Published in The Encyclopedia of Critical Psychology, T. Teo (Ed.), Springer, 2013.


The Psychology of Oppression

Carl Ratner





Psychology of oppression is both a phenomenon and an explanatory construct -- just as psychology is a phenomenon and also the study of that phenomenon (e.g., behavioristic psychology, cognitive psychology). The phenomenon called "psychology of oppression" is the psychological effects of social oppression, and the psychological requirements that sustain (are functional for) social oppression. In other words, social oppression includes a psychological complement in the victim that contributes to his subjugation. (Psychology of oppression also includes the psychology of oppressors, that we shall not explore here; but see Tabensky, 2010).

 The construct “psychology of oppression” is a way of understanding psychological debilities as products of social oppression. It is a social-psychological construct that integrates psychology and society as two sides of the same coin. It identifies society as oppressive in certain ways, and peoples’ psychology as implicated in that oppression (both as an effect of oppression and also a contribution to -- reinforcement of -- oppression). It says that psychological debilities are an index (measure) of social oppression.

The phenomenon "psychology of oppression" consists of psychological stultification across a wide range of psychological processes. Social oppression enlists, coopts, corrupts many psychological processes in its victims to do its bidding.

Oppressed psychology falls short of realizing the person's individual potential/aptitudes, it also falls short of realizing her potential for what she could and should be as a social being. Psychology of oppression stunts people's capacity to understand, own, and control their society, which are all necessary to understand and fulfill oneself. Indeed, this is the primary function of psychology of oppression. Stunting the panoply of psychological processes such as cognition, perception, emotions, motivation, sensibility, imagination, aesthetics, morals, and self-concept, serves social oppression by oppressing social being. Social oppression is the basis, function, and character of psychological stultification. Personal stultification is part of this social process, not its origin. Personal and psychological stultification are social problems that can only be eradicated through democratizing and cooperativizing the society. Stultification cannot be overcome through personal means at the personal level which do not directly transform social oppression.

Psychology of oppression is not limited to morbid psychopathology such as schizophrenia and depression. Oppression may debase normal psychological phenomena. Poor environments may curtail educational achievement.

Psychology of oppression is not limited to psychology that is disfavored (e.g, low educational achievement, prejudice, superficiality, apathy). It may also include socially-valued psychological phenomena such as craving, impulsively buying, and identifying with consumer products; Islamic women accepting gender apartheid; electing political candidates and endorsing political policies that represent the interests of the elite class rather than the populace; conforming to restrictive, punitive theological dogma; enjoying vile, vapid entertainment programs; crude, superficial, sensationalistic aesthetic taste; believing superficial and biased news; feeling insecure, harried, docile at work; plus irrationality, conformity, selfishness, and short-sightedness (quick return on investment). All of these are debased/stunted psychological forms that fall short of fulfillment, and are ultimately based in, serve, and embody social oppression and diminished social being (i.e., understanding, owning, and controlling macro cultural factors).


Psychology of oppression is objective, an "Objektiver Geist"

Designating the foregoing phenomena as the psychology of oppression is not an arbitrary designation based on the evaluator's personal prejudices. Psychology of oppression can be objectively demonstrated to diminish the subject's psychology and sociality, and to subjugate him to the economic and political interests of a ruling social elite.

Employees who are insecure, docile, and obsequious (and valued by employers for this), clearly operate at diminished capacity and will accept employers' dictates regarding working conditions.

A public that is stupefied by news coverage of political events which focuses upon superficial, personal, sensationalistic, immediate events, is easily misled into voting for policies and officials which benefit the ruling class to the detriment of the populace. Capitalist politicians can disguise their true goals of promoting predatory capitalism under superficial images of being black, female, growing up poor, being personable, etc. that convince voters to elect them.

Similarly, engineering a consumerist psychology that is impulsive, irrational, conformist, superficial, sensationalistic, uncritical, lazy, and disinterested in understanding vital product features, allows marketers to induce people to purchase unnecessary, injurious, and expensive products on the basis of glitzy appearance, and association with prominent paid spokespeople, which critical, discerning, rational analysis would repudiate.

Artistic taste/sensibility/perception may have this same oppressive social character with similar social consequences. Musical taste may be informed by the same crude, extreme, sensationalistic quality that advertising has, and it may similarly deprive people of the discerning, profound sensibility and transcendent vision of beauty and harmony that are necessary to comprehend, critique, and humanize society and psychology. The Frankfurt School explored this issue (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1972; Adorno, 1978). Marcuse (1969, p. 23-48) said that sensibility is a political factor. Beauty is an important sensibility for practicing freedom ("The beautiful would be an essential quality of freedom."). Crude, vapid, superficial sensitivity accepts the unfreedom of the crude, vapid status quo. A new sensibility that is an aesthetic ethos "would foster, on a social scale, the vital need for the abolition of injustice and misery and would shape the further evolution of the standard of living."

The oppressive causes, characteristics, and function of psychology of oppression are also objectively demonstrable in the case of fundamentalist religion: Engineering a mystified consciousness that feels confused, weak, ignorant, and afraid of alien, unfathomable, miraculous, punitive, spiritual forces, leads people to uncritically submit to spiritual leaders. Devotees are taught to abandon analysis, logic, empirical reality, and critique, and to adopt an extra-ordinary, form of consciousness -- blind faith in religious authority -- to know what is going on.

