In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Anti-Oppressive Practice

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Resources
  • History of the Field
  • Thoughts on What Comes Next for AOP

Social Work Anti-Oppressive Practice
Ann Curry-Stevens
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0203


Anti-oppressive practice (AOP) has taken root in social work as an effort to raise social justice commitments in the profession, and to improve outcomes for those it serves. AOP’s influence is strongest in Canada, the United Kindgom, and Australia (where it has been a feature of social work education for more than fifteen years), and to a much lesser degree in the United States. An abundance of writing on AOP exists and has been drawn upon for this chapter, and the field has been consolidating and strengthening since 2010. Now being articulated are the research dimensions of the field, and the evidence base of outcomes from AOP interventions are just beginning to show up in the literature. In its most accessible form, AOP is a lens through which experience is understood. The AOP lens is that of power based on group identities or affiliations (such as race, class, gender, and sexual identity), and when practitioners notice group identities, they can anticipate—for that client, their family, or their community—an array of experiences that are associated with positive or negative life outcomes (such as health, income, education, marginalization, violence, status, and social inclusion/exclusion). The simplest directive for AOP practice is to minimize power hierarchies, by assisting to build the power of those who hold a marginalized identity and/or reducing the unfair power of those of privileged status. The larger social and political context of the last generation that gave impetus to the emergence of AOP is the deepening of globalization and the rise of neoliberal policies, including cuts to social programs, rising inequality, and dominant discourse that blames individuals for their distress. In this deteriorating environment, social work has retained its divide of a more clinical orientation that is strongly aligned with counseling and psychology, and a more social justice orientation to practice that focuses attention upstream on causal and contributing features to downstream distress. That said, one of the exciting additions since around 2005 has been the articulation of more micro-oriented AOP that provides interventions for working at the individual level in ways that are aligned with the principles of AOP. Formally, the definition of anti-oppressive practice has been articulated by Lena Dominelli: “Anti-oppressive practice embodies a person-centered philosophy; an egalitarian value system concerned with reducing the deleterious effects of structural inequalities upon people’s lives; a methodology focusing on both process and outcome; and a way of structuring relationships between individuals that aims to empower users by reducing the negative effects of hierarchy on their interaction and the work they do together” (Dominelli 1996, cited under History of the field, p. 170). The field has numerous related frames for practice that includes structural social work, critical social work, radical social work, feminist and anti-racist social work and, more recently, the service user movement. The commonality for these fields of practice are their focus on rectifying injustice, building power of the powerless, and centering the needs of communities that hold marginalized identities, namely people of color, those in poverty, women, indigenous peoples, and other marginalized communities. While this field has mostly “grown up” around issues of gender, racism, and white privilege (and it took longer for issues of privilege to be implicated in dynamics of oppression as the essential corollary and driving feature of the issue), the work being developed in this field has relevance for various forms of oppression. Some may view this work as simply a return to the social action and community organizing efforts of both the settlement house era and, later, the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s that gave rise to structural and radical social work. Unique, however, is a more sophisticated understanding of power and its multiple dimensions, including a growing willingness of practitioners to identify their personal and political privileges. AOP holds significant implications for the professional identity of the social worker. Within AOP, social work as a profession is implicated as a part of ruling relations, and social workers themselves can no longer simply position themselves into some form of resistance practice and then believe that this choice has rendered them “innocent” as a practitioner. Anti-oppressive practice now requires all practitioners to understand themselves as implicated in sustaining relations of domination, as benefitting from the status quo, and as part of a profession that similarly is reliant on serving the interests of privileged groups, be they the ruling classes, white, heterosexual, or other communities of privilege. This understanding has been deeply informed by postmodernism and its focus on subjectivities, epistemologies, the authoring of knowledge, and knowledge claims. While this effort is more fully integrated within critical social work, the two fields (AOP and critical social work) are deeply aligned, and while AOP tends to not have as sophisticated an understanding of these issues, those on its leading edge are embracing this analysis. Issues such as the construction of identity and of expertise, as well as essentialism (and the corresponding anti-essentialist proposals), are stretching the field of AOP in important and challenging ways. These issues are addressed at the close of this chapter. The mandate for social justice practice is integrated within codes of ethics around the world, including Australia, Britain, Canada, and the United States. A full listing of codes of ethics around the world can be found on the website of the International Federation of Social Workers. Social work’s International Code of Ethics holds a strong orientation to both human rights (including explicit adherence to specific United Nations conventions) and social justice. With these heightened expectations in place, providing students and practitioners with practice theories and skills to uphold these obligations is required. AOP fulfills this implicit directive.

