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Title Agents of Surveillance
Author Jason Wood
Key Concepts Oppression, Anti-oppressive Practice, Racism, Sexism, PCS Analysis, Media

References & Site Links are listed below the essay.



We live in a culture of discrete and indirect methods of oppression. Due to the reason that it is indeed indirect – people can be reluctant to put oppression on the agenda as a serious issue. Indeed, I have heard many workers often complain about people discussing oppression in this country because they feel that it is not an issue for practitioners. My argument is that it is one of the cornerstones of our practice and should be given attention at all stages of our work.

This paper is written with the intention of introducing a process by which we can consider oppression in the context of youth and community work, and in our own personal understandings.

In the first part, I shall explore mental health as an aspect of disability. I then link this to gender, in terms of young women and then onto race.

The essay draws on models to highlight how oppression is not just an issue of one person’s prejudice but has wider definitions. I will also use my own model to demonstrate my practice response to oppression as a suggestion for other workers.

The essay concludes by reaffirming the key principles of anti-oppressive practice and why I have selected just three elements as a discussion point.

Agents of Surveillance: Understanding Anti-Oppressive Practice

Oppression simply cannot exist without the collusion of the less prominent factors in society. It is not something that exists without power, but equally we are not powerless in challenging it. My argument in this essay is that oppression is to be challenged, and is one of the foundations of youth work practice. In exploring the wider picture, I am able to present the anti-oppressive strategies and models of practice that are relevant in the challenging behavior we present.

I would like to begin this essay with the first of my topics – mental ill health. This form of illness falls under the category of disability in that it is considered to be an impairment of the mind or a disease that causes a disablement of normal functions (Chambers 1999).  I present this analysis based on my own personal experiences of mental ill health and the promotion and education surrounding this subject in my work as a practitioner.

Mental ill health is a vast subject, and that which is beset by various diagnoses and treatments. The incidence of mental health difficulties is vastly unknown, in one respect to the nature of treatment uptake in relation to illness (Nazroo 1997), but more so by the representation it is given through our news and media sources. If I reflect on the last time that I read about a mental ill health concern either in the press or through other sources, it is usually in relation to coverage of a murder or violent attack by a person who is severely troubled by a mental illness. This type of information aids in informing young people about the “dangers” of mental illness or distress, whilst neglecting to educate them about the realities of the conditions. An example figure worth consideration is that one person in 100 experiences a form of Schizophrenia in their lives (Deproost, Wood & Bayle 1999). Through the lack of education around mental health and other factors, terms such as “psycho” “loony bin” “deranged” and “freak” still haunt people of all ages.

This is only a snapshot of a wider issue and stigma is not my primary focus for this essay. I want to explore the wider picture of mental ill health in terms of oppression.

I present Thompson’s PCS model that details different levels of oppression:

(Adapted from Thompson 1997:21 Fig 2.1)

This diagram displays three different circles and in explaining their function, I will relate them to the discussion in this essay. The P stands for personal, the C for cultural and the S for structural. In terms of the nature of oppressive actions, they relate to the different levels. The personal is what we could commonly call a prejudice, while this thinking is shared in cultural norms or common thinking. The wider oppression is exacted through the structural level as a result of social divisions or the unequal distribution of power (Thompson 1997).

This model could relate to the oppression against sufferers of mental health problems, on a personal level in the prejudices they face and in the cultural norms that state that mentally ill people cannot cope or are dangerous. The wider spectrum is through the organisation of treatment, employment difficulties and state dominant message that reinforces the personal and cultural elements. The Sunday People’s story gives a clear example of this.

All sufferers of mental ill health can experience discrimination on grounds of their illness, either through lack of understanding or sheer bigoted behaviour. But those more likely to have mental health brought into question are women and black people, where mental illness has been used to reaffirm stereotypes, and as my argument will present, introduce elements of social control.

Due to the nature of the western world’s preoccupation with image consumerism and the way that the media portrays “good role models” – young women face a major struggle to be accepted as individuals. The striving battle for women to feel respected and to “look good” is made increasingly difficult with the unrealistic expectations presented to society as a whole. As a result of this, many young women experience one the most common mental illnesses known – eating disorders (Barnes & Maple 1992). The whole media circus presenting what is deemed to be a correct image has informed these young people’s opinions, influencing peers in their cruel pressure and creating a situation where women become ill. Living in a male-dominated arena, women can resort to this illness as a demonstration of their powerlessness at the hands of the status quo. Indeed, history as early as the beginning of the 17th century, women were seeking support from doctors due to their “distracted, disordered and melancholy” behaviour (Porter 1987:104). Porter goes on to say that at the time this was not surprising due to the position that women were put in by society. They had duties of labour, raising families and maintaining the house. In the nature of our patriarchal society, women who have presented emotive behaviour have been placed under “control by psychiatry” (Porter 1987:103).

