The Development of Research on Oppression

This paper examines the emergence of research on oppression within the field of psychology up to the year 1961.  Oppression is “the domination of one group by another, politically, eco-nomically or culturally, singly or in combination” (Miller, 1921).  The year 1961 is of particular importance to this topic because it is year of the original publication of the groundbreaking work The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon.  The goal of the paper is to determine how far the field of psychology had gone in its examination of this phenomenon.  It is expected that while there was some work done in the area, the majority of the work was theoretical and not as much empirical.

The Wretched of the Earth

Frantz Fanon was a psychiatrist who worked with the Algerian liberation movement during the 1950s.  His book The Wretched of the Earth was important in helping to understand the psychology of the oppressed.  Using colonialism and the Algerian civil war as a major backdrop, he describes the oppressive environment and the responses of the native Algerians to the oppressive French government.  There is detailed description of how the responses to violent oppression are often violent rebellion.  Liberation must occur by the hands of the oppressed.  Political education was viewed as a necessity for liberation to occur.  The colony’s economic dependency on the colonial power runs parallel with the psychological dependency and distorted consciousness that makes the people oppressed and dominated subjects.  He also presents several case studies of individuals and groups who have symptoms of psychological disorders due to the oppressive surroundings (Fanon, 1967).  This work’s influence has been widespread, being translated in 25 different languages and influencing renowned educator Paulo Friere and major political figures such as Malcolm X and Che Guevara.


The goal of this paper is to examine how the issues of oppression are discussed and portrayed in psychological research before 1961.  The following inclusion criteria serve as guidelines in selecting the studies to include in this paper.  To be included in this review articles must be: published in peer review journals, written in English, and have the terms “oppression,” “abuse of power,” “social control,” “discrimination,” “Race and ethnic discrimination,” “sex discrimination,” or “racism” in the title or abstract.

A search in the PsychInfo database for the terms “oppression,” “abuse of power,” “social control,” “discrimination,” “Race and ethnic discrimination,” “sex discrimination,” and “racism” for the years 1882 – 1961, yielded 221 results.  Scanning the abstract of all articles revealed that a large majority of them examined discrimination in animals and the cognitive process of discrimination.  Therefore, most of the studies were not examined for the paper.  After reviewing the previous studies, a second search of studies on oppression was conducted across multiple databases.  The same date criteria were used and the utility of this was to get another perspective on the study of oppression from other fields.  The search yielded 112 additional articles for a total of 333 used in this review.


The undertaking of this research project was rooted in an overall interest in understanding oppression and its effects on the people who are on the receiving end.  This topic appears to be a relatively understudied area, particularly within the time frame delineated for this paper.  Some studies focused on how ethnic minority groups are affected.  Other studies focused on racial attitudes and beliefs of minorities and majority populations.  Many of the studies are not necessarily empirical in nature and seem to be more theoretical.

Early 20th Century

The literature produced during the first years of the 20th century had a focus on what precipitated the attitudes that would lead to oppressive behavior.  Thomas (1903) focused the psychological origins of prejudiced attitudes.  He refers to cognitive processes of animals and earlier processes of humans from an evolutionary perspective.  In the article it is demonstrated how these mental processes used for survival later became geared towards social relations.  Noteworthy is the attempt to describe attitudes that lead to oppression rather than the effects of or responses to oppression.  Lewis (1905) asserted that economic conditions in the United States could allow an individual to gain much more resources than otherwise obtainable.  Such a gathering of resources and establishment of partnerships could lead to oppression through the development of monopolies, leading to unfair competition.  Once again, there is a focus on the antecedents of oppressive behaviors and attitudes.  Mecklin (1913) departs from this by going relatively more in depth with the responses to oppression.  He describes 3 situations that are likely to occur when there is racial contact without fusion.  One of the situations is when a European or White country rules another country through military means or as a paternalistic government.  He also states “The ‘color line’ is the result of this effort of the ruling group to make the black constantly aware of his subordinate status and actually to restrict him to it in the absence of legal means for so doing.”  In essence, he felt as though Black people were forced to accept a subordinate status to the point that they would not actively push for an alternative.  This article serves as one of the first that looks at the impact of oppression on those who are oppressed.


