Oppressed group behavior is a theory that is derived from studies of colonized populations, with similar dimensions to a meta-theory of post-colonialism. Freire, a Brazilian sociologist and educational researcher, developed a framework in the landmark publication The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire (1970) describes the theoretical constructs of oppression in social systems, and suggests that oppression is a multi-factorial social dynamic, in which one group dominates another group through violence, economic devaluation, and other means. The result of the oppressive social dynamic is dehumanization of the oppressed group. Freire applies a post-modern lens to oppressive systems, indicating that though race was a primary means of identifying an oppressed group, oppression can occur at any level of social distinction, to include professional trade.
According to Freire, a defining characteristic of oppressed social groups is self-deprecation. In an oppressive social system, oppressed groups see themselves as inferior and less valuable than superior groups. Oppressed groups maintain that identify of inferiority throughout the group culture, and doubt their ability to have knowledge and valid thoughts. The oppressors enforce a system of exploitation, which the oppressed group subconsciously accepts or sees as a status quo. Only through realization of the oppressive system, and awareness that oppressed groups are by no means less human than their oppressors, can an intellectual revolution take place to balance the social system.
Freire describes the theory as a pedagogy because of the importance of understanding oppression as an educational awakening in a social group. As a pedagogy, Freire suggests that oppression within education meant that students were subject to teachers, and were not recognized as having valid thoughts or knowledge prior to the classroom setting. Freire believed that oppression exists through the eyes of the oppressed group, as opposed to an objective lens of a social system. That is, the oppressors rarely realize the levels of oppression and dehumanization they are inflicting on a certain group, often in the name of economic gain and maintaining power. The subjective nature of oppression is an essential element of the pedagogy, and the oppressed dominate the understanding of the oppressive behaviors and systems, both in their suffering within those systems and in the fight for liberation.
In nursing, the pedagogy of oppression could help to explain the possible existence of feelings of oppression in the hospital. Sometimes despite the rewards of nursing practice, there is a feeling of being undervalued, underappreciated, and undercompensated.
Yet, the Freire’s articulation of oppression is not without possible resolution, since education offers the chance for liberation. Possible solutions to improving the experience of nurses is to consider how to upend the level of oppression in healthcare. This could involve elevation of nursing groups to a higher level of governance with the administrators.
Theoretically, this level of elevation is akin to what Freire suggests as the antidote to oppression. Freire suggests that a balance of power, in which the oppressed are validated as being humanistic, and having true rational thoughts and opinions, can dissipate oppression. In education, Freire suggests that dialogue is the means by which liberation occurs. The dialogue was considered the radical departure from oppression, and one in the balance of knowledge and of humanity is achieved by both parties. A shared governance system between administrators and nurses groups could exemplify Freire’s notion.
Shared governance is a possible a solution to oppressive nursing environments. Autonomy of practice, shared governance, and open communication are theoretically akin to the use of dialogue in education as a means of liberating an oppressed group.
Evidence-based strategies to reversing oppression could include acknowledgement of the existence of oppression in nursing, cultivation of caring and supportive environments among groups of nurses, and empowerment at all levels of nursing to be involved in decision making in nursing practice and team-based nursing care. Simple acts of authentic praise likewise can improve the experience in nursing education. Nurses that support and praise one another, and even simply acknowledge that oppression exists in the nursing profession, can enhance the positive culture of a work environment.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? Do you feel oppressed in your work environment? And if not, is there anything that your workplace does that enhances your feelings of value and appreciation?