AskDefine | Define opportunism

Dictionary Definition

opportunism n : taking advantage of opportunities without regard for the consequences for others [syn: self-interest, self-seeking, expedience]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. The taking of opportunities; especially the practice of seeking immediate advantage from a situation without considering the long term


  • Croatian: oportunizam
  • German: Opportunismus
  • Russian: Оппортунизм

Extensive Definition

Opportunism is a term used in politics and political science. It forms an important rationale as well for transaction cost economics. It is interpreted in different ways, but usually refers to one or more of the following:
  • a political style of aiming to increase one's political influence at almost any price, or a political style which involves seizing every and any opportunity to extend one's political influence, whenever such opportunities arise.
  • the practice of abandoning in reality some important political principles that were previously held, in the process of trying to increase one's political power and influence.
  • a trend of thought, or a political tendency, seeking to make political capital out of situations with the main aim being that of gaining more influence or support, instead of truly winning people over to a principled position or improving their political understanding.
Most politicians are "opportunists" to some extent at least (they aim to utilize political opportunities to their advantage), but the controversies surrounding the concept concern the exact relationship between "seizing a political opportunity" and the political principles being espoused.


The term "opportunism" is often used in a pejorative sense, mainly because it connotes the abandonment or compromising of political principles, if not formally, then in reality. Thus, the implication is usually that opportunist behaviour is unprincipled: political means to achieve an end have become ends in themselves. In that case, the original relationship between means and ends is lost.
In politics, it is sometimes necessary to insist on political principles, while at other times it is necessary to insist on political unity among people who may differ or conflict to a greater or lesser extent in their beliefs or principles.
If political principles were typically defined in an inflexible, non-negotiable, way a likely result would be sectarianism, since few people beyond "true believers" could support a political practice based on such rigid positions. Normally, there must be at least some freedom in how political principles are formulated, interpreted, and actually applied.
Opportunistic behaviour may be evident in strategic alliances, in which one party uses the relationship to better their position, often at the expense of the other.
On the other hand, political principles can also be "diluted", reinterpreted or ignored, purely for the sake of promoting a contrived political unity. In consequence, a coherent rationale for being in the same organisation is gradually lost.
Thus, political integrity typically demands an appropriate combination of principled positions and political flexibility, so that a morally consistent behaviour results. Whereas it may be necessary to seize a political opportunity when it presents itself, it should ideally be seized also with an appropriate motivation, and on a principled basis.


But this ideal may be difficult to honour in practice, with the result that opportunistic mistakes are made. Few actions are intrinsically opportunist; they are opportunist in a specific context, or from a specific point of view about means-ends relationships involved. This may make an objective assessment of opportunism difficult.
Typically, opportunist political behaviour is criticized for being short-sighted or narrow-minded. That is, in the urge to make short-term political gains or preserve them, the appropriate relationship between the means being used and the overall goals being aimed for is overlooked. The result might well be, that "short term gain" leads to "long term pain".


Some political analysts find the source of opportunism in a specific political methodology that is applied to maintain or increase political influence. An example might be so-called suivisme (a French word for political "tail-ending" or "tailism") where people try to follow and infiltrate any movement that shows signs of being popular. Populism is sometimes regarded as an intrinsically opportunist form of politics, catering to the "lowest common denominator".
Other analysts see opportunism as originating in perceptions of the relative magnitudes of risk associated with different policy alternatives. Here it is argued that the larger a political organisation grows and the more influence it has, the less likely it is that it will pursue policies that could potentially result in the loss of the gains it has previously made. It would be more likely that an organisation will compromise its principles to some degree, in order to maintain its position, than to continue pursuing its principles regardless of the consequences. Or, at the very least, the greater political influence obtained, the more pressure exists to compromise one's political principles.


To some extent, politics unavoidably involves dilemmas about whether to insist on one's own principles (and risk being isolated) or to adapt to a more widely-held opinion for the sake of working together. Accordingly, most political situations involve some potential for opportunism.
Thus, there may not be any generally applicable rule or technique (a "philosopher's stone") that could be invoked in advance to prevent opportunism. At best, one could be aware of the possibility that opportunism could become a real problem, and take steps to minimise the risk.
Some politicians have argued that opportunist errors are preferable to sectarian errors, to the extent that the opportunist, whatever his "sins" may be interpreted to be, at least remains among majority opinion or "among the masses". But because the majority could be quite wrong in regard to particular issues, adapting to that majority opinion on those issues might, in a specific context, be an even bigger error.

French specific context

In France, "opportunists" designated moderate Republicans, such as Léon Gambetta, who dominated the Third Republic after the eviction of the monarchists at the end of the 19th century. The term was not inherently critical, but rather reflected pragmatism.
opportunism in German: Opportunismus
opportunism in Persian: فرصت‌جویی
opportunism in French: Opportunisme
opportunism in Hebrew: אופורטוניזם
opportunism in Hungarian: Opportunizmus
opportunism in Dutch: Opportunisme
opportunism in Japanese: 日和見主義
opportunism in Polish: Oportunizm
opportunism in Russian: Оппортунизм
opportunism in Serbian: Опортунизам
opportunism in Finnish: Opportunismi
opportunism in Swedish: Opportunism
opportunism in Ukrainian: Опортунізм
opportunism in Chinese: 投機主義
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