Reading to Think Lesson R7: Case Study—Iris M. Young and Five Faces of Oppression 

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HINT: Take notes and then compare your notes with the notes provided below.


Some Concepts to Consider:

  • “an enabling conception of justice” (39)
    • “In this chapter I offer some explication of the concept of oppression as I understand its use by new social movements in the United States since the 1960s” (40).
    • “In the most general sense, all oppressed people suffer some inhibition of their ability to develop and exercise their capacities and express their needs, thoughts, and feelings” (40).
    • “I suggest that oppression is a condition of groups. Thus before explicating the meaning of oppression, we must examine the concept of a social group” (40).
  • Oppression as a Structural Concept (40-42)
    • “In its traditional usage, oppression means the exercise of tyranny by a ruling group” (40).
    • “In dominant political discourse it is not legitimate to use the term oppression to describe our society, because oppression is the evil perpetrated by the Others” (41).
    • “But oppression also refers to systemic constraints on groups that are not necessarily the result of the intentions of a tyrant. Oppression in this sense is structural, rather than the result of a few people’s choices or policies. Its causes are embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules” (41).
    • “In this extended structural sense oppression 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, media and cultural stereotypes, and structural features of bureaucratic hierarchies and market mechanisms–in short, the normal processes of everyday life” (41).
    • “We cannot eliminate this structural oppression by getting rid of the rulers or making some new laws, because oppressions are systematically reproduced in major economic, political, and cultural institutions” (41).
    • “Indeed, for every oppressed group there is a group that is privileged in relation to that group” (42).
    • “The same discussion has also led to the recognition that group differences cut across individual lives in a multiplicity of ways that can entail privilege and oppression for the same person in different respects (42).
  • The Concept of a Social Group (42-48)
    • “But what is a group?” (42)
    • “A social group is a collective of persons differentiated from at least one other group by cultural forms, practices, or way of life” (43).
    • “Social groups are not entities that exist apart from individuals, but neither are they merely arbitrary classifications of individuals according to attributes which are external to or accidental to their identities”(44).
    • “As Stephen Epstein describes it, identity is ‘a socialized sense of individuality, an internal organization of self-perception concerning one’s relationship to social categories, that also incorporates views of the self perceived to be held by others. Identity is constituted relationally, through involvement with–and incorporation of–significant others and integration into communities'” (Young 45).
    • “In complex, highly differentiated societies like our own, all persons have multiple group identifications. The culture, perspective, and relations of privilege and oppression of these various groups, moreover, may not cohere. Thus individual persons, as constituted partly by their group affinities and relations, cannot be unified, themselves are heterogeneous and not necessarily coherent” (48).
  • Applying the Criteria
    • “Each criterion can be operationalized; each can be applied through the assessment of observable behavior, status relationships, distributions, texts and other cultural artifacts. I have no illusions that such assessments can be value-neutral. But these criteria can nevertheless serve as means of evaluating claims that a group is oppressed, or adjudicating disputes about whether or how a group is oppressed” (64).
    • “The presence of any of these five conditions is sufficient for calling a group oppressed. But different group oppressions exhibit different combinations of these forms, as do different individuals in the groups” (64).
    • “Applying these five criteria to the situation of groups makes it possible to compare oppressions without reducing them to a common essence or claiming that one is more fundamental than another. One can compare the ways in which a particular form of oppression appears in different groups” (64).

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Some MORE Concepts to Consider:

“The Faces of Oppression” (48-63)

