Oppression Bias and Why It Sucks to be a Black Sociologist


The social sciences as they have developed in the western world has it as it’s goal to develop, catalog, understand, and organize human behavior. Sociology, Political Science, Psychology, Philosophy, Anthropology, Communications, and all the other social sciences seek to make sense of the social world human beings have created for themselves over the past million years of our existence. For myself, I chose to study Sociology, the study of  human interactions. Much like many of the other social sciences, it has it’s roots (in the western world, other societies have their own forms of all these fields hundreds or thousands of year before Europe) in the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Because the period that Sociology came into being along with other social sciences it’s focus was on Europe and interactions between European people, to the detriment of other societies and groups of people.

Europe’s barbanistic and imperialistic interactions with the rest of the world over the intervening 200 years influenced the social sciences in a way that is classist, sexist, and racist in both their theories as well as the professional practice of these fields. Examples of racism for instance infecting these fields is the “culture of poverty”, eugenics, functionalism (or at least some applications of said approach), the entire field of Anthropology, and Democratic Peace Theory.

Although in recent years, the influence of the Civil Rights/Black Power, Women’s Rights, LGBT*, Anti-Colonial, and Anti-Capitalist movements have influenced a new generation of social scientists who have not been as influenced by these oppressive circumstances, problems still remain. I can only speak for myself as an African in Sociology, but there are still great and many barriers to having the oppressed voices heard in the social sciences. especially for those of us who are practitioners of those social sciences like myself. One of the most important and basic of these barriers is what I would like to call the “Assumption of Oppression Bias”.

I don’t know if I have seen this concept in other writings or pieces but I think it’s something that anyone from an oppressed background will immediately recognize. The basic dynamic of Oppressed Bias is more or less the same as all other forms of bias, that because of one’s connection to a particular idea, people/persons, or institution said person can not or will not make an objective scientific analysis of X issue. Oppression Bias is then the idea that because one is part of X oppressed group they can not or will not make an objective analysis of the conditions of that oppression, the oppressed themselves, or the oppressors involved. This is a very serious issue that I believe in many circles has and is stifling the voices of those of us who come from oppressed backgrounds.

Speaking for myself, I got involved in Sociology not for the simple purpose of learning and studying human behavior. I got involved in the field to study human behavior  for the purpose of using it (or someone else using it) to dismantle oppressive systems in our world and help build better systems of human interaction. Sociology especially has been split largely between those who feel our field’s only legitimate purpose is to catalog and organize information about human behavior while others, such as myself, argue that Sociology is only relevant in relation to it’s usefulness to fighting oppression, furthering human society, and building better institutions (regardless of political persuasion). For those of us from oppressed communities (of a racial, class, gender, or sexual nature), we have two imperatives for getting involved if we’re on the “interventionist” side of the divide. The first is because since most Sociology through its history has been done by people of privileged backgrounds, we feel that we can better understand the social circumstances related to our backgrounds than someone who has no real life interaction with them. The other reason is explicitly to contribute to information base that can further the liberation struggle of those who share our oppressed social position. Unfortunately for those two reasons people of privilege often ignore our world assuming the oppression bias.

The Oppression Bias language can be seen in many ways. One is the discouragement by Sociologists in the classroom for people to speak from anecdotes. We all know that anecdotes don’t constitute scientific information by itself but when you’re the only one in the classroom who remotely has any engagement with a certain social phenomena you would assume that people would give some deference to you on that point. Unfortunately often comments referring to life in the projects, coming out of the closet, or being from a rural town is met with silence and/or little engagement with the point or worse the student/scientist is reminded that their anecdote isn’t a scientific snapshot. Both of these responses discourages oppressed individuals from speaking from their lifetime of experience with X issue that I believe is relevant even if it didn’t come out of a research journal.

Another form of this bias that also happens in classrooms often is when an oppressed person  thinks of a writer who is not a social scientist who said or wrote something that they feel is relevant to the discussion. An especially common example of this is when a working class or poor student/scientist brings up Marx’s theory of revolution and change. We can argue all we want about whether it’s right or not but it’s interesting to always see the weird looks one gets when they reference him and one would assume that the looks reflect thoughts that resemble “commie…” It also happens when racial minorities mention revolutionaries of their people in conversation. There’s an assumption that often goes through the person who’s about to speak head that these people will dismiss this writer’s point because they aren’t a “scientist” like they are.

Assumptions of Oppression Bias of the above mentioned forms and others (“they have an “agenda”” accusation is another one) stifles voices of students, social scientists, and laypersons alike and contributes to a weird Catch-22 that all oppressed people in the social sciences have to face, or will face. You come into the field wanting to study “your people” because the current crop of people and studies have failed to do so in a decent way (or at all) and indeed there is almost a responsibility to do so because no one else will. The problem is that because you do that, you are assumed to have an agenda and much of your writing is proving the worth of either the topic of discussion itself or super reinforcing your logic to make sure NO ONE can question your work. This is a very uncomfortable position to be in and for many of us, it wears us down…a lot.

For Sociology and other social sciences to move forward towards a more fair and equitable picture of the social world, we will have to confront professional/psychological forms of suppression such as the Oppression Bias Assumption. If we don’t our fields will continue into the far future to be too heavily weighted in favor of the interest, logic, and perspective of the privileged to the disadvantage of  the oppressed. That is a field I’d rather not be a part of.

