marco polo international The Use of Metaphor as an Important Tool for Understanding Oppression
Using an anti oppressive practice (AOP) theoretical framework and an exploratory qualitative research design, featuring semi structured interviews and written assignments, a group of ten social workers were asked to describe their understandings of the concept of oppression. The study found that, in the case of these particular social workers, they used metaphor as a key conceptualization process to more vividly describe and understand the concept of oppression within their social work practice. This article analyzes eight categories of metaphor themes the participants used to explain their understanding of oppression: (a) pressure; (b) earth; (c) quest; (d) nature of society; (e) seeing; (f) building; (g) dancing; and (h) water. The study was designed to answer the following qualitative research question: How do social workers understand and make sense of the concept of oppression within their social work practice? As the interviews were conducted, it became evident that the participants all used metaphors when attempting to explain, describe, and make sense of their understanding of the concept of oppression. At the time, I remarked in my research notes that, something is difficult to grasp, we seem to use metaphors to explain or understand it. Consequently, I started to become interested in the idea of the use of metaphor as a key conceptualization process social workers use to more vividly describe and understand the concept of oppression within their social work practice. This article explores eight major metaphor themes that the social workers in this study utilize to understand and apply their experiences and understandings of oppression to social work practice. The eight categories are as follows: (a) pressure; (b) earth; (c) quest; (d) nature of society; (e) seeing; (f) building; (g) dancing; and (h) water The research findings are intended to open up dialogue and thinking about the concept of oppression, increase our knowledge base and understandings of oppression within social work practice, and assist the social work profession to build a stronger conceptual framework for understanding and naming oppression with the end goal of assisting social workers to better respond to and resist systems of domination.
Anti Oppressive Theory and Practice
Since the beginning of the social work profession, social workers have been concerned about making change and achieving social justice. Change has been viewed from many dimensions including efforts directed at helping and changing individuals, families, communities, organizations, policies, cultures, as well as larger harmful structural social forces, such as racism, patriarchy, and classism (Bailey Brake, 1975; Baines, 2007a; Carniol, 2005a; Lundy, 2004). A key concept in the discourse concerning transformation and social justice in the social work literature is oppression (Agger, 2006; Baines, 2003; Bishop, 2005; Brown, 1988; Carniol, 2005b; Collins, 2000; Gil, 2002; hooks, 1994; Lundy, 2004; Mullaly, 2010; Razack, 2002). These unequal social and power relations not only involve relations of subordination and domination but also occur as, between people, not only at the interpersonal level but the cultural and institutional levels as well (Dominelli, 2002, p. 39).
It has also been suggested that social workers share an ethical obligation to engage in acts of personal, cultural, and structural resistance to oppression and work towards achieving the conditions necessary for social change (Fook, 2002; Ife, 1997; Mullaly, 2007; Razack, 2002; Sisneros, Stakeman, Joyner, Schmitz, 2008). Benjamin (2007) defines resistance as, those acts or actions in which an individual or individuals take a stand in opposition to a belief, an idea, an ideology, a climate, a practice, or an action that is oppressive and damaging to an individual and social well being (p. 196). Resistance at personal, cultural, and structural levels is seen as particularly important as intersectional forces, such as race, gender, class, and so on, operate to communicate and reproduce dominant subordinate relations and oppressive discourses. Thus, oppression and resistance manifest as forms of power that operate in complex ways and influence people everyday lives.
These necessary acts of resistance are predicated on the assumption that social workers have been educated to recognize oppression and that once aware, we will then act to educate others, work toward dismantling our own privilege and oppressive systems, and build oppression free socio political alternatives. Critical theories, such as feminism, structural, and Marxism share these assumptions, an understanding of key concepts, similar views of social work practice and social justice, analysis of structural oppression, goals to dismantle oppressive structures, a call for social change/ action, and are also closely aligned with a broader framework known as practice (AOP). Baines (2007a) elaborates further:
is an umbrella term for a number of social justice oriented approaches to social work, including feminist, Marxist, post modernist, indigenous, post structuralist, critical constructionist, anti colonial and anti racist. These approaches draw on social activism and collective organizing as well as the sense that social services can and should be provided in ways that integrate liberatory understandings of social problems and human behaviour (p. 4).
The 1980 and 1990 saw a proliferation of articles and books, written from critical, structural, feminist, anti racist, and anti discriminatory perspectives, which can be seen as giving birth to AOP (Bishop, 2005; Bailey Brake, 1975; Brake and Bailey, 1980; Carniol, 1992; Dominelli, 1988; Dalrymple Burke; 1995; Mullaly, 1993; Thompson, 1997). Indeed, Wilson and Beresford (as cited in Barnes Moffat, 2007) argue that, an anti oppression approach has become the dominant social work practice model (p. 57). Even if this conclusion is accurate in terms of preferred theoretical formulations of practice, how AOP looks or should be practiced in the field has not always been clearly articulated or demonstrated.
