Isabel Dahlgren - Authorisabel.firstname.lastname@example.org
Vendela Hamberg - Illustratorosqledaren@ths.kth.se
How do adults gain power? This question has puzzled sociologists for decades, who’ve tried to pin down the most common means to suppress others. Yet, it turns out that their ideas might have practical implications for normal people too.
As children, we used brute force to gain power. If I wanted to influence someone else’s behaviour, I’d threaten to take their toys. However, it'd be foolish to use brute force to gain power in the adult world. In the movie Mean Girls, the Plastics aren’t powerful because of their physical strength. Instead, they have a set of ingenious tricks to exercise power. Although most of us sense when someone is being excluded from a group or treated unjustly, we don't really have the lingo to discuss what's going on. This makes these techniques ever more effective.
Sociologists have spent much time identifying common methods to gain power. In the 1970s, Norwegian professor of social psychology Berit Ås articulated a framework for suppression techniques. These are techniques used to oppress others, or to put it bluntly, to stay in power. Although Ås' goal was to understand how men discriminate women, her ideas are applicable to other contexts too. Whenever someone is being mean, chances are they’re drawing on one of these techniques. Right after the exam period, I thought it'd be fun to delve into the world of sociology and learn more about Ås’ ideas. Which are these techniques, and in which situations are they used?
The first technique is making someone invisible. This means that the oppressor doesn't pay attention to a person or their views. For example, suppose that A and B run into some friends of A. If A and his friends go on talking about their plans for the upcoming weekend, B is made invisible. We’ve all been in B’s position, smiling awkwardly and unsure about what to say. Now assume that B proposes that they go grab a beer. If no one pays attention to their view, meaning that they neither say 'yes' nor 'no', B is made invisible again.
The second technique is ridiculing someone. That is, the oppressor will mock the other person to humiliate them or downplay their views. The oppressor will typically use stereotypes about a person's gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation to produce a comical effect. For example, a Chinese friend of mine was once asked: ‘Do you see anything in the first place?' when she announced that she needed glasses. According to Ås' model, a lot of dark humour involves ridiculing. In the case where men oppress women, it's also common to compare the woman with a child. For instance, he may call her 'honey' or 'baby'.
The third technique is withholding information. This either means deliberately not informing someone or obscuring the decision-process. For example, a class may have its own Facebook group to communicate about upcoming events. According to Ås, whoever doesn't have Facebook is being subject to this master suppression technique. Another common instance of this technique is when people make decisions in a private setting. For example, two girls may decide on a structure for their group project while chatting in the locker room in the gym, excluding the third group member.
The fourth technique is double punishment. This means you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. Whatever you do, you'll be punished for it. Most cases of double punishment occur when there are unrealistic expectations on someone. For example, women are expected to occupy just the right amount of space. But it's nearly impossible to strike that balance; in reality, most women are perceived either as meek or bossy. Similarly, many students want to be high-achieving and participate in all social activities. They fear seeming too nerdy or too unambitious.
The final technique is blaming and shaming. By blaming and shaming, Ås means blaming and shaming a person when it's not justified. In some instances, it's apparent who's responsible, and that they're entirely responsible. If they're blamed, it wouldn't count as a master suppression technique. The quintessential example of blaming and shaming is the failed group project, where the group hasn't delivered due to faulty collaboration. Normally, the leader will place the blame on someone, although they couldn't be deemed fully responsible. Note that blaming and shaming also occurs on a societal scale. Politicians like blaming and shaming someone else, either a group or another party, to excuse themselves.
While reading about Ås' theory, I was struck by the abundance of master suppression techniques. In particular, I realised that I'd been exercising a good number of master suppression techniques myself. I recalled when I was out with a friend, bumping into an acquaintance from high school. We chatted about the weather, our studies and old classmates. Yet, I never introduced my other friend. I surely didn't mean to 'oppress' her - it all just happened so quickly. When coming up with examples for this text, I also realised that I wouldn't count these examples as 'oppression'. Is all dark humour oppressive? In truth, everyone exercises master suppression techniques inadvertently. However, one should be alarmed if one uses these techniques too frequently, and especially if it's conscious.
Now we’ve covered all five master suppression techniques: making invisible, ridiculing, withholding information, double punishment and blaming and shaming. Although Ås used this framework to wrap her mind around men's oppression of women, it also describes oppression in other contexts. As 'oppression' sounds needlessly theoretical to a non-sociologist like me, I just like to think of her theory as a manual in being kind. Having these techniques in the back of our minds, we might act differently. I guess Ås’ theory is of interest to both sociologists and normal people, but for different reasons.