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Anti-Oppressive Practice: Anti-Oppressive Practice In Psychology: A Student Essay

Anti-discriminatory practice is an attempt to eradicate discrimination and oppression from our own practice and challenge in that of others and the institutional structures we operate in (Thompson, 2001:34). It means recognizing power imbalances and working towards change to redress the balance of power (Burke & Dalrymple, 1995).

By striving to practice anti-oppressive values, not only can we become better practitioners, but can challenge oppression in society in general. Thus, therapists should come from the perspective that anti-oppressive practice is both ethical and best practice (Thompson, 1993; Smith, 1999) which also means committing ourselves to ongoing reflective practice, recognizing oppression in ourselves, addressing our own denial and avoiding these issues through effective supervision (Lago & Smith, 2003).

Anti-oppressive practice in Psychotherapy:

Psychotherapy has been criticised for focusing on the individual’s internal life while ignoring social, economic and cultural environment in which people live (Feltham & Horton, 2000). Another concern is that the profession has been dominated by middle-class values, accessed mostly by privileged groups in society, while people from marginalised groups are less likely to have access or able to afford therapeutic services (Lago and Smith, 2003).

However, with the emergence of cross-cultural counseling in 20th century, and the beginning of Civil Rights movement, much attention has been given to the usefulness of psychotherapy for minority group clients (Moodley et al, 2004). A wide range of published voices like Szasz (1970) and Laing (1965) have urged therapists to become familiar with different areas of oppression, though the major focus of training and practice has remained within the individual perspective of personal change (Lago and Smith, 2003).

Anti-discriminatory or Anti-oppressive?

The two umbrella terms - ‘anti-discriminatory’ and ‘anti-oppressive’ are distinguished apart by the legal underpinning of anti-discrimination through laws and policies, and the more humane concerns of the anti-oppressive practice (Burke and Dalrymple, 1996). Discrimination is the unequal distribution of power, rights and resources, while oppression is the experience of hardship and injustice. Both are linked because ‘one of the main outcomes of discrimination is oppression’ (Thompson, 1998)

Anti-oppressive practice is a dynamic process based on the complex pattern of changing social relations. It’s driving force is in challenging inequalities, and it goes beyond the confines of agency policy to challenge oppression in organizational culture and it’s impact on therapeutic practice. Anti-oppressive practice is flexible without losing focus, includes the views of oppressed individuals, is theoretically informed and moves to dynamic and creative ways of working (Burke & Harrison 133). It requires therapists to have an awareness of society, race, power, ideologies, effects of discrimination, stereotyping, as well as a personal awareness of where they stand in relation to these issues (Lago and Thompson, 1989).


Factors In Anti-oppressive Practice:

Clifford (1995) emphasizes the following factors in an anti-oppressive practice: Social differences - which arise because of disparity of power between the dominant and dominated groups, major divisions being of race, gender, class, sexual preference, disability and age, interacting with differences of religion, region, mental health and single parenthood. Personal biographies - which are to be understood within the context of social systems such as family, peer groups, ideologies, organizations and communities. Historical and geographical location - as individual life experiences are placed within the context of prevailing ideas, facts and time. Power - which operates at personal and structural levels, influenced by social, cultural, economic and psychological factors. Lastly, reflexivity and mutual involvement - which is a continual consideration of how one’s own social identity and values affect interactions between individuals.

The British Association for Counseling and Psychotherapy has adopted an ethical criteria that is socially inclusive and anti-discriminatory. The fundamental values of this are a commitment to respecting human rights, dignity and privacy and avoiding sexual, financial or emotional harm and client exploitation. It requires being just and fair to all clients, appreciating the variety of human experience and to be committed to equality of opportunity. One of the most important elements of anti-oppressive practice is to ensure that people’s rights are not violated i.e. avoiding discrimination, irrespective of anyone’s personal or social characteristics. Hence, practitioners have a duty to ensure fair provision of psychotherapeutic services that are accessible and appropriate to the needs of potential clients (BACP).

Lago & Smith (2003) suggest a number of points to help therapists develop an anti-oppressive practice and in promoting change on a political and individual level. This means making anti-oppressive practice integral to training courses rather than just an add-on. It involves acknowledging racism and oppression as part of society and challenging it in all its forms, even when it feels uncomfortable. Therapists should align themselves with struggles against oppression outside the therapy room and abandon ideas and practices that perpetuate it. They should try not to allow their professional relationships be prejudiced by their personal views about lifestyle, gender, age, disability, race, sexual orientation or culture.

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Therapists have to acknowledge that their attitudes towards those who are culturally and racially different may be oversimplistic, judgmental and discriminatory, which can result in anti-therapeutic outcomes (Lago, 2006). They must be sensitive to issues of isolation due to marginalization and clients’ need for support, yet be aware that black, gay, female or disabled clients may not be bringing issues of race, gender, sexuality or disability to therapy.

Practitioners should aim to become more knowledgeable about other cultures and values, and broaden their range of helping styles to accommodate different expectations and needs. They must also be able to recommend reading and films that address issues the clients may bring and find out what community resources are available for clients who want to share their experience of oppression. Lastly, they should be able to use consultation or referral if they feel inadequately equipped to help their clients (Lago and Smith, 2003).


Since therapeutic processes are conducted through the tool of language, it can be used to enhance self-esteem, encourage, influence as well as lower self-confidence or inflict pain (Lago, 1997).

However, language is a powerful vehicle that can contribute to the maintenance of oppression and reinforce power differences through the use of jargon or specialized language E.g. Stereotypes and stigmas such as ‘mental handicap,’ ‘drug abuser,’ or ‘alcoholic’ that carry negative associations; Exclusion such as asking a muslim what his ‘christian’ name is instead of his ‘first’ name; De-personalization or terms like ‘the elderly’ rather than ‘older people’ and ‘the mentally ill’ rather than ‘people with mental distress’ (Thompson, 1998). By confining people to specific groups, there is the danger of repeating oppression whereby people are seen as objects rather than human beings (Lago and Smith, 2003).

Lastly, no other profession involves a greater inequality of power than the psychotherapist’s; when a person overwhelmed with suffering asks someone stronger to save him, he places him in a position of power and superiority (Carotenuto, 1992).

Our unintentional processes can support the broad social pattern oppression, hence we must question our own practice and profession which maintains oppression of our clients (Lago and Smith, 2003). Thus, anti-oppressive practice not only challenges myths and traditions through consciousness raising, but backs away from the idea that the professional knows best, even better than the client (Greenspan, 1993). Moreover, in order to provide services that are ‘needs-led rather than resource-driven,’ anti-oppressive practice must embody a person-centered philosophy and egalitarian values aimed at reducing inequalities. Also, it should focus on a way of structuring relationships between individuals that empower them by reducing the negative effects of social hierarchies (Dominelli,1994).



Continuous and honest self-reflection and supervision is required by practitioners to monitor their work with minority group clients (Lago and Smith, 2003). However, the real challenge is to not only understand the complexity around anti-oppressive practice but to be willing to change ourselves rather than the client, in our personal and professional interactions with others. By challenging the barriers of race, class, gender, orientation, abilities, age and culture, we can help to decrease oppression and promote social justice in the world.


Windy on April 16, 2014:

Do you have the reference list, please. many thanks, a student counsellor.

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