Oppositional Consciousness: The Subjective Roots of Social Protest

Oppositional Consciousness: The Subjective Roots of Social Protest


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226503622
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/30/2001
Edition description: 1
Pages: 316
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jane Mansbridge is the Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University and the editor of Beyond Self-Interest.

Aldon Morris is a professor of sociology at Northwestern University and coeditor, with Carol Mueller, of Frontiers in Social Movement Theory.

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Oppositional Consciousness: the Subjective Roots of Social Protest

By Aldon D. Morris

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2001 Aldon D. Morris
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226503623

The Making of Oppositional Consciousness

Jane Mansbridge

How can human beings be induced to give their lives--even one minute of their lives--for their group?

This is a question every nation, every social movement, indeed every social organization, has had to face. One answer is somehow to arrange incentives so that in doing what is good for themselves, people also do what is good for the group. The market often works this way. So do Nobel prizes. Another answer is to convince people that because of the principles they hold or how they feel about the group, they should contribute to the group, even when this is not rewarding in other ways-- and sometimes even when it will cost them their lives.

Successful social movements, like other successful social organizations, tap into as many kinds of incentives as possible. This book looks at one constellation of incentives that applies to historically subordinated groups--a constellation composed of the principles, ideas, and feelings that we call "oppositional consciousness." Although we will explore the meanings of the term at length in the last chapter, for now the easiest way to understand oppositional consciousness is to think about what people havemeant with the words "class consciousness" and apply the same logic to other groups, such as women or African Americans. We say that members of a group that others have traditionally treated as subordinate or deviant have an oppositional consciousness when they claim their previously subordinate identity as a positive identification, identify injustices done to their group, demand changes in the polity, economy, or society to rectify those injustices, and see other members of their group as sharing an interest in rectifying those injustices. "Oppositional consciousness" is the umbrella term. Class, race, and other forms of group consciousness are specific instances.

Our project is fundamentally inductive. We present six cases from recent United States history, based on participant observation and interviews, that reveal in some historical detail how different groups actually develop and use what we call oppositional consciousness. Each of these cases features groups--African Americans, people with disabilities, sexually harassed women, Chicano workers, and gay men and lesbians-- whose outrage at their situation had at one point been kept under control by a dominant set of ideas that portrayed their situations as natural, normal, or in any case not unjust. Each group, and each case, demonstrates some complexity in the practice and theory of oppositional consciousness. In focusing on complexity rather than order, we try to follow the empirically oriented path blazed by E. P. Thompson, who detailed how the nineteenth-century English working class overcame the dominant ideas of its time and began to see itself as a distinct class whose interests conflicted with those of factory owners. We ask how versions of this process have applied to other subordinated groups and those who identify deeply with such groups.

By a subordinated group we mean a group subordinate in a system of social organization in which members of one group create and reinforce inequalities between themselves and members of another group through the exercise of power, that is, the threat of sanction and the imposition of constraint. That exercise of power may be conscious and intentional, as in the institution of slavery. It does not, however, require individual intent, as in many cases of gender inequality. Members of a group with the power to make a decision that affects others may, without conscious intent, simply not take into account the interests or perspectives of members of a group with less power. They may only choose a course of action that is in their interests with little recognition of how that choice affects others. Everyone has had the experience of harming others by "just not thinking." When harm or disadvantage is imposed this way consistently over time, because the members of one group consistently have more power than the members of another, the process creates and reinforces a pattern of domination and subordination.

The essays in this book use the word "oppression" to describe the unjust exercise of power by a dominant group over a subordinate group. The concept of oppression as English speakers use it today derives in the most influential early instance from the experience of the Jews in Egypt. Although all the well-known Mediterranean philosophies and religions evince a strong concern for injustice, the Hebrew Bible carved out a special concern for a form of injustice that in English is traditionally translated as "oppression." The Hebrew, indeed, has at least four separate roots for words that the King James Bible translates as "oppression."

