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Anti-Oppressive Practice: An Introduction
Dawn Summers



‘Only an understanding of internalisation makes sense of the incredible fact that most external controls work most of the time for most of the people in society.  Society not only controls our movements, but shapes our identity, our thoughts and our emotions.  The structures of society become the structure of our own consciousness.  Society does not stop at the surface of our skins.  Society penetrates us as much as it envelops us.’ (Peter Berger, Invitation to Sociology, 1966: 140).

In February 2001, I began an Open University course titled Family and Community History, mid 19th to late 20th centuries.  In the first month I learned that in the past men had not always (historically) gone out to work, been ‘bread winners’ and hunters,  and that women had not always stayed home, raised children and not participated in paid employment.  I learned that this was a fairly new social construction of familial socio-economic organisation and that even when this was the dominant ideological system of family, it had not been the reality for the majority of people.  As a woman who had struggled long and hard against her so called ‘place’ in life, I was angry.  As a youth and community worker with ten years post qualification experience, I was shocked.  I had long since learned to question and challenge sexism and biological explanations of gender based divisions but I had never questioned so called ‘historical facts’.  Such is the power of internalisation and the social construction of our realities that even when we are aware of and fight against the oppressive practices that these processes support and perpetuate we are still vulnerable to the theories, myths, eternal ‘truths’ and ideologies that create and are created by, the sociological structures that have become part of who we are. 

Berger is not alone in seeking to understand the duality of society and the way in which ‘we create society at the same time as we are created by it’ (Giddens, 1986:4).  Many theorists have attempted to identify the processes involved and the inequalities they breed.  Others have taken this a stage further and looked at ways of changing the ‘taken for grantedness of every day life’ (Berger & Luckman in Thompson, 2001:25) as a means of challenging and ending oppression.

Oppression can be defined as ‘any situation in which ‘A’ objectively exploits ‘B’ or hinders his and her pursuit of self affirmation as a responsible person’ (Freire, 1993:37) and/or the unequal distribution of power, status, authority, resources and/or opportunities.  These latter inequalities Neil Thompson describes as being ‘sewn in to the fabric of society’ (Thompson 2001:26) the stratification of which leads ‘inevitably (to) winners and losers’ (Thompson 2001:26) and he uses an analysis of the way the ‘structures of society become the structure of our own consciousness’ (Berger, 1966:140) to understand and challenge discrimination.

Thompson describes social structure as ‘the network of social relationships, institutions and groupings’ (Thompson, 2001:17) and claims that people can be ‘located within the social structure in terms of the intersection of different social divisions’ (Thompson, 2001:17).  Some of the major groupings/divisions being gender, class, race, sexuality and disability. 

In order to understand the effects of belonging to particular groupings, the inequalities and power differences, Thompson developed PCS analysis which looks at the personal, cultural and structural aspects of everyday life.  Personal insofar as individual feelings, thoughts, values and attitudes are concerned, cultural as common or shared values and norms whilst ‘the structural level (is) the network of social divisions and the power relations that are so closely associated with them – the socio-political dimension of interlocking patterns of power and influence’ (Thompson, 2001:22).

Using PCS analysis Thompson attempts to explain the relationship between the individual, society and discrimination and argues that although we are autonomous human beings responsible for our own actions, those actions have to be seen within the wider social context that both covertly and overtly affect them.  Berger and Luckman talk about understanding the way the ‘reality of everyday life is taken for granted as reality – simply there, as self-evident and compelling facticity’ (Berger & Luckman, 1991:37). PCS analysis is an attempt to explain how an interpretation of reality gets to be ‘taken for granted’ and as such is similar to the way in which Bauman describes the development of ‘common sense’.  According to Bauman ‘common sense’ began when ‘human needs entered human relations as unarguable starting points’ (Bauman, 1976:79) and that although these developed without intentional manipulation they were nonetheless human constructs.  He argues that ‘once established, they enter in the form of expectations and demands, in a feedback relation with social reality, which in its turn lends them some of its appearance of inevitability’ (Bauman, 1976:79).  Once they become ‘common sense’ and taken for granted they become so embedded in human existence that their ‘human, historically contingent origin’ (Bauman, 1976:79) becomes more obscure.  Hence my belief that women working outside the home for wages was a relatively new social phenomena.

Intentionality and manipulation of dominant ideas is another theme followed by Thompson and he argues that because we live in a society that has various stratifications, differential groupings and divisions, inequalities exist and because these inequalities tend to benefit one group to the detriment of another, those that hold power are able to employ certain practices, processes and explanations in order to maintain their position and justify their actions.  One such process being ideology.

