Skip to main content Skip to main navigation menu Skip to site footer

Subaltern Studies: A Conversation with Partha Chatterjee

This post is associated with the Curated Collection "Subaltern Studies."

Interview conducted by Richard McGrail, PhD Student, Anthropology, Stanford University

Richard McGrail: Professor Chatterjee is a Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University, and he has kindly offered to sit down with us to talk about subaltern studies. Thank you, Professor.

Partha Chatterjee: Thank you.

RM: I’d like to start by asking if you could give us an overview of the term “subaltern studies” and explain how it has evolved in the past few decades.

PC: When the Subaltern Studies Collective began, our initial move was a reading Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, which had just been published in English. We were compelled by the fact that Gramsci used the term “subaltern” instead of “proletariat.” Now, he used this term because he was writing in prison under condition of extreme censorship; therefore, he didn’t want to use standard Marxist term and coined the term “subaltern.” But as a result, Gramsci was fundamentally altering the core definition of classes in the orthodox version of Marxism at the time. By simply renaming the proletarian class to the subaltern, he was suggesting that classical Marxist division of European industrial society into classes was not entirely adequate. The classical understanding of class didn’t quite work in a country like Italy, where in the North there was a large industrial structure, while most parts of the South were agrarian and most exploited people were peasants. Gramsci was suggesting that the classical understanding of the “proletariat” didn’t fit the political situation in Italy. So in using a term like subaltern, he was trying to incorporate this very large, pre-industrial formation in to the understanding of political strategies for the Left or the Communist movement.

We found this extremely relevant in trying to understand the situation in countries like India, for instance, which in the early 80s was more-or-less in exactly the same situation: there was an important and developing industrial section with industrial working classes, but a very large part of the country essentially consisted of agrarian formations. Therefore most Indians were in fact still peasants. So it was in trying to reorient or reformulate the problem of what it is to write the history of the “people” in a country like India that we found the idea of using “subaltern classes”—rather than the orthodox formulation of classes in Marxism—much more useful and, in a sense, full of new possibilities. That’s how it began; we actually began by using the term “subaltern classes.”

Initially in our thinking, subalternity still referred to a certain class structure that was perhaps not entirely frozen or well-defined—i.e., it was often indeterminant, fuzzy and so on—but the term still referred to a certain structure of class relations. It’s work that happened later on—particularly with Gayatri Spivak’s interventions—that allowed for a different inflection to be given to the term subaltern.

In her well-known article called “Can the Subaltern Speak,” she spoke of the situation of one woman. The idea of subalternity as something that adheres to an individual was a completely new inflection that was given to this idea. This did not belong to our project in its early years, and it added a completely new dimension to the whole understanding of subalternity. I would say that from the late-80s onwards, there were many more people that began to pursue the question of what it means for someone to be in a subaltern position. Moreover, that someone could be from the elite classes, from the middle classes, from the extremely deprived classes; there could be inflections of race and gender and so on.

None of this was part of our understanding in the initial phase. Our understanding in the initial phase very much grew out of a certain critical take on the received Marxist understanding as it existed at the time in what was broadly called social history.

RM: So you started, then, with Gramsci’s move beyond the classical Marxist concept of the industrial-proletarian class and were thus able to incorporate peasant or agrarian formation into your analysis. Later, with Spivak’s intervention, the field moved to think about subalternity vis-à-vis individuals, and perhaps also vis-à-vis language, representation and ideology. I wonder if you would comment, then, on how the shift from understanding subaltern classes in a political economic sense, to understanding it in terms of language and ideology has shifted research methods. I’m thinking particularly about Ranajit Guha’s essay “The Prose of Counterinsurgency”—in particular, the readings he provides of the memos written by colonial administrators in India.

PC: One of the key problems we encountered in our original project was that it was very hard to come by transcripts or texts of subaltern views, opinions, testimony. These were rare because the standard historical archive simply did not have such records. So one of the things that we tried out—and Guha was one of the best exemplars of this—was to take standard, official historical accounts—those left by government officials, landlords, elite groups, etc.,--and to read them against the grain. That is, to actually discover a hidden transcript which we could read as the subaltern speaking. This was of course a reading technique, and the essay you referred to—“The Prose of Counter Insurgency”—is a very fine example of how this was done.

