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Five Faces of Oppression

Five Faces of Oppression

Partial synopsis of Justice and the Politics of Difference, by Iris Marion Young (1990), helpful for facilitating conversations about what justice means given the different ways that people experience oppression.

Throughout the 1980s and even still today, many people have dismissed “identity politics” as a mere distraction. Iris Young’s book Justice and the Politics of Difference was a milestone in the fight to prove that so-called “identity politics” had serious demands and ambitions for social transformation. Young synthesized years of theorizing by social movements, presenting claims for social justice in a clear, incisive form that was hard for mainstream liberals to ignore. Her book is particularly helpful for how it talks about power and its relation to oppression.

I. Power is relational, not something you “have” #

People often speak about social justice as redistribution: some people have all the wealth and power, and we need to spread it around. Young suggested that you can redistribute wealth, or food, or housing, or things, but not necessarily relations such as power (or rights, or opportunity, or respect).

She gives the example of a judge and a prisoner: the judge has institutionalized power over the prisoner, but only because of a set of institutions made up of many people and political arrangements. “Many people must do their jobs for the judge’s power to be realized, and many of these people will never directly interact with either the judge or the prisoner” (31). The judge never personally arrests anyone, puts handcuffs on anyone, or locks anyone in a cell. The judge’s power is rooted in a whole complex of institutions: police, the law, the state, and so on. Talking about power as something that particular individuals or groups ‘have’ or ‘possess’ makes it easy to miss the structural basis of power, enacted through institutions like governments, militaries, schools, non-profits, religions, and on and on.

II. Structural power and domination #

Young defines domination as “structural or systemic phenomena which exclude people from participating in determining their actions or the conditions of their actions” (31). In other words, domination is a process of reducing people’s capacity for self-determination and personal (or community) flourishing. Domination is often directed at entire groups of people: classes, races, genders and sexual identities, ethnic groups, nation-states, and so on. Domination is also frequently “the intended or unintended product of the actions of many people,” like the networks and institutions that enable a judge to wield power over a prisoner–that’s the structural dimension of domination (32).1

Young’s framing highlights the structural dimensions of justice. Injustice is domination and oppression. Social justice is freedom from domination and oppression, the freedom to shape your own destiny and capacity to flourish. The same way that institutions are vehicles for injustice, justice must also be enacted through institutions.

III. The five faces of oppression #

Young says it’s hard to define ‘oppression’ in just one way because different groups experience oppression in vastly different ways and degrees. “All oppressed people suffer some inhibition of their ability to develop and exercise their capacities and express their needs, thoughts, and feelings” (41), but that’s a vague and abstract way of describing a very real experience. She describes “five faces of oppression” in order to account for different people’s situations and struggles. Together these five forms of oppression help explain how oppression is intersectional, that is, how multiple forms of oppression can overlap and combine.2

  • Exploitation: The classic example of exploitation is the labor relation in capitalism. The capitalist buys labor cheap and sells the product of labor for profit. Workers live their lives expending effort for the benefit and enrichment of owners. In this way capitalism systematically transfers the powers and capacities of some people to others. Justice requires replacing the capitalistic institutions that enable this exploitative arrangement with other institutions that enable everyone to develop and use their capacities in ways that don’t inhibit similar development in others. Exploitation can refer to any such arrangement where power is systematically transferred from some people to others.

  • Marginalization: Think of the category “people outside of the work force,” a group that consists in large part of poor people, especially people of color, with only a high school diploma or less. People in this category are systematically devalued and excluded from society’s system for allocating social goods (the labor market). Thus they suffer severe material deprivation despite their capacities to work and participate in social life.

  • Powerlessness: Power is, among other things, the capacity to influence the decisions that affect you and others. To illustrate powerlessness as a form of oppression, Young compares different kinds of workers. Professional workers benefit from the exploitation of nonprofessional workers (to different degrees). Nonprofessional workers lack authority or power to influence the complex decision-making processes in institutions. They are the people whom power is exercised over, without exercising power themselves (at least not within professional institutions). They have little opportunity to develop their skills, knowledge, and capacities. They enjoy little to no autonomy in their work lives, are allowed little creativity in their work, are made to feel awkward or foolish in bureaucratic and public settings, and are frequently the object of disrespect (56).

  • Cultural imperialism: “To experience cultural imperialism means to experience how the dominant meanings of a society render the particular perspective of one’s own group invisible at the same time as they stereotype one’s group and mark it out as the Other” (59) Cultural imperialism poses the dominant group as superior through cultural products, media, and public opinion.

  • Violence: Systemic violence is a form of oppression, and it’s not only perpetrated by the state and its agents. Systemic violence also takes the forms of harassment and personal harm, committed by private individuals or groups, which the state chooses to ignore and allow to go unpunished. This form of oppression includes the psychological harm of knowing that one is vulnerable to arbitrary violence.


  1. Young’s definition of domination has a lot in common with Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s stark definition of racism as “the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” (Golden gulag: Prisons, surplus, crisis, and opposition in globalizing California, 2007). Gilmore’s definition is intentionally materialist, highlighting that racial domination enacts concrete harms on people’s lives and does so through concrete institutions that use violent means. ↩︎

  2. Young doesn’t use the term intersectionality in the book. That term was coined by the legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw. ↩︎