  • Exploitation (48-53)
    • “In both slave society and feudal society the right to appropriate the product of the labor of others partly defines class privilege, and these societies legitimate class distinctions with ideologies of natural superiority and inferiority” (48).
    • “Capitalist society, on the other hand, removes traditional juridically enforced class distinctions and promotes a belief in the legal freedom of persons. Workers freely contract with employers and receive a wage: no formal mechanisms of law or custom force them to work for that employer or any employer” (48).
    • “Every commodity’s value is a function of the labor time necessary for its production. Labor power is the one commodity which in the process of being consumed produces new value” (49).
    • “The central insight expressed in the concept of exploitation, then, is that this oppression occurs through a steady process of the transfer of the results of the labor of one social group to benefit another. The minutest of class division does not consist only in the distributive fact that some people have great wealth while most people have little” (49).
    • “These relations are produced and reproduced through a systemic process in which the energies of the have-nots are continuously expended to maintain and augment the power, status, and wealth of the haves”(50).
    • “Menial labor usually refers not only to service, however, but also to any servile, unskilled, low-paying work lacking in autonomy, in which a person is subject to taking orders from many people. Menial work tends to be auxiliary work, instrumental to the work of others, where those others receive primary recognition for doing the job” (52).
    • “The injustice of exploitation consists in social processes that bring about a transfer of energies from one group to another to produce unequal distributions, and in the way in which social institutions enable a few to accumulate while they constrain many more” (53).
    • “Bringing about justice where there is exploitation requires reorganization of institutions and practices of decision making, alteration of the division of labor, and similar measures of institutional, structural, and cultural change” (53).
  • Marginalization (53-55)
    • “Marginals are people the system of labor cannot or will not use” (53).
    • “Marginalization is by no means the fate only of racially marked groups, however” (53).
    • “Marginalization is perhaps the most dangerous form of oppression. A whole category of people is expelled from useful participation in social life and thus potentially subjected to severe material deprivation and even extermination” (53).
    • “Contemporary advanced capitalist societies have in principle acknowledged the injustice of material deprivation caused by marginalization, and have taken some steps to address it by providing welfare payments and services” (53-54).
    • “Two categories of injustice beyond distribution are associated with marginality in advance capitalist societies” (54).
      • “First, the provision of welfare itself produces new injustice by depriving those dependent on it of rights and freedoms that others have” (54).
      • “Second, even when material deprivation is somewhat mitigated by the welfare state, marginalization is unjust because it blocks the opportunity to exercise capacities in socially defined and recognized ways” (54).
    • “Marginalization does not cease to be oppressive when one has shelter and food” (55).
    • “Most of our society’s productive and recognized activities take place in contexts of organized social cooperation, and social structures and processes that close persons out of participation in such social cooperation are unjust. Thus while marginalization definitely entails serious issues of distributive just, it also involves the deprivation of cultural, practical, and institutionalized conditions for exercising capacities in a context of recognition and interaction” (55).
  • Powerlessness (56-58)
    • “It remains the case that the labor of most people in the society augments the power of relatively few” (56).
    • “Professionals are privileged in relation to nonprofessionals, by virtue of their position in the division of labor and the status it carries. Nonprofessionals suffer a form of oppression in addition to exploitation, which I call powerlessness” (56).
    • “This powerless status is perhaps best described negatively: the powerless lack the authority, status, and sense of self that professionals tend to have. The status privilege has three aspects, the lack of which produces oppression for nonprofessionals”(57).
      • “First, acquiring and practicing a profession has an expansive, progressive character” (57).
      • “Second, while many professionals have supervisors and cannot directly influence many decisions or the actions of many people, most nevertheless have considerable day-to-day work autonomy” (57).
        • “Though based on a division of labor between ‘mental’ and ‘manual’ work, the distinction between ‘middle class’ and ‘working class’ designates a division not only in working life, but also in nearly all aspects of social life” (57).
        • “Professionals and nonprofessionals belong to different cultures in the United States” (57).
      • “Thus, third, the privileges of the professional extend beyond the workplace to a whole way of life. I call this way of life ‘respectability'” (57).
    • “For this reason nonprofessionals seeking a loan or a job, or to buy a house or car, will often try to look ‘professional’ and ‘respectable’ in those settings” (58).
    • I have discussed several injustices associated with powerlessness: inhibition in the development of one’s capacities, lack of decision making power in one’s working life, and exposure to disrespectful treatment because of the status one occupies. These injustices have distributional consequences, but are more fundamentally matters of the division of labor” (58).
  • Cultural Imperialism (58-61)
    • “To experience cultural imperialism means to experience how the dominant meanings of a society render the particular perspective of one’s own group invisible at the same time as they stereotype one’s group and mark it out as the Other” (58-59).
    • “Cultural imperialism involves the universalization of a dominant group’s experiences and culture, and its establishment as the norm” (59).
    • “An encounter with other groups, however, can challenge the dominant group’s claim to universality. The dominant group reinforces its position by bringing the other groups under the measure of its dominant norms” (59).
    • “Given the normality of its own cultural expressions and identity, the dominant group constructs the differences which some groups exhibit as lack and negation. These groups become marked as Other” (59).
    • “The culturally dominated undergo a paradoxical oppression, in that they are both marked out by stereotypes and at the same time rendered invisible” (59).
    • “Those living under cultural imperialism find themselves defined from the outside, positioned, placed, by a network of dominant meanings they experience as arising from elsewhere, from those with whom they do not identify and who do not identify with them. Consequently, the dominant culture’s stereotyped and unfertilized images of the group must be internalized by group members at least to the extent that they are force to react to behavior of others influenced by those images” (59-60).
    • “Cultural imperialism involves the paradox of experiencing oneself as invisible at the same time that one is marked out as different” (60).
    • “This, then, is the injustice of cultural imperialism: that the oppressed group’s own experience and interpretation of social life finds little expression that touches the dominant culture, while that same culture imposes on the oppressed group its experience and interpretation of social life” (60).
  • Violence (61-63)
    • “What makes violence a face of oppression is less the particular acts themselves, though these are often utterly horrible, than the social context surrounding them, which makes them possible and even acceptable” (61).
    • “What makes violence a phenomenon of social injustice, and not merely an individual moral wrong, is its systemic character, its existence as a social practice” (62).
    • “Violence is systemic because it is directed at members of a group simply because they are members of that group” (62).
    • “Violence is a social practice. It is a social given that everyone knows happens and will happen again. it is always at the horizon of social imagination, even for those who do not perpetrate it” (62).
    • “Group violence approaches legitimacy, moreover, in the sense that it is tolerated” (62).
  • GENERAL COMMENTS:
    • “Exploitation, marginalization, and powerlessness all refer to relations of power and oppression that occur by virtue of the social division of labor–who works for whom, who does not work, and how the content of work defines one institutional position relative to others. These three categories refer to structural and institutional relations that delimit people’s material lives, including but not restricted to the resources they have access to and the concrete opportunities they have or do not have to develop and exercise their capacities. These kinds of oppression are a matter of concrete power in relation to others–of who benefits from whom, and who is dispensable” (58).
    • “Cultural imperialism, moreover, itself intersects with violence. The culturally imperialized may reject the dominant meanings and attempt to assert their own subjectivity, or the fact of their cultural difference may put the lie to the dominant culture’s implicit claim to universality. The dissonance generated by such a challenge to the hegemonic cultural meanings can also be a source of irrational violence” (63).