can be distinguished from each
other. That’s easier said than done, because
theories of oppression have become broader
and broader in their conceptualization in
recent years, so that O, D, and E become
For instance, Tilly (1998) has developed a
theory of inequality that posited mechanisms
of group domination as well as economic
extraction. David Gil (1994) has sought to
incorporate exploitation and dehumanization
into a theory of oppression.
But efforts to theorize oppression,
dehumanization and exploitation in ways
which incorporate each other risk
overstressing the extent of the overlap
between each other’s arguably distinct
A major problem with classical and most recent
theories of exploitation has been that they see
the exploitation of economic class by
economic class as the root of all evil, as the
source of all oppression, and as the engine of
all dehumanization. Modern feminist,
postmodernist and other emerging theories
were a reaction to this overemphasis on the
role of class.
For the source of a theory of exploitation which
both avoids this kind of ideological
imperialism and recognizes the manner in
which oppression can be distinguished from
exploitation, I chose Robin Hahnel’s work.
Hahnel recognized that exploitation can be
analyzed in terms other than Marxian theories
of surplus value. Even mutually beneficial,
voluntary economic exchanges can worsen the
degree of inequality.
Those who begin with a capital advantage will
have a competitive advantage in economic
exchanges, because they will be able to
operate with greater efficiency. This in turn
leads to further efficiency gains with each
exchange. The result is still greater inequality
of income and assets, via accumulation.
Exploitation is simply based upon unfair
What is one of the most important concepts
which can help understand the outcome of
such unfair exchanges? Cumulative
disadvantage. Cumulative disadvantage refers
to the manner in which over the life course of
individuals and of entire groups and
communities of people, such unfair exchanges
can become institutionalized into a system of
economic exploitation.
Unjust outcomes follow from transactions
between unequal parties within an
institutionalized environment. The outcome is
a result of exploitation. But Hahnel said unjust
outcomes can happen outside the context of
exploitation as well. Hahnel’s model of
exploitation leaves room for consideration of
the relationship of exploitation to oppression
and dehumanization.
Just as Hahnel theorized exploitation in a way
which left room to theorize oppression, so
Ann Cudd theorizes oppression in a way which
leaves room to consider exploitation
separately. In fact, Cudd devoted a major
portion of his book to showing that
exploitation isn’t necessarily oppressive! It
may (or may not) be unjust, but it isn’t
necessarily oppressive.
Wait, am I saying that the feminist philosopher
Ann Cudd argued that exploitation isn’t
necessarily oppressive? Yes, the reason is that
Cudd’s theory of oppression requires that all
oppression be conceptualized much like
Parkin did: as a function of the oppression of
one social group by another social group.
Cudd argued that the origins of different
historical examples of oppression may differ
and while the effect of oppression on various
groups may diverge, oppression has a
common set of features.
By the way, speaking of origins of the concept of
oppression, in what body of literature do you
feel that the concept of oppression was first
introduce? (Class)
For a set of quotations concerning oppression
from the Torah (the Hebrew Bible), the New
Testament and the Koran, please see the
course website.
There you can also see that versions of the
Golden rule, which stressed not harming or
oppressing others, can be found in almost
every one of the world’s religions.
Finally, the word oppression is one which is
found as a central theme in NASW’s own Code
of Ethics, and I’ve compiled excerpts for those
Cudd identified four necessary and sufficient
conditions for oppression: (1) Harm, (2)
Inflicted on a group, (3) by a more privileged
group, (4) using unjust forms of coercion.
Let’s look at each of these four and then I’ll
provide you with a definition of oppression
based on Cudd.
(1) A harm condition related to an identifiable
institutional practice;
Avoidance of serious harm is a universal human
goal according to Doyal and Gough’s Theory of
Human Need. Harm is a much theorized
concept in moral philosophy. But the harm
must be performed in an organized,
institutionalized manner, says Cudd.
(2) A social group condition that requires that
the harm be perpetrated by a social
institution or established practice on a social
And that social group must have a pre-existing
identity other than that stemming from the
presence of the harm condition itself.
(3) A privilege condition associated with the
existence of a social group that benefits from
the identified institutional practice;
(4) A coercion condition consisting of the ability
to demonstrate the use of unjust forms of
coercion as part of the bringing about of the
identified harm.
Thus, according to Cudd’s theory, oppression
involves the infliction of harm in a fully
institutionalized way by a more privileged
group on another identifiable group via the
use of unjust forms of coercion.
She excluded economic classes per se, because
classes may be specific to an economic
system. Cudd concluded from a rigorous
philosophical analysis that coercion can’t be
established as an inherent element of
workplace participation under either
capitalism or socialism. Therefore, Cudd
carefully distinguished oppression from class
Still, Cudd identified both direct and indirect
forms of material and psychological
oppression. Material oppression takes place
when one social group uses violence or
economic domination (domination, not
exploitation) to reduce the access of persons
of another social group to material resources
such as income, wealth, health care, the use
of space, etc. (Note: much like closure).
