Levels of analysis

A pyramid used to depict the levels that racism manifests itself.

Levels of analysis[1] refers to a way of analysing or designing a complex system. Here, a complex system[wp][2] can be anything from an organism to a crystal, from a supernova to a culture, from a whirlwind to the human visual cortices. In specific cases, emergent properties are observed when moving upwards from a lower to a higher level of analysing a complex system. Starting from a sufficiently simple layer each new layer adds complexity, organisation and (in many cases) an emergent phenomenon.[3]

Abstraction layers are deployed in cognitive science, in computer science, and in the natural sciences. In computer systems engineering, they usually prefer calling an individual level a "layer of abstraction".[wp] On the other hand, in the social sciences the term is usually "level of analysis".[wp] Regardless, the term refers to the method of discussing a complex dynamical system, in which meaningful hierarchical distinctions can be made. What that means is that understanding something on the cell-level, for example, mitosis, does not (on its own) help one understand things on the human-level and vice-versa. So, clearly, there must be some difference between the two levels of analysing what is essentially the same system: a human being. This is why the general concept of levels of analysis is useful, because it allows one to dissociate (given evidence) the various levels. In essence, it is a type of general purpose super-theory. It also allows, in specific cases, to demarcate causality from one level to another, e.g., a single cell dying in a multicellular organism is unlikely to have any causal effect on what the organism wants to have for tea.


A desktop computer can be subdivided into the following simplified layers of abstraction: the electronics, logical gates, adders and (de)multiplexers; the hardware, HDDs, the CPU and RAM; and the software, word-processors, web-browsers and music-players. When discussing web-browsers there is no need to care about logical gates or what part of RAM is in use, because it is impossible to reduce higher layers to lower ones although anything that occurs at one layer reverberates to all others. The ability to abstract away, ignoring, the components of the implementation of lower layers, provided the exchange of information that occurs where layers meet conforms to specified standards, is known as the principle of multiple realisability (MR). Computers can be made of vacuum tubes, neurons, DNA or quantum computing chips and are proven to be computationally equivalent.[4]

Another famous example is David Marr's levels[5] used in neuro-, cognitive, and computer science. Marr originally developed this organisational structure for both the understanding of, and the creation of models for, the human vision system. Although many other cognitive scientists developed their own levels of analysis for the same or similar purpose,[6][7][8][9] Marr's version remains the most wellknown and widely used. For a general overview of the use of levels of description in cognitive science see Levels of Description and Explanation in Cognitive Science, by William Bechtel.[10]


Knowing about levels of abstraction also allows one to spot serious problems with (quasi)scientific reasoning. Good examples of such problems of reasoning can be found in evolutionary psychology, where the interactions of genes are proposed to interfere significantly with the workings of the brain and mind. Something which is a classical mistake in understanding abstraction. Once a brain is created, so given the genes produce an average brain (no genetic mutations that are harmful to development), it is to a great extent free from lower levels and is largely shaped by culture, society, and personal experience.[11]


The social ecological model,[wp] one of many ways of dividing society into layers of analysis.

Levels of analysis is an excellent way of understanding how sociological forces create oppression and privilege. From this viewpoint, society is separated into layers in order to effectively minimise inequality and maximise social justice. Additionally, explaining the concept of many interacting levels helps to combat criticisms of the methods deployed to curb oppression, e.g., positive discrimination, and other interventions,[12] since many critiques are based on misunderstandings of the causes of oppression. In other words, levels of analysis divides culture into, at the bottom, people, and at the top, society, and, perhaps most importantly, clarifies the causal mechanisms behind oppression.

Internalised oppression

See the main article on this topic: Internalised oppression

So at the bottom we have internalised oppression also known as self-hatred. An example, of this is hating one's own skin colour, but not necessarily being directly horrible to others with a similar or darker skin colour. This hypothetical self-hating person does not, by definition, engage in racist rants or oppression, they merely have internalised the idea that darker skin is less attractive (because that's how society presents it) and apply it largely to themselves. Variations and intersections of this can exist, of course. Like hating one's own skin colour and sexuality — being in the closet, or not openly accepting one is LGBTQ+ can be a form of self-hatred in certain cases. Often, internalised self-hatred is completely subconscious,[13] meaning it is largely outside most people's conscious control. By extension, it can be expressed in subtle ways, such as holding oneself to the standards of the privileged oppressor group, having internalised or 'brought on board' said standards.

These ideas are not something people are born with, they are something they consciously and unconsciously absorb from their experiences. Therefore, people are not fully, or even partially, to blame for their internalised biases, especially since such thoughts and associations usually cause them a lot of suffering, e.g., stereotype threat[14][15] and impostor syndrome,[16] and even culminating in disorders, e.g., depression. A famous example of internalised misogyny[17] is the thin ideal,[18] which causes eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia; and self-objectification[19] and the patriarchal compromise, a rationalisation of misogynistic forces as "free will".[20] Implicit association tests[13] are one way of determining what higher-level social pressures are acting on people's perceptions of race, gender, etc.[21]

Interpersonal oppression

See the main article on this topic: Interpersonal oppression

On the level above there is interpersonal bigotry and oppression. Predictably, it is the kind of discrimination that occurs between two (or more) people. This type of oppression is probably the type most people think of when racism, (cis)sexism, homophobia, and their many intersections, are discussed. An example of this is an outright act of sexism, e.g., saying to a woman that women are less good at chess because reasons. Hopefully, very few people would support this form of harassment.

