Originally published in March 2005, Current Implications added by Heidi Burgess in July 2020.
What is Oppression?
Oppression is the experience of repeated, widespread, systemic injustice. It need not be extreme and involve the legal system (as in slavery, apartheid, or the lack of right to vote) nor violent (as in tyrannical societies). Harvey has used the term "civilized oppression" to characterize the everyday processes of oppression in normal life. Civilized oppression "is embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutions and rules, and the collective consequences of following those rules. It refers to the vast and deep injustices some groups suffer as a consequence of often unconscious assumptions and reactions of well-meaning people in ordinary interactions which are supported by the media and cultural stereotypes as well as by the structural features of bureaucratic hierarchies and market mechanisms."
We cannot eliminate this structural oppression by getting rid of the rulers or by making some new laws, because oppressions are systematically reproduced in the major economic, political and cultural institutions. While specific privileged groups are the beneficiaries of the oppression of other groups, and thus have an interest in the continuation of the status quo, they do not typically understand themselves to be agents of oppression.
What are the Origins of Oppression?
Prior to the development of agriculture, the hunting-gathering-fishing societies were mainly egalitarian and cooperative. Since these very early nomadic societies generally did not accumulate and preserve food, all of the physically able members of such societies had to participate in securing the basic necessities of life. Whatever divisions occurred within these groups was mainly based upon sex, age, and individual physical and social abilities. The distribution of food, work products, and services tended to be egalitarian except during extreme scarcity, when survival of the group required giving priority to those who could contribute most to its survival. The aged and infirm would often have low priority.
Levels of conflict and oppression within such societies appeared to be low. Conflicts with other similar societies mainly occurred as a result of one group's encroachment on another group's territory. Such conflict resulted from the need to expand one's territory as a result of population growth or because one's territory was no longer productive of food and the other resources needed for group survival.
The simple technologies of hunting-gathering-fishing societies did not allow them to accumulate a surplus of food. As such groups experienced a growth in their populations, the balance between them and their environment was upset. To overcome the threats to their survival, about 12,000 years ago, some of these societies developed agriculture and animal husbandry.
This development led to two revolutionary consequences, which fostered social inequality and oppression: differentiation within societies and warfare between societies. The accumulation of a surplus of food led to the emergence of new occupations -- such as traders, merchants, administrators, artisans, soldiers, and rulers; not all the members of the society were required to be involved in the production of food. One can speculate that social hierarchies developed as some food growers were more successful than others because of skill or luck. To obtain food, the unsuccessful peasants became dependent upon the successful ones and had to offer their land and services -- often as a worker, priest, or soldier -- to the more successful ones. For the successful ones, the result was increased wealth, increased godliness, support from the priests, and increased support from soldiers with the resulting power to appropriate the land and control the services of those who were weaker. Contests among the powerful would increase the power of the winners to exploit those who were weaker, as would alliances among the more powerful.
Another way of increasing power was through successful warfare against weaker societies. Success would lead to the expropriation of much of the wealth of the weaker society as well as enslavement of some of its population.
In summary, one can speculate that the need for the relatively egalitarian hunting-gathering-fishing societies to have stable sources of food led to the development of agriculture and animal husbandry. Small inequalities in luck or skills among the peasants within an agricultural society, or between societies, could lead to social inequalities and power differences that, in turn, could lead to increased power, social inequalities, and oppression of the weak by the strong.
Note: This was originally one long article on oppression, which we have broken up to post on Beyond Intractability. The next article in the series is: Forms of Oppression.
This essay, which was written by one of the conflict resolution field's early and most distinguished scholars, explains the historical origins of oppression.
It is interesting, though not surprising, how much the oppression that has characterized human society for centuries still plagues the the contemporary world. Clearly, it is an extraordinarily complex problem that we have yet to solve.
In the summer of 2020, in the wake of a widely-circulated video of yet another killing of an unarmed Black man by police, oppression is again the focus of much public attention. The protests and the narrative that followed have emphasized that this was not a one-time event. Rather, this happens often and is part of a much larger story. Blacks have been systemically oppressed ever since slavery ended. (They were even more oppressed, of course, during slavery, but my point is that oppression did not end when the slaves were freed, nor has it ended anytime since, despite efforts legal efforts to do so (such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act). (See a newly-added and very useful BI history of what went wrong during the "Reconstruction Era" to cement this oppression in place.)
Indeed, just as Deustch says, the "unconscious assumptions and reactions of well-meaning people in ordinary situations which are supported by the media and cultural stereotypes as well as by the structural features of bureaucratic hierarchies and market mechanisms" has led to Blacks' widespread inability to join the middle class. For instance, Brookings reported in February of 2020 that in 2016 (the last year for which they had data), net worth of a typical white family was $171,000, while that of a typical black family was $17,150. According to Wikipedia, Blacks receive lower grades in school than do whites, more drop out, and fewer go to or graduate from college,  which means that the jobs available to them are not as good as the jobs available to the average white youth or young adult. In addition, disparate treatment in the justice system (from policing to sentencing to treatment in prison) favors whites over blacks, resulting in a highly disproportionate number of black men being incarcerated, harming their own life chances permanently, as well as the chances of their families. And while the focus in the summer of 2020 is primarily on Blacks, the same is true for many other people of color, religious minorities, and other minority groups.
 Harvey, J. (1999). Civilized Oppression. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
 Young, M.I. (1990). Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. 41.
 Gil, D.G. (1998). Confronting Injustice and Oppression. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
 McIntosh, Kriston, Emily Moss, Ryan Nunn, and Jan Shambaugh. "Examining the Black-White Wealth Gap." Brookings Up Front. Feb. 27, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/02/27/examining-the-black-white-wealth-gap/. Accessed July 2, 2020.
 "Racial achievement gap in the United States" Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racial_achievement_gap_in_the_United_States. Accessed July 2, 2020.
Use the following to cite this article:
Deutsch, Morton. "The Nature and Origins of Oppression." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: March 2005 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/nature-origins-oppression>.