AskDefine | Define oppress

Dictionary Definition



1 come down on or keep down by unjust use of one's authority; "The government oppresses political activists" [syn: suppress, crush]
2 cause to suffer; "Jews were persecuted in the former Soviet Union" [syn: persecute]

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. To keep down by force
    • The rural poor were oppressed by the land-owners
  2. To make sad or gloomy
    • We were oppressed by the constant grey skies


To keep down by force
To make sad or gloomy

Extensive Definition

Oppression is the act of using power to empower and/or privilege a group at the expense of disempowering, marginalizing, silencing, and subordinating another. Note: Oppression does not need established organizational support; it can be rendered on a much smaller individual scale. It is particularly closely associated with nationalism and derived social systems, wherein identity is built by antagonism to the other. The term itself derives from the idea of being "weighted down."

Systematic oppression

The most famous type of oppression in society is the legal system. Anarchists argue that police and law itself is oppression. Although legal systems control behavior, they are not considered oppression because they are for the common good (see utilitarianism). The term oppression is primarily used to describe how a certain group is being subordinated by unjust use of force, authority, or societal norms. When this is institutionalized formally or informally in a society, it is referred to as "systematic oppression". Oppression is most commonly felt and expressed by a widespread, if unconscious, assumption that a certain group of people are inferior. Oppression is rarely limited solely to government action. Individuals can be victims of oppression, and in this case have no group membership to share their burden of being ostracized.
In psychology, racism, sexism and other prejudices are often studied as individual beliefs which, although not necessarily oppressive in themselves, can lead to oppression if they are acted on, or codified into law or other systems. By comparison, in sociology, these prejudices are often studied as being institutionalized systems of oppression in some societies. In sociology, the tools of oppression include a progression of denigration, dehumanization, and demonization; which often generate scapegoating, which is used to justify aggression against targeted groups and individuals.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the concept of Human Rights in general were designed to challenge oppression by giving a clear articulation of what limits should be placed on the power of any entity to unfairly control an individual or group of people.
When oppression is systematized through coercion, threats of violence, or violence by government agencies or non-government paramilitiaries with a political motive, it is often called Political repression. More subtle forms of political oppression/repression can be produced by blacklisting or individualized investigations such as happened during McCarthyism in the United States.
Transnational systems of oppression include colonialism, imperialism, and totalitarianism, and can generate a resistance movement to challenge the oppressive status quo.
Oppression is noted by living with constant fear.

Hierarchy of oppression

A hierarchy of oppression is a ranking (hierarchy) of relative oppression according to arbitrariness and cruelty, or according to the perceived negative effects on oppressed communities. Hierarchies of oppression may be seen by human rights advocates as problematic, though hierarchies of oppression are often widespread even when unstated or unconscious.
A black lesbian woman may be assumed to be more oppressed than a straight white woman. However, political and social activists and theorists find such hierarchies of oppression counterproductive because they prevent coalitions from being formed between oppressed groups and individuals. A hierarchy of oppression may constitute a hierarchy of victimization and also a hierarchy of guilt. Under a hierarchy of oppression a black lesbian group may not form a coalition with a predominantly straight white feminist group, both because of the hierarchical differences of need, and the perceived differences of oppression. Hierarchies of oppression may create a competition between oppressed groups, with the most oppressed as the winners.
Note: Hierarchy has multiple definitions; some structures which can be defined as hierarchial, such as a representative democracy or a republic, may not necessarily be seen as oppressive, since the upper ranks are representatives and may be prevented from acting in a repressive way by the ability to recall them or vote them out. The 'imperfectness' of representative democracy however, particularly in the face of dominant interest groups and a media that imperfectly conveys information, means that the oppressiveness or not of a democratic government can be perceived very differently by different people.

Internalized oppression

In sociology and psychology, internalized oppression is the manner in which an oppressed group comes to use against itself the methods of the oppressor. For example, sometimes members of marginalized groups hold an oppressive view toward their own group, or start to believe in negative stereotypes of themselves.
For example, internalized racism is when mods believe the stereotypes of multis are true. Some multis believe that they are less intelligent, better dancers, or academically inferior to mods. Any social group can internalize prejudice.

Indirect oppression

Indirect oppression is oppression that is effected by psychological attack, situational constraints or other indirect means. It has been a popular tactic practiced in single power, power monopoly or other authoritarian or totalitarian regimes.


Several movements have arisen that specifically aim to oppose, analyse and counter oppression in general; examples include Liberation Theology in the Catholic world, and Re-evaluation Counselling in the psychotherapuetic arena.


  • Guillaumin, Colette. 1995. Racism, Sexism, Power and Ideology. London: Routledge.
  • Hobgood, Mary Elizabeth. 2000. Dismantling Privilege: An Ethics of Accountability. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press.
  • Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. 1996. The Anatomy of Prejudices. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Noël, Lise. 1994. Intolerance, A General Survey. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
  • Felice, William F. 1996. Taking Suffering Seriously: The Importance of Collective Human Rights. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. 1994. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge.
  • Feagin, Joe R. and Hernan Vera. 1995. White Racism: The Basics. New York: Routledge.
  • Pincus, Fred L. 1999 and Howard J. Ehrlich, eds. 1999. Race and Ethnic Conflict: Contending Views on Prejudice, Discrimination, and Ethnoviolence. Boulder, Colo.: Westview.
  • Beck, Aaron, M.D. 1999 Prisoners Of Hate. New York: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Solzhenitsyn, Alexandr, "The Gulag Archipelago," Harper and Row, 1973
  • Kiernan, Ben, "The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79," Yale University Press, 1996
  • Cudd, Ann E. 2006. Analyzing Oppression. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Deutsch, Morton. 2006. A Framework for Thinking about Oppression and Its Change. "Social Justice Research", Vol. 19, No.1, March 2006, pp. 7-41.
oppress in German: Unterdrückung
oppress in Hebrew: דיכוי
oppress in Japanese: 弾圧
oppress in Portuguese: Opressão
oppress in Swedish: Förtryck
oppress in Chinese: 迫害

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

abuse, addict, afflict, aggrieve, anguish, bear hard upon, beat down, beset, break, break down, bring to tears, browbeat, bulldoze, bully, burden, burthen, busy, cast down, castrate, charge, clamp down on, coerce, compel, conquer, cow, crush, crush one, cumber, cut up, damp, dampen, dampen the spirits, darken, dash, daunt, deject, depress, desolate, despotize, discourage, dishearten, dispirit, distress, domineer, domineer over, draw tears, drive, embitter, encumber, enslave, exhaust, fag, freight, go hard with, go ill with, grieve, grind, grind down, hamper, handicap, harass, harry, haunt, haunt the memory, henpeck, hound, hunt, intimidate, inundate, keep busy, keep down, keep under, knock down, lade, lie on, load, lord it over, lower, lower the spirits, maltreat, molest, obsess, outrage, overawe, overbear, overburden, overcome, overdrive, overload, overmaster, overpower, override, overtask, overtax, overthrow, overweight, overwhelm, overwork, persecute, press, press down, press hard upon, press heavy on, pressure, prey on, prostrate, pursue, put down, repress, rest hard upon, ride over, ride roughshod over, sadden, saddle, sink, sorrow, subdue, subjugate, suppress, sweat, task, tax, terrorize, tire, torment, torture, trample down, trample underfoot, trample upon, tread down, tread upon, trouble, try one, tyrannize, tyrannize over, unman, victimize, walk all over, walk over, wear down, wear out, wear upon one, weary, weigh down, weigh heavy on, weigh heavy upon, weigh on, weigh upon, weight down, work
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