Have you seen real oppression bias in your work? Have you seen the undue assumption of this bias used against you or anyone you know? What do you think we can do to fight back against this? Let me know in the comments.

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10 thoughts on “Oppression Bias and Why It Sucks to be a Black Sociologist

  1. O no… well.. I’ve just got to say this. White male sociology-student here:
    I’d love to see a paper on the concept you’ve just outlined, but until then you have a wonderful mix of sweeping statements and anecdotal evidence here.

    I only half jest. Anecdotes are important, they give us specific examples of how thing could be, and can logically disprove other theories (if their claims are strong enough). You co-students are right to point at your faults, just as you should point out the similar faults in their arguments. I get that if you are a lone with your opinion you can feel overrun – but then do that research and prove them wrong!

    As for some of those sweeping statements. Sociology of the latter part of the 20th century has, at least in Europe, been a wonderful supporter of the oppressed, the poor, the uneducated, the criminal and the insane. But I’m sure counterexamples could be found there too. And please don’t incriminate the entire field of anthropology, because that’s a mistaken statement on so many counts I can’t even begin to write it.

    On the other hand. There are many excellent reasons why you should research this! You are uniquely positioned to do these studies, and you are clearly passionate. That, and you could develop to be a great writer! Serious researchers will be able to, in peer review, to pick at your arguments to see if you seem biased. Unserious work will be noticed and halted. Ofcourse you should stay objective, but that doesn’t equate to disinterested!

    I recomend taking a look at Weber’s way of dealing with this. A wonderful man called Jay Ciaffa has written excellently about Weber’s thoughts on the relations between personal values and the research situation; but basically it goes like this. Stay objective in your scientific evaluations – but know that as soon as this is applied to politics you are not making a scientific statements. However – if politics are what you are all about; then you must lean on that inner fire and really fight for your rights! You can do it on the back of your research, but while you are actually exploring you aren’t allowed to let your fealings get into it.

    Good luck!

    BTW: I have a blog, and I write about philosophical, sociological and artsy things – check it out at emildanielsen.blogspot.com.

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  6. One of my general problems with identity politics scholars is that most of what they perceive, regardless of social reality, is rooted through an oppressive lens

    Look, I’m a PhD student in Sociology at a fairly reputable University. I’m also a minority status.

    I’m hearing a couple of things here:

    1. The development of sociology within a Western framework is problematic (you say detriment)

    2. That Oppressed Bias shuts down political voices–and people look away when you mention something of ‘commie’.

    3. That departments need to better represent their minorities.

    “Western” Sociology actually emerged in a very particular time–under specific circumstances, what we say, “historically situated and constituted”. I would refrain from adding a value judgement to this–it’s a fact, but its not a negative or a positive–it just is. By calling it to the ‘detriment of minorities, do you mean other societies that don’t have a ‘historically situated and constituted’ field of their own Sociological analysis?

    Additionally, we have a lot of scholars in our department who do fieldwork/research in their home origins, and a lot of the sociological attention is directed towards studying social ills–which tend to inflict the disenfranchised (depending on where you’re talking about) more so than others for various reasons. But, this is not what Sociology is, or should be seen as exclusively. It’s not a political project. There are a lot of scholars who work outside of the ‘race/class/gender’ paradigm–which actually (with the exception of class) only really emerged out of the 60s. Sociology isn’t a ‘revolution’, either, it’s a scientific pursuit. The fact that your mentors hold you to rigorous standards–questioning your logic–means that they are making you accountable to the scientific method–not writing on anecdotal evidence and through a lens colored by preconceived notions of victimhood. I left identity politics because there was too much of this in the literature–at the detriment of my intellectual development.

    As a sociologist, I don’t equate my sociology or my science with the LGBT, feminist, anti-racism movement–nor am I anti-capitalist. Actually, I’m more on the conservative end–reading thinkers such as Edmund Burke, Von Mises, and would probably describe myself as a libertarian if I had to put myself in a political camp. My reasoning is simple: there isn’t much evidence on the socialist/communist end of things–unless you’re to look at former communist states as failed. When looking at the evidence, and matching it with the theory, the only way you can defend ‘communism’ is mostly through ideology–what it *could* be, in theory, rather than what it actually produces and its real consequences. The feminist–critical race–etc, are written from subjective points of view that not even I agree with. No rigor whatsoever. No science, no fact, distorted logic.

    Besides, If you want to talk about academic marginalization, there is no greater one than the Left/Right divide in academia. I can *maybe* get away with telling my classmates that I read from the conservative camp. If I told them I actually liked them? Oh boy! I might as well just drop out while I’m at it. There is a difference between ‘rigor’ and ‘discrimination’, and what I’ll say is that the Left indoctrination in Sociology is no threat to minorities as it is to conservative thinkers.

    So, in short form, If you’re already subscribing to these ‘social movements’ as some sort of progressivist agenda build into the scientific pursuit of Sociology, then you’ve exploited a discipline and bastardized its principles, and, whether you’re aware of it or not, you make other people uncomfortable when they want to have an informed academic discussion on a particular issue–knowing that you will take it personally, and by virtue of a minority status, gain credibility and power. You can be a socialist, but you can’t make your personal politics your science, and expect others–even other sociologists–to feel the same.

    You’re asking for a call to change–I’m asking for you not to turn our (shared) discipline into a platform for a revolution or more identity politics that is increasingly seen as less popular within the discipline for the reasons I pointed out. I’d like to see Sociology return to science, so it can gain its credibility back.

    Thanks, and good luck.

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