When these words appear (particularly in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy), the context reveals that "oppression" involves the unjust use of power by the more powerful against those less powerful and more vulnerable by virtue of their social position. Conceptually, oppression usually applies to groups rather than individuals, and it is used when members of more powerful groups use their power to take advantage of members of more structurally vulnerable groups. The Jewish people's slavery in Egypt is archetypal. Jewish tradition makes that experience central, in both the yearly Seder and many other group-defining references. In the Exodus story, God's command forbids oppression: "Thou shalt neither vex [wrong] a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt." That command is strong and personal. It reminds the Jews of their own group's past experiences in Egypt, and so may even ask for, or draw upon, some form of empathy for those vulnerable to oppression. The groups whom "thou shalt not oppress" include not only widows and orphans, for whom the New Testament and the Koran urge compassion and charity (without mentioning oppression), but also, more challengingly, the "stranger within your midst" and your "hireling." Neither Christianity nor Islam suggests a particular care for either strangers or workers. The Hebrew Bible singles them out, along with widows and orphans, presumably because their weaker structural positions vis-a-vis the powerful make them vulnerable to others' power.

This underlying meaning of oppression as the unjust use of greater power by one group against another, maintained without emphasis in the European Middle Ages, was picked up and used extensively both in the American Revolution and in the early antislavery movement. In Europe the concept then became much used in socialist and Marxist writing. In the United States it peppered abolitionist and populist thought. Christian slave spirituals preserved intact the meaning from Exodus: "When Israel was in Egypt's land--Let my people go--Oppressed so hard they could not stand.. . ." Although the New Testament rarely uses words that are translated into English as "oppression," Christianity nevertheless treats the Hebrew Bible as a sacred text. Thus in the Christian as well as the Jewish tradition the embedded heritage of God's implacable opposition to oppression gave subordinate groups a strong claim for rectification of wrongs rooted in the unjust power that one group could wield against another.

A group is oppressed only if its position in a particular hierarchical system derives from unjust inequalities that result from the exercise of power (in the sense of threat of sanction or imposition of constraint). Injustice and power are central. But any conclusion that a particular group has been deeply affected by this form of power is subject to contest. So is any conclusion that a particular hierarchy is unjust. In any given system of inequality, those higher in the hierarchy will have an interest in claiming that existing inequalities derive not from the unequal exercise of power but from other causes; those lower in the hierarchy will have, to some degree, an interest in the opposite claim.

Yet those lower in the hierarchy also have incentives not to challenge the naturalness of inequality. Challenging the interpretation of the dominant group can result in punishment so severe or pervasive that subordinates will go a long way toward adopting the dominant interpretation. Inequalities in power have their most insidious effect when the dominant group has so much control over the ideas available to other members of the society that the conceptual categories required to challenge the status quo hardly exist. Ideological hegemony of this sort pervades every human society in ways that are, by definition, hard to bring to conscious awareness.

We have only recently come to understand how hard it is to resist the dominant ideas of one's time. By the mid-nineteenth century, doubts had begun to emerge about the eighteenth-century vision in which the free play of ideas would eventually produce a rational world. Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill, who differed dramatically on many things, agreed that the distribution of power in a society had a profound influence on its receptiveness to particular ideas. Marx wrote, "The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of the ruling class." Mill's judgment was almost identical: "Wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interests." More than a century later Michel Foucault carried this line of thinking to its logical conclusion. "Power," he wrote, "is 'already there' . . . one is never 'outside' it, . . . there are no 'margins' for those who break with the system to gambol in.. . . [P]ower is co-extensive with the social body; there are no spaces of primal liberty between the meshes of its network."

