Essay On Subaltern Studies

In the preface to the inaugural issue of Subaltern Studies, published in 1982, Indian historian Ranajit Guha called for more academic work on subaltern themes and critiques of elitism.  Almost 30 years later, his call has been answered in variety of ways.  Moving beyond the focus on South Asia, the Subaltern Studies Collective has influenced the nature of research all over the world and has inspired the formation of similar groups such as the Latin American Subaltern Studies group.  To commemorate Subaltern Studies’ 30th anniversary, this Curated Collection offers 5 articles that provide a glimpse of how Cultural Anthropology has contributed to this school, and how this school has likewise influenced anthropological research.  These articles demonstrate both how subaltern studies is pursued beyond the Indian subcontinent and how it might guide the analysis of representation, identity, power, and modernization.

Our collection begins with Donald S. Moore’s “Subaltern Struggles and the Politics of Place.”  In discussing the settlement patterns and land rights of Kaerezians in post-colonial Zimbabwe, Moore criticizes how anthropology has fetishized subalternity and resistance.  Essentializing analyses that simplify "the subaltern" as a monolithic and homogenous category limit our understandings of subjects, their actions and their relations with others.  Moore moves beyond such a reductive approach by advocating a more complex understanding of place. He argues against the notion that some actors are "inside" power relations, while others are "outside" and can thereby resist power in relatively straightforward ways. Instead, Moore makes the point that all places are cross-cut by relations of power. Neat inside/outside divisions don't give an adequate view.

Like Moore, Saba Mahmood doubts Guha’s idea of a subaltern “autonomous domain” outside the forces of domination.  In “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent” she questions our conventional notions of agency and resistance.  Drawing on her fieldwork during the Egyptian Islamic revival, Mahmood parochializes our normative assumptions of self to reveal the agency of Muslim women who participate in the revival.  Instead of viewing women’s participation in mosques as evidence of their submission to patriarchal Islam, she presents an alternate reading that highlights how their piety enables self and empowerment that counters versions proposed by Western feminism. 

Miyako Inoue draws our attention to the role that language and sound played in the formation of Japanese modernity and the construction of its Others. In her essay, “The Listening Subject of Japanese Modernity,” Inoue tracks the late 19th-century emergence of “school-girl speech”: a metapragmatic category that was invented by male Meiji intellectuals and that was used to produce women as modern Japan’s self-consolidating Other. Elite male scholars decried this form of speech, arguing that women who spoke in this way were vulgar. Inoue argues that “school-girl speech” thereby constituted Japanese modernity as masculine while rendering the feminine voice(less) as nonsensical noise. Not unlike Mahmood, Inoue is skeptical of Western notions of individual agency—specifically those that link power and identity to the voice. She points out how, in Meiji Japan, the “voice” was precisely the mechanism that silenced women and produced them as modernity’s Other.

Peter Benson’s article likewise deals with the production of society’s Others. Benson focuses on the production of the “face” and argues that certain “kinds” of faces index different “kinds” of humans. The face differentiates between humans who are deserving of rights, respect, and livelihoods from those who are not. In his article, “El Campo: Faciality and Structural Violence in Farm Labor Camps,” Benson examines the lived experiences of migrant farm workers in North Carolina. He shows how racialized faces exclude migrants from the dominant Anglo community. Not unlike Inoue’s argument, Benson shows how the face indexes a supposed interior identity which is presumed, by the dominant community, to be vulgar, Other, and somehow deserving of his/her conditions of depravity.

Charles Hale’s essay “Activist Research v. Cultural Critique,” takes up the question of how academics might struggle alongside subaltern communities with whom they work. He argues that activist researchers should develop methods that are different from what he calls "cultural critique." He suggests that researchers use such methods--for example statistical surverys and GIS technology--in ways that can be leveraged in courtrooms and other settings to help subaltern communities in their struggles against dominant social institutions. He goes on to suggest that researchers should be held accountable both by their academic institutions and by the communities with whom they work. Hale’s essay provokes questions of academic and ethical responsibility as well as the instrumental uses of knowledge and accountability. 

Finally, we offer interviews with two of the founding members of the original South Asian Subaltern Studies Collective who inspired many conversations in subaltern studies and beyond.  Prof. Gyanendra Pandey, distinguished professor of History at Emory University, and Prof. Partha Chatterjee, professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, reflect upon the early days of the collective, its trajectory, and its influence beyond South Asia and the discipline of History.

By placing these essays in conversation with the added insights of the authors and Profs. Chatterjee and Pandey, we hope this collection will inspire further conversation on how anthropologists contribute to the proliferation of Subaltern Studies beyond the ideas and motivations of the original collective.