Definitions of oppression have evolved historically from the 14th century Latin word meaning press down (Funk Wagnell 1980, p. 457), to discussing the oppressive behaviors of dominant individuals and groups, to analyzing how oppressive societies develop, to identifying what Ward (2007) calls the of race, class and gender oppression or jeopardy (p. 194), and finally, to exploring the complexity of intersecting axes of multiple oppressions, privileges, and resistance. 457); and, tyrannical; harsh; cruel (Funk Wagnell 1980, p. 457). Freire (1970) defined oppression as, situation in which objectively exploits or hinders his (sic) pursuit of self affirmation as a responsible person (p. 41).
Young (1992) went further, explicitly linking the concepts of oppression and justice, and suggesting that the public generally associates the word oppression with the exercise of tyranny by a ruling group, for example, former apartheid in South Africa. She pointed out, however, that in the new left social movements of the 1960 and 1970 oppression, the disadvantage and injustice some people suffer not because a tyrannical power intends to keep them down, but because of the everyday practices of a well intentioned liberal society (Young 1992, p. 175 176). Hardiman and Jackson (1997) identify, oppression, as one of the primary features of the structural dynamics of domination and oppression (p. 17). In social oppression, social group dominates or exploits another social group, whether knowingly or unconsciously, with social, political, and material consequences (p. 17). In this sense, then, oppression is viewed as systemic and structural, with patterns of disadvantage and privilege, operating through multiple axes of power, for example, in sexism, racism, classism, and ageism, for the particular benefit of specific groups.
Hardiman and Jackson (as cited in Hillock Profit, 2007) further analyze how systems of domination and oppression work by highlighting four key factors: (a) the dominant group has the power to define and name reality and what is normal; (b) forms of differential and unequal treatment, such as harassment and exploitation are institutionalized and often carried out without conscious thought by the dominant group as part of way it is (c) subordinate group members may internalize their oppression; and (d) the subordinate group culture, language, and history are distorted, obliterated, and misrepresented while the dominant group culture is imposed. These elements of oppression help us understand oppression in more complex terms than a simple division of oppressors and oppressed privilege as a member of a dominant group and the penalty of oppression can exist in the same person (Hillock Profit, 2007, p. 42). In addition, McMullin (2004) concludes that oppression occurs when:
(a) The welfare of one group of people depends upon the deprivation of another; and (b) the deprivation of the oppressed group depends upon the exclusion of the oppressed group from access to resources, rewards, and privileges (p.129).
Tilly (1998) furthers this analysis of resource control by explaining how oppressive relations are produced within social groups. First, exploitation produces oppressive relations when dominant individuals and groups control resources, hoard opportunity, and use these to their advantage by mobilizing the efforts of subordinate others for their own gain. Second, the group ensures, through its actions, social processes, and laws, that they maintain their monopoly over those resources and opportunities.
Furthering this analysis, the recognition of the simultaneity and non synchronistic nature of different forms of oppression has been a significant contribution of Black feminist thought (Collins, 1991; hooks, 1993). Collins (1991) explains that this of oppressions to particular forms of intersecting oppressions, for example, intersections of race and gender, or of sexuality and nation (p. 18). She (as cited in Hillock Profitt, 2007) also theorizes that people experience and resist multiple, interlocking oppressions at three levels: (a) personal biography; (b) the group or community situated in a cultural context; and (c) the systemic level of social institutions (p. 43). In addition, Collins suggests that intersecting oppressions originate, develop, and are contained within a matrix of domination (1991, 2000). This analysis has often been referred to as intersectionality theory and has been adopted in much of the social work literature (Carniol, 2005a; Dominelli, 2002; Gil, 1998; Marsiglia Kulis, 2009; Mullaly, 2007; Thompson, 2006). According to Collins (2000), paradigms remind us that oppression cannot be reduced to one fundamental type and oppressions work together in producing injustice (p. 18).
From an understanding of the definitions of oppression, it is also important to consider how societies become oppressive over time, that is, how oppressive behaviours, attitudes, and practices are produced, reproduced, and institutionalized in society. Gil (2002) provides an excellent description of how particular societies evolve into oppressive systems of domination. He suggests that:
The story of social revolution reveals that oppression and injustice did not become institutionalized until the spread of agriculture and crafts, about 10,000 years ago. These major changes in ways of life resulted gradually in a stable economic surplus, which was conducive to the emergence of occupational and social classes, differentiation into rural and urban settlements, and centralized forms of governance over defined territories (Eisler as cited in Gil, 2002, p. 38).
