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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.

Interview with Partha Chatterjee

To enrich our understanding of the selected articles, Richard McGrail interviewed Partha Chatterjee.


Benson, Peter. 2008. "El Campo: Faciality and Structural Violence in Farm Labor Camps." Cultural Anthropology 23, no. 4: 589–629.

Inoue, Miyako. 2003. "The Listening Subject of Japanese Modernity and His Auditory Double." Cultural Anthropology 18, no. 2: 156–193.

Hale, Charles R. 2006. "Activist Research v. Cultural Critique: Indigenous Land Rights and the Contradictions of Politically Engaged Anthropology." Cultural Anthropology 21, no. 1: 96–120.

Mahmood, Saba. 2001. "Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival." Cultural Anthropology 16, no. 2: 202–236.

M'charek, Amade. 2013. "Beyond Fact or Fiction: On the Materiality of Race in Practice." Cultural Anthropology 28, no. 3: 420–442.

Moore, Donald. 1998. "Subaltern Struggles and the Politics of Place: Remapping Resistance in Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands." Cultural Anthropology 13, no. 3: 344–381.


Created by Richard McGrail and Rupa Pillai, 2012.

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, no. 4: 155–177.

Bahl, Vinay. 1997. "Relevance (or Irrelevance) of Subaltern Studies." Economic and Political Weekly 32, no. 23: 1333–1344.

Beverley, John. 1999. Subalternity and Representation: Arguments in Cultural Theory. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. "The Postcolonial and Postmodern: The Question of Agency." In The Location of Culture, 171–197. London: Routledge.

Bhattacharya, Nandini. 1996. "Behind the Veil: The Many Masks of Subaltern Sexuality." Women's Studies International Forum 19, no. 3: 277.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 1993. "Marx after Marxism: A Subaltern Historian's Perspective." Economic and Political Weekly 28, no. 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 and Society in Africa and India, edited by Dagmar Engels and Shula Marks, 79–84. London: British Academic Press.

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

Chaturvedi, Vinayak. 2000. Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial. London: Verso.

Cooper, Frederick. 1994."Conflict and Connection: Rethinking Colonial African History." American Historical Review 99, no. 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, no. 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, no. 7: 288–290.

Kaviraj, Sudipta. 1994. "On the Construction of Colonial Power: Structure, Discourse, Hegemony." In Contesting Colonial Hegemony: State and Society in Africa and India, edited by Dagmar Engels and Shula Marks, 19–54. London: British Academic Press.

Lal, Vinay. 2001. "Subaltern Studies and Its Critics: Debates over Indian History." History and Theory 40, no. 1: 135–148.

Mallon, Florencia E. 1994. "The Promise and Dilemma of Subaltern Studies: Perspectives from Latin American History." The American Historical Review 99, no. 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, no. 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.

Pandey, Gyanendra. 2009. Subaltern Citizens and Their Histories Investigations from India and the USA. London: Routledge.

———. 1995. "Voices from the Edge: The Struggle to Write Subaltern Histories." Ethnos 60, no. 3–4: 223.

Prakash, Gyan. 1992. "Can the 'Subaltern' Ride? A Reply to O'Hanlon and Washbrook." Comparative Studies in Society and History 34, no. 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, no. 1: 45–58.

———. 2001. The Latin American subaltern studies reader. Durham, N.C.: 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, 82–108. Delhi: Oxford University Press India.

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, no. 4: 395.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1988. "Can the Subaltern Speak?" In Marxism and The Interpretation of Culture, edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, 271–313. London: Macmillan.

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.