Now, we were still doing this within the paradigm we had initially laid out, which was: how to reconfigure or rewrite the problem of class relations within a social formation which could not be described as a fully developed industrial economy. It was still that old problem. But we were discovering new ways of doing research which pushed against traditional methods of doing history; for instance, using the kinds of things that literary critics would use and that traditional historians would never have resorted to. These materials were coming into our work, and I think that’s what you are suggesting. Much of what we were trying to do then caught the attention of those who were otherwise concerned with literary theory and who were trying to understand things like gender or other forms of marginalization, whose evidence could be read from canonical literary texts. They were trying to read novels against the grain—that sort of exercise. This is one of the reasons why subaltern studies did attract the attention of people doing comparative literature, cultural studies, etc. And that certainly opened up our project to the involvement of many other people who were not strictly South Asian historians. That was the expansion that took place due to the kinds of research methods that we were pushed into using because traditional historical methods were not adequate for us.

RM: I’d like to ask about a recently published edited volume entitled Can the Subaltern Speak (Columbia University Press, 2010). Rosalind Morris wrote the Introduction, in which she describes subalternity, not as an identity, but as a “predicament.” The problem is that prevailing schemes of discourse and language make certain acts, bodies or practices illegible. In a sense, this illegibility is not unlike Judith Butler’s term, the “constitutive outside”: the relational “outside” against which legibility is both defined and shored-up. The predicament, if I understand it correctly, that Morris points to is that, in order to be able to speak or act, one must do so from a place of legibility; therefore, in speaking "legibly," one ceases to be in a position of subalternity, however much economic and power relations may still persist. Could you comment on this predicament of subalternity, understood as a “constitutive outside”?

PC: This raises a whole series of problems. In a sense, it’s a response to Spivak’s original question: can the subaltern speak? And, in a sense, the subaltern can indeed be made to speak, but made to speak by someone else who interprets their speech on their behalf. Once that kind of interpretation has been given, the interpretation itself is subject to other interpretations. Therefore it becomes open to a wide field of interpretation and representations. Once that happens, you could indeed say that the subaltern has become legible and therefore ask: what is the predicament here? But the original problem is still unresolved; namely, we have an individual who has never spoken in the direct sense, but who has instead had a form of legibility imposed on her by others. Is this imposed legibility something that substitutes for the possibility of that person actually being able to speak like any other? In other words, does that substitution make the subaltern a subject in the sense of a citizen of civil society? I think the response would still be “no.” And that raises an unresolved political problem. I’m suggesting that this attempt to make the subaltern legible through representation or through ways of interpreting the subaltern’s supposed intentions and consciousness still does not resolve the initial political problem, which is: how do people who are in that predicament of subalternity actually become self-conscious subjects? And that remains a historical and political problem in situations you could describe as marginality and oppression. None of that goes away simply because one has discovered a way of bringing such voiceless people into the world of texts and discourses.

RM: So you say that the predicament of subalternity is still not resolved, however much the subaltern is “made to speak” by others who claim to interpret or represent them on their behalf. How does this problem affect political strategy? I’m thinking specifically of some activist anthropologists who use the term to describe the work they do with communities in juridical and institutional settings. But then we still have this unresolved problem of legibility.

PC: Basically what that means is that it could open up new ways of political intervention and activism without ever forgetting that what one is doing is actually mediated—that, in fact, both the ethical as well as the immediate political implications of something like representation in the political sense (speaking on behalf of somebody else), entail ethical problems. Who is entitled to represent? What does it mean to say that I am speaking on behalf of these people? All of that becomes part of activist anthropology. There is room to ask oneself: am I entitled to represent these people on their behalf in a certain forum, whether it’s an academic or a public forum? I think those questions are not erased because one is working with a notion of subalternity as a predicament and then thinks he or she is empowered to speak on behalf of various people. There could a whole range of implications of that act of representation, and I don’t think that an activist anthropologist should be unaware of the implications of something like that; including implications that might have to do with possible negative reactions.

RM: My last question has to do with education and teaching; could you talk a bit about both education and ethics? I’m thinking here of education as a form of activism, of cultivating particular methods that allow us to read against the grain, and of teaching concepts related to subalternity to college students. What are some of the challenges involved here?