Foundational Resources

Over the years, leading scholars have served to consolidate the field. This set of texts share features of practice at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels of intervention, with a healthy portion of the text defining the theoretical base of anti-oppressive practice. Recent contributions tend to be more informed by postmodernism, with complexities on identity and subjectivities incorporated into the approaches. The edited collections tend to encapsulate a broader range of dimensions of AOP. For teaching, undergraduate courses are likely to favor Bishop 2002; Carniol 2010; Mullaly 2002; Shera 2003; Allan, et al. 2003; and Adams, et al. 2010; while graduate programs will find the following texts more complex: Baines 2011, Dominelli 2002, Fook 2002, and Morgaine and Capous-Desyllas 2015. Instructors looking to deepen students’ development of a critical perspective will likely find these texts most relevant: Bishop 2002; Carniol 2010 (particularly with Canadian students); Mullaly 2002; and Adams, et al. 2010. While all have some practice elements integrated, Baines 2011; Dominelli 2002; Shera 2003; Fook 2002; and Allan, et al. 2003 are most directly tied to preparing social work students for AOP engagement in social work settings.

  • Adams, M., W. Blumenfeld, R. Castaneda, H. Hackman, M. Peters, and X. Zuniga. 2010. Readings for diversity and social justice. 2d ed. New York: Routledge.

    Snapshots from leading authors in the field are organized to cover several axes of oppression and privilege. With an introductory chapter on conceptual frameworks, a concluding chapter on strategies for change, and introductions to each section, the work comprehensively details the causes, impacts, and resistance practices that many learners need in this process. Its strength is in its diversity of voices on these topics and its accessibility for students.

  • Allan, J., B. Pease, and L. Briskman, eds. 2003. Critical social work: An introduction to theories and practices. Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin.

    This Australian text envisions the profession as one that challenges oppression and privilege, and deeply integrates the political and macro dimensions of the micro experience into all arenas of practice. The fields covered in this text include working with immigrants and refugees, postcolonial work with indigenous Australians, feminist services, family practices, mental health with women, and grief work.

  • Baines, D., ed. 2011. Doing anti-oppressive practice: Social justice social work. 2d ed. Halifax, NS: Fernwood.

    Baines’s collection significantly advances practice frameworks, building upon the earlier works of Dominelli and Mullaly. This text articulates AOP across multiple sites of practice, including at the microlevel and among mandated clients (refuting the perspective that AOP has no role with involuntary clients). The text attends to postmodern constructions of identity and the importance of a “politics of recognition” in social work.

  • Bishop, A. 2002. Becoming an ally: Breaking the cycle of oppression. 2d ed. London: Zed Books.

    Bishop outlines the “ally model” to define the roles for privileged people in struggles to advance social justice. While not as well informed by postmodern contributions to AOP, the work astutely configures ally roles that support marginalized communities and neatly configures practice in ways that simultaneously address one’s own experiences of oppression, while also addressing privilege.

  • Carniol, B. 2010. Case critical: Social services and social justice in Canada. 6th ed. Toronto: Between the Lines.

    Frequently an introductory text for Canadian students. Carniol details the moral imperative for social justice, implicating the power holders in relations of domination, and astutely linking these to the lives of social work clients. The text is ripe with current research, exploration of various axes of oppression, and the history and current debates in social work practice.

  • Dominelli, L. 2002. Anti-oppressive social work theory and practice. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Dominelli is roundly recognized as the leading scholar in AOP. Her text continues to be an excellent basis for teaching at an introductory level on this topic. This text’s forte is its pragmatic and applied elements, including focus on individuals, groups, and organizations. The introductory chapters can serve to deepen practitioners’ commitments to the centrality of oppression and privilege, and the promise that AOP provides for advancing social justice.

  • Fook, J. 2002. Social work: Critical theory and practice. London: SAGE.

    Interspersed with critical reflection questions and abundant case examples, this text tends to structural, post-structural, and postmodern dimensions of oppression. Fook uses her own work to enliven critical reflection in the moments of engaging with the text, and thus models the critical reflexivity. Although written a decade ago, it retains a cutting edge for its focus on epistemologies and postmodern emphases on voice, authorship, and power.

  • Morgaine, K., and Capous-Desyllas. 2015. Anti-oppressive social work practice: Putting theory into action. Los Angeles: SAGE.

    Chapters identify core practices that AOP brings into different client populations: individuals, families, groups, organizations, communities, policy, social movements and global practices. Its forte is in providing the integration that authored texts provide, alongside comprehensive insights in how AOP informs each dimension of social work practice. A short set of narratives from practitioners accompany each chapter.

  • Mullaly, B. 2002. Challenging oppression: A critical social work approach. Don Mills, ON: Oxford.

    Mullaly brings thoughtful clarity to understanding dynamics of oppression. His text covers theory and practices at both the interpersonal and structural levels (following a similarly useful model as that his 2007 text The New Structural Social Work integrates), and expands to include the impact on oppressed bodies with an expansive chapter on internalized oppression and privilege.

  • Shera, W., ed. 2003. Emerging perspectives on anti-oppressive practice. Toronto: Canadian Scholars.

    Twenty-eight contributions are detailed in this Canadian collection, illustrating the reach of AOP within the profession. The text reaches into theory, fields of practice (including child welfare, child care, street youth services, workplace accommodations for those with disabilities, mental health, and gerontology), and deeply into social work education. Issue-based chapters focus on identity, therapeutic discourses, empathy, cultural competence, technology, and community and global themes.

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