Foucault is also famous for recognizing that "there are no relations of power without resistances . . . formed right at the point where relations of power are exercised." But his own writing stressed the effects of power rather than the creation of resistance. When in one essay he encountered instances of such resistance he called them "curious," "strange," and "amazing." His theory of resistance--which he did not elaborate--seems to have assumed a gut refusal to be subordinated rooted somewhere in every human being. This is where oppositional consciousness comes in. To form an effective basis for collective action, gut refusals need cognitive and emotional organizing. They need an injustice frame. They need ideology. They need an apparatus involving both reason and emotion that can trigger the switch from shame to anger.

Oppositional consciousness as we define it is an empowering mental state that prepares members of an oppressed group to act to undermine, reform, or overthrow a system of human domination. It is usually fueled by righteous anger over injustices done to the group and prompted by personal indignities and harms suffered through one's group membership. At a minimum, oppositional consciousness includes the four elements of identifying with members of a subordinate group, identifying injustices done to that group, opposing those injustices, and seeing the group as having a shared interest in ending or diminishing those injustices. A more full-fledged oppositional consciousness includes identifying a specific dominant group as causing and in some way benefiting from those injustices. It also includes seeing certain actions of the dominant group as forming a "system" of some kind that advances the interests of the dominant group. Finally, it can include a host of other ideas, beliefs, and feelings that provide coherence, explanation, and moral condemnation.

It is not easy to describe a particular "consciousness." As we use it, the term implies some special sensitivity to certain features of the outside world rather than others. A particular consciousness draws one's rational and emotive attention to big and small things--big political events, reported in the media, and small inflections of voice, or the way of "owning the world" in which one person sits and the way of taking orders (or notes) in another's stance. Consciousness also transforms. Oppositional consciousness takes free-floating frustration and directs it into anger. It turns strangers into brothers and sisters, and turns feelings for these strangers from indifference into love. It builds on ideas and facts to generate hope. Cognitive and emotive processes mix together, as an emotion focuses a cognition and a cognition triggers an emotion. (Indeed, in such processes the very words "cognition" and "emotion" may impede our understanding if we take each to imply that it is the antonym of the other.)

Although consciousness is, by definition, internal to an individual's mind, the kind of consciousness that we describe is inextricably derived from the social world. We learn who we "are" from the social world. We appreciate those who like us and "our kind," and we react defensively toward those who seem to attack us and our kind or seem not to have our interests at heart. We learn the meaning of justice from our own and others' interpretations of the social world. We develop particular forms of consciousness in particular historical moments when certain political opportunities, certain mobilizing institutions and certain repertoires of action and self-understanding become available.

Our social settings and our particular needs and proclivities always give us both many forms of identity and many forms of consciousness prompted by our senses of identity and our experiences. We make some identities more salient at some times, and events make some identities more salient at some times. Sometimes our identities articulate relatively harmoniously with one another; sometimes they conflict and we need consciously to insist on their multiplicity or craft social situations that reinforce their multiplicity; sometimes we can compartmentalize and emphasize our different, perhaps conflicting, identities in different places. In all situations, when we give names to who we "are" we analogize ourselves with others and think of ourselves as members of a group. In many situations, however, this identity is not simply self-chosen; it is also partly given by others. When an identity at least partly given by others is a marker for social injustices imposed on members of one's group, one's consciousness will inevitably reflect those injustices, but not in predictable ways. Only in some historical situations will what we call "oppositional consciousness" arise. We cannot disentangle the individual and social elements in such a group-based consciousness, because the group-based element is irreducibly social, even more than other elements of the self.

Just as the meaning of "class consciousness" is highly contested, so too must the meaning of "oppositional consciousness" be contested. Yet most scholars agree that such a consciousness, however hard to define, plays an important causal role in the motivation to work for those social movements that we call "liberation movements." The last chapter of this book will explore further the components we have identified in the meaning of oppositional consciousness, while leaving the field open for further reflection, analysis, and observation. The examples in the substantive chapters will illustrate how a consciousness based in part on defending oneself and one's kind from domination differs in some important ways from other forms of moral commitment. Most importantly, we want to show that oppositional consciousness is not a single thing that one "has" or "doesn't have." We want to show that it is not one point in a binary but a loose continuum, not a unity but a congeries of competing elements, and not static but constantly changing in its content.