‘Ideology refers to the power of ideas to maintain existing structures and social relations’ (Thompson, 2001:27) and Thompson describes it as the ‘glue that binds the levels (of PCS analysis) together’ (Thompson, 2001:30).  Thompson argues that ideologies set the standards or norms for society, clearly identifying what is acceptable and what is not, what is natural and what is not.   He states that ideology is one of the tools that are used by people in power to explain and justify their position and cites ‘the masking of the economic and socio-political dimensions (of old age) under the guise of a biological or natural decline is an ideological device, parallel with the ‘biology is destiny’ axiom of sexism and the ‘racial superiority’ fallacy of imperialism’ as examples. (Thompson, 2001:28).  For Gramsci this represented the psychocultural dimensions of ‘hegemony’ which he suggested demonstrates how ‘the dominant classes were able to convince those who were being exploited that their situation was natural and thus universal, which meant that things could not be changed.’ (In Berger, A, 1995:63). 

In this respect it is possible to see that whereas the use of violence and fear are overt methods of silencing witnesses to oppression, hegemony is a more covert, pervasive and coercive way of achieving the same outcome.

Raymond Williams explains this in describing hegemony as going beyond concepts of ideology and culture in that it is ‘the whole lived process as practically organised by specific and dominant meanings and values’ (in Berger A, 1995:63) and as such Berger says ‘hegemonic domination is thus more widespread, more hidden or disguised and more complete than ideological domination which has parameters that can be located and addressed’.  (Berger A, 1995:64).   

Marxist understanding of the organisation of dominant social classes is an example of hegemony in that it ‘involves the successful mobilisation and reproduction of the active consent of dominated groups’ (Thompson, 1998:26) in other words, for example, we continue to provide our labour for production in exchange for wages that are not a true representation of the value of same.  We therefore continue to contribute to the profits and therefore wealth of the ruling classes and their ability to dominate and oppress us as working classes.  Not only do we actively consent to this process of inequality, we buy into the idea that we too can become wealthier if we only work harder, save up and invest wisely.  We actually aspire to be like them. 

Another example would be the way in which oppressed people are treated as the source of the problem.  We problematise blackness instead of problematising whiteness. 

We ask what is it like to be a black person in Britain instead of asking what is it like to be white.  In this respect ‘Whiteness is equated with normality and as such it is not in need of definition’ (Solomos, 1996:22) and Solomos points out that ‘one must insist that whiteness is a political definition which regulates the consent of white subjects within the context of white supremacy’ (Solomos,  1996:24).

Likewise Jayne Mooney talks about the hegemony involved in the oppression of women being perpetuated through the idealised natural ‘family‘ and that this does not suggest a rejection of ‘the human need for intimacy, sexual relations, emotional fulfilment and parenthood; rather what she considers to be oppressive is the ideological assumption that such needs can only be met through the conventional family system’ (Mooney, 2000:81).

Freire sees education as another process that maintains institutional order and perpetuates inequality and he proposes that ‘Education as the exercise of domination stimulates the credulity of students, with the ideological intent (often not perceived by educators) of indoctrinating them to adapt to the world of oppression.’ (Freire,1993:59).   Likewise Emile Durkheim describes education as ‘simply the means by which society prepares, in its children, the essential conditions of its own existence’ (Giddens, 1972:203) and he suggests that we cannot as individuals deviate from it without ‘encountering the strong resistance which counters the erratic impetus of disaffection’ (Giddens, 1972:205). 

All of which would suggest that what Berger is actually talking about is the way in which power imbalances are maintained.   

The power of one group or groups to intentionally sustain a system of inequality swayed in their favour.  

Bertrand Russell defines power this way when he says that power is the ‘production of intended effects’ (in Jeffs & Smith, 1990:5), the more intended effects you can create, the more powerful you are.  Franklin & Franklin describe power not as ‘an attribute of individuals but an expression of a relationship between them’ (in Jeffs & Smith, 1990:5) and claim that everyone has some power in some situations. 

This is slightly different to Marx’s theories around power in so far as he saw it as being held exclusively by dominant groups, i.e. the ruling classes, and is more reminiscent of  Foucault who suggests that ‘people do not ‘have’ power implicitly; rather power is a technique or action which individuals can engage in.  Power is not possessed; it is exercised’ (, 2002:1).  In this way it can be understood as a ‘relatively fluid entity that is open to change and influence’ (Thompson, 1998:50) which requires the understanding and analysis of individual instances as opposed to a more general theory. 

