Subaltern Studies

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SUBALTERN STUDIES . What does it mean when a peasant resistance movement and a religious movement are one and the same phenomenon? In the last three decades, three different themes have surfaced in the interface between the study of religion and Subaltern Studies: (1) the idea of religion as a function of the Marxist/Gramscian view of early Subaltern Studies; (2) the changing debates about religion as the Subaltern Studies project became more involved with cultural studies, postmodernism, and the postcolonial project; and (3) the approach to Subaltern Studies within the study of religion.

The Idea of Religion as a Function of the Marxist/Gramscian View of Early Subaltern Studies

Subaltern Studies began in India with an explicitly but not exclusively Marxist and Gramscian focus. It analyzes and advocates for the "bottom layer of society" by challenging capitalist logic (Spivak, 2000, p. 324); thus it has both a negative task of undoing capitalist assessment of the underclass as well as a positive task of describing acts of agency and independence and resistance. Inspired in part by the work of E. P. Thompson, and carried on by the work of scholar and editor Ranajit Guha, the publication of the nine-volume series Subaltern Studies comprises a great bulk of the theoretical and topical work. Subaltern Studies began in the late 1970s and early 1980s with Indian, European, and American scholars who turned toward understanding peasant consciousness in India, in so far as any and all consciousness was a product of material conditions. Consciousness, here, is broadly viewed by Subaltern writers in the traditional Marxian sense as a manner of thought determined by one's place in the production system; yet at the same time, these writers also view consciousness as a form of subjectivity which can and does develop modes of resistance to that system. Since then, the concerns of Subaltern Studies have blossomed into a global phenomenon with strong institutional support from mainstream academia in Africa, South America, Ireland, and China, as well as India, Europe, and America. Moreover, Subaltern Studies' focus is no longer exclusively South Asian, but spans communities around the globe, and scholars in the field produce articles written in a large variety of vernacular languages besides English.

Subaltern Studies has been confronted from the very beginning with the problem of how to account for the ongoing role of religion, and the related issues of caste and kinship, in a nonessentializing way. Its source of intellectual inspiration, Antonio Gramsci, as well as others, were careful to point out that, in the absence of a socialist party to support the peasant class, religion was not simply self-deception or false consciousness. Rather, religion could be viewed as "a specific way of rationalizing the world and real life," and "a framework of real political activity" (Gramsci, 1971, pp. 326327, 337). E. P Thompson, who addressed the Subaltern Studies conference in its formative stages, also reminded Subaltern Studies thinkers that one should not be surprised at the persistent role of loyalties of religion as well as of caste and kinship in shaping workingclass consciousness (Thompson, 1991, p. 92). Indeed, as Rajnarayan Chadavarkar argued, the very presence of these factors made the idea of a working class in India a completely different enterprise than that of Thompson's England, inspired as it was by the artisan class and peculiarly British challenges of polity and organization (Thompson, 2000, p. 57).

In light of this Gramscian tension between acknowledging the role of religion in peasant consciousness and being careful not to reify it, early Subaltern Studies showed varying approaches to the topic. As early as 1974 R. Hilton argued in a European context that the capacity for organization in pursuit of social and political demands arose naturally from the experience of peasant. Thus, by implication, religious rites closely linked to agricultural cycles and subsistence needs, such as rainmaking ceremonies in times of drought and ceremonies to contain epidemics, gave expression to the collectivity of the Indian peasant village (Hilton, in Landsberger, 1974).

Others argued that to invest in the idea of strong primordial ties to community, religion, caste, and kinship is to obscure the complexity of the urban working classes in India. For them, it was not a matter of simple transfer, of bringing a simple, rural peasant consciousness to the factories in urban centers throughout the subcontinent. The conflicting identities, catalyzed by industrial competition as well as by the influences of urban neighborhoods, regionalisms, and nationalisms, must also be added to the mix. Such complexities demanded a culturally specific sociological discipline whereby religion could never play a primordial, but only a contingent, role (Chandravarkar).

Other Subaltern Studies scholars focused on how activists attempted to appropriate religious imagery for their own ends. Gyan Pandey's study of the swaraj (self-rule) movement and Shahid Amin's study of the Gorakhpurians' interpretation of Gandhi are excellent examples of this approach (Pandey; Amin). Gyan Pandey argues that peasant movements such as the Eka and the Kisan Sabha in 1921 were not Congress-inspired and therefore "top down," but rather motivated by a structure of land ownership that led to land shortages and high rents. Relatedly, Amin specifically addresses the ways popular peasant culture is made out of religious symbolism. In Amin's view, Gorakhpur villagers did not simplistically respond to the "holy man" Mahatma Gandhi, but rather developed a kind of millennialism whereby swaraj figured directly as a form of local political agency.