Dipesh Chakrabarty

"In Retrospect: Subaltern Studies and Futures Past," Keynote Address at the conference on Subaltern Studies: Historical World Making Thirty Years on, Aug. 2011, ANU

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

"Situating Feminism," the 2010 Annual Keynote Talk of the Beatrice Bain Research Group, UC Berkeley

"Trajectory of the Subaltern in My Work," UCSB

Sumit Sarkar

"Writing a Marxian Social History of Modern India: Problems and Prospects," July 2010, sponsored by Goldsmiths, University of London and Historical Materialism Journal 

Relevant Links

"A Brief History of Subaltern Studies," Introduction by David Ludden for Reading Subaltern Studies

Latin American Subaltern Studies Group

Related Readings

Arnold, David

1984    "Gramsci and peasant subalternity in India". Journal of Peasant Studies. 11 (4): 155-177.

Bahl, Vinay

1997    "Relevance (or Irrelevance) of Subaltern Studies". Economic and Political Weekly. 32 (23): 1333-1344.

Beverley, John

1999    Subalternity and representation: arguments in cultural theory. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bhabha, Homi K

1994    "The Postcolonial and Postmodern: The Question of Agency." In The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 171-197.

Bhattacharya, Nandini

1996    "Behind the veil: The many masks of subaltern sexuality". Women's Studies International Forum. 19 (3): 277.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh

1993    "Marx after Marxism: A Subaltern Historian's Perspective". Economic and Political Weekly. 28 (22): 1094-1096.

2002    Habitations of modernity: essays in the wake of subaltern studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Chatterjee, Partha

1994    "Was There a Hegemonic Project of the Colonial State?" In Contesting Colonial Hegemony: State & Society in Africa and India. Dagmar Engels and Shula Marks, eds. London: British Academic Press, 79-84.

1995    "History and the Nationalization of Hinduism." In Representing Hinduism, Vasudha Dalmia and H. von Stietencron, eds. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 103-128.

Chaturvedi, Vinayak

2000    Mapping subaltern studies and the postcolonial. London: Verso.

Cooper, Frederick    

1994    "Conflict and Connection: Rethinking Colonial African History". The American Historical Review. 99 (5): 1516-1545.

Coronil, Fernando

2005    "Post-Obituary: We are Dead. Long Live Subaltern Studies in the Americas!" Dispositio. (52): 337.

Currie, Kate

1995    "The Challenge to Orientalist, Elitist, and Western Historiography: Notes on the "Subaltern Project" 1982-1989". Dialectical Anthropology. 20 (2): 217.

Guha, Ranajit

1984    Writings on South Asian history and society. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

1997    A Subaltern studies reader, 1986-1995. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Guha, Ranajit, David Arnold, and David Hardiman

1994    Essays in honour of Ranajit Guha. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Guha, Ranajit, Partha Chatterjee, Gyanendra Pandey, David Arnold, David Hardiman, Shahid Amin, Dipesh Chakrabarty, et al.

1982    Subaltern studies: writings on South Asian history and society. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Guha, Ranajit, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

1988    Selected Subaltern studies. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hardiman, David

1986    "'Subaltern Studies' at Crossroads". Economic and Political Weekly. 21 (7): 288-290.

Kaviraj, Sudipta

1994    "On the Construction of Colonial Power: structure, discourse, hegemony." In Contesting Colonial Hegemony: State & Society in Africa and India. Dagmar Engels and Shula Marks, eds. London: British Academic Press, 19-54.

Lal, Vinay

2001    "Subaltern Studies and its Critics: Debates over Indian History". History and Theory. 40 (1): 135-148.

Mallon, Florencia E

1994    "The Promise and Dilemma of Subaltern Studies: Perspectives from Latin American History". The American Historical Review. 99 (5): 1491-1515.

Masselos, Jim

1992    "The dis/appearance of subalterns: A reading of a decade of subaltern studies". South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. 15 (1): 105-125.

Mayaram, Shail, M. S. S. Pandian, and Ajay Skaria

2005    Muslims, Dalits, and the fabrications of history. New Delhi: Permanent Black and Ravi Dayal Publisher.

Pandey, Gyanendra

2009    Subaltern citizens and their histories investigations from India and the USA. London: Routledge/Taylor & Francis.

1995    "Voices from the Edge: The Struggle to Write Subaltern Histories". Ethnos. 60 (3-4): 223.

Prakash, Gyan

1992    "Can the "Subaltern" Ride? A Reply to O'Hanlon and Washbrook". Comparative Studies in Society and History. 34 (1): 168-184.

Rabasa, José

2010    Without history: subaltern studies, the Zapatista insurgency, and the specter of history. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Rodríguez, Ileana

2000    "Cross-Genealogies in Latin American and South Asian Subaltern Studies". Nepantla: Views from South. 1 (1): 45-58.

2001    The Latin American subaltern studies reader. Durham: Duke University Press.

2005    "Is There a Need for Subaltern Studies?" Dispositio. (52): 43.

Sarkar, Sumit

1997    "The Decline of the Subaltern in Subaltern Studies." In Writing Social History. Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 82-108.

Seed, Patricia

2005    "How Ranajit Guha came to Latin American Subaltern Studies". Dispositio. (52): 107.