PC: The education question is actually connected to my answer to your previous question about the ethics of representation. Within a context that is defined as educational, there is an authorized relationship between one who “knows better,” and one who doesn’t quite know enough. There is an implied and accepted situation on the part of both the student and teacher whereby, yes, the teacher knows something that the student does not yet know, and it’s the teacher’s responsibility to transmit that knowledge to the student. Within a defined educational setting, the ethics are defined precisely by that relationship. In other words, the relationship is not one of equals in that situation.

There are of course all sorts of accepted ways in which one imparts knowledge to students. But when one expands this to arenas that are not well-defined educationally—in other words, outside the classroom or university to some larger public forum in which someone adopts this position of being the teacher but where it’s not clear who the students or even if they accept what is an unequal position--that may not be so clear. And that makes the question of educating much more complicated. For example, can I simply assume that I can take on the role of a public educator, operating through public media, trying to educate a broader group of citizens whom I assume know less than me? Is that an acceptable situation? Will the people I am addressing accept my role as a teacher? You have to reckon with these questions precisely because that situation of pedagogy is not a well-defined one. It’s possible for people to adopt that role, and I’m sure that in many societies you do have individuals who have been able to acquire that kind of stature or role where large groups of people accept that person as being somehow more knowledgeable and therefore accept advice or instruction from that person. But there are many others where that’s not the case, and I think it depends very much on specific forms of address, etc., that one is able to develop in a situation like that. I am much less certain about the role of public intellectuals in quite that sense. Within the academy of course there are fairly well-defined relations within which this kind of pedagogical work can be carried out, including pedagogy which involves a certain amount of, you might say, political instruction or awareness building.

RM: Thank you very much for your time; we appreciate it.

PC: Thank you.

About Partha Chatterjee

(profile for Columbia University's Committee on Global Thought)

Partha Chatterjee is a Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University and a Professor of Political Science at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Calcutta, India. A major focus of Partha Chatterjee’s work is nationalism, but in order to follow his thoughts on this topic, one must simultaneously think also of colonialism, post-colonialism, modernity, and the idea of the nation-state, and also summon up, simultaneously with that cluster of concepts, a not-nationalist and counter-colonial viewpoint about what these terms actually represent (or could actually represent), with special reference to India. One of Chatterjee’s basic arguments is that the concept of nation-state is one formed in Western social scientific thought, and thus it may not even work for all states as the given it is often taken to be. The practical problem (according to Chatterjee) is that post-colonial administrators adopted the paradigm of nation-state and thus blinded themselves to new possibilities of thinking outside Western categories. These new possibilities are what Chatterjee is striving for. Chatterjee also studies issues of national borders, sovereignty, citizenship, welfare and democracy. Chatterjee was a founding member of the subaltern studies group of historians. The subaltern studies collective began as a group of historians of India who felt, in the early 1980s, that Indian history was limited because it adopted a nationalist perspective. While this perspective claimed to be comprehensive, the collective argued that it took the perspective of an elite, the nationalist bourgeoisie. The perspectives and voices of those outside the centres of power-peasants, workers, tribal peoples and women-were neglected. The subaltern studies collective attempted to listen to these subaltern voices and utilize the radically different ways of seeing history they represented.

Relevant Links About Prof. Chatterjee

Bibliography of Partha Chatterjee

Prof. Chatterjee's Selected Works

2004   The Politics of the Governed: Popular Politcs in Most of the World. Columbia University Press.

2003   A Princely Impostor? The Strange and Universal History of the Kumar of Bhawal. Princeton University Press.

1997   The Present History of West Bengal. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

1997   A Possible India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

1995   Texts of Power. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

1993   The Nation and its Fragments. Princeton University Press.

1986   Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World. London: Zed Books.

Related Reading

Guha, Ranajit. 1983. Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India. Delhi: Oxford.

Hardiman, David. 1987. The Coming of the Devi: Adivasi Assertion in Western India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Kosambi, D. D. 1977. Exasperating Essays: Exercises in the Dialectical Method. Calcutta: India Book Exchange.

Pandey, Gyanendra. 1978. The Ascendancy of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh, 1926–34: A Study in Imperfect Mobilization. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

———. 2001. Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism, and History in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Skaria, Ajay. 1999. Hybrid Histories: Forests, Frontiers, and Wildness in Western India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Thompson, E. P. 1966. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage Books.