As this book describes the making of various forms of oppositional consciousness among several different groups in the United States, it aims to open up subtleties in the concept, helping us understand better the way oppositional consciousness is formed--through struggles among different oppositional traditions, clusters of both cognate and competing elements, divides and continua in cultural strands, syntheses of previously disparate elements, borrowings from likely and unlikely sources, and the transmutation of new inflections into central themes, which then serve as the ideational source for further inflections and transmutations. Oppositional consciousness is not the same for different groups. It is deeply colored by the objective structural position of a group within a system of domination and subordination, the obvious injustice versus the presumed naturalness of its subordination, the degree of the group's physical and cultural segregation from the dominant group, and the degree of voluntariness in its distinctness from the dominant norm.

The pattern we see is not "the stronger the oppression, the stronger the oppositional consciousness." That is true in some cases. But, as we stress constantly, consciousness is historically contingent. Oppositional consciousness requires ideational resources--ideas available in the culture that can be built upon to create legitimacy, a perception of injustice, righteous anger, solidarity, and a belief in the group's power. It requires emotional involvement and commitment. It also requires institutional resources. The cultural materials required come in sedimented layers. Individuals in the subordinate group must be brought together by existing or developing institutions in order to help one another dig into those layers, recognize, borrow, modify, inflect, and selectively inflate and suppress elements from the existing culture to craft what then become new ideas.

Luck plays some role in the evolution of ideas. A catchy name, like a catchy tune, can carry an idea forward independently of its intrinsic merits. The existing schemas of all participants--dominant, subordinate, and mixed--also count heavily. As the chapters in this book will reveal, some religious traditions (such as the Judaic), some past practices (such as physical segregation), some legal and institutional settings (such as a law against discrimination), some geographical patterns (such as migration routes), some patterns of self-interest among the players (such as those of elected politicians), and some conscious strategies (such as those of movement activists) can greatly facilitate or impede the development of both oppositional consciousness and group unity.

As members of subordinate groups try to recognize, name, and challenge the structures of power that often underlie even the seemingly most neutral or benign of surfaces, they can usually draw on one or more of the following resources--as each of our chapters will indicate. An existing oppositional culture provides ideas, rituals, and long-standing patterns of interaction that overt political struggle can refine and develop to create a more mature oppositional consciousness. Other key resources include: a history of segregation with some autonomy, providing "free spaces" for the elaboration and testing of ideas; borrowing from previous successful movements; the synthesis of more than one oppositional strand, creating more than the sum of its parts; mutually supportive interaction, bridging divides in emotional commitments, political opinions, and material interests; and conscious creativity by activists, drawing on the traditions and practices of everyday life. Each chapter in this book investigates at least one of these resources.


Excerpted from Oppositional Consciousness: the Subjective Roots of Social Protest by Aldon D. Morris Copyright © 2001 by Aldon D. Morris. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

-The Making of Oppositional Consciousness
Jane Mansbridge

-Social Movements and Oppositional Consciousness
Aldon Morris and Naomi Braine

-Religious Resources in an Oppositional Civic Culture
Fredrick C. Harris

-Free Spaces: Creating Oppositional Consciousness in the Disability Rights Movement
Sharon Groch

-A Spectrum in Oppositional Consciousness: Sexual Harrassment Plaintiffs and Their Lawyers
Anna-Maria Marshall

-Cristaleño Consciousness: Mexican-American Activism between Crystal City, Texas and Wisconsin, 1963-80
Marc Simon Rodriguez

-Divided Consciousness: The Impact of Black Elite Consciousness on the 1966 Chicago Freedom Movement
Lori G. Waite

-Forging a Multimensional Oppositional Consciousness: Lessons from Community-Based AIDS Activism
Brett C. Stockdill

-Complicating Oppositional Consciousness
Jane Mansbridge

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