Psychological oppression is both direct and
indirect. Direct psychological forces produce
inequality through the purposeful actions of
members of the dominant group on people
in a subordinate group (including the use of
terror, degradation and humiliation, and
objectification). Direct psychological forces
also involve the imposition on the oppressed
social group of cultural influence.
However, indirect psychological forces
contribute to inequality by influencing
decisions made by oppressed people within
the oppressive context in which they live.
In either direct or indirect forms of oppression,
Cudd argued, there are subjective and
objective dimensions. Cudd viewed
subjective oppression as the conscious
awareness that one is in fact oppressed. In
other words, a person realizes they are being
unjustly and systematically harmed by virtue
of their membership in a social group.
And it is that realization by Cudd which helps
introduce today’s exercise, because what it
involves is becoming more aware of the ways
in which we are oppressed and/or
dehumanized and/or exploited, so that we
can be more aware of how our clients and
communities are oppressed, dehumanization
and exploited. But first we need to discuss
dehumanization briefly.
• I see dehumanization as being best explained
by theories developed from the tradition of
Durkheim and of institutional analysis. Would
anyone like to take another shot at defining
An Example
• Let’s look at an shot from an early films of Charlie
Chaplin, his 1936 film, Modern Times. He portrayed
how human beings are increasingly dwarfed by and
subjected to the machine.
Recent theoretical and empirical work on the
question of dehumanization has distinguished
between two forms of dehumanization:
animalistic dehumanization and mechanistic
dehumanization (Haslam, 2006). This is an
important distinction, because it makes it
possible to better recognize the relationship
between oppression and dehumanization.
Animalistic dehumanization involves one social
group denying that another social group has
the same set of uniquely human (UH)
attributes. This form of dehumanization is
called animalistic dehumanization because it
is often characterized by the explicit
application to the other social group of
animalistic characteristics.
Animalistic dehumanization takes place
primarily in an intergroup context, in
interethnic relations and towards groups of
persons with disabilities. It is accompanied by
emotions such as disgust and contempt for
the members of the other social group.
Animalistic dehumanization is fully consistent
with the mechanisms spelled out in Cudd’s
theory of group-based oppression
Therefore, I exclude Haslam’s theory of
animalistic dehumanization from my
typology’s source of theories of
dehumanization. I only utilize Haslam’s theory
of mechanistic dehumanization.
Mechanistic dehumanization involves the
treatment of others as not possessing the core
features of human nature (HN). Dehumanized
individuals or groups are seen as automata
(not animals). It is called mechanistic because
it is involves “standardization, instrumental
efficiency, impersonal technique, causal
determinism, and enforced passivity”
(Haslam, 2006, p. 260).
It is mechanistic dehumanization which is the
form of dehumanization which can be
distinguished both from Cudd’s theory of
oppression and Hahnel’s theory of
exploitation. And it is because that distinction
can be made theoretically that it is also
important to explore whether there are, at the
level of human emotions, words and affective
phrases which can characterize the experience
of moments of oppression, dehumanization
and exploitation.
We’ve All Experienced…
• Either oppression or exploitation or dehumanization
at some point in our lives.
• Many of use have experienced all three.
• Human emotions in response to these processes are
quite similar.
• Current thinking is that there is little purpose served
by constructing hierarchies of oppression in terms of
how much more or less oppressed or exploited
people or groups are.
The Exercise
• We write down on 3x5 cards the words and
affective phrases which describe the moment
of being oppressed, dehumanized or
exploited; our initial reactions to the
experience of that moment, and any evolved
responses over time (as well as whether we
feel they were adaptive or maladaptive). The
cards are shuffled and we take turns reading
from the 3x5 cards.
For Example
beaten down
being left behind
being used
boot in the face
• Next we discuss what these words and
affective phrases say about the feelings
produced by oppression, dehumanization and
• A previously developed compendium of words
and affective phrases is displayed (see PDF
file). Discussion centers on the use of the
exercise and compendium in classroom
learning and teaching and in the field by social
workers seeking to be more sensitive to the
feelings of clients.
Use of the Compendium
• Some words and affective phrases are associated
with the moment of an act of oppression,
dehumanization or exploitation.
• Other words and phrases describe emotions
experienced after the moment of the act but in
reaction to that act or similar acts.
• Other words and affective phrases describe emotions
which evolve over time due to the experience of
such acts: adaptive and maladaptive.
• This exercise roots a social worker's empathy within a
sociocultural context. It provides a platform for
developing a more effective individualization of the
client within this context. It makes empathy a less
mysterious and abstract, and more achievable
phenomena. If a social worker is in touch with her or
his own oppression, dehumanization and
exploitation, this helps overcome barriers or
differences between the worker and client by
reducing any sense of distance from the client the
worker may feel. This is one step towards cultural