All these examples of psychology of oppression are valued by the oppressive groups that impose them because they sustain their wealth and power.


The form and content of psychology of oppression

Both the content and the form of psychological phenomena may become oppressed and oppressing/oppressive.

The content of desire may include wanting junk food or wanting some watch that a movie star wears. This content is oppressive because it is unhealthy and conformist. Additionally, the form of desire may become oppressive, as when we develop an insatiable craving for shoes or handbags. Here, the form of desire as an insatiable craving is oppressive because it dominates us.

The same is true for thinking: the content of what we think about may become oppressive, as when we believe that pro-capitalist politicians and policies are good for us when they are not; or when people deny global warming and suffer from its devastation. The form of our thinking may also become oppressive, as when we base our ideas upon spurious, superficial associations without firm evidence. This is the case when we associate a consumer product with an attractive or prestigious model, or when we believe a political candidate will work for our interest because s/he served in the army, or appears sincere, or had immigrant parents, or is black or a woman.

The form of psychological phenomena may be more important and more difficult to understand and re-educate than the content is. We may be able to understand that the content of junk food and movie stars’ watches are not good to pursue, however, if the form of our thinking remains irrational, impulsive, and sensationalistic, we will find it difficult to studiously inform ourselves about consumer products and we will find it difficult to control our impulses for their attractive glitter.


The importance of psychology of oppression

The construct “psychology of oppression”

Š      makes oppression an explicit topic of psychological research and theory. Relates psychological processes and phenomena to societal oppression. Oppression is a societal term that includes oppressor and oppressed. Relating these political constructs to psychological issues frames the latter in cultural-political terms. Oppression is far different from personalized terms such as mistreatment or abuse. Research will seek to identify oppressive social factors -- such as poverty, stupefying entertainment, superficial news media, mystification in the form of advertising, religion, and political and corporate lies -- and oppressive psychological effects of these social factors. Psychology of oppression cannot be studied by conventional acultural theories and methodologies. The concept of psychology of oppression calls for radically new cultural-psychological theories and methodologies. A case in point is the act and psychology of State-sanctioned violence. When a government makes a geopolitical decision to conquer a country such as Vietnam or Iraq, and it sends soldiers to kill local citizens, this act and psychology of violence is entirely a cultural-political phenomenon. It is a cognitive decision based upon strategic interests of the leaders; it's motive is to conquer and control and extract advantages; it is planned and prepared for over time; weapons are stockpiled; and troops are recruited, trained, and indoctrinated about the importance of the mission. This offensive aggression to exploit a population has nothing to do with animalistic mechanisms or reasons such as an instinct to kill for food, or an instinctive defense against an immediate physical threat to the individual animal. Reducing political-cultural violence to animal instincts/mechanisms (and employing methodologies designed to study the latter) falsifies its cultural-political basis, character, and function.   

Š      explains numerous debilitating psychological phenomena in a parsimonious way through a common explanatory construct. They are neither accidental, mysterious, surprising, personal, nor natural. They are the result of social oppression. They are necessary for social oppression to maintain itself. They must exist. They can never be eliminated as long as social oppression exists. They are political phenomena, they make politics central to Psychological theory and research. Psychology of oppression frames the different competencies of lower class and upper class individuals in terms of class differences in power and opportunities. Lower class competencies in communication, language, literacy, and logical reasoning are deficiencies caused by oppression and functional for maintaining the oppression of lower class individuals. Lower class competencies are just as impoverished as their wages, houses, and neighborhoods are. Lower class competencies are not merely stylistic differences from upper class competencies. Psychology of oppression sensitizes us to the organic wholeness of material and psychological oppression

Š      enhances psychological science by identifying true explanatory constructs and descriptors of psychological phenomena, and debunking false explanatory constructs and descriptors

Š      regards psychological debilitation as victimization of societal abuse. Victims of psychology of oppression are not blamed for their debilitations, however, their oppressed psychology/behavior is criticized for being debilitated and debilitating (Boltanski. 2011)

Š      exposes and challenges oppressive elements of society

Š      develops interventions that repudiate and circumvent oppressive psychological phenomena. This is critical for removing debilitating perceptions, emotions, desires, needs, self-concept, motivation, and reasoning processes that prevent people from understanding social problems and from pursuing concrete, viable actions that will eradicate them. Alleviating the psychology of oppression is prerequisite to developing viable emancipatory actions on the personal, group, and international levels.

Š      illuminates theoretical issues regarding the relation between psychology and culture. Psychology of oppression exemplifies and validates cultural psychology -- particularly "macro cultural psychology." Psychology of oppression utilizes -- exploits -- general principles of macro cultural psychology, particularly political origins, characteristics, and functions of psychological phenomena; the socialization of psychology; the active internalization of this socialization in individual cognitions, perceptions, emotions, and self-concept; and the active externalization (performance, reproduction) of socialized cultural-psychological phenomena in behavior. Of course, psychology of oppression includes distinct concrete features such as mystification that are not present in emancipatory psychology.

Š      ties psychological improvement to social improvement, and vice versa


The psychology of oppression is therefore a scientific psychological construct, a political construct, a socially critical construct, and an emancipatory construct, all in one.




