Theoretical Spotlight: Cultural-Ecological Theory

Literature Review

Students often struggle with the theoretical framework portion of their dissertations. As such, in this blog series, we highlight the most popular theories we come across in our work with dissertation students. Just be aware that these are merely theory overviews and are in no way all encompassing. These overviews are designed to give you some familiarity with major theories.

Theory: Ogbu’s (1978, 1995) Cultural-Ecological Theory

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This theory contends that certain groups of minority students are often seen as underperforming in educational settings due to what Ogbu asserted were stages of minority status: voluntary and involuntary. According to Ogbu, voluntary minorities are individuals who chose to come to the United States and partake in majority culture; these individuals include immigrants and their descendants. Conversely, involuntary minorities are individuals and their descendants who were either reluctantly brought to the United States or were already within the confines of the nation but opted out of engaging in majority culture, such as African Americans and Native Americans. Because of involuntary minority status, Ogbu asserted that these individuals establish an oppositional culture to the mainstream/majority culture, which can lead to stigmatization of involuntary minorities. As such, oppositional defiance almost becomes a cycle wherein involuntary minorities reject standards of the majority, the majority then rejects the involuntary minority group, which leads to deepening divisions between involuntary minorities and majority culture.

This theory is best suited for studies on:

  • Education
  • Psychology 

Further Reading

Ogbu, J.U. (1978). Minority education and caste: The American system in cross-cultural perspective. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Ogbu, J.U. (1995). Cultural problems in minority education: Their interpretations and consequences—part one: Theoretical background. The Urban Review, 27(3), 189-205.