These early attempts to deal with religious aspects of peasant consciousness led to the problem of the Subaltern Studies' relationship to conventional Marxist theory. Early on, Partha Chatterjee argued that peasant modes of being cannot be called simply class consciousness, but are more complex types of consciousness and practice (Chatterjee, 1983, pp. 5865). Rosalind O'Hanlon also put forward the view that changes in religion, as well as other essentialized categories, such as caste or nation, present the scholar with "the problem of mapping what on the surface look like fundamental transformations of mentality." She also noted that Subaltern Studies must trace the origins of such transformations in their relationship to the state or to organized religions, without slipping into a rigid teleology or a denial of historical specificity (O'Hanlon, 2000, pp. 9293).

Cultural Studies, Postmodernism and the Postcolonial Project

This concern grew even stronger as Subaltern Studies became deeply inflected with postmodern cultural studies, especially in the United States. Many assessments of this trend trace its beginnings to the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism, a hugely influential work concerned with Western intellectual tradition's representation of its colonial subjects, particularly those in the Middle East. Said's post-Orientalist perspectives then combined with contemporary postmodern concerns with textual and discourse analysis; through this confluence postcolonial studies became the reigning episteme through which much of the Subaltern was then studied. Leading writers in the field of postcolonial studies, such as Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Gyan Prakash, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and many others, are concerned with philosophical issues of cultural representation. From this postcolonial perspective, they have argued forcefully for several basic changes in the study of Third World histories: (1) explorations of cultural difference (inspired in part by Jacques Derrida's (19302004) idea of differance ); (2) nonessentialized cultural categories; and (3) the writing of a postfoundationalist as well as a postnationalist historiography (Chakrabarty, 1992, pp. 126; Chakrabarty, 2000; Spivak, 1985, pp. 120130 and 330363; Bhabha, 1994; Prakash, 1992, 1994, 1996). Among many other priorities, these writers state the need for writing a history which is influenced neither philosophically by an idea of a single cultural mind which applies to all members of a society, nor anachronistically by a false idea of a unifying nation or set of origins set somewhere in a hoary past.

Given these views, many subaltern writers are overtly suspicious of disciplines and fields such as religious studies in the Western academy. Such a field is, in their view, prone to hegemonic and essentializing constructions of the other under a dominant institutionalized gaze. However, subaltern theorists are also concerned amongst themselves about the reification of religion in their own writings. Some later postmodern writers, such as Dipankar Gupta, have criticized the tendency in subaltern writers to attribute primordiality to the masses, or to assume a traditional consciousness, or even primordial loyalties of religion, community, kinship, and language (Gupta, 1985). Many subaltern writers have wondered aloud whether subaltern ideas of a moral community, albeit in the guise of folk religious values of peasant community, are nonetheless well on their way to yet another essentializing category. If peasant or worker consciousness can be reified and severed from history in this way, why not caste, nation, or religious community? Thus, the problem remains. As one Subaltern Studies critic put it, although many subaltern writers accept the autonomy of peasants, their accounts are ultimately not that different from the processes of Sanskritization, Islamicization, or popularizationideas which have all come under fire for essentializing and reifying historical processes of change (Bayly, 2000, p. 122). How can subaltern writing avoid the problem of making the community an "it" with firm boundaries and, as Marxist secularists increasingly suspect, expressing a sympathy for the religious as a way of defining that community (Spivak, 2000, p. 326)?

Subaltern Studies within the Study of Religion

The reaction of the religious studies scholarly community to Subaltern Studies has been markedly different from the reaction of Subaltern Studies to it; one might even go so far as to say that they are "mirror images" of each other. Although the Subaltern school, even in its more marked "cultural studies" form of later years, is mostly ambivalent, if not downright hostile, to the idea of religion as a category of analysis, religious studies students have welcomed the category of the subaltern wholeheartedly. Indeed, they have embraced much of the Gramscian tradition with fairly enthusiastic vigor in two significant ways: (1) Subalternist writing can further define and criticize religious studies' own Orientalist perspectives, both colonial and postcolonial; and (2) more postcolonial writing in Subaltern Studies can help religious studies scholars to nuance their descriptions of the cultural identity of the religious groups with whom they concern themselves.

