Forms of Oppression

Morton Deutsch

March 2005

I consider here five types of injustices that are involved in oppression: distributive injustice, procedural injustice, retributive injustice, moral exclusion, and cultural imperialism. To identify which groups of people are oppressed and what forms their oppression takes, each of these five types of injustice should be examined.

1. Distributive Injustice

Under this heading, I shall briefly consider the distribution of four types of capital -- consumption, investment, skill, and social.[1]

Consumption capital is usually thought of as "standard of living." In industrial societies, this is very much related to income. It includes the amounts and types of food and water, housing, clothing, health care, education, physical mobility (such as travel), recreation, and services that are available to members of a group. Clearly, there are gross differences in income and standard living among the different nations, among the different ethnic groups within nations, among the different classes, and between the sexes. For example, compare Sudan with Canada, African Americans with Euro-Americans, employees of General Motors and its executives, males and females.

Sen, for example writes: "women tend in general to fare quite badly in relative terms compared to men, even within the same families. This is reflected not only in such matters as education and opportunity to develop talents, but also in the more elementary fields of nutrition, health, and survival." He estimated that there are "more than a hundred million missing women," in Asia and North Africa, as a result of the unequal deprivations they suffer, compared to men. In other words, the survival rates of women compared to men is considerably lower than could be expected when these are compared to the relative survival rates of men and women in Europe, North America, and sub-Saharan Africa where the differences in consumption capital available to males and females is not as unequal.[2]

Investment capital "is what people use to create more capital". Income is related to consumption capital and, also, wealth, which in turn, is related to investment capital. Generally, wealth is distributed more unequally than income. The inequalities among nations, within nations, among ethnic groups, among the social classes, between the physically impaired and unimpaired, and between the sexes are apt to be considerably greater with regard to investment than consumption capital. In 1992 in the US, the top one percent of the population possessed 45.6% of the financial assets while the bottom 80 percent had only 7.8%, and this discrepancy has undoubtedly increased since then.[3]

Skill capital is the specialized knowledge, social and work skills, as well as the various forms of intelligence and credentials that are developed as a result of education and training and experiences in one's family, community, and work settings. As Perrucci and Wysong point out: "The most important source of skill capital in today's society is located in the elite universities that provide the credentials for the privileged class. For example, the path into corporate law with six-figure salaries and million-dollar partnerships is provided by about two-dozen elite law schools where children of the privileged class enroll. Similar patterns exist for medical school graduates, research scientists, and those holding professional degrees in management and business... People in high-income and wealth-producing professions will seek to protect the market value not only for themselves, but also for their children, who will enter similar fields." It is evident that those in non-privileged groups in many societies will have much less opportunity to enter elite universities and to acquire the skills and credentials which would have high market value.[4]

Social capital is the network of social ties (family, friends, neighbors, social clubs, classmates, acquaintances, etc.), which can provide information and access to jobs and to the means of acquiring the other forms of capital, as well as emotional and financial support. It is the linkage that one has or does not have to organizational power, prestige, and opportunities. The social capital that one can acquire and maintain is affected by such factors as one's family's social class, membership in particular ethnic and religious groups, age, sex, physical disability, and sexual orientation. In most societies the ability to acquire and maintain social capital by those who are underclass or working class, disabled, elderly, members of minority, ethnic, religious of racial groups, or women is considerably more limited than the dominant groups. Personality, undoubtedly, also plays a role: one could expect that individuals who are ambitious, sociable, intelligent, and personally attractive will acquire more social capital than those who are not.

To sum up this section on distributive justice: "Every type of system -- from a society to a family -- distributes benefits, costs, and harms (its reward systems are a reflection of this). One can examine the different forms of capitol (consumption, investment, skill, social) and such benefits as income, education, health care, police protection, housing, and water supplies, and such harms as accidents, rapes, physical attacks, imprisonment, death, and rat bites, and see how they are distributed among categories of people: rich versus poor, males versus females, employers versus employees, whites versus blacks, heterosexuals versus homosexuals, police officers versus teachers, adults versus children. Such examination reveals gross disparities in distribution of one or another benefit or harm received by the categories of people involved. Thus, blacks generally received fewer benefits and more harm than whites in the United States. In most parts of the world, female children are less likely than male children to receive as much education or inherit parental property, and they are more likely to suffer from sexual abuse."[5]

