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There is a long tradition in the social sciences of examining oppositional behavior. In particular, this work has focused on the ways adolescents act in opposition to a range of authority figures, social institutions, and expected norms of behavior. Whereas much work in psychology focuses on the individual causes and consequences of oppositionality, research in sociology and education tends to characterize oppositionality as a collective cultural response to a structural condition. Debates in these fields focus on whether, as a form of resistance, oppositional culture is productive or constraining.

In one of the classic examples from this field, Paul Williss Learning to Labor (1977) examined how working class kids get working class jobs and in particular, what role working-class lads oppositional culture played in the process of social reproduction. Willis (1977) argued that working-class nonconformity and open opposition to the schools achievement ideology, rules, and authority structure functioned both as a critique that reflected lads understanding of the limited possibility of their being upwardly mobile and simultaneously made such mobility even less likely (1977). Learning to Labor highlighted the central paradoxes that have been echoed in related literature in the years since: that oppositionality in various forms can be characterized as resistance and that it reflects a critique of constrained structural conditions (Giroux 1983; Macleod 1995; Weis 1990), while at the same time, youths oppositional behavior often contributes to the reproduction of their own subordinate racial or class status.

In a related articulation of the idea of oppositionality, Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton (1993) outline what they call a culture of segregation that is created by external structural conditions. They write, An alternative status system has evolved within Americas ghettos that is defined in opposition to the basic ideals and values of American society (Massey and Denton 1993, p. 167). Similar to Willis, oppositional culture here is a rational adaptation to social and economic conditions, albeit one that may also have dysfunctional consequences for the communities in question.

In recent years oppositionality often has been discussed in reference to the work of John Ogbu and Signithia Fordham (Ogbu 1978, 1987, 1990, 1991; Fordham and Ogbu 1986). Focused in part on explaining racial differences in academic achievement, Ogbu argued that discussions of racial minorities in U.S. schools need to differentiate the experiences of involuntary from voluntary minorities. Involuntary minorities are those who have been forcibly incorporated into the United States through colonization and slavery, whereas voluntary minorities are those who have come to the United States through immigration or other voluntary means. Voluntary minorities tend to compare their prospects in the United States to those in their country of origin and thus have positive estimations of U.S. institutions and their prospects within them. In contrast, involuntary or subordinate minorities view their status in comparison to whites, and understand that they face many social, political, and institutional barriers to success. Ogbu hypothesized that, out of their understanding of structural constraint, involuntary minorities would develop an oppositional culture, disengaging from mainstream institutions and limiting the effort they put forth to succeed in them.

Since the 1990s a number of critics have challenged the oppositional culture thesis, arguing, for example, that black students neither possess an oppositional orientation toward education nor reject school as a white thing (Ainsworth-Darnell and Downey 1998; Carter 2005; Horvat and OConnor 2006; OConnor 1997, 1999; Tyson 2002). For example, James Ainsworth-Darnell and Douglas Downey (1998) use national data to show that African American students frequently report optimistic educational expectations and demonstrate more pro-school attitudes than their white counterparts, and that high-achieving students are more likely to be viewed as popular among peers. The authors conclude that African American students do not exhibit the habits and styles that are rewarded in school primarily because they do not enjoy the same structural conditions as their white counterparts. Prudence Carter (2005), Karolyn Tyson (2002), Garvey Lundy (2003), and others have suggested that this theory has not given enough attention to the ways that social institutions construct and produce oppositionality, and thus has put too much emphasis on the need for students to change their behaviors rather than focusing on the need for real change within social institutions and social arrangements more generally. In many ways this recent work continues to highlight the key questions within the field: Does oppositionality represent an accurate critique of and resistance to fundamentally unequal social arrangements? Or is oppositionality better understood as a dysfunctional cultural adaptation? These are not merely theoretical questions, because discussions of oppositional culture are central to debates about how to address a whole range of pressing social problems. Should the focus of change efforts be on social institutions and on social inequality more generally, or on the oppositional behavior of certain groups of adolescents?

SEE ALSO Achievement; Achievement Gap, Racial; Acting White; Authority; Conformity; Culture; Norms; Ogbu, John U.; Protest; Resistance; Social Movements; Values; Working Class


Ainsworth-Darnell, James W., and Douglas B. Downey. 1998. Assessing the Oppositional Culture Explanation for Racial/Ethnic Differences in School Performance. American Sociological Review 63 (August): 536553.