Group oppression

See the main article on this topic: Group oppression

Just above the level of interpersonal is group oppression, which occurs when a person or group of people are isolated from the majority group. E.g., a disabled child is friendless and bullied by the whole class. This is basically what cliques are about in high school to some extent — a semi-implicit way of cutting all ties with the "uncool" kids by creating a space where they are not welcome, but at the same time dispersing the feeling of responsibility ("It wasn't me! They were all doing it!" or "What could I have done? They would have just targetted me!"). This is done largely by making use of standard in-group/out-group dynamics, such as not standing up for somebody when a single bully picks on them. Group oppression can also manifest in older people, not just teenagers, as shunning. Other similar acts of debasing the other person also can be used, which only work if enough members of the dominant group take part, e.g., "slut"-shaming.

Institutional oppression

See the main article on this topic: Institutional oppression

Higher further is institutional oppression. This is when a whole organisation is systemically and systematically biased against certain people, e.g, the media,[22] hospitals,[23] the Metropolitan police,[24], even universities.[25] This type of bias can easily be diagnosed by comparing the demographic makeup of an institution with that of the larger population it derives its employees from.[26] For example, if an organisation is mostly made up of white cisgender straight men, but the country it is in is 51% women and 20% non-white ethnic minorities then clearly something is going on. Institutional bigotry and oppression also can manifest more explicitly, e.g., a racist request by an individual is accepted and carried out by an organisation.[23] Institutions can also uphold norms that are cultural, like strict gender roles, and gender essentialism,[27] which leads us onto...

Cultural oppression

See the main article on this topic: Cultural oppression

The topmost level: cultural oppression and marginalisation. This is a set of normative ideas about what people should do in life based on their gender, race, etc. Examples of this are: gender roles, stereotypes, and other such implicit (and explicit) associations between a person's identity and their potential in life, e.g., patriarchy. These last two levels, institutional and cultural bigotry, are usually due to hundreds, even thousands, of years of continuous oppression by privileged groups.[28] Discussing bigotry at these topmost levels is what gives rise to definitions of, for example, racism as prejudice plus power.

External links


  1. Also called layers/levels of abstraction, of description, or integrative layers/levels — so any sensible permutation.
  2. Complex systems on Scholarpedia.
  3. Theory of integrative levels. The British Journal For The Philosophy Of Science, 5(17), 59-66.
  4. Turing, A. (1937). On computable numbers, with an application to the entscheidungsproblem. Proceedings Of The London Mathematical Society, 42, 230-265.
  5. Marr, D. (1982). Vision: A Computational Investigation into the Human Representation and Processing of Visual Information. New York, NY, USA: Henry Holt and Co., Inc.
  6. Fodor, J. A. (1975). The language of thought.
  7. Pylyshyn, Z. W. (1989). Computation and Cognition: Toward a Foundation for Cognitive Science.
  8. Anderson, J. (1990). The adaptive character of thought. Lawrence Erlbaum.
  9. Newell, A. (1990). Unified theories of cognition.
  10. [http://mechanism.ucsd.edu/research/levels.mm1994.pdf Levels of Description and Explanation in Cognitive Science], by William Bechtel
  11. Human nature, a Humean take by Massimo Pigliucci
  13. 13.0 13.1 Project Implicit
  14. Steele, Claude M.; Aronson, Joshua (1995). "Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69 (5): 797–811. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.69.5.797. ISSN 0022-3514. PMID 7473032.
  15. One of the many ways of combating stereotype threat is by instilling pride in one's (oppressed) social class, e.g., Black Teens With Racial Pride Do Better in School.
  16. Impostor Syndrome
  17. Internalized Misogyny: "I'm Not Like Most Girls!"
  18. Low, K. G.; Charanasomboon, S.; Brown, C.; Hiltunen, G.; Long, K.; Reinhalter, K.; Jones, H. (2003). "Internalization of the Thin Ideal, Weight and Body Image Concerns". Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal 31: 81–89. doi:10.2224/sbp.2003.31.1.81
  19. “Oh, You Sexy Geek!”: “Geek Girls” and the Problem of Self-Objectification
  21. See here for a long list of science papers on implicit associations.
  22. Met chief accuses media of racism
  24. The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, in which the Met branded itself institutionally racist.
  25. Why isn’t my professor black?
  26. Proving and Quantifying Sexism
  28. If you are having trouble getting why white people are a privileged class, watch this as a fun introduction.
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