2. Procedural Injustice

In addition to assessing the fairness of the distribution of outcomes, individuals judge the fairness of the procedures that determine the outcomes. Research evidence indicates that fair treatment and procedure are a more pervasive concern to most people than fair outcomes. Fair procedures are psychologically important, because they encourage the assumption that they give rise to fair outcomes in the present and will also in the future. In some situations, where it is not clear what "fair outcomes" should be, fair procedures are the best guarantee that the decision about outcomes is made fairly. Research indicates that one is less apt to feel committed to authorities, organizations, social policies, and governmental rules and regulations if the procedures associated within them are considered unfair. Also, people feel affirmed if the procedures to which they are subjected treat them with the respect and dignity they feel is their due; if so treated, it is easier for them to accept a disappointing outcome.

Questions with regard to the justice of procedures can arise in various ways. Let us consider, for example, evaluation of teacher performance in a school. Some questions immediately come to mind: Who has "voice" or representation in determining whether such evaluation is necessary? How are the evaluations to be conducted? Who conducts them? What is to be evaluated? What kind of information is collected? How is its accuracy and validity ascertained? How are its consistency and reliability determined? What methods of preventing incompetence or bias in collecting and processing information are employed? Who constitutes the groups that organize the evaluations, draw conclusions, make recommendations, and make decisions? What roles do teachers, administrators, parents, students, and outside experts have in the procedures? How are the ethicality, considerateness, and dignity of the process protected?

Implicit in these questions are some values with regard to procedural justice. One wants procedures that generate relevant, unbiased, accurate, consistent, reliable, competent, and valid information and decisions as well as polite, dignified, and respectful behavior in carrying out the procedures. Also, voice and representation in the processes and decisions related to the evaluation are considered desirable by those directly affected by the decision. In effect, fair procedures yield good information for use in the decision-making processes as well as voice in the processes for those affected by them, and considerate treatment as the procedures are bring implemented.[6]

One can probe a system to determine whether it offers fair procedures to all. Are all categories of people treated with politeness, dignity, and respect by judges, police, teachers, administrators, employers, bankers, politicians and others in authority? Are some but not others allowed to have a voice and representation, as well as adequate information, in the processes and decisions that affect them?

It is evident that those people and groups with more capital are more likely to have access to political leaders and to be treated with more respect by the police, judges, and other authority than those with less capital. Also, their ability to have "voice" in matters that affect them are considerably greater.

3. Retributive Injustice

Retributive injustice is concerned with the behavior and attitudes of people, especially those in authority, in response to moral rule breaking. One may ask: Are "crimes" by different categories of people less likely to be viewed as crimes, to result in an arrest, to be brought to trial, to result in conviction, to lead to punishment or imprisonment or the death penalty, and so on? Considerable disparity is apparent between how "robber barons" and ordinary robbers are treated by the criminal-justice system, between manufacturers who knowingly sell injurious products (obvious instances being tobacco and defective automobiles) and those who negligently cause an accident. Similarly, almost every comparison of the treatment of black and white criminal offenders indicate that, if there is a difference, blacks receive worse treatment.

4. Moral Exclusion

Moral exclusion refers to: Who is and is not entitled to fair outcomes and fair treatment by inclusion or lack of inclusion in one's moral community? Albert Schweitzer included all living creatures in his moral community, and some Buddhists include all of nature. Most of us define a more limited moral community.

Individuals and groups who are outside the boundary in which considerations of fairness apply may be treated in ways that would be considered immoral if people within the boundary were so treated. Consider the situation in Bosnia. Prior to the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Serbs, Muslims, and Croats in Bosnia were more or less part of one moral community and treated one another with some degree of civility. After the start of civil strife, (initiated by power-hungry political leaders), vilification of other ethnic groups became a political tool, and it led to excluding others from one's moral community. As a consequence, the various ethnic groups committed the most barbaric atrocities against one another. The same thing happened with the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi.

At various periods in history and in different societies, groups and individuals have been treated inhumanly by other humans: slaves by their masters, natives by colonialists, blacks by whites, Jews by Nazis, women by men, children by adults, the physically disabled by those who are not, homosexuals by heterosexuals, political dissidents by political authorities, and one ethnic or religious group by another.

When a system is under stress, are there differences in how categories of people are treated? Are some people more apt to lose their jobs, be excluded from obtaining scarce resources, or be scapegoated and victimized? During periods of economic depression, social upheaval, civil strife, and war, frustrations are often channeled to exclude some groups from the treatment normatively expected from other in the same moral community.

