Resistance is an art of the weak and dominated. It may be overt and organized or organic and clandestine. This page does not examine every practice that could be called resistance, only those that:

  • do not involve protest, petition, or representation
  • do not involve building alternative institutions
  • do not involve revolution, war, diplomacy, or statecraft

What is resistance?

Resistance includes practices mis-identified as failure, laziness, ignorance, untrustworthiness, mental illness, superstition, irrationality, underdevelopment, lack of access, noncompliance, or cultural and linguistic barriers. The presence of resistance does not imply that — for instance — all linguistic barriers are actually willed resistance. However, some proportion of what is identified by the powerful or dominating as failure always is, in fact, unrecognized resistance. This page discusses three modes of resistance:

  • using imposed systems (see de Certeau 1984)
  • not learning imposed systems (see Kohl 1991)
  • sabotaging imposed systems (see Scott 1990)

Using imposed systems

"Using imposed systems" may be the broadest form of resistance. The practices in this mode have a long history of being identified as essential or creative characteristics of dominated people, but were explicitly named as a mode of resistance by the French Jesuit and scholar de Certeau (1984). Using imposed systems can be done on a society-wide scale, as by those colonized by the Spanish:

"The spectacular victory of Spanish colonization over the indigenous Indian cultures was diverted from its intended aims by the use made of it: even when they were subjected, indeed, even when they accepted their subjection, the Indians often used the laws, practices, and representations that were imposed on them by force or by fascination to ends other than those of their conquerors; they made something else out of them; they subverted them from within — not by rejecting them or by transforming them (though that occurred as well), but by many different ways of using them in the service of rules, customs, or convictions foreign to the colonization which they could not escape. They metaphorized the dominant order: they made it function in a different register" (32-33).


These practices, which de Certeau calls metissage,1 are also called hybridity.2 A traditional African-American song from the US South describes hybridity in a few words:

Got one mind for white folks to see
'Nother for what I know is me
He don't know, he don't know my mind

Characteristics of hybridity-as-resistance include deviousness, laughter, fantasy, clever tricks, and knowing how to get away with things. De Certeau described the increase in marginality in light of Foucault's insights into disciplining and discourses, and Bordeau's insights into social and economic capital:

"Marginality is today no longer limited to minority groups, but is rather massive and pervasive; this cultural activity of the non-producers of culture … remains the only one possible for all those who neverless buy and pay for the showy products through which a productivist economy articulates itself. Marginality is becoming universal" (xvii).

De Certeau did not suggest that old axes of marginalization (eg. racism, patriarchy, capitalism) have dissolved, only that new axes of marginalization have emerged. This suggests the emergence of new forms of hybridity, new desires for opacity. A contemporary example is the expectation of opacity that many had of their private communications and habits using consumer electronics and communications networks. Within the assumed opacity of the internet and cellular communication thrived deviousness, laughter, fantasy, and clever tricks. Revelations of the actions of the NSA and security contractors have showed their powerful desire to dominate this opaque world.

Zora Neale Hurston (1943) anticipated the need for hybridity-as-resistance in wider society, when at the turning point of World War II she offered the folk hero High John de Conquer to "used-to-be white folks" in a beautiful tale in the American Mercury. Black soldiers returned to very intact white supremacy in a nation newly become a superpower. Hurston's offer was premature, but it stands as one of the great narratives of hybridity-as-resistance.

Diversionary practices

Hybridity is generally analyzed in terms of identity or culture. It is understood as the "being" or "enacting" of resistance. Another analytical frame is to look at the "doing" or "enunciation" of resistance. Within the mode of "using imposed systems," popular ruses are widely practiced. De Certeau represented them through his focus on one particular diversionary practice, called in France la perruque, "the wig.":

"La perruque is the worker's own work disguised as work for his employer. It differs from pilfering in that nothing of material value is stolen. It differs from absenteeism in that the worker is officially on the job. La perruque may be as simple a matter as a secretary's writing a love letter on "company time" or as complex as a cabinetmaker's "borrowing" a lathe to make a piece of furniture for his living room. … Accused of stealing or turning material to his own ends and using the machines for his own profit, the worker who indulges in la perruque actually diverts time (not goods, since he uses only scraps) from the factory for work that is free, creative, and precisely not directed toward profit" (25).

Not learning imposed systems

  • actively refusing to pay attention
  • acting dumb
  • scrambling one's thoughts
  • overriding curiosity

Sabotaging imposed systems

Ideological insubordination

"Expressed openly — albeit in disguised form [via] rumors, gossip, folktales, songs, gestures, jokes, and theater of the powerless" (Scott 1990, xiii).

Thwarting material appropriation of labor, production, and property

  • poaching, pilfering
  • absenteeism, foot-dragging, dissimulation, noncompliance
  • sabotage, slowdowns, wildcat strikes
  • direct attacks on individuals, institutions, or symbols of domination; fragging
  • flight: underground railroad, desertion
  • abortion, illness, conflict

How is recognizing resistance relevant to public health?

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Gloria Anzaldua (1987), Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Aunt Lute Books.

Homi Bhaba (1994), The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.

Edward Kamau Braithwaite (1971), The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica 1770-1820. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Michel de Certeau (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press

Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari (1987), A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Sharla M. Fett (2002), Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Edouard Glissant (1997), Poetics of Relation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Donna Haraway (1991), Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Zora Neale Hurston (1943), "High John de Conquer." American Mercury. Reprinted in The Sanctified Church: The Folklore Writings of Zora Neale Hurston (1981), Turtle Island Foundation and The Complete Stories (1996), New York: Harper Perennial.

Robin D. G. Kelley (1994). Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class. New York: The Free Press.

Herbert Kohl (1991), I Won't Learn from You! The Role of Assent in Learning. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions.

Todd May (1994), The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Christian Parenti (1999), Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis. New York: Verso Books.

James Scott (1990), Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. Yale University Press.

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