In my first year at university we were taught that power was held by oppressors and that oppressed people had no power.  Therefore only white people could be racist because black people had no power.  But what I remember clearly from my early university years is that one group of black students within our year group held a considerable amount of power in the classroom situation, whether or not they realised this and that I found those early terms an incredibly oppressive experience.  This was probably the result of what Foucault saw as the conflict inherent in all power relationships, conflict which he saw as both constraining and enabling.  For if the exercise of power can be seen as dominance, then ‘such dominance can be challenged through acts of resistance, through the use of countervailing power’ (Thompson, 1998:54).  As Foucault saw power existing in every day human interactions then it would follow that opportunities to challenge dominating practices also exist every day.

I particularly like Foucault’s ‘ideographic’ approach to understanding power and social structure as I find the Berger quotation a little absolutist.  Taken literally Berger would appear to be suggesting that we are solely the product of our socialisation which would leave us unable to think independently and there are some who would describe this as the product and intent of hegemonic principles.  In fact some would go so far as to suggest that any opposition to hegemonic principles are not truly opposing ‘only illusory; (as) it still takes place within the framework of what is allowed by the dominant culture’ (Berger, A, 1995:64).   Legislative practices that on one hand appear to assuage the demands of oppressed groups but do not actually go as far as is necessary in enforcing them would be one example that would appear to support this.  We have had laws concerning sexism in employment and the right to equal pay for equal work for many years now and yet only recently has the debate taken place concerning the right of women to find out what their male counterparts are actually being paid.

But if Berger and others are right and if hegemony is so powerful, insidious and pervasive, how do we know this.   If every thought, action, feeling, emotion and value is determined by the hegemony with which we live, what possible scope for change and understanding of difference is there.   Why was it that as the eldest of four children living with a father who was openly racist and bigoted, did I not grow to adulthood reiterating and repeating these views as my brothers and sister did?  Why don’t I fit this sociological pattern of learned behaviour?   I believe the answer lies in the fact that in order to theorise about they way we live our lives it has been seen as necessary to confine people to various categories, to put them into groups and label them as this or that and then expect them to behave in similar ways. 

Judith Butler raises this issue in relation to the concept of ‘women’ and ‘gender’ and asks ‘is the construction of the category of women as a coherent and stable subject an unwitting regulation and reification of gender relations?’  In other words are feminist theories concerning gender just as confining and exclusionary as the patriarchal culture they hope to abandon?  In seeking to confine people to specific groupings, are we in danger of repeating the oppressive practice of objectification whereby people are seen as objects instead of self determining human beings. 

Freire talks about ‘the oppressed’ as one homogenous group and confines his argument to that of class, missing the reality of multiple oppressions and ignoring issues around race and gender.  In fact in reading his work I found his insistence on referring exclusively to men incredibly distracting from the importance of his ideas.  Something Sandra Tan picks up in her review of his work.  ‘Freire’s discourse of oppression serves as a poignant reminder of the normalising effects of dominant ideology on the socio-cultural practices and thinking of a given time’ (Tan, 2002:3).

There also appears to be a lack of understanding concerning the different experiences of people within oppressed groups and fluctuations in power.  My experience as single parent who owns her own home, has a car and a career, is very different to that of a single mum living on benefit in council housing.  As a woman in my work, I am actually in an incredibly powerful position in that I created the project that I manage although I have also faced discrimination in working with outside agencies and individuals who have insisted on talking to my deputy (male) at meetings instead of talking to me.  As a fat person, I have a lot in common with other fat people in terms of the discrimination they face on a daily basis and I feel powerless, ungainly and unnatural when attending the gym and yet I do not see being fat as the major description of who I am.  But in being a fat woman, I am subjected to oppression on two levels, that of being fat and that of being a woman.  In the same way that being a black woman raises issues of both race and gender, it is necessary to see the two forms of oppression as intrinsic to that persons experience as only by ‘making such links (can) a true understanding of how oppression structures an individuals life be obtained’ (Dalrymple & Burke, 2000:17).

I can therefore exercise power whilst being in turn controlled by power at different times and in different situations.  I am therefore capable behaving oppressively at the same time as being oppressed.  I would argue that this is the case for the majority of people.  

Black men can oppress women, black women can oppress disabled women, middle class men can oppress working class men who could in turn oppress gay men etc.  There therefore exists within each of us the possibility and reality of being both oppressor and oppressed. 

Power cannot therefore exist under the exclusive domain of one particular group.  If socialisation is a process that deliberately sustains inequalities and oppressive practices, then we are all capable of using it when it suits our own intentionality.  

