homo economicus, homo oppressus

The discipline of economics has often been derided by other academics for endorsing a limited view of humanity called “homo economicus.” In most economic models, you describe people as “utility maximizers” – people who try to increase, or maximize, well being, broadly defined. There are things like costs, incentives, and budgets, and humans try to find the best action given these constraints.

Like all academic models, it has its advantages. Homo economicus is actually a great way to help you think about why, say, Trump’s trade tariffs might hurt consumers. It is also a nice way to think about situations that are obviously about choice, even if it is not about commerce, such as some types of crime or how government agencies choose policy. At the same time, the model is inherently limiting. Fitting everything into a model of choice often misses the point or is highly misleading. Some critics will even go further and say that the homo economicus model teaches people to be selfish and not care about others.

Sociology has its own version of homo economicus, a theory that simplifies the world but has some real limitations. I call it “homo oppressus.” In this model of the world, human beings are driven by two psychological impulses:

  1. Homo oppressus sees that world in terms of in groups and out groups.
  2. Homo oppressus actively seeks to defend the status and privilege of their group.

There is an important normative side to “Homo oppressus” theory – the actions of lower status groups are usually seen in a better light than actions of higher status groups, which might be called “the underdog bias.” There is also a second bias concerning policy – policies that try to minimize in-group/out-group differences are preferred to those that increase baseline levels of well being but maintain inter-group inequalities.

Like homo economicus, homo oppressus has many intellectual advantages. It is simple to state and understand. It is very relevant to the social world and it is fairly easy to apply in research. There is a lot of truth in the model.

What are the disadvantages? It has the same disadvantages that any simplification of the social world will have. Too much research on homo oppressus may lead you to ignore other important aspects of the social world. Homo oppressus also has some unique disadvantages.

First, homo oppressus encourages people to see the world as a zero sum conflict. Marx is the classic example. There may be some short term economic growth, but ultimately social classes come into conflict. We also see versions of homo oppressus in feminist/masculinist theories, religious orthodoxy, and critical race theories. It is incredibly hard for someone committed to homo oppressus to understand that life is not zero sum and that many activities can enhance global well being yet still maintain inequality in various ways.

Second, on the level of ethics, homo oppressus encourages the view that the value of individuals lies in their ability to wage wars against oppression waged by the outgroup. If you aren’t fighting inequality, you are suspect. There is little in homo oppressus theory that identifies the value of individuals beyond the front lines of this battle.

What is the alternative? It is not obvious, but perhaps sociologists could work on a more expansive view of humanity, one that is about community. In such a view, conflict would be present, and perhaps an important feature, but it wouldn’t be the overwhelming feature. It’s worth thinking about.


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Written by fabiorojas

July 10, 2018 at 2:46 pm

Posted in uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. Hmm. I’m not sold.

    Given how much Marx praises capitalism for helping to provide what we would now call economic growth, and for rescuing people from the “idiocy of ruling life”, I don’t think it’s fair to call him out as a zero-sum thinker. It’s not simply short term growth, Marx saw capitalism as responsible for long term growth, enough growth that made it possible to overcome capitalism (in modern parlance, switching from a focus on growth to one on distribution).

    Similarly, consider the common slogan “feminism is for everybody” and the emphasis in feminist writing on how the patriarchy constrains men as well as women (if not equally).

    Finally, it was absolutely striking to me in a recent reading of Omi and Winant’s main Racial Formation book how much they emphasized that the oppression of Black Americans has led to economic harm for the entire country – the epitome of non-zero sum claims.

    Given the above, I’m not sure I buy the claim that it’s hard to simultaneously theorize the world in terms of group interests/oppression and imagine alternatives that are understood as better for everyone.

    Are there particular examples of the way Marxist or feminist or anti-racist ideas get used in sociology that brought about this post? I’m curious to see more specifically what you’re reacting to, because it’s not what I’m seeing in this theories/arguments.

    Liked by 1 person

    Dan Hirschman

    July 10, 2018 at 6:40 pm

  2. How about “homo tribus” instead of “homo oppressus”? The former would be as accurate, in my view more accurate, and not as inherently pejorative as the latter.


    David Ronfeldt

    July 10, 2018 at 9:28 pm

  3. Homo economicus, the imaginary actor in formal economic theory, is a rational, cognitively powerful, utility maximizer. She is smart, calculative, and out for herself. This imaginary person has been useful for theory building and central to the mathematics of twentieth century economics. When homo economicus is placed in an imaginary world of competitive labor and product markets (in societies that defend property rights) then investments in physical and human capital produce gains in production and fair distributions of its fruits. Homo economicus was invented and promoted partly to make the deductive scientific system work, but she has no basis in what we know about how real human beings tend to behave.

    In contrast, homo sociologicus understands and navigates her world through culture and relationships. She can be self-seeking, but she is also always other regarding. She can be calculative, but also habitual and emotional. She lives in a world not of perfect competition, but of status and power imbalances interpreted through cultural and relational lenses. She lives in a world of negotiated social orders. One downside of building a theory around this model of action embedded in a field of often contradictory and power infused institutions is that there is no simple mathematical solution to the problem of action. The crucial advantage of a homo sociologicus understanding of behavior and institutions over the homo economicus model is that it more nearly resembles the real world.


    Don Tomaskovic-Devey

    July 10, 2018 at 10:04 pm

  4. “homo oppressus” is leftist racism disguised as progressivism



    July 11, 2018 at 6:39 pm

  5. Leaving aside the issue of whether the theory of “homo oppressus” dominates sociology, it would not seem to be productive to compare a largely un-examined set of methodological assumptions (“homo economicus” ) with an explicitly examined set of theoretical conclusions (“homo oppressus”).

    Sure, anyone other than the most positivist of positivist would maintain that theoretical conclusions play a methodological role but, still, the role that they play is fundamentally different from a largely un-examined set of methodological assumptions.



    July 12, 2018 at 3:16 am

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