Marxist scholars of religion such as Bruce Lincoln, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Russell T. McCutcheon, would certainly embrace Subaltern Studies as part of a larger, generally Marxist perspective with which to criticize religious practices as one among many forms of cultural hegemony (Lincoln, 1994; Fitzgerald, 2000; McCutcheon, 2001, 2003). Although differing in outlook, these thinkers see this kind of critique as the primary obligation of the scholar. Others are concerned with Subaltern Studies' later, more postmodern incarnations: Richard King's work, Orientalism and Religion: Post-Colonial Theory, India and the Mystic East (1999), masterfully outlines some of the issues in the relationship between religious and postcolonial studies.

Many scholars of religion, such as those mentioned above, as well as their numerous areastudies counterparts, would not fundamentally disagree with the premises of later Subaltern School works on religion, such as those essays found in the 1992 volume of Subaltern Studies: Partha Chatterjee's study of the Ramakrishna movement as a religion of urban domesticity; Terence Ranger's study of the Matobo in South Africa; and Saurabh Dube's study of the construction of mythic communities in Chhattisgarh (Chatterjee, 1992; Ranger, 1992; Dube, 1992). Each of these essays attempts to combine class, caste, and religious consciousness in such a way that, even if class concerns win out, the dynamics of particularly religious world views have been thoroughly analyzed. Relatedly, many scholars of religion have used Subaltern Studies as a way to analyze the colonial strategies of missionary movements, such as Malagasy Christianity (Larson), Latin American and other Spanish Colonial Catholicisms (Rabasa, 2000; Rafael, 1998), and the interactions of Christianity with indigenous traditions in India (Dube, 1998; Clarke, 1998).

In addition, Subaltern Studies provides a remarkably suitable framework to study the resistant practices of particular religious groups in the category of contemporary subaltern, such as South Asian Muslims in America (MohammadArif, 2002), Dalit traditions in India, Native American (Arnold, 2001; Bays and Wacker, 2003) or Santeria traditions in North America (Hackett, 1999; Harding, 2000; Campbell, 1987;), or minorities in China (Dirlik, 1996; Gladney, 2003). This intellectual move has also gained institutional support, for instance with the American Academy of Religion's 2004 initiative, "Contesting Religion and Religions Contested: The Study of Religion in a Global Context." In addition to the already established Indigenous Religious Traditions group, the project's major concerns include the funding of studies from below, the representation and inclusion of Third World scholars, and the examination of the effect of the study of religion on the communities it has engaged, particularly communities from traditionally disempowered populations. Another move toward institutional support was Claremont-McKenna's initiative, "Theorizing Scriptures," inaugurated by Vincent Wimbush in 2004. In this conference, scriptural interpretation "from below" is acknowledged and engaged as a serious intellectual endeavor. Here, the view of scriptural hermeneutics held by Native-American, African American, Australian, Latino, Dalit, Chinese, Muslim, and many other less mainstream religions is given voice and careful analysis. This initiative also highlights women's voices of scriptural interpretation, thus joining critiques of Subaltern Studies that call for a more explicit focus on gender than has been the case in the past three decades (Spivak, 1991, 2002).

Whatever the nascent institutional support for the study of these forms of agency, for many scholars religion plays a central role in certain kinds of resistanceone that cannot be ignored. Indeed, one scholar, Sathianathan Clarke, has gone so far as to coin the term Subaltern theology to describe the particular political and religious practices of Dalit Christians against both Hindu and state hegemony. Oddly enough, this explicitly religious usage is somewhat consonant with Gayatri Spivak's rather remarkable statement that "subaltern theology" (religious thought as a form of political resistance) cannot be ignored, for if it is, then Subaltern Studies becomes a matter of law enforcement rather than "agency in the active voice" (Spivak, 1999). This historical moment represents a rather tense and at the same time fruitful crossroads between the two fields, where both Marxist and religious studies scholars struggle to understand religion when it emerges as a form of resistant and political agency in its own right.


What follows is a basic overview of major works and authors in the field, whose bibliography is now voluminous. For a basic introduction to the major authors in Subaltern Studies, see Ania Loomba, Colonialism/Postcolonialism (London, 1998); David Ludden's Reading Subaltern Studies (Delhi, India, 2001); and Ranajit Guha, ed. A Subaltern Studies Reader (19861995) (Minneapolis, Minn., 1997). Key Concepts in Post Colonial Studies, by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (London, 1998), is also helpful for basic terminology, as is Bart MooreGilbert's Postcolonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, and Politics (London, 1997). Vinayak Chaturvedi's Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial (London, 2000) gives an excellent historical overview of the field, as do the introductions to the nine volumes of the Subaltern Studies Series.

For a review of the turn to the postmodern, begin with Edward Said's Orientalism (New York, 1978), as well as the significant reviews by James Clifford (History and Theory 19:2 [1980]: 204223), Victor Browbeat (American Scholar [Autumn, 1979]: 532541), and