Sivaramakrishnan, K

1995    "Situating the Subaltern: History and Anthropology in the Subaltern Studies Project". Journal of Historical Sociology. 8 (4): 395.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty

1988    "Can the Subaltern Speak?" In Marxism & The Interpretation of Culture. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds. London: Macmillan, 271-313.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, and Rosalind C. Morris

2010    Can the subaltern speak?: reflections on the history of an idea. New York: Columbia University Press.

Subaltern Studies Conference, Partha Chatterjee, and Pradeep Jeganathan

2000    Community, gender and violence. New York: Columbia University Press.


Subaltern Studies Collection Images, Creative Commons, Courtesy of:

Paddynapper, "Indigenous Australian Aboriginal Dancers; Training Session-Aboriginal Dreamtime Team." October 24, 2008 via Flickr (

Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University, “An Asian American and an African American woman wear signs that indicate that they are on strike against Ottenheimer for poor treatment and unfair labor practices, December 1, 1966.” December 1, 1966 via Flickr (

Janice Waltzer (liberalmind1012), “goat spinners.” 2009 via Flickr (

freebird, “FREE Dr. Binayak Sen.” May 14, 2009 via Flickr (

Leonora Enking (Wallygrom), “Zapatista!” 1998 via Flickr (

Brooke Anderson, “Zapatistas.” June 29, 2007 via Flickr (

Oisin Prendiville (prendio2), “DSC_2806.” July 25, 2009 via Flickr (

Tim Knight (ragdaddy), “Datoga Wife.” September 20, 2006 via Flickr (

20 Letters, “Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos.” July 27, 2008 via Flickr (

van_j, “the proud daughter of India.” January 1, 2007 via Flickr (

James Jin (Yoshimai), “Old Woman Selling Wares, Henan, China.” June 24, 2002 via Flickr (

Jorge, "School girls in Tokyo." April 19, 2007 via Wikimedia Commons (

The Subaltern Studies Group (SSG) or Subaltern Studies Collective is a group of South Asian scholars interested in the postcolonial and post-imperial societies with a particular focus on those of South Asia while also covering the developing world in general sense. The term Subaltern Studies is sometimes also applied more broadly to others who share many of their views. Their anti-essentialist approach[1] is one of history from below, focused more on what happens among the masses at the base levels of society than among the elite.


The term "subaltern" in this context is an allusion to the work of Italian MarxistAntonio Gramsci (1891–1937). It refers to any person or group of inferior rank and station, whether because of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion.

The SSG arose in the 1980s, influenced by the scholarship of Eric Stokes and Ranajit Guha, to attempt to formulate a new narrative of the history of India and South Asia. This narrative strategy most clearly inspired by the writings of Gramsci was explicated in the writings of their "mentor" Ranajit Guha, most clearly in his "manifesto" in Subaltern Studies I and also in his classic monograph The Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency. Although they are, in a sense, on the left, they are very critical of the traditional Marxist narrative of Indian history, in which semi-feudal India was colonized by the British, became politicized, and earned its independence. In particular, they are critical of the focus of this narrative on the political consciousness of elites, who in turn inspire the masses to resistance and rebellion against the British.

Instead, they focus on non-elites — subalterns — as agents of political and social change. They have had a particular interest in the discourses and rhetoric of emerging political and social movements, as against only highly visible actions like demonstrations and uprisings.


One of the group's early contributors, Sumit Sarkar, later began to critique it. He entitled one of his essays "Decline of the Subaltern in Subaltern Studies", criticizing the turn to Foucauldian studies of power-knowledge that left behind many of the empiricist and Marxist efforts of the first two volumes of Subaltern Studies. He writes that the socialist inspiration behind the early volumes led to a greater impact in India itself, while the later volumes' focus on western discourse reified the subaltern-colonizer divide and then rose in prominence mainly in western academia.[2] Even Gayatri Spivak, one of the most prominent names associated with the movement, has called herself a critic of "metropolitan post-colonialism".[3]

Indian sociologist Vivek Chibber has criticized the premise of Subaltern Studies for its obfuscation of class struggle and class formation in its analysis, and accused it of excising class exploitation from the story of the oppression of the subaltern. [4] His critique, explained in his book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, is focused on the works of two Indian scholars: Ranajit Guha and Dipesh Chakrabarty.

People associated with Subaltern Studies[edit]

Scholars associated with Subaltern Studies include:

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Young, Robert, White Mythologies. Routledge, 1990, reissued 2004. Several associated ISBNs, including ISBN 0-415-31181-0, ISBN 0-415-31180-2.
  • Ludden, David, ed., Reading Subaltern Studies. Critical History, Contested Meaning and the Globalization of South Asia, London 2001.
  • Chaturvedi, Vinayak, ed., Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial. London and New York 2000.
  • Cronin, Stephanie, ed., "Subalterns and Social Protest: History from Below in the Middle East and North Africa". Routledge, 2008. US & Canada.

External links[edit]

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