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Methodology of The Oppressed: A Review
By Layli Phillips
Sunday, 31 December 2006 - 12:00 PM

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Methodology of the Oppressed (Paperback), by Chela Sandoval, University of Minnesota Press, 2000, 243pp.


Methodology of the Oppressed“Manifest landmarks transfigure when the foundational underplate that makes their very existence possible shifts upward…”  With this daunting sentence, critical theorist Chela Sandoval opens her text Methodology of the Oppressed.   Dare to proceed further??   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, namely, 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 trouble them.   Sandoval contrasts NPG with a more positive horizon, namely, decolonized democratic globalization.   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.  While many 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.  In today’s politico-economic climate, methods of resistance are immediately cannibalized by agents of oppression and violence, defusing their power as soon as they are applied.  (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) “revolutionary love.”

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 differential.”  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.  Like 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.  They must have “differential consciousness” and engage in “differential social movement.”   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) madness:   Sandoval uses 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.

© Copyright 2006 by Radical Scholar, Inc.

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