Gil makes the case that these social changes, which produced an economic surplus, perhaps for the first time in history, created the conditions for and emergence of oppression and domination. These conditions permitted communities to have power over other communities. However, Gil also notes that not all wealthy communities developed into oppressive societies. Some communities made different choices, for instance:
Rather than developing patterns of oppression and injustice, they used the economic surplus from their increase productivity toward enhancing the quality of life for all their members of this tendency have been identified among native peoples in the Americas, Africa, and elsewhere (Gil, 2002, p. 40).
This point is important as it illustrates the human capacity to make decisions that are life enhancing. As well, along with the coercion and domination required to institutionalize oppressive values, attitudes, and deprivations, a history of resistance also emerged. Benjamin (2007) defines resistance as, those acts or actions in which an individual or individuals take a stand in opposition to a belief, an idea, an ideology, a climate, a practice, or an action that is oppressive and damaging to an individual and social well being (p. 196). Gil (2002) explains how resistance emerged in response to state sponsored coercion:
However, the emerging tendency to legitimate, institutionalize, and increase minimal inequalities did require coercion. This resulted usually in resistance from victimized groups, to which privilege groups reacted with intensified coercion. The vicious circle of oppression, resistance, and reactive repression intensified the time (p. 42).
Thus, parallel processes of oppression and resistance emerged from particular social, economic, and political constellations. Wade (1997) supports this conclusion, stating that:
There is always a history of struggle, resistance, and protest against the oppression of the problem and of the dominant story along side each history of violence and oppression, there runs a parallel history of prudent, creative, and determined resistance (p. 23).
Historically, these acts of resistance by oppressed peoples have often been ignored or dismissed (Hillock Profitt, 2007). Indeed, this social denial is a feature of oppression (Hillock Profitt, 2007). It therefore becomes essential that social workers uncover and value everyday acts of coping and survival and reframe these behaviours and choices as resistance. Thus, from an AOP perspective, social work practice, education, and field instruction can be viewed as potential sites of social and cultural resistance (Fook, 2002; Ife, 1997; Mullaly, 2010; Razack, 2002; Sisneros et al, 2008; Weedon, 1997). In terms of potential for resistance, Kumsa (2007) reminds us that we need to consider that “power is not just the top down force that oppresses. It is also the bottom up and sideways resistance that liberates. More importantly, power and resistance are not mutually exclusive but interwoven and embedded in each other.” (p. 124). A notion that individuals, groups, and social structures can each exercise power is significant because it debunks the view that, or subordinate groups are helpless to do anything about the dominant discursive practices that subjugate and oppress them (Mullaly, 2010, p. 27).
However, there is a danger in assuming that all subordinate individuals and groups have equal power, opportunity, or capacity to resist oppression. Moreover, it is inaccurate to assume that each person belonging to a subordinate group is equally oppressed, recognizes oppression, or experiences oppression in the same way as other members of the group. Nor can we assume that all or most social workers choose to resist oppression or act to recognize and minimize their own oppressive potential. Indeed, people choose differential responses to oppression, at different points and times in their lives, for a variety of complex reasons. McMullin (2004) explains the interconnected parallel processes of conformity and resistance:
complexity of resistance and conformation emerges as individuals negotiate their interests within the various domains of social life. The choice to conform or resist as well as the specific strategies one uses in these processes are influenced by the structured sets of social relationships contradictions and paradoxes result from the complexities of resistance and conformation. Individuals then act to negotiate the ambivalence created by these tensions, contradictions, and paradoxes in everyday life (p. 131).
Similarly, Smith (2007) notes that, social workers are neither revolutionaries nor passive robots. They generally lead complex lives that both reveal and conceal contradictions due to the intersections of power, privilege, and oppression (p. 150). Considering the non monolithic nature of the social work profession, and that social workers represent a multiplicity of situated positions vis a vis their socio economic political locations, there are also different levels of personal and professional commitment to resistance work and little agreement on the best methods to achieve social change and social justice. Indeed, Ellsworth (1989) cautions us that depending upon social locations, specific historical contexts, and situations, no individual or group is exempt from potentially becoming oppressive to others. Kimmel and Ferber (2003) also maintain that it is easier for those in power to ignore the implications of their social locations of dominance than it is to critically think about, recognize, and dismantle their own power and privilege.
Rojek, Peacock, and Collins (1988) also warn that, even with radical intentions, social workers actually have limited power and freedom to transform the state. Indeed, Barnoff, George, and Coleman (2006) conclude that it is very difficult for social workers to engage in broad mezzo and macro level social justice work as many agencies are operating solely in survival mode. As well, the reality is that most social workers are often required to work in traditional, bureaucratic state sponsored social welfare organizations. The structure of these systems and organizations are seen as limiting the potential for social change and resistance. As Hartmann (1981) claims:
Structure produces action, but the particular action that is produced lies within the realms of structure itself. Only under exceptional circumstances does human agency push structural barriers to the extent that structure itself is changed (p. 112).