Iris Marion Young’s Five Faces of Oppression

by | 24 Apr 2023


Iris Marion Young is one of the most important feminist philosophers of last decade of the 20th century and of the early 21st century. Her contributions within feminist political philosophy are wide ranging, although she is best known for her work on feminist phenomenological descriptions of women’s body and her work on a theory of the nature of oppression. This entry shall focus on the latter, that is, on what Young labeled as the five faces of oppression.

Young’s theory of oppression is the result of a larger project aiming to push back against the traditional liberal notion of justice as fair distribution of goods and resources. For her, justice “should refer not only to distribution, but also to the institutional conditions necessary for the development and exercise of individual capacities and collective communication and cooperation” (Young 1990, 39). Accordingly, injustice then refers to “two forms of disabling constraints, oppression and domination” (Young 1990, 39).

Oppression, consequently, is not a notion that should be reserved to totalitarian/authoritarian communities, but rather it should it be employed in all cases in which a group suffers “some inhibition of their ability to develop and exercise their capacities and express their needs, thoughts, and feelings” (Young 1990, 40). However, Young denies that there is any single set of criteria that could describe the oppression of women, Blacks, Chicanos, Native Americans, Jews, lesbians, gay men, Asians, old people, working-class people, and physically/cognitively disabled people in the United States (or other liberal-democratic societies). Rather, for Young, the term oppression is a “cluster” concept denoting a family of concepts and conditions which she goes on to divide into five categories: exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence. These categories are not mutually exclusive, and in fact it is quite possible that an oppressed group will face more than one of these modes of oppression.

Before breaking down each of Young’s five faces of oppression, it is worth noting some important characteristics of her notion of oppression. First of all, as opposed to a more traditional notion of oppression understood as a form of unjust coercion exercised by a tyrannical power, Young conceives of oppression as being structural, that is, “because of the everyday practices of a well-intentioned liberal society” (Young 1990, 41). Moreover, oppression, according to Young, is not the result of the choices or policies installed by a few people in power, but rather due to the “unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutional rules and the collective consequences of following those rules” (Young 1990, 41). The implications of this understanding of oppression are varied. However, the most relevant is that an oppressed group need not have a correlate oppressing group. This is because Young’s structural notion of oppression does not always fit within a paradigm in which oppression occurs consciously and deliberately. That is not to say, however, that oppression under the structural paradigm does not acknowledge that there will be groups that benefit from the oppression of others. Young considers necessary that for every oppressed group there is a group that benefits from the other group’s oppression.


Unlike the overt style of domination exercised in precapitalist societies, capitalist society sanctions class distinction and domination much more covertly and despite the fact that formally, that is, legally and politically, it “removes traditional juridically enforced class distinction and promotes a belief in the legal freedom of persons”. Thus, begging the question: how can there remain class distinctions between the wealthy and the working class? More specifically, how can there remain a distinction between those who own the means of production and the people who work for them? For Young, the theory of exploitation solves this puzzle.

Exploitation, according to Young, consists in some people, to wit, the working class, exercising their capacities “under the control, according to the purposes, and for the benefit of other people”, namely, the owners of the means of production (Young 1990, 49). To be more precise, exploitation involves the transfer of energy and power of the worker to the capitalist with the sole purpose to augment the power of the capitalist and without comparable renumeration to the worker. Thus, beyond loss of control, exploitation involves material deprivation and of important elements of self-respect, as well.

Though Young bases her account of exploitation on Marxist literature, she is critical of Marxism’s shortsightedness when it comes to accounting other forms of domination and exploitation beyond labor exploitation, to wit, racial, sexual, and emotional exploitation.

Women, for instance, undergo specific forms of exploitation whereby they expend their energies and power, often through emotional and sexual services, usually to solely benefit men and to allow them undertake more important and creative work, and therefore improve their status as men. Young deems this transfer of energies from women to men as exploitation given that this transfer often goes unnoticed, unacknowledged, and unreciprocated.


To be marginalized means to be excluded from a society’s system of labor. According to Young, marginalization is perhaps “the most dangerous form of oppression” (Young 1990, 53). This is because a “whole category of people is expelled from useful participation in social life” and is therefore exposed to severe material deprivation “and even extermination” (Young 1990, 53).