Psychology of oppression refers, first and foremost, to the fact that oppressed psychology is the subjective processes that sustain oppression within the victims of oppression. Oppressed psychology is oppressive, oppressing psychology. It is not the passive result of oppression, but an active reproducing of oppression by consciousness/subjectivity/agency (Ratner, 2011). Victims of oppression are unwittingly complicit in their own oppression. Psychology of oppression consists of motivation, agency, perception, emotions, ambitions, ideals, reasoning, memory, aesthetics, and morals that accept the oppressive social system, desire it, identify with it, take it for granted as normal and even as ideal, take pleasure in it, defend it, and reject alternatives to it. This is only possible because consciousness/psychology has been mystified and manipulated to not perceive, understand, or resist the oppressive society and the oppressive social basis, characteristics, and function of psychological phenomena.

Psychology of oppression reveals that oppression is not always perceptible and repellant. It can be disguised and beguiling. People do not always know they are oppressed. Sometimes they have to be educated about their oppression. The reason is that oppression stunts people’s critical, rational, analytical, probing capabilities. Normative oppression also becomes taken-for-granted and mundane, and therefore imperceptible.


Psychology of oppression is promulgated by oppressing/oppressive social groups

Oppressors promote psychology of oppression through the institutions, artifacts, and conceptual apparatuses they control -- think tanks, advertising, news outlets, entertainment institutions, university research institutes, religious institutions, political parties, and governmental agencies (Ratner, 2012a, pp. 310-322).

Foucault (1978/2012, p. 110) describes the vastness of this process in one example:

 I study things like a psychiatric asylum, the forms of constraint, exclusion, elimination, disqualification, let us say, the reason that is always precisely embodied, embodied in the form of a doctor, a medical knowledge, a medical institution, etc., exercised on madness, illness, un- reason, etc., what I study is an architecture, a spatial disposition; what I study are the disciplinary techniques, the modalities of training, the forms of surveillance, still in much too broad terms, but... what are the practices that one puts in play in order to govern men, that is, to obtain from them a certain way of conducting themselves?... it was out of this machinery of exclusion, of surveillance, of training, of therapy, etc., that there came to be constituted the hospital—first confinement, then the hospital, then psychiatry. That is the relation of power as principle of intelligibility, of the relationship between materiality and rationality." " From this analytical grid we can at once reconstruct the way possible objects of knowledge are constituted, and on the other hand how the subject constitutes itself, that is to say, what I call subjectification [l’assujettissement], a word I know is difficult to translate to English, because it rests on a play on words, subjectification [assujettissement] in the sense of the constitution of the subject, and at the same time the way in which we impose on a subject relations of domination.


The main purpose of psychology of oppression is to adjust to social and material oppression, and to curtail and distort people's understanding of social reality so they will not see its oppressive character. Everything that distracts from a rational, objective comprehension of social reality obfuscates oppression and allows it to flourish undetected. Oppression is sustained by a wide network of distracting, obfuscating tactics. These include official lies, stupefying entertainment, banal art, superficial news, irrational philosophies, and organized religion.

 For example, when religious authorities convince people to believe in fictitious, unfathomable religious entities, ideas, and rituals, this forces devotees to rely on "wise" authorities to lead them. A non-existent god cannot be known by ordinary powers of perception and reason because it does not exist. Consequently, devotees who believe in an institutionalized god are forced to depend upon religious authority to interpret "his" will. Devotees can never question authoritative interpretation of a god which they cannot perceive or fathom. The more imaginary (mysterious, miraculous) the religious construct is, the more it prevents normal human powers from understanding and challenging it, and the more it forces devotees to rely upon religious authorities. Religious historical myths -- such as god opening the Red Sea to allow the Jews to walk out of Egypt -- are so miraculous that it makes devotees admire, depend on, and obey their religious leaders -- who are spokesmen of this awesome god -- as wise people who can recount and adulate this miraculous, unfathomable event. In contrast, a realistic account of how the Jews left Egypt would allow devotees to engage in empirical historical research and logical reasoning that would enhance their understanding of social forces. It would obviate the unquestioned power of religious authorities to dispense information. Religious deism and mysticism, like all irrational thinking, has oppressive political functions. This is an important dimension of the psychology of religion.

Althusser (1969/2001) explained how ideology is promulgated by state apparatuses in order to obscure the exploitive character of society and secure submission to its practices and its leaders. A major ideology in capitalist society that denies exploitation and secures unwitting submission to it is individualism. Individualism is a social philosophy which claims that individuals are responsible for creating their own lives and that society is nothing more than a set of individually constructed lives. This conception eliminates any possibility of exploitation by a ruling class because only autonomous individuals exist. Since exploitation has been ideologically obfuscated, there is no need for social-psychological critique or reform.

However, this ideology is false. Individuals are cultural members and their psychology/behavior is culturally structured. Individualism does not eliminate cultural structures and structuring, it merely blinds people to the cultural structuring of psychology/behavior that is misconstrued as personal, authentic, individual agency, self-expression, personal responsibility, and free choice. Cultural structuring of behavior goes on out of sight of (behind the back of) the individualist: “The individual is interpellated [constituted] as a (free) subject in order that he shall (freely) accept his subjection, i.e. in order that he shall make the gestures and actions of his subjection ‘all by himself’”  (Althusser, 2001, p. 123).

