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Anti-oppressive practice (AOP) is an interdisciplinary approach primarily rooted within the practice of social work that focuses on ending socioeconomic oppression. It requires the practitioner to critically examine the power imbalance inherent in an organizational structure with regards to the larger sociocultural and political context in order to develop strategies for creating an egalitarian environment free from oppression, racism, and other forms of discrimination in the larger society, by engaging at the legal and political level. In general community practice it is about responding to oppression by dominant groups and individuals. In social services it regulates any possible oppressive practices and helps in delivering welfare services in an inclusive manner.
Anti-oppressive practice seeks to lessen ("starve the beast") the exclusion of certain social groups from social equality, rights and social justice. Social work generally is known to be a "caring" profession, but sometimes services provided that work for one person do not necessarily work for another or reflect the sensitivity required to work for another. Related to this there may be a 'care versus control' issue, because where there is care there is responsibility, and therefore control and power which can lead to exclusions (Humphries, 2004, p105). Knowingly and deliberately causing discrimination to another constitutes an oppressive practice, the behavior also matters as much as intent. The onus of the social worker is to show s/he exercised due diligence according to generally accepted practices and conducts him/herself in a manner generally accepted by society which constitutes as neutral/ordinary “humanity”.
An imbalance in care and control of services may lead to oppression. Lena Dominelli (2002) defines Oppression as, "relations that divide people into dominant or superior groups and subordinate or inferior ones. These relations of domination consist of the systematic devaluing of the attributes and contributions of those deemed inferior, and their exclusion from the social resources available to those in the dominant group". The Exclusion (E.g. Xenophobia) that results from oppression or vice versa, can affect an individual or a system greatly. This process is often evaluative, where the individual ends up measuring him/herself in a hierarchy against the other based on the personal values s/he holds. Disposing to this, results in one's identity or trait being regarded as superior to the other, thus creating an "us-them" dynamic (othering process) resulting in division and which creates risk for oppression.
The anti-oppressive model
In social work, the anti-oppressive model aims to function and promote equal, non-oppressive social relations between various identities.Dominelli (2002) defines it, "in challenging established truths about identity, anti-oppressive practice seeks to subvert the stability of universalized biological representations of social division to both validate diversity and enhance solidarity based on celebrating difference amongst peoples" (p. 39). It remains dedicated to principles of social justice, which is also upheld in NASW values, by acknowledging diversity within oppression and considering the intersection and hierarchies of the "isms" that construct people as victims or perpetrators. The anti-oppressive model analyzes and advocates against macro & micro levels of oppression and emphasizes on social justice and social change along more empowering and emancipatory lines.
The complex and unequal role of "power" and "isms" are considered as an immense complication in AOP. Those who benefit as in most relationships are those who with most power. Thompson argues that there is essentially 3 stacks of barriers in AOP. They are Personal (P), Cultural (C) and Structural (S). P refers to personal and prejudice factors. C refers to culture, commonalities, consensus and conformity. S refers to Structural aspects like sociopolitical force or other social dimensions. Thompson refers as P being embedded in C and C in S, interacting with each other in continuum.
Personal: Evaluation of gender, through feminist empowerment models tend to construct men as threatening or useless. This is particularly noted in risk assessments where domestic violence is an issue and the need to construct one person as a perpetrator. The men as threatening model ignores the reality that same-sex violence exists similar to heterosexual violence in intimate relationships and the levels of female-on-male violence.
Cultural: Language has a contribution to oppression in general, language with its marking function constructs social structure and an interplay in creating cultural values. Government records categorize people who are neither white or male, as ethnic presuming white people do not have an ethnicity but are the norm, and white people are often "de-raced" in discourses.
Structural: In 2006 Aldridge on the regulations of UK immigration policies, pointed out its direct proportion with structural use of power to regulate religious and ethnic diversity. Aldridge notes religion as a cultural source on which individuals and groups draw identity, motivation, mobilization and legitimacy; and that as such it is a volatile and unpredictable resource which has the capacity for increasing both social cohesion and social conflict. These effects on immigration policy in UK populations where criticized as masking of obvious hegemonic dichotomy. In 2004 Humphries stated failure to critically analyse legislation's and social policy led "failure to identify the inherent racism within immigration" systems.
In community practices, AOP functions to address problems that rise due to structural imbalance; Herbert Marcuse defined the state as: "Law and order are always and everywhere the law and order which protect the established hierarchy; it is nonsensical to invoke the absolute authority of this law and this order against those who suffer from it and struggle against it."
Professional practitioners are aware of the power (im)balance between service users and providers that reflects in practice, though the aim is always using this differences legitimately to empower others and reduce the experience of powerlessness and the resulting learned helplessness or the "culture of silence". Lois McNay in 1992 commented on this power (im)balance as "Oppressions have always dominated on how our lives are lived, they are central to the profit base of the economy. The big three of them are gender, race and class". McNay cites exploitive division of labour as an example.
Social work solutions to the problems of oppressed groups must include policies that address all elements of oppression. But Social workers also need to be aware that these efforts may not be necessarily supported by partners in the process of social justice.
Through AOP social work practice focuses on a more emancipatory form of practice which locates the individual people and their family within their social contexts and helps them with structural patterns of the society that perpetuate inequalities through promotion of choices.
Discussing issues in abbreviations and legal terms can be disempowering to clients and considered oppressive. Speaking plainly and clearly is considered good working practice, where the client can not only understand but can become involved in making choices and decisions about their involvement with social services. More specifically, anti-oppression deals with the negative experience of people based on their race, their gender identity, sexual identity, their physical and mental ability, their choice of religion, their class background (whether growing up poor, working poor, working, middle or upper class), their physical appearance (fat or thin), and the list goes on. It also is a way to challenge the ways people are treated based on these identities. For example, when a woman is treated in a sexist way or a person of colour experiences racism. Anti-oppressive practice is about working with the service user to include them in facilitating a user-led and user-controlled service. Healthy professional relationships will help build the confidence of the service user to enable them to develop their own ideas about their level of involvement.
AOP is a part of professional social work development schema. They are bonded by this to develop counter-hegemonic understanding of cross-cultural and personal differences. Social work practitioners advocate against oppression by promoting increased respect for the "inherent dignity and worth of all people", and "social justice" (NASW, 1996). Acknowledging NASW values, along with "the importance of human relationships," remains an integral part of building empowering client-practitioner relationships (NASW, 1996).
AOP is a current form of progressive social work which helps to identify psychosocial issues through an intersectional lens and act on the same. It bridges the practice-activism divide and leads the society in a transformative angle in human relations. Its reformative call has opened eyes of both public and leading private management regimes and the principles resonates in effective and harmonic utilization of resources. Anti-oppressive practice does not compromise the established and traditional 1970s Anti-Discriminatory Practice (ADP) which focuses on discrimination (e.g. towards anti-racist perspective) whereas AOP deals with processes of oppression and exclusion.
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