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Anti-Oppressive Practice

Definition, core assumptions, values and principles, strengths, limitations, social work role

Three sections follow:

  1. Background Material that provides the context for the topic

  2. A suggested Practice Approach

  3. A list of Supporting Material / References

Feedback welcome!

Background Material

Anti-oppressive practice is part of the critical social work tradition (a broad range of practice approaches including Marxist social work, radical social work, structural social work, feminist social work, anti-racist social work, and anti-oppressive and anti -discriminatory social work).  Critical social work is concerned with the analysis and transformation of power relations at every level of social work practice.  It sees the world as divided between haves and have-nots with interests of each group opposed and irreconcilable.  Social workers are powerful because of their professional status while service users are relatively powerless.  Social workers should reflect on their access to power and develop strategies for sharing power with service users, who are assumed to be less powerful (Allan, 2009; Healy, 2005). 

Social work practice, historically, has been more micro/individually focused.  Anti-oppressive practice questions the ability of a micro focus to address issues related to oppression.  In comparison to micro-social work perspectives, anti-oppressive practice offers a clearer linkage between social work practice and social justice. Most importantly, however, it offers a conceptual model for understanding the multiplicity of oppression, privilege and power dynamics at a structural level.  In an anti-oppressive social work practice approach, social workers help clients, communities and themselves to understand why they are oppressed and how to fight for change.  Unlike more micro-oriented approaches of social work, anti-oppressive practice suggests that social workers should not buy into the thinking that they are the only ones assuming responsibilities to transform society; rather, it is the state that must assume a much greater role than social workers.  Anti-oppressive practice focuses attention on the diversity of oppression; it endeavours to incorporate the demands from women, ethnic minorities and other oppressed groups (AASW, 2010; Allan, 2009; Critically Infused Social Work, 2010; Morgaine & Capous-Desyllas, 2019; Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005). 

Carrillo and O’Grady (2018) provide an example of anti-oppressive practice by reflecting on the social work role with immigrants and refugees.  Members of these populations commonly experience multiple forms of oppression, including exploitation, marginalization, exclusion from social and civic spaces (i.e., powerlessness), pressure to assimilate to dominant cultural norms (i.e., cultural imperialism), and violence. These experiences of oppression are manifested in both their interactions with formal social structures and in their daily interpersonal interactions. The labelling of the immigrant population in reference to categories of legality and illegality is used to legitimize oppressive acts. It is essential that social workers are prepared to assess the impact of oppressive structural contexts on wellbeing and to challenge oppressive social structures in their daily practice.


Anti-oppressive practice is best seen as a stance toward practice rather than a particular method.  Core values embodied in an anti-oppressive stance include:

  • Shared values of equity, inclusion, empowerment and community

  • An understanding that the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours of individuals are linked to material, social, and political conditions

  • Recognition of the link between personal troubles and public issues

  • Recognition that an unequal distribution of power and resources leads to personal and institutional relationships of oppression and domination

  • The necessity of promoting critical analysis

  • The importance of encouraging, supporting, and “centering” the knowledge and perspectives of those who have been marginalized and incorporating these perspectives into policy and practice

  • The importance of articulating the multiple and intersecting bases of oppression and domination while not denying the unique impact of various oppressive constructs

  • Conceiving of social work as a social institution with the potential to either contribute to, or to transform, the oppressive social relations that govern the lives of many people

  • Supporting the transformative potential of social work through work with diverse individuals, groups, and communities

  • Having a vision of an egalitarian future (Robbins, 2011).

Principles / key concepts

Anti-oppressive social workers use a broad range of anti-oppressive principles:

  1. Engaging in critical self-reflection  In social work practice, this entails social workers continuously reflecting on ways in which their own biographies, especially membership of social divisions, shape their practice.  This should also include reflecting on the biographies of other professionals involved.  Through this process, social workers are less likely to impose their biases and assumptions on the participants. Self-awareness also allows for truly starting where the participant “is,” instead of starting where the social work might think they “should be”.

  2. Critical assessment of participants’ experiences of oppression Assess how personal, cultural and structural processes shape the problems service users present to social service agencies.  Consider the impact of major social divisions such as race, class, gender, inequality, discrimination, employment status. Shifting the focus from individual failure to structural issues and inequalities that have played a role in the participant’s life. 

  3. Empowering service users    Methods for consciousness raising of cultural and structural injustice in the practice setting include education, opportunities for participation, and capacity building so that individuals can take action to improve their own life situations.  At the institutional level, social workers should promote changes to the organization and delivery of services in ways that enhance anti-oppressive practice and service user control.   

  4. Working in partnership    Service users should be included as far as possible as fellow citizens in the decision-making processes which affect their lives.  Some ways of enhancing partnership include open, clear communication in which one fully discloses the nature and scope of one’s service role (e.g. statutory responsibilities).  Social workers should also show they value the service user by showing respect for their perspectives and lived knowledge.  Social workers constantly seek to maximise service users’ opportunities for participation in the decisions that affect them. 

  5. Maintaining minimal intervention    At times social workers may have to exercise social control to prevent harm to the service user.  This should be done in a least intrusive and least oppressive manner.  This stands in contrast to the role social workers must play, at times, as representatives of the state—this can be a more coercive and interventionist role in policing individuals and families.  By the nature of their role within organizations, social workers often (unconsciously) contribute to the control and surveillance of the people they are seeking to assist (Critically Infused Social Work, 2010; Healy, 2005; Morgaine & Capous-Desyllas, 2019).

Strengths of anti-oppressive practice

Social justice is placed at centre-stage in all dimensions of social work practice.

Individuals are not blamed but actions are examined from the personal, cultural and structural oppression they have experienced.