Ainsworth-Darnell, James W., and Douglas B. Downey. 2002. The Search for Oppositional Culture among Black Students. American Sociological Review 67: 156164.

Carter, Prudence. 2005. Keepin It Real: School Success Beyond Black and White. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fordham, Signithia. 1996. Blacked Out: Dilemmas of Race, Identity, and Success at Capital High. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fordham, Signithia, and John U. Ogbu. 1986. Black Students School Success: Coping with the Burden of Acting White. Urban Review 18: 176206.

Giroux, Henry A. 1983. Theory and Resistance in Education: A Pedagogy for the Opposition. South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey Publishers.

Horvat, Erin, and Carla OConnor. 2006. Beyond Acting White: Reassessments and New Directions in Research on Black Students and School Success. Boulder, CO: Rowman and Littlefield.

Lundy, Garvey F. 2003. The Myths of Oppositional Culture. Journal of Black Studies 33 (4): 450467.

Macleod, Jay. 1995. Aint No Makin It: Aspirations and Attainment in a Low-Income Neighborhood. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Massey, Douglas, and Nancy Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

OConnor, Carla. 1997. Dispositions toward (Collective) Struggle and Educational Resilience in the Inner City: A Case Analysis of Six African-American High School Students. American Educational Research Journal 34 (4): 593629.

OConnor, Carla. 1999. Race, Class, and Gender in America: Narratives of Opportunity among Low-Income African American Youths. Sociology of Education 72 (3): 137157.

Ogbu, John U. 1978. Minority Education and Caste. New York: Academic Press.

Ogbu, John U. 1987. Variability in Minority School Performance: A Problem in Search of an Explanation. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 18: 312334.

Ogbu, John U. 1990. Minority Education in Comparative Perspective. Journal of Negro Education 59 (1): 4557.

Ogbu, John U. 1991. Immigrant and Involuntary Minorities in Comparative Perspective. In Minority Status and Schooling: A Comparative Study of Immigrant and Involuntary Minorities, eds. John Ogbu and Margaret Gibson, 333. New York: Garland.

Ogbu, John U. 2003. Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement. Mahwah, NJ. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Tyson, Karolyn. 2002. Weighing In: Elementary-Age Students and the Debate on Attitudes toward School among Black Students. Social Forces 80 (4): 11571189.

Weis, Lois. 1990. Working Class Without Work: High School Students in a De-Industrializing Economy. New York: Routledge.

Willis, Paul. 1977. Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. New York: Columbia University Press.

Geoffrey Banks

Amanda Lewis


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Children learn to resist and, if necessary, oppose the will of others as part of their normal development. The refusal to conform to the ordinary requirements of authority and a willful contrariness is called oppositionality, and manifests itself during childhood with behaviors such as stubbornness, argumentativeness, tantrums, noncompliance, and defiance.

Children's prosocial impulses become apparent in the first year of life through cooperative interactions and sharing. Learning how to tolerate frustration is an important aspect of the socialization process, but a degree of defiance and noncompliance is normal during the preschool years (e.g., the terrible twos). After the age of three children start to learn that they do not always need to be "good." Defiance and noncompliance, particularly in boys, may increase at that time. Oppositionality may accentuate again during adolescence when teenagers try to break away from the influence of their parents and develop their own identity. It shows in adolescents wanting to do "their own thing," in the way they dress or cut their hair and in their propensity to challenge authority. Most parents know this and allow young people some room to manifest their individuality, and usually it does not cause major problems. Occasionally, this drive becomes so intense that it creates difficulties at home and school.

It is not clear what happens to oppositional children when they grow up. The majority are likely to become well-functioning adults, some may develop antisocial behavior, and others may continue showing difficulties in their interpersonal relationships, mostly by showing passive resistance and covert hostility (Fergusson 1998). Some of the characteristics of these children, such as stubbornness, single-minded determination, and nonacceptance of social rules or expectations, can be harnessed constructively and may result in considerable individual achievement.

These developmental changes have been observed in all cultures, although their manifestations and intensity vary. Behaviors such as temper tantrums and disobedience are reported to have similar prevalence in most countries (Crijnen, Achenbach, and Verhulst 1999).

Oppositionality and Oppositional Defiant Disorder

The boundaries between oppositionality—displayed by most young people at one time or another—and the psychiatric condition called oppositional defiant disorder are blurred. Whether oppositionality is considered maladaptive, that is, a disorder, largely depends on the intensity, frequency, and duration of the behaviors and if they interfere with the young person's psychosocial functioning. Defiance and noncompliance can cause impairment through frequent arguments at home, reduced school performance, school detention, or suspension.