However, individuals do not exist in isolation and society is built on an alleged system of co-operation, in other words we need other people to behave in a predictable manner for most of the time.  But it is in the nature of that behaviour that communities are either built or destroyed, are experienced as either cohesive or divisive and within which intentionalities are often created.  Our role as community educators is to enable people to develop a sense of community in which the intentionality is based on mutual respect and understanding and not on socially constructed discourse.  In other words education based on the principles of anti-discriminatory practice.

Dalrympole and Burke say that ‘anti-discriminatory practice – means recognising power imbalances and working towards the promotion of change to redress the balance of power’ (Dalrympole & Burke, 2000:15).  They propose that we should actively work towards change because if we don’t then we may simply perpetuate the inequalities inherent in society. 

Thompson agrees, ‘there is no middle ground; intervention either adds to oppression (or at least condones it) or goes some small way towards easing or breaking such oppression’ (Thompson, 2001:11).

It is with considerable discomfort that I have come to realise that my day to day practice is more an intervention that condones oppression than one which condemns it. 

Part of my role and that of the staff for whom I am responsible, is to enable young people to develop independent living skills including budgeting.  We work with them on developing skills and techniques that help them manage on low wages and insufficient benefits week after week.  And whilst this is important we, as workers, do not question nor do we encourage young people to question the inequalities inherent in a benefit system that says that because they are under 25, they are entitled to less money than those over 25.  We only teach them that this is the way of the world and enable them to live with it.  Freire says that ‘one of the gravest obstacles to the achievement of liberation is that oppressive reality absorbs those within it and thereby acts to submerge human beings consciousness’ (Freire, 1993:33), we are currently aiding this process which is something  I intend to change.

Mark Smith proposes that instead of teaching young people to cope with the inequalities inherent in their lives we should instead ‘help them to develop a more critical perspective on their situation and to have some sense of alternative possibilities in their lives’ (Smith, 1994:65).  Something Freire would agree with as he proposes the abandonment of ‘banking’ education, which simply sees students as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge, in favour of ‘problem-posing’ education which encourages people to critically examine the world so they may ‘perceive the reality of oppression, not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform’ (Freire, 1993:31).   In this way community education is about encouraging people to question the reality of their every day lives, to breakdown the ‘taken for grantedness’, the assumptions, the values and the stereotypes not only of who other people are but of who we are, in such a way that it challenges the reality of both oppressed and oppressors.  If we can do this and encourage people to see that ‘different than’ doesn’t mean ‘less than’ then we may truly be able to promote a participatory social justice that has principles of inclusion and empowerment at its heart.

To achieve this we must be capable of questioning and challenging our own socially constructed versions of reality not only remembering the need to be ever vigilant of our own socialisation, the prejudices and the misconceptions that we bring with us to our work but also those inherent in the social and political structures that surround us.  Thompson says of this ‘anti-discriminatory practice is an attempt to eradicate discrimination and oppression from our own practice and challenge them in the practice of others and institutional structures in which we operate’ (Thompson, 2001:34).  Being able to identify and challenge the ideologies that support and perpetuate oppression together with active reflection on, and evaluation of, practice are key components in the process of addressing and ending oppression. 

One particular definition of community education of which I am particularly fond is that it is ‘facilitated learning from each other’. 

As such it echoes more of Freire’s work on the use of education as a tool of liberation whereby students and teachers learn from each other in such a way that ‘students – no longer docile listeners – are now critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher’ (Freire, 1993:62).   In this way education is a shared journey of discovery whereby individuals are both student and teacher. 

If we applied the same principle to groups, where communities were able to learn from each other in an egalitarian atmosphere of mutual understanding and respect, where difference and diversity were accepted and valued, then together we could create a world of cohesive coexistence where oppression and discrimination were the exception rather than the rule.

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Berger A, (1995), Cultural Criticism, London, Sage Publications

Butler, J, (1999), Gender Trouble, London, Routledge.

Dalrympole J, & Burke, B, (2000), Anti-Oppressive Practice; social care and the law, Buckingham, Open University Press.

Freire, P, (1993), Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London, The Penguin Group

Gauntlett, D, (2002). Michel Foucault

Giddens, A, (1986), Sociology, Cambridge, Polity Press

Giddens, A, (ed), (1972), Emile Durkheim, Selected Writings, London, Cambridge University Press.

Mooney, J, (2000), Gender, Violence and the Social Order, London, Macmillan Press Ltd.

Smith, M, K, (1994), Local Education, Buckingham, Open University Press

Solomos, J, Back, L, (1996), Racism and Society, London, Macmillan Press Ltd.

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Thompson, N, (2001), Anti-Discriminatory Practice, Third Edition, New York, Palgrave.

Thompson, N, (1998), Promoting Equality, London, Macmillan Press Ltd.



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