So what is the structural response to the disorders in these young women? I do not dispute that there are treatment options available – but what do the tablets and therapies seek to achieve?

There is sufficient argument that young women are put through the rounds of treatment as a means of returning them to their “acceptable” state of mood, or controlling their emotional disturbances (Barnes & Maple 1992). However, this does not challenge the forces that created these negative factors and does not seek to promote good mental health. Indeed, some treatments are often delivered in the forms of force-feeding or Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT). ECT is not even fully understood and has been at the forefront of some very sinister side effects. Under current laws of compulsory admission through the Mental Health Act 1983, patients can be administered these treatments without their consent (Turner 2000). It is clear then that this treatment of women can be at the forefront of suppressing both choice and participation in recovery as well as neglecting to explore the reasons behind the illness. With one of the more common side effects of ECT being memory loss – this reaffirms my earlier statement of neglecting to address the needs or reasons for the illness. It is not just through these harsh measures, but in General Practice consultations and throughout the NHS treatment as a whole, modern anti-depressants are used. Modern treatments, such as Prozac aim to raise chemical levels in the brain – the deficiency being a believed link to cause of depression (MIMS 1999). In effect, the patient is set to comply and stick to treatment – generating a “chemical smile”. To draw on a local example, recorded incidence of eating disorders in Gloucestershire are reaching levels of 1800-2200 patients, identifying a clear need for study of the wider circle of pressure rather than suppress the symptoms (Deproost, Wood and Bayle 1999).

Race is a factor that was rarely considered in the examination of causes and incidence of mental ill health, but I put forward the argument of the need to re-visit this issue. For a long period of time and through results of research into race and mental illness, it was perceived that:

“Health disadvantages (were) inherent to their ethnicity – a consequence of their cultural and genetic weaknesses” (Nazroo 2000)

But research carried out in the Forth National Survey of Ethnic Minorities (FNS) shows that anxiety and significant depression is higher in Black British people than the older generation migrants (Nazroo 1997). Using this analysis, we can determine that (as Black British people are born in Britain) the above statement has no basis for truth. Indeed, there is more of a visible link to how society affects people through structural oppression. Numerous research projects show that there is a link between class levels and health. As it is considered that Black British people are generally of lower class, they suffer worse health.

So if class is a factor – what contributes to the class structure of black people? Interviews carried out in the FNS uncovered severe racism at the hands of employers, services and communities. 28% of interviewees described being refused employment on grounds of race (Nazroo 2000).

The equation here is simple: Black people face inequality in employment due to the inherent cultural and structural racism which then leads to poor health, resulting in treatment that is questionable. Studies show that “Afro-Caribbean people are more likely to be detained for compulsory hospital admission” even though there is no evidence to suggestion that they are in any way more violent or aggressive upon admission in comparison to other ethnic groups, such as white people (Nazroo 2000). The structural oppression that is evident here is at the hands of the doctors, police and hospital staff, the “Agents of Surveillance” who can show their racial bias through the NHS framework and by using the law to maintain “social control”.

The “agents of surveillance” can use their personal power, supported by their cultural norms, through the structural environment of the health service to exact racism or sexism; thus their level of influence is of a greater formula.

So recapping the facts, mental health discrimination is something that occurs throughout society, and using race and gender we can see how it can be used as a tool of control. We can also see the link between class and health, and the reasons for the class inequalities.  Mental health treatment, from the evidence shown, can be a tool for retaining status quo rather than tackling the social implications for the illnesses or the social causes.

There is simply no hierarchy of oppression and I have touched on three issues for one reason. The subject of poor mental health is a vast one and can affect anyone, but it has oppressive implications and stigma attached to the illness. Exploring further, I have made links to how this illness can reinforce stereotypes or cultural norms in both racism and sexism. There is also a clear link to class inequalities. So what does this mean? I give my reasons for not selecting the other oppressions to discussion. Firstly, we can see that to be anti-oppressive means to be against oppression. This is not just a case of being anti-racist, nor have these examples informed anti-sexism. More so, I have used mental ill health to show that oppressions are all linked through the model that I provided. As Youth and Community Workers, anti-oppressive practice means being aware of the whole picture rather than a specific area. From disability I discussed gender; from gender I discussed race and from race I discussed class. This could have been written again with sexuality, age or religion. Simply, the point is that oppression is generally indifferent in its nature. I have used the three examples to explain this and understand that there is no hierarchy for oppressed groups. It is about being aware of our own values and beliefs and translating the theories across the oppressions:

“To be anti-oppressive in our practice, we must first know ourselves. To know ourselves we can begin to know others.” (Patel 2000)

In practice, challenging oppression is a difficult role for youth workers, but must be central to our work. We have different capacities and different roles, but the message of anti-oppressive practice must be consistent and paramount.