The research during this decade started to place much more focus on the impact of oppression and the psychology of oppressed individuals.  Miller (1921) states that oppression frustrates the will of the people.  He also says that their self-consciousness becomes out of focus and it becomes impossible for the group to view their own problems objectively.  The most apparent result of oppression is the development of a group solidarity that is stronger than any solidarity that would be created through other means.  This study described the effects of oppression in explicitly psychological terms such as the term oppression psychosis.  Yoder’s (1928) review looks at the issue of racial differences and brings up the science being used to demonstrate racial superiority and then the nonutility of such methods.  This in a sense illustrates how science has been used to justify the oppression of racial minorities by “demonstrating” their inferiority and that such research is faulty at best.  Famed scholar W.E.B. Dubois (1928) discussed the issue of democracy in American and asserts that it had not been successful up to that point.  He speaks most specifically of the disenfranchisement of African Americans and how it is causing significant harm to democracy.  While this study is not as psychologically based as some of the other articles reviewed, it is noteworthy that this is likely the first one mentioned that was authored by a person who was a racial minority.


This decade marked the beginning stages of empirical research on racial attitudes and beliefs within psychology.  Bolton (1937) found that more advanced college students are more liberal in their attitudes toward the rights of African Americans.  This did not hold true in terms of their attitudes toward the social intermingling with African Americans.  The study of oppression takes a different direction with Mead’s (1937) study on treatment of the insane.  He cites how people who were insane were accused of witchcraft and persecuted because of it as well as the brutal treatment of the insane as if they were criminals.  The onset of World War II in 1939 seems to take the study of oppression in yet another direction as much of the research in the area during that time focused on what was happening in Germany.  Singer’s (1939) study focused on the influence of oppression on German Jews.  The oppression of Jewish people in Germany was rooted in deep anti-Semitism.  Methods of oppression included economic oppression, denial of social interactions with non-Jewish Germans, and the disruption of professions.  This study would indeed not be the last of its kind and in the following decade, similar studies would follow.


While much of the research involved the issues in Nazi Germany, an article of interest was on the subject African American athletes.  Hollomon (1943) describes the background of many top African American athletes as being native of southern states and having poor parents.  Because of this background, their athletic supremacy is based in a desire to compensate for feelings of inferiority and to overcome their oppression.  It is interesting that what is being studied is African Americans athletic supremacy because such a viewpoint almost plays into the same oppression due to the belief of physical superiority and mental inferiority of African Americans.  With studies focusing on Nazi Germany and the Black-White tensions, there continued a trend of looking at oppression in terms of its effects on oppressed people.  Baruch (1944) discussed the hostility toward the Black population.  Such hostilities manifested themselves in the form of discriminating and scapegoating.  The response to such hostilities came in the form of revenge, physical attacks, and gang warfare.  MacCrone’s (1947) takes a slightly different turn in comparison to other studies.  Instead of focusing on only the negative responses or effects of oppression, this study asserts that Black South Africans utilize a number of psychological responses such as group heritage and group tradition that allows them to maintain their distinct in-group identity.  One study took a critical viewpoint on psychology’s role in the events during the World Wars.  Baumgarten-Tramer’s (1948) article criticizes psychologists who enabled and participated in the oppressive regime in Germany.  The author asserts that German psychologists abdicated their social responsibility to search for truth and instead actively supported anti-Semitism and racism.  This article is interesting because the author actively points out the role that the field of psychology played reinforcing and participation in the oppression of minority groups.


The study of racial attitudes appeared to be predominant theme of research throughout this decade.  Several studies either developed a scale of measurement or used a scale that would allow an examination of attitudes.  Razran (1950) conducted a study in which photographs of college girls were showed to male judges.  The judging was repeated when the girls were given Jewish, Italian, Irish, or American names.  The strongest prejudice was shown toward Jews.  Dislikes because of judgment changes were also related to negative attitudes toward African Americans.  Sullivan and Adelson (1954) developed a scale for misanthropy and found that the items were correlated with items from a measure of ethnic intolerance.  Along with testing racial attitudes, there remained research on the effects of oppression on people.  Record (1954) asserts that a common history of suffering and oppression has a role in shaping a Black nationalism marked by a loyalty to the overall group.  Neimark (1957) discusses job discrimination towards women in academia.  She asserts that such discrimination does harm to the discipline of psychology because it excludes potentially competent and talented scholars.  This article is interesting because it is another article that points out how the field of psychology contributed to oppression and discrimination, yet it also states that these practices are doing harm to the field it excludes those who could make significant contributions to the field.


Examining the research on oppression until 1961 illustrated the fact the psychology as a whole was not very preoccupied with the topic.  While there were some studies on the topic, not many of them explicitly addressed the problem or its harmful effects on the people who received it.  The change from theoretical articles to more empirical research was gradual, yet much of the empirical research focused on the racial attitudes and beliefs of White Americans and not necessarily how those potentially racists attitudes and practices had negative impacts on others.  Some scholars also mentioned psychology’s role in perpetuating this oppression; it is likely the reason not much research was done on oppression was because psychology was a willing participant in the system.


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