Volosinov similarly explained how ideology is internalized by the individual and embraced as his own: “ideological themes make their way into the individual consciousness (which as we know, is ideological through and through) and there take on the semblance of individual accents, since the individual consciousness assimilates them as its own” (Volosinov, 1973, p. 22, my emphasis).

Thus, far from liberating people from cultural structures and structuring, individualism entraps them within these structures. It does so by blinding people to these and obfuscating any need for social-psychological critique and reform.

Althusser additionally emphasizes that An ideology always exists in an apparatus and its practice, or practices” (Althusser, 2001, p. 112). He identifies Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) that promulgate ideology and psychology of oppression. These include

Š       the religious ISA (the system of different churches)

Š       the educational ISA (the system of the different public and private ‘schools’)

Š       the family ISA

Š       the legal ISA

Š       the political ISA (the political system, including the different parties)

Š       the trade-union ISA

Š       the communications ISA (press, radio and television, etc.)

Š       the cultural ISA (literature, the arts, sports, etc.)

   Ideological State Apparatuses compliment other repressive apparatuses such as the police, military, courts, prisons, and surveillance in securing submission to the social order.


Popular forms of psychology of oppression

The framing of psychology of oppression by social leaders sets the tone/template for people to construct their own oppressive behavior/psychology. For example, capitalists invent advertising to promote their products. They make advertising a cacophony of mindless, vapid, misleading, enticing, sensationalistic images. We have explained how this social artifact generates oppressive desires, perceptions, emotions, and self-concept that animate impulsive, insatiable, uncontrollable, conformist consumer behavior. This then serves as a model for popular activities such as popular music. Musicians develop punk rock that has a similar form to mindless, vapid, sensationalistic, extreme, cacophonous, mind-numbing advertising. This popular music recapitulates and reinforces the psychology of oppression by depriving people of the discerning sensibility, the deep, systematic, critical reasoning, and a transcendent vision of beauty and harmony that are necessary to humanize society and psychology.

Oppressive ruling classes eagerly support and appropriate popular forms of psychology of oppression. Capitalists hire, sponsor, fund, advise, market, and represent popular musicians, artists, computer programmers, movie-makers, athletes, and folk heroes so that they can continue their oppressive practices (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1972). Football owners embrace extreme, sensationalistic, popular entertainment venues at the Super Bowl that they own. Political and economic elites often turn to obscurantist, autocratic religions to gain support for their oppressive policies (see the chapter on False Consciousness, this Encyclopedia; available at


Psychology of oppression underlies normal psychology and abnormal psychology

Viewing normal society as oppressive leads to recognizing that it debilitates psychological functioning far more extensively than is ordinarily recognized. Debilitation extends to broad areas of normal psychology; it is not narrowly confined to instances of abnormal psychology.

Oppressive normal society incapacitates its citizens in order to adjust them to oppression. Oppressive society needs people to be functionally pathological, or functionally incapacitated -- pathological and incapacitated to function in oppressive conditions. Oppressive society must walk a fine line between generating functional pathology and incapacitation yet not oppressing people to the point where their pathology and incapacitation are dysfunctional and render them incapable of supporting the oppressive system. Dysfunctional pathology and incapacitation are collateral damage of social oppression.

 People are incapacitated as they participate in the system, not only as they drop out of it. Slaves are incapacitated as they function in slavery; religious devotees are psychologically incapacitated by obeying theocratic dogma; succumbing to capitalist commercial news, advertisements (including political advertisements), and entertainment is psychologically debilitating/stupefying.

The more that society becomes oppressive – i.e., hierarchical, impoverished, alienated, disenfranchising, precarious, mystifying (by ideology and by practices that assault rationality and sensibility), militaristic, intolerant of dissent, and infiltrated by police, surveillance, and incarceration (the United States spends 3 times more money for incarceration than for public education, per pupil) -- the more that normal psychology becomes the psychology of oppression. This is manifest in the increasing prevalence of destructive behavior such as workplace rampages and school shootings. The more prevalent these become, the less credible it is to explain them in terms of individual processes (Ratner, 2012, pp. 194-198). For example, before the financial crisis began three years ago, Greece had the lowest suicide rate in Europe at 2.8 incidents per 100,000 inhabitants. With the financial crisis, Greece doubled that number of suicides which catapulted its suicide rate to the highest in Europe in the first half of 2011. Attempted suicides have also increased (The Guardian, Dec. 18, 2011: suicide-rate-highest).

Neither personal nor biological attributes can explain this demographic change in suicide. They are products and reproducers of social pathology, not original causes of it.

Psychology of oppression is normal and functional in oppressive society. This means that normal psychology contains oppressed, oppressive, oppressing, debilitating features and functions. This is normal pathology, or pathological normalcy, or functional psychological incapacitation. Normal psychology debunks the antithesis of normal psychology from abnormal psychology. That separation places all serious psychological problems in the abnormal domain, and implies that normalcy is good/fulfilling. However, pathological normalcy means that normal psychology is continuous with abnormal psychology, for both are stunted, and the stultification of both is rooted in exploitive macro cultural factors, embody their features, and promulgate cultural factors (see Fromm, 2010; Ratner & El-Badwi, 2011).

Psychology of oppression is fundamentally underestimating the extent of oppression and the reasons for it. This includes underestimating the extent of exploitation, privilege, power, and discrimination, and underestimating how deeply they penetrate the psychology of people. Thus, high measures of subjective well-being may indicate false consciousness about one's oppression rather than true well-being.