Moral exclusion "is perhaps the most dangerous form of oppression." It has led to genocide against the Jews and gypsies by the Nazis, the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, the auto genocide by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the mass killings of the political opposition by the Argentinean generals, to widespread terrorism against civilians by various terrorist groups, to the enslavement of many Africans, to mention only a few examples of the consequences of moral exclusion.[7]

Lesser forms of moral exclusions, marginalization, occur also against whole categories of people: women, the physically impaired, the elderly, and various ethnic, religious and racial groups in many societies where barriers prevent them from full participation in the political, economic, and social life of their societies. The results of these barriers are not only material deprivation but also disrespectful, demeaning, and arbitrary treatment as well as decreased opportunity to develop and employ their individual talents. For extensive research and writing in this area, the work of Susan Opotow, a leading scholar in this area.[8]

5. Cultural Imperialism

"Cultural Imperialism involves the universalization of a dominant group's experience and culture and establishing it as the norm.". Those living under cultural imperialism find themselves defined by the dominant others. As Young points out: "Consequently, the differences of women from men, American Indians or Africans from Europeans, Jews from Christians, becomes reconstructed as deviance and inferiority." To the extent that women, Africans, Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, etc. must interact with the dominant group whose culture mainly provides stereotyped images of them, they are often under pressure to conform to and internalize the dominant group's images of their group.[9]

Culturally dominated groups often experience themselves as having a double identity, one defined by the dominant group and the other coming from membership in one's own group. Thus, in my childhood, adult African-Americans were often called "boy" by members of the dominant white groups but within their own group, they might be respected ministers and wage earners. Culturally subordinated groups are often able to maintain their own culture because they are segregated from the dominant group and have many interactions within their own group, which are invisible to the dominant group. In such contexts, the subordinated culture commonly reacts to the dominant culture with mockery and hostility fueled by their sense of injustice and of victimization.


Note: This was originally one long article on oppression, which we have broken up to post on Beyond Intractability. The next article in the series is: Maintaining Oppression.

[1]Perrucci, Robert and Wysong, Earl (1999). The New Society. Lanham : Rowman & Littlefield.

[2] Dreze, Jean and Sen, A. (1995). India : economic development and social opportunity. Delhi ; New York : Oxford University Press, chapter 7, p.140.

[3]Perrucci, Robert and Wysong, Earl (1999). The New Society. Lanham : Rowman & Littlefield, p.10, 13.

[4]Perrucci, Robert and Wysong, Earl (1999). The New Society. Lanham : Rowman & Littlefield, p.14.

[5] Deutsch, M. and Coleman, P.T. (2000). The handbook of conflict resolution: Theory and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. 56.

[6] Deutsch, M. and Coleman, P.T. (2000). The handbook of conflict resolution: Theory and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p.44-45.

[7] Young, M.I. (1990). Justice and the politics of difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p.53.

[8] Opotow, S.V. (1987). Limits of fairness: An experimental examination of antecedents of the scope of justice. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, Dissertation Information Service. Order #8724072. [Dissertation Abstracts International, 48(08B), 2500.]

Opotow, S.V. (1990). Deterring moral exclusion: A summary. Journal of Social Issues, 46(1), 173-182.

Opotow, S.V. (1995). Drawing the line: Social categorization, moral exclusion, and the scope of justice. In B.B. Bunker & J.Z. Rubin (Eds.), Conflict, cooperation, and justice (pp. 347-369). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Opotow, S.V. (1996). Is justice finite? The case of environmental inclusion. In L. Montada & M. Lerner (Eds.), Social justice in human relations: Current societal concerns about justice, Vol. 3 (pp. 213-230). New York: Plenum Press.

Opotow, S.V. (1996). Affirmative action, fairness, and the scope of justice. Journal of Social Issues, 52(4), 19-24.

Opotow, S.V. (2001). Social injustice. In D.J. Christie, R.V. Wagner, and D.D. Winter (Eds.), Peace, conflict and violence: Peace psychology for the 21st century (pp. 102-109). New York: Prentice-Hall

[9] Young, M.I. (1990). Justice and the politics of difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p.59.

Use the following to cite this article:
Deutsch, Morton. "Forms of Oppression." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: March 2005 <>.

Additional Resources