Oppressive processes and structures become a legitimate target for SW intervention.

Social workers are encouraged to reflect on their subjectivities that shape their capacity to practise in an anti-oppressive way (Healy, 2005)

Critiques of anti-oppressive practice

Anti-oppressive practice is, for the most part, presented in the literature as a Western and non-Aboriginal concept.

Some social workers may feel guilt or blame that they aren’t doing enough to change the social structures that perpetuate inequality.

Clients do not always experience service intervention as oppressive; the anti-oppressive model does not recognise that some service users willingly need intervention to address needs.

Social work is structured as a helping profession, so that social workers are imparting knowledge and resources to participants. The concern is that anti-oppressive practice can never truly be anti-oppressive since the traditional training that social workers receive predisposes them to these dynamics and differentials.

Greater recognition of the institutional limits to the application of anti-oppressive practice to all service contexts is needed.  For example, child protection workers have statutory law obligations to enforce.  This can influence who is seen as the primary service user and what will take priority, e.g. the mother’s drug taking or the children’s safety.  Anti-oppressive practice can lead to harm by minimising risk.

A contradiction exists between anti-oppressive theorists’ claim to promote dialogue in practice and their assumptions that they hold a true and correct analysis of the world.  This can lead to an inability to promote critical practice in the diversity of SW practice contexts that exist.

The “paradox of empowerment” is that the very act of trying to empower someone presumes a degree of power over that person. This paradox calls into question issues of privilege and disadvantage within the social worker–participant relationship. It raises questions such as who has the insight and ability to empower, who needs to be empowered, and what does the state of being empowered even look like?

Overemphasis on victims of power puts the social worker in the role of having to rescue the passive subjects of social oppression, through intervening on their behalf. From this lens, the social relations between social worker and participant can appear to be paternalistic.

Working from an anti-oppressive framework without a critical consciousness can create circumstances for complicity and contribute to oppressive practices in social work. It is crucial that social workers recognise that their stances have been shaped by the very legacies they are struggling against (Critically Infused Social Work, 2010; Healy, 2005; Morgaine & Capous-Desyllas, 2019; Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005).

Practice Approach

One way of practising social work in an anti-oppressive manner is to focus on the principles mentioned above.  Healy (2005) and Sakamoto and Pitner (2005) offer suggestions to guide such practice.

Critical Reflection on Self Practice             Reflect on the ways in which our own biographies and the biographies of other professionals involved might affect capacity to truly empathise with and understand the client’s experiences.  Questions to reflect upon could be:

·       What social divisions are you a member of (e.g. gender, class, race identities)?

·       How might your membership of these groups enhance and limit your capacity work with the clients?

Critical Assessment of Service Users’ Experiences of Oppression                 Assess how personal, cultural and structural processes (e.g. race, class, gender, inequality, discrimination, employment status ) shape the problems service users present to social service agencies.  Reflection could include:

·       What forms of oppression have these service users been subjected to (e.g. class and sex, unemployment and isolation)?

·       What dominant ideas from the social work role you have will shape service provision to the service user?  That is, engage in critical consciousness raising.

·       How will these ideas shape service provision to this family?

·       Be aware of your language – it can sustain power relations, e.g. ‘disturbed’, ‘at risk’ and ‘in need’.

Empowering Service Users           Raise consciousness of cultural and structural injustice that impact on the service user to engender powerlessness.  Recognise the service user may lack confidence in their capacities; seek to identify areas for skill development and ways to build confidence in the service user.  Address the inadequacies of current government policy and service provision. Reflection could include:

·       Identifying barriers to empowerment facing service users at personal, institutional, cultural and structural levels

·       Identifying practical strategies to address each of the barriers.

Working in Partnership                  Some ways of enhancing partnership include open, clear communication in which one fully discloses the nature and scope of one’s service role (e.g. statutory responsibilities).  SW should also show they value the service user by showing respect for their perspectives and lived knowledge.  Allow the service user to narrate their own experiences, to become the teacher in the situation.  Maximise service users’ opportunities for participation in the decisions that affect them.  Start with where the service user ‘is’, instead of starting with where the social worker thinks they ‘should be’.

Minimal Intervention     At times social workers may have to exercise social control to prevent harm to the service user.  This should be done in a minimal intervention manner—least intrusive and least oppressive.  Reflection could include:

·       How you might minimise the intrusiveness of your intervention with the service user.

·       The practical strategies to be used.

Supplementary Material / References

Allan, J. (2009). Theorising new developments in critical social work.  In J. Allan, L. Briskman, & B. Pease (Eds.).  Critical social work: Theories and practices for a socially just world (2nd ed.) (pp. 30-44).  Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

AASW: Australian Association of Social Workers.  (2010).  Code of Ethics.  Canberra, Australia: Australian Association of Social Workers.

Carrillo, A., & O’Grady, C. (2018).  Using structural social work theory to drive anti-oppressive practice with Latino immigrants.   Advances in Social Work, 18(3), 704-726.  doi: 10.18060/21663

Critically Infused Social Work.  (2010). Anti-oppressive practice 

Healy, K. (2005). Social Work Theories in Context.  Palgrave Macmillan.

Morgaine, K, & Capous-Desyllas, M. (2019). Anti-oppressive social work practice: Putting theory into action (2nd ed.). Cognella.

Robbins, S. P.  (2011). Oppression Theory and Social Work Treatment.  In F. Turner (Ed.), Social work treatment: Interlocking theoretical approaches (5th ed.), (pp. 343-353). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Sakamoto, I., & Pitner, R. O. (2005). Use of critical consciousness in anti-oppressive social work practice: Disentangling power dynamics at personal and structural level.  British Journal of Social Work, 35, 435-452.  doi:10.1093/bjsw/bch190



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