 Minimizing oppression is practiced by oppressors to deflect criticism of their exploitive practices. Oppressed people unwittingly recapitulate the ideology of their oppressors and also underestimate the extent of their own oppression. Lower class Americans typically misperceive themselves as less poor than they are. In addition, advocates for the populace typically adulate oppressed people as seeing through oppression and resisting it, when they actually do not. Underestimating psychology of oppression is fatal to social reform because it fails to expose and correct the psychological limitations that undermine it.

Individual, abnormal psychology is used to obfuscate structural, normal pathology

Normal pathology, or pathological normalcy, means that the primary form of psychopathology is normal, functional pathology; for this is the state of the majority of individuals who participate in normal oppression. Abnormal, dysfunctional pathology afflicts comparatively few individuals.

However, normal pathology is neither exposed nor treated. Instead, the less prevalent and less pernicious abnormal psychology is given attention and treatment. The reason is that this insulates normal oppression from exposure and challenge.

When the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual continually expands its list of mental illnesses, and physicians continually prescribe more medicine to treat them, and therapists treat more individuals to confront their personal disturbances, all this creates the impression that serious psychological problems are ab-normal, biological, and individual -- rather than being structural, social, and normal. Thus, twenty percent of Americans now take at least one drug to treat one or more psychiatric disorders. Usage among women, and children under ten, doubled between 2001 and 2010. The Centers for Disease Control’s 2011 Mental Illness Surveillance Report stresses that 25% of Americans are mentally ill and one in two will develop a mental illness sometime in their lifetimes.

What psychiatrists claim to be a rise in abnormal psychology is mostly a rise in normal pathology that is disguised as a rise in abnormal, biologically-based, individual psychopathology. (Of course, increased normal pathology also generates higher rates of serious, abnormal psychology – because serious psychopathology is as social as normal pathology.)

Psychiatry uses abnormal psychology as a smokescreen to obfuscate society’s dangerous psychological problems. Psychiatry de-socializes and de-politicizes psychological problems by dumping them into non-social categories such as abnormal psychology that are proclaimed to have biological, individual bases, characteristics, principles, functions, and treatment.

Shyness cannot be allowed to be left in normal, social terms that reflect social pressures such as intimidating competition. So shyness must be converted into “social phobia,” dubbed abnormal, and medicalized in order to quarantine it from normal pathology. Similarly, being distractible cannot be left as a neutral phenomenon because that would leave open the possibility that it has social origins in the frenetic proliferation of consumer goods and advertisements, and the frenetic distraction by multiple, intense pressures of capitalist social life. So ordinary distractibility must be pathologized into an abnormal psychology called hyperactivity/attention deficit disorder that is construed as biologically-based and medically treated. This quarantining of the problem prevents it from being linked to its normal social sources.

This ideology becomes a macro cultural factor that misleads people to misunderstand their psychological problems as their own. Psychiatry thus mystifies psychological problems and exacerbates the psychology of oppression.

The news media compounds this mystification. Every report of a psychological disturbance is framed in individual terms of pathology and treatment. Even when battalions of American soldiers commit crimes or suicides, solutions are only proposed in terms of individual counseling. These problems are never traced to any social issues that should be transformed at the societal level. Individualized psychotherapy is thus another smokescreen that obfuscates society's problems (Cushman, 1994).

Most lay people and professionals worry about abnormal psychology threatening normal people and social structure. However, the true problem is the reverse – it is the intensification of normal pathology that threatens most people and society. Intensifying normal social-psychological pathology is also what causes abnormal psychology. The latter is an index of the former.

For instance, deaths from illegal drugs cocaine and heroin are approximately 5,000/year combined, compared with drug deaths from legal, prescription painkillers that amount to over 15,000/year (which does not include deaths from other legally taken drugs).

Reducing psychopathy requires addressing and eradicating normal, general, pervasive, structural oppression more than addressing unusual, circumscribed, individual, abnormal stressors and breakdowns. Reducing abnormal psychology will not mitigate normal, general oppression and normal pathology, however eradicating normal, general social oppression will mitigate extreme, circumscribed, abnormal psychology.

Tracing pathology to normal conditions begins with framing it in normal terminology rather than abnormal terminology. Violent acts such as school killings should be attributed to normative descriptors and explanatory constructs such as depersonalization, alienation, objectification, egocentrism (imposing one's will on others in order to satisfy one's own desires), desensitization to other's feelings and needs, aggressive, instrumentalism (using others as an instrument for one's own desire), misplacing blame for one's problems on individuals rather than social systems, solving problems through violence, idolizing militarism (donning military garb and weapons), demolition rather than constructivism. Such normal terminology makes anti-social behavior comparable to the same attributes and psychodynamics of normal acts such as police tactics (breaking down someone's door, tasering them, and taking them away to detention without any explanation to the suspect or his family members; or violently dispersing peaceful demonstrators with pepper spray or water cannons), militarism and imperialism that characterize the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Vietnam, and corporate managers summarily disposing of -- decimating -- employees (and entire communities) in order to benefit themselves. The linguistic unification of personal and normative behavior expresses a synthesizing epistemology that reveals their behavioral/psychological/cultural isomorphism. The way to minimize personal acts of violence is then seen to require minimizing normative cultural impetuses of violence in general, of which personal violence is a part. (This requires attacking the panoply of normal cultural practices that promote violence. It cannot be limited to attacking one, superficial, secondary, extreme practice such as buying and selling assault weapons.) In contrast, describing perpetrators of school killings in pathological terms such as disoriented, bi-polar, schizophrenic, troubled, on medication, hot-tempered, and socially isolated, severs their link with normal pathological activities, and therefore insulates the latter from analysis and change.  