Material deprivation is not the whole extent of the harm done by marginalization. To be materially deprived not only means that one lacks the necessary material resources to survive, but, furthermore, that one depends on others to access the necessary material resources to survive. To be dependent on a third party, namely, the state, to survive implies for Young to be subjected to the often “arbitrary and invasive authority of social service providers and other public and private administrators”. In other words, dependency often means having one’s basic rights —i.e., privacy, respect, and individual choice— suspended for the sake of survival.

Young, echoing other feminist authors, argues that the severe oppression that dependents face is in part due to liberalism’s highly individualistic model of citizenship, whereby a citizenship is construed as fully autonomous and independent. If this is the case, then people who have been marginalized from the labor force and thereby become dependent on the state to survive are deemed second-class citizens. Thus, even if marginals lived relatively comfortable material lives that would not be enough to hold that the wrongs of marginalization were averted, given that there is a trade-off between living a comfortable life and being subjected to arbitrary and intrusive powers. Moreover, Young holds, even if marginals’ rights were respected by the institutions tasked to aid them, “injustices of marginality would remain in the form of uselessness, boredom, and lack of self-respect” (Young 1990, 55).


To be powerless, according to Young, is to lack the ability to participate in making decisions that affect one’s life conditions. While it is true that most people are powerless in some form or another, Young pays special attention to those she calls nonprofessionals, colloquially referred to as the “working class”. For Young, the nonprofessionals —i.e., the powerless— lack work autonomy, have limited room to exercise their creativity or judgment in the workplace, have little to no technical expertise or authority, and express themselves awkwardly in public or bureaucratic settings. Ultimately, the powerless do not command respect (Young 1990, 56–57).

To be treated with respect means that what one has to say will be acknowledged and that others will do what one requests either because one has authority, expertise or influence. The powerless, due to their social status within and outside the workplace, lack such respectability. Furthermore, respectability is often experienced along racial and gender lines. That is to say that professional women, for instance, need to prove their respectability in order to be treated as such. Likewise, Black professionals have to demonstrate that they are indeed professionals before they are treated as such. On the other hand, White working-class males are often treated with respect before their working-class status is revealed.

Cultural Imperialism

Cultural imperialism denotes the “universalization of a dominant group’s experience and culture, and its establishment as the norm” (Young 1990, 59). Given that the dominant group within a society is often the one in control of what we might otherwise call the cultural apparatus, the most widely disseminated cultural products express the particular experiences and values of that group. Furthermore, these cultural products also express the dominant group’s interpretation of major events and elements in the society, including of other groups within that society.

Thus, to be culturally dominated, according to Young, is to be oppressed in two ways. On the one hand, it is to be marked out by stereotypes produced by the dominant group’s interpretation of one’s group. On the other hand, it is to become invisible insofar as the oppressed group’s experience is subordinated to the point of being nullified by the dominant group.

Oppressed groups living under cultural imperialism are marked out by stereotypes —in other words, as different— insofar as their identities are defined “from the outside”, that is, “by a network of dominant meanings they experience as arising from elsewhere, from those with whom they do not identify, and who do not identify with them” (Young 1990, 59). At the same time, though, oppressed groups are rendered invisible to the extent that the dominant group fails to recognize their perspectives, cultural expressions, and lived experiences.


The last face of oppression is violence —more specifically, systemic violence. Violence becomes systemic when it is directed at members of a group because they are members of that group. Moreover, the oppression of violence consists not only of direct physical violence, but of the knowledge “shared by all members of oppressed groups that they are liableto violation, solely on account to their group identity” (Young 1990, 62).


While each of the five faces of oppression —exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism, and violence— is conceptually independent, any group can experience more than one form of oppression, albeit with different combinations. However, the presence of just one of these five conditions is sufficient to deem a group as oppressed. 

It is also important to note that Young’s methodology excludes any sort of hierarchization, which is to say that there is not a more important or more essential form of oppression vis-à-vis other forms of oppression. Conversely, no demand for justice is any less urgent or any more imperative in a society. 


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