  I would like to present another model to analyze:





 (Adapted from Sibbit 1997:107 Fig 6.1)

Throughout this essay, I have argued that there are wider forces of power at play in oppression and that personal prejudices have little influence unless supported by the cultural and structural powers in society. The above model illustrates a profile of perpetrators involved in racial harassment or attacks. It presents the idea that workers need to challenge the perpetrators, the potential perpetrators and the community.

Through the cultural norms and the establishment of common thinking, racism can manifest itself in the actual “doers” of the crime through the support of potential perpetrators, within a community that condones the actions. The implication for practitioners here is the ability to consider what is forming the young person’s beliefs. Therefore, in relating back to the PCS model, we can see that our role as Youth and Community workers is to challenge all three levels – and the above model, using racism, is a good example of how layers of oppression are identified. It is rare for a young person to be prejudice based on their own ideals – values are set and defined long before this. Taking this method of thinking further, we can translate across all inequalities and all patterns of oppression.


Build meaningful, trusting relationships through youth work with young people.


Target and work on real concerns such as unemployment or education


Challenge beliefs or assumptions held by young people in response to their concerns

(WOOD 1999:4) 

By working to this model of anti-oppressive practice, I can challenge the assumptions that tend to cloud the real concerns of the young person that I am engaging with, for example the common myth that black people “take all the jobs”. These assumptions have been supported by the cultural and structural systems that society has in place. How we adapt this model to our own strategies for tackling oppressive thinking and actions is based on the individual situations. This is merely a framework to encompass our processes.


This essay has selected disability, race and gender as three focal points for anti-oppressive practice and the nature of oppression.

In the first part, I focused on mental ill health as an element of disability drawing on my own experiences and knowledge.

I then linked the social oppression relating to mental illness to race and gender by drawing on the elements of theory dispelling common stereotypes such as the “cultural or genetic weaknesses” that were common explanations for poor health in Black British people.

I finished the essay by discussing my role as a youth work practitioner and the implications for anti-oppressive practice and understanding.

So, in conclusion, my argument for anti-oppressive understanding is clear. Although, I presented just three examples, this does not neglect that other oppressions that exist. It simply presents my belief that the nature of anti-oppressive practice, especially as a white practitioner, should be a study of the whole structure rather than just the individual elements. I have presented the idea that oppressions are linked and are often the result of the wider social elements. In short, we should understand how our own values and background as white people inform our practice. Anti-oppressive practice needs to be consistent and should target the three levels where possible. This can be achieved, in theory, through the “perpetrator” model of working, in that we should aim to target not only those who are racist but those who support racism and those who simply condone or collude to it.

In order for use to practice in an anti-oppressive nature, we need to be aware of the wider picture and our own personal value base. If we do not comprehend the wider picture - we challenge without insight and we educate without knowledge.

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References & Recommended Reading

Thompson, N. (1997) Anti-discriminatory Practice (2nd Ed), Basingstoke, MacMillan

Deproost, S., Wood, JJ., & Bayle, T. (1999) Next Please, Unpublished, Partners in Health, Gloucester

Sibbitt, R. (1997) The Perpetrators of Racial Harassment and Racial Violence, London, Home Office

Porter, R. (1987) A Social History of Madness, London, Orion

Barnes, M. & Maple, N. (1992) Women and Mental Health, Birmingham, Venture Press

Chambers Dictionary (1999), Edinburgh, Chambers

Nazroo, J. (1997) Ethnicity and Mental Health, London, PSI

Nazroo, J. (2000) Understanding the Poorer Health of Black People in Britain, in Owusu, K (Ed.) Black British Culture and Society p311-323, London, Routledge

Turner, N (2000) Hyperguide: The Mental Health Act at

MIMS (May 1999) CNS Treatment, London, Haymarket Medical

Wood, J.J. (1999) Why Challenge?, Gloucestershire, Unpublished

Pravin Patel’s quotation comes from Anti-oppressive Practice module notes (YCD/DMU) from 24.1.00

Site Links

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