Crime follows this same pattern. The most prevalent and pernicious misdeeds are legal ones committed on the social structure by social leaders such as executives and political leaders who lie, bribe, defraud, restrain trade, degrade working conditions, fund and train death squads (in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Chile) to assassinate government and union leaders, support dictators, and decimate communities through outsourcing jobs. These misdeeds are generally not considered crimes, despite their pernicious affects on masses of people. These normal crimes are as invisible as normal pathology is, and just as pervasive and pernicious.

When misdeeds against the social structure are identified as white-collar crimes they are more pervasive and pernicious than interpersonal crimes. A single act of political corruption, pollution, or financial fraud harms thousands of people at once. Interpersonal crimes such as assault, abuse, robbery, or murder claim fewer victims.

As with pathology, the prevalence and harmfulness of criminal acts is inversely proportional to the fear, attention, and punishment they attract: extreme, gory, interpersonal crime is regarded as more of a threat and is punished more harshly than structural misbehavior -- legal and illegal. An individual act of bank robbery receives more jail time than white collar fraud or pollution. Terrorist attacks generate enduring fear, conformity, and security. Yet normal, quotidian pollution kills far more citizens by causing respiratory problems and cancer, yet it generates little publicity, fear, and critique.

This means that crime control is not designed to protect the populace; if it were, it would concentrate on "normal," structural misdeeds and crimes. Current criminal justice acts to insulate prevalent, pernicious, normal crime/oppression from observation, condemnation, and eradication.


Oppression is not total

Oppressive society and psychology of oppression do not imply that every aspect of social life and normal psychology is oppressed. These constructs only highlight essential, widespread oppression and its psychological effects in normal society. Even oppressive society contains elements of rationality, science, social concern, education, and cooperation. These elements generate positive psychological functioning.



Keywords: agency, indigenous psychology, Vygotsky, ideology, cultural relativism, multiculturalism, unconsciousness, false consciousness, normal pathology, abnormal psychology




Psychology of oppression and pathological normalcy differ from Freud's term "psychopathology of everyday life." Freud sought to analyze mistakes such as faulty memory and slips of the tongue in terms of personal, intrapsychic mechanisms such as reaction formation. He did not examine oppressive features of normal social life to explain psychological debilitation. Freud's was a personal analysis of psychopathology, not a macro cultural analysis. Fromm made the leap from psychoanalysis to macro cultural psychology.

Psychology of oppression additionally differs from psychoanalysis in that it does not subscribe to the idea that oppression is repressed in consciousness. Oppression is unconscious in the sense that has been ideologically mystified to appear normal, natural, fateful, and fulfilling (Ratner, 1994).


International Relevance

Psycholoogy of oppression is relevant to analyzing whether the social system and psychological phenomena of foreign people is oppressive or fulfilling. For instance, the chapter on False Consciousness, this Encyclopedia, describes how fundamentalist Islamic movements in Saudi Arabia and Egypt have imposed reactionary, oppressive customs on the people that stunt their psychology.

 Lazreg (2000) describes the same dynamic in Algeria. She describes how fundamentalist Islamists replaced the "civilizing process" advocated by 19th century colonists with a "recivilizing mission," or "recolonization." "The Islamist movement has provided a total ideology using colonial strategies of acculturation for political purposes, just as the French did throughout the colonial era." "It recolonizes private and public spaces by infusing them with new meanings and norms derived from ideational and behavioral sources that... are in effect alien to the historical and daily experiences of individual Algerians." "The new discourse on religion is not religion but politics under a religious garb" (Lazreg, pp. 149, 152).

In addition to the process of Islamisation being oppressive, the content of the Islamic movement is reactionary and oppressive. It "chose to deny women the rights they had won after the independence of their country" (p. 159). "The Islamist movement in Algeria has not brought about a renaissance in Muslim thought and institutions. It is neither a reformist movement, nor a social movement bent upon sociopolitical and economic transformation" (p. 162).

 This identification of social and psychological oppression in international contexts is important for generating proposals by which indigenous people can develop emancipatory, fulfilling macro cultural factors. Identifying foreign oppression also bears on questions of indigenous psychology and cultural relativism that will be discussed below.


Practical Relevance


A critical social-psychological perspective is an external perspective

To say that a society and its psychology are oppressive is a critical evaluation that rejects society’s present form. It stands outside the current social parameters, denounces them, and calls for different ones. An indigenous perspective, in contrast, operates within given social parameters and accepts them (even when critical of flaws). It opposes external views of an indigenous culture as ignorant, elitist, and imperialist.

However, where the status quo is oppressive, indigenous perspectives such as indigenous psychology, legitimize oppression on the societal and psychological levels. Only an external perspective is freed of these limitations.

An external perspective on oppression is additionally necessary because oppression is often imperceptible, normative, taken-for-granted, habitual, pleasurable, desirable, and applauded. An external analysis must be made of things that oppressed/oppressive consciousness does not know and what it does know. What it does know must be shown to be incomplete or distorted.


