who is oppressed? a question for researchers

Let’s say you want to conduct research in a way that is “anti-oppressive.” Certain techniques and emphases will seem valuable. But a preliminary question arises: Who is oppressed? And that raises the deeper question: What is oppression?

In an article entitled “Anti-Oppressive Research in Social Work: A Preliminary Definition,” Roni Streier, an Israeli academic, offers a helpful summary of Anti-Oppressive Social Work Research (AOSWR), which turns out to be a well-established movement.* AOSWR emphasizes “the systemic study of oppression and the development of knowledge that supports people’s actions to achieve freedom from oppression.” It selects for investigation “the most oppressed populations that are largely excluded from main spheres of public and economic life and disconnected from social services.” It “reject[s] the dominant traditions of social science research” in favor of “more qualitative, ‘bottom-up’, interpretive methods.” It demands safe, reciprocal, mutually respectful partnerships between the researchers and the participants, working together to produce knowledge. And it yields research that will be owned by the communities being studied and that will lead to action.

I read all of this happily enough. Although I don’t want all research to be “community based” and participatory, I like the kind of work that Streier describes. But then she offers a case study: research on and with low-income Jewish women in Jerusalem.

I do not know this community. In fact, one limitation of my study trip to Israel and the West Bank last year is that I met secular middle-class Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis, and West Bank Palestinians, but no ultra-orthodox. Thus I cannot be sure that poor Jewish women in Jerusalem are ultra-orthodox–although I suspect most are–nor do I understand their daily lives, values, and aspirations.

But I would not start by defining them as “the most oppressed population” in their geographical area. Perhaps biased by secular Israeli and Palestinian perspectives, I would view them as a community complicit in oppressing Arabs and strongly favored by Israeli state policies regarding welfare, education, and the draft. My instinct, if I were an anti-oppression scholar with an interest in this community, would be to stand apart from them and critically assess their privileges. To be sure, they are poor and they are women, but what jumps out at me is their political power.

On the other hand: I may be wrong in my diagnosis. And even if I am right, understanding how and why they think as they do might be helpful. Just because they have power, one should understand how to influence them and negotiate with them. That is a case for investigating this population with an open mind. But it doesn’t sound like “anti-oppression research.”

So the unavoidable question is: who’s oppressed? That breaks down into many subsidiary questions, of which a few are:

  • What is the relevant community? If one defines the community as Israel, then perhaps poor Jewish women are oppressed. If one defines it as Israel plus the Occupied Territories, then these women move far up the scale. Which geographical scope to use is highly controversial (but that does not mean that judgments of the matter are arbitrary opinions).
  • In what ways can people be oppressed? Individuals were chosen for this example on the basis of income or wealth and gender. But if they are really ultra-orthodox, then their families are foregoing income in favor of religious study and intense communalism. Are they “poor”? Does that matter?
  • What do they want? Self-interest is not self-evident; human beings want all kinds of things, including subservient positions within their own communities and limited freedoms. If a group of highly-religious women favor traditional gender roles, does that make their circumstances OK? Should our research about them be “bottom-up” and driven by their values? Or would anti-oppression research aim to broaden their options?

*British Journal of Social Work (2007) 37, 857–871

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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