Children and adolescents with oppositional defiant disorder display a pattern of negativistic and hostile conduct towards people in authority, typically parents or teachers. They lose their temper and swear with little provocation, especially if they cannot get what they want. They are stubborn and cannot give in. When asked to do something, they simply do not do it ("I will do it later," "I forgot"). They are touchy, blame others for their mistakes, and often seem to get enjoyment from provoking and annoying people. They hold grudges and can be vindictive. Oppositional children justify their behavior by saying that what they are asked to do is unreasonable or unfair (American Psychiatric Association 1994).

These problems occur more often at home where they can result in extreme family tension, but can be seen at school also. Parents and teachers feel frustrated with these young people and this leads to angry confrontations. However, these defiant young people seldom carry out serious antisocial or delinquent acts and their conduct can be normal in many situations, for example at school or in social settings (Angold and Costello 1996).

Causal Factors

Stubbornness, noncompliance, and aggressiveness are traits largely determined genetically. Some children have by nature a difficult temperament (Sanson and Prior 1999). They are irritable, difficult to soothe, and have numerous and more severe tantrums than other children during infancy or the preschool years. Parents or teachers are often drawn into power battles with these young people, which can create a vicious cycle of increasing attempts to control the young person that lead to more anger and rebelliousness.

Conversely, oppositional behaviors are highly context-sensitive. Many factors can reinforce or exacerbate normal oppositionality so that it becomes a problem. Parents of noncompliant, defiant children seem to have less effective problem-solving skills, particularly in tasks that involve conflict, and are more likely to criticize, belittle, and blame their children. Oppositional behavior is also believed to be more common in children living in families in which there have been several parental figures, due to separation or divorce, or in which parents were very strict, particularly if discipline was inconsistent or not accompanied by warmth and care. Children who have been abused or neglected are often aggressive and defiant.

Childrearing practices that are caring, non-punitive, and that encourage strong group loyalty and respect for authority may reduce oppositional behavior. These are observed in some Eastern cultures. For example, Chinese people tend to be very lenient toward infants and children under six years of age. This is in marked contrast to the strict, even harsh, discipline they impose upon older children. Traditionally, Chinese parents were more concerned with impulse control and less tolerant of aggressive behaviors in children than their Western counterparts. By emphasizing filial piety, they tended to discourage independence, assertiveness, and creativity (Ho 1986).

Young people with learning difficulties and mental health problems, such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and those who are depressed often show marked oppositionality and irritability. Oppositional defiant disorder can be an early stage in the development of the more serious conduct disorder. In that case, as children become older, their behavior escalates into breaking rules, truancy, stealing, and physical fights.


Some degree of oppositionality is very frequent in two- to five- year-olds. Oppositional defiant disorder is a common problem displayed by 3 to 5 percent of young people in affluent Western countries such as the United States and Australia. Prevalence increases with age and is higher in males and among the poor and disenfranchised.

There is little epidemiological data about prevalence of this condition in non-Western cultures. Given the variation in child-rearing practices and the importance these have in the development and maintenance of oppositionality, it may be assumed that societies that discourage individualism have lower rates of oppositional disorder. However, epidemiological studies have revealed similar rates of behavioral problems to those reported in Western countries (Crijnen, Achenbach, and Verhulst 1999; Shen and Wang 1995).


In practice, oppositional young people are treated with a variety of psychological and behavioral interventions targeting the child and the family. The broad aim of treatment is to increase compliance and reduce conflict. Working with one or both parents (or a parental figure) is desirable. The therapist usually tries to help parents understand the way they perceive and respond to the child; teach them more effective, nonviolent discipline strategies; find ways to reduce the frequency and intensity of arguments; and encourage parents to increase cooperative and leisure activities. The most promising way of achieving most of these goals appears to be parent management training (Kazdin 1998).

Parent management training refers to a set of procedures in which parents are taught to alter their child's behavior. It is based on the view that defiance and noncompliance are inadvertently developed or maintained by maladaptive patterns of parent-child interaction. These include harsh discipline, inconsistency, lack of satisfactory resolution of conflict, directly reinforcing deviant behavior, and not reinforcing appropriate behaviors. The treatment has been evaluated in controlled trials with prepubertal children and adolescents with oppositional problems of varying severity. Parent management training results in marked improvement in oppositional behavior, treatment gains are maintained up to three years, and there may also be improvements in areas not directly targeted by treatment, such as sibling adjustment and maternal depression (Scott et al. 2001; Kazdin 1998).