Criteria for assessing psychology of oppression

A vital question regarding external assessment of psychology of oppression is what are the criteria for making this assessment? Several criteria may be proposed:


1) Which group(s) of people initiated the psychological activity, and what were their interests? Was it businessmen, Imams, conservative politicians and think tanks, slave owners, revolutionary groups, or the populace? What were their interests in promoting the activity? How did it benefit them?

    Much psychological engineering was promoted by capitalists to get consumers to purchase more products so that sales and profits would be increased. This engineering of desires, motives, perceptions, and reasoning was clearly designed to enrich the businessmen and make consumers susceptible to their solicitations. This qualifies consumerism as psychology of oppression.

     Similarly, as we have explained in the chapter on False Consciousness, the Islamic veil was recently introduced into Saudi Arabia and Egypt by autocratic, reactionary Islamic authorities who supported despotic governments and opposed democratic, people-oriented economic and political reforms. The intent of these theocrats was clearly to segregate women and oppress their social participation. On these grounds, identifying with the veil can be accurately described as psychology of oppression.


2) What methods did promulgators of the psychological activity use to gain its acceptance by the populace? Islamic authorities used brute force, punishment, indoctrination, false claims about science and human nature, and prohibitions on questioning to obtain compliance from Saudi and Egyptian women about wearing the veil and identifying with it.

    Marketers used illogical, spurious associations between products and famous people, glitzy appearances, and limiting product sales to brief time periods in order to encourage impulsive buying. They did not present thorough information about products’ ingredients, origins, or effects; they did not encourage rational analysis and consideration.

    The undemocratic, coercive, irrational methods used to promote these two activities indicates that they qualify as psychology of oppression.


3) What are the psychological and social effects of the psychological activity? Does the activity promote self-control, understanding of the structure and politics of one’s society, social responsibility, awareness of nature, critical thinking, rationality, consistent scientific thinking, objective self-understanding of the characteristics of one’s behavior and the social reasons for them, or ability to control one’s physical and social environment? Or does the activity promote the opposite? The latter would constitute psychology of oppression.

Oppressed psychology is not aware of its oppression. It is unaware of itself. This is why psychology of oppression is problematical and resists change. It requires an external analysis and re-education. This is why people hire therapists, instructors, and doctors.



Critical Debates


The primary debate about psychology of oppression is leveled by cultural relativists, indigenous psychologists, multiculturalists, and postmodernists (what Ratner, 2012a has called micro cultural psychology). Their criticism of the construct centers around three beliefs:

 Psychology of oppression is an elitist, external evaluation of people that is ignorant and arrogant. In fact, evaluating people as stunted may lead to imperialistically “saving” them by destroying their culture and replacing it with a colonial one.

 Psychology of oppression denigrates and blames individuals who manifest psychology of oppression.

Psychology of oppression minimizes individual agency and construes people as social robots


These complaints are straw men (as the chapter on False Consciousness, this Encyclopedia, explains). We have emphasized that psychology of oppression critiques social exploitation. It does not demean or blame the victims. The construct psychology oppression empathizes with victims of oppression and guides them to blame oppressive cultural factors, not themselves, for their problems. Psychology of oppression does not imply coercing people to adopt new psychology. It simply offers analyses. Guiding people toward self-enrichment and self-empowerment is no more elitist or imperialist than any ordinary education by trained teachers is, or than good friends cautioning each other about oversights, misinterpretations, and consequences of their behavior. In fact, failing to elucidate the psychology of oppression is politically irresponsible because it obscures ways that people are oppressed and ways they must think and act in order to eradicate their oppression. Validating people in their current state is tantamount to validating their oppression, not their emancipation. (Naziis, Taliban, slavery were all indigenous movements that must be criticized from outside their parameters.)

It is true that the twin constructs, psychology of oppression and false consciousness, have been misused. They have been invoked to justify uprooting local culture and imposing external culture under the guise of saving or enhancing deprived indigenous people. However, perversions of a phenomenon are not grounds for abandoning the phenomenon. Imperialist perversions of psychology of oppression cannot be used as grounds for repudiating the construct. This would be as absurd as using destructive uses of machinery to justify repudiating all machinery; or using the capitalist corruption of democracy to repudiate democracy in general; or using Stalinist and Maoist perversions of socialism to denounce socialism in general. Such critics have a superficial, one-dimensional view of a construct as identical to perverted uses. These critics cannot see beyond given, perverted forms to apprehend beneficial alternative forms that the construct can take (Ratner, 2012a).

Cultural relativists and indigenous psychologists not only exaggerate the role of colonialism in relation to psychology of oppression; they also overlook the role of colonization in indigenous societies. This is evident in modern fundamentalist Islamist movements that are described above and in the chapter on False Consciousness, this Encyclopedia.

Glorifying indigenous social movements, and rejecting external social critique such as psychology of oppression, entraps local people in their own colonialism. This is true for most of the "post-colonial" states in Africa, including those that issued from the "Arab Spring." Indigenous psychologists and cultural relativists deprive oppressed people of the means they need to emancipate themselves, and they proffer as means for emancipation, indigenous practices that perpetuate oppression.


