Methodology of the
Oppressed (Paperback), by Chela Sandoval,
Press, 2000, 243pp.
transfigure when the foundational underplate that makes their very existence
possible shifts upward…” With this daunting sentence, critical theorist
Chela Sandoval opens her text
of the Oppressed.
Dare to proceed
Like Scylla and Cherybdis,
this sentence has turned many a reader back.
Yet, those who dare to go on are rewarded with a thrillingly insightful
account of the times in which we live and a refreshingly hopeful take on the
future of humanity.
In an age when many
have lost faith in the ability of a beleaguered humanity to resist the
shape-shifting forces of oppression and dehumanization, Sandoval comes forth
with a “toolkit” for doing just that.
What are these times in which we live, exactly?
Sandoval characterizes them neatly in a
polysyllabic phrase, lovingly re-named “that sound-bite” by one of my students,
neocolonizing postmodern globalization
(NPG). That is, the world is getting smaller, but in ways that preserve and
even amplify pre-existing injustices and make people confused about what’s
going on; people feel like there’s nothing they can do about the things that
Sandoval contrasts NPG
with a more positive horizon, namely, decolonized democratic
By positing both “better”
and “worse” versions of an inevitable process, namely, the vigorous emergence
of one world society, Sandoval alerts readers to a fork in the road and thus
awakens the sense of choice.
accounts of the “postmodern condition” have cynically focused on gloom and
doom, Sandoval highlights an optimistic thread in this discourse.
One reason for people’s confusion and despair under conditions
of NPG is that traditional methods of resistance and activism don’t seem to
work anymore. According to Sandoval, these methods don’t work because they rely
on fixed lines of demarcation between enemy and victim – lines that can no
longer be drawn clearly.
politico-economic climate, methods of resistance are immediately cannibalized
by agents of oppression and violence, defusing their power as soon as they are
(Think, for example, of all the
1960s freedoms anthems that are now used to sell cars.)
In addition, based on the heterogeneity of
identities and political opinions that most people now claim, it is further
impossible to unambiguously categorize people as “with us” or “against us.”
(Think, for example, of all the political
candidates who are liberal on one issue but conservative on another.)
What’s needed now, Sandoval argues, are more
complex and nuanced tactics that intervene at the sites of subjugation –
cognition and identity formation – as well as an ethical compass that she calls
democratics and a political emotion she calls (with a nod to Che Guevara)
Other strategies include: semiotics (i.e., pointing out how
language is arbitrary so that oppressive conditions and practices can’t become
naturalized); deconstruction (pointing out how symbols and symbol systems are
used to convey hidden meaning to prevent them from contributing to
subjugation); and meta-ideologizing (highlighting the inconsistencies within
ideological systems to diffuse their oppressive power).
The strength of these “tools” is their
ability to aid everyday citizens in consuming media critically and interrupting
the process of their own domestication.
Sandoval’s argument hinges on a construct called “the
The differential, as
Sandoval sees it, is not unlike a differential in the manual transmission of a
car – it is the mechanism that allows gears to shift based on changing terrain;
it is what makes the car adaptable.
these cars, postmodern activists and others concerned with human wellbeing on a
mass scale must be knowledgeable about and prepared to use multiple methods in
their pursuit of social change.
must have “differential consciousness” and engage in “differential social
In an environment of rapidly
morphing political threats, it is not enough to use one method or pursue a
single, unvarying strategy; today’s effective activist is prepared with a
toolkit of diverse methods and a tactical mindset.
No one reads Sandoval’s text without asking this question:
“Why did she have to use such inaccessible language??”
Not only is the book replete with high theory
jargon, but she frequently interjects neologisms.
Yet, there’s a method to her (apparent)
Methodology of the Oppressed to “talk
back” to the high theorists themselves – those elite academics who tend to
overlook the perspectives of people who don’t write or speak like them and who
unwittingly reproduce First-world-centrism in their “critical” work.
On one level,
Methodology of the Oppressed is a “Look, Ma!” book in which a
working-class Chicana who never finished high school and worked as a maid to
get her Ph.D. proves the naysayers wrong.
On much more important level, however,
Methodology of the Oppressed is a potent manifesto for a world in
crisis, offering not only criticism, but also solutions.
In sum, this is not an easy text, but it is
one of the best books I have ever read.