This therapy teaches parents to identify problem behaviors, to introduce prompts, instructions, and modeling to facilitate desirable behavior, and to use positive reinforcement. On average, programs run for six to eight weeks. Only one parent is required to attend in many of them. Traditionally, parent management training has been administered to individual families in a clinical setting. However, group delivery, often using videotaped material, and self-administration by manuals have made these treatments more accessible while remaining effective (Sanders and Markie-Dadds 1996).

An extensive range of medications has been tried for children with behavior problems, if not specifically for oppositionality. There are limited data about the response of oppositional defiant behaviors to psychotropic drugs. Therefore, medication should usually be reserved for cases with a concurrent (comorbid) disorder that is amenable to drug treatment (such as depression or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder), and to children where oppositionality is the manifestation of another condition, such as depression (Rey and Walter 1999).

Family's Response to Oppositionality

Oppositional problems have often been present for a long time and parents become unable to differentiate matters in which they need to take a stand from issues that are trivial and not worth the fuss. In these situations, parents are afraid that if they give in or ignore something, their child will get out of control and walk all over them. Consequently, parents end up nagging, saying "no" all the time, or constantly trying to set more limits. This usually increases the child's defiance. In these cases the therapist may help parents identify what is important and what is not, what is really worth a fight and what is not.

Another common scenario is that parents just give in and think their child is too strong-willed for them. These parents lose confidence and the young person increasingly takes control. This can happen more easily in single-parent families or families in which parents do not support each other. When these patterns are well established, change is difficult and requires time.


Oppositionality can be minimized and oppositional defiant disorder can be prevented. The optimal approach would identify and lessen risk factors—such as coercive parenting, marital conflict, and parental depression—prior to the development of disruptive behaviors and clinical disorder. At present, however, most interventions target families where children already exhibit problem behaviors and aim to prevent further deterioration. In this type of intervention children are selected because of the severity of their disturbance at day care center or preschool, or by measures of family adversity or dysfunction.

Preventative programs basically involve modifications of parent management training programs and are delivered to groups of children at risk for these problems (e.g., children with difficult temperament or those who display marked oppositionality by the age of four or five years). There are other types of preventive interventions that also seem promising, for example classroom programs such as the "Good Behavior Game" (Kellam et al. 1994).

See also:Childhood, Stages of: Adolescence; Childhood, Stages of: Middle Childhood;Childhood, Stages of: Preschool; Childhood, Stages of: Toddlerhood; Conduct Disorder; Conflict: Parent-Child Relationships; Developmental Psychopathology; Discipline; Juvenile Delinquency; Parenting styles; Substitute Caregivers; Temperament


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angold, a., and costello, j. (1996). "toward establishing an empirical basis for the diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder." journal of the american academy of child and adolescent psychiatry 35:1205–1212.

crijnen, a.; achenbach, t. m.; and verhulst, f. c. (1999). "problems reported by parents of children in multiple cultures: the child behavior checklist syndrome constructs." american journal of psychiatry 156:569–574.

fergusson, d. m. (1998). "stability and change in externalising behaviours." european archives of psychiatry and clinical neuroscience 248:4–13.

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kazdin, a. (1998). "parent management training: evidence, outcomes, and issues." journal of the american academy of child and adolescent psychiatry 36:1349–1356.

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sanders, m. r., and markie-dadds, c. (1996). "triple p: a multilevel family intervention program for children with disruptive behaviour disorders." in early intervention and prevention in mental health, ed. p. cotton and p. h. jackson. melbourne: australian psychological society.

sanson, a., and prior, m. (1999). "temperamental and behavioral precursors to oppositional defiant disorderand conduct disorder." in handbook of disruptive behavior disorders, ed. h. c. quay and a. e hogan. new york: plenum press.

scott, s.; spender, q.; doolan, m.; jacobs, b.; and aspland, h. (2001). "multicentre controlled trial of parenting groups for childhood antisocial behavior in clinical practice." british medical journal 323:1–7.

shen, y., and wang, y. (1995). "behaviour problems of schoolchildren in beijing: a study of prevalence and risk factors." in chinese societies and mental health, ed. t. lin, w. tseng, and e. yeh. hong kong: oxford university press.