Agency: An individualistic psychological theory

Opponents of the construct "psychology of oppression" invert the causes of oppression and their solution. They are led to these errors by their fallacious conception of agency. They claim that people are naturally agentive in their mundane activities, because agency is a natural force for self-expression and self-fulfillment of the individual. Agency is presumed to be an individualistic construct like rational choice theory. It is not a cooperative, collective concept. Agency guides individuals to get their needs met through imposing their meanings on things, and through negotiating and resisting mundane activities. (Broad social transformation is de-emphasized to achieve authenticity because authenticity is produced by individual agency.) This is why agency is to be respected and validated, and why it is deemed oppressive/offensive to accuse agentive individuals of somehow not knowing what they are doing, and even doing themselves harm.

A valid analysis of oppression and eradicating it require a different concept of agency. People's agency is culturally organized; it is oppressed by oppressive macro cultural factors; and oppressed agency is oppressive, it oppresses people. Agency is not naturally/necessarily fully agentive/emancipatory/fulfilling in its current form. It does not stand outside culture as an apolitical, individual force for fulfillment. Under normalized oppressive conditions, agency is active, but it is an agent of oppression, not liberation or resistance -- e.g., consumerism is active agency that craves new advertisements and products. However, consumerism oppresses the agent that pursues it. This agency is inauthentic because its desires, emotions, perceptions, and beliefs are not its own. Thus the activity of agency is not the point; agency is always active; the point is the content that agency promulgates. Advocates of agency disregard content and focus upon mere activity as defining liberation -- as long as agency is active, it is praiseworthy, and "active agency" is encouraged as empowering. Advocates of agency never consider that activity may have oppressive content and may be a harmful force to the agent who implements it.

Agency must by analyzed as to its cultural-political origins, characteristics, and function. Agency must renounce its oppressive features and the oppressive indigenous cultural factors that generate these before it can become fulfilling/emancipatory. Agency is a teleological project -- like peace, justice, and democracy -- it is not a ready-made, complete emancipatory force lying within the individual. (If it were, then we would all be emancipated already and there would be no social or psychological oppression.) Agency must develop a new cultural character for itself that negates its current oppressive cultural character. This requires a novel vision of social transformation that is implemented in political action. Agency will only become a force for individual emancipation when it becomes a force for social emancipation.

The construct psychology of oppression does not dismiss agency, per se. It only faults individualistic notions of agency, and it advocates a cultural-political agency that comprehends and improves its society.


Future Directions


The thrust of the construct psychology of oppression is to point out to people how their consciousness has been mystified by oppressive forces. It points out that the form and content of many psychological processes, which people take for granted as normal, comfortable, acceptable, natural, pleasurable, personal, creative, spontaneous, agentive, and fulfilling (emancipatory) may actually have been engineered by oppressive social leaders to enrich and empower themselves by subjugating and stultifying the people. Future directions will investigate the most cherished, pleasurable, taken-for-granted, normative, rewarded psychological processes to determine whether they are internalized, subjective forms of oppression that manufacture consent to social oppression and prevent people from pursuing emancipatory activities. We will investigate the concrete cultural form of beliefs, reasoning, emotionality, self-concept, memories, and perceptions and trace them to cultural-political features of society which are demonstrably oppressive or not.

This cultural-hermeneutical analysis challenges indigenous perspectives that adulate existing culture and psychology without comprehending their origins, dynamics, features, and functions.

Ascertaining whether indigenous perspectives are debilitating or emancipatory can benefit from Vygotsky's approach to this matter. Vygotsky agreed with anthropologists, Levy-Bruhl and Levi-Strauss that pre-modern people engage in superstitious, mystical thinking at the expense of rational thinking. Vygotsky says,


man who first came to throwing bones [akin to rolling dice to decide how to act in a difficult situation] took an important and decisive step towards the development of cultured behavior. This does not contradict the fact that such an operation inhibits any serious attempt to use reflection or experience in real life: Why bother to think and learn, when you can simply see what you dream, or roll the dice? Such is the fate of all forms of magical behavior: very soon they become an obstacle to the further development of thinking, though at one stage of the historical development of thinking they constituted the embryo of certain trends (Vygotsky, 1997, pp. 46-47).


Vygotsky’s statement is important for emphasizing that a culturally-formed way of thinking, e.g., magical thinking, may be limited/flawed in its ability to comprehend reality; it may become an obstacle to cognitive advancement. It is important to evaluate psychology/behavior/culture in order to identify strengths and weaknesses, in order to help people improve. From this perspective, uncritically/indiscriminately validating all cultures/behavior/psychology is oppressive because it validates weaknesses that oppress people. Universal validation may appear respectful and humanistic, but it is actually oppressive.

Vygotsky emphasized that primitive people are not stupid in the sense of lacking capacity to think rationally. Rather superstitiousness is due to cultural-historical limitations that shape their thinking. In different conditions, these same people would think rationally. This perspective, known as activity theory, is at the heart of the construct psychology of oppression.

Understanding the psychology of oppression deepens our understanding of oppression and what is necessary to eradicate it. Eradicating psychology of oppression is a crucial element in the struggle to eradicate social oppression. This is difficult because it means that "people cannot reject the system of domination without rejecting [part of] themselves, their own repressive instinctual needs and values" (Marcuse, 1969, p. 17).

The construct " psychology of oppression" helps people to do this, to enrich their psychology by critiquing it, critiquing the social activity and cultural factors that generate it, and improving these. Psychology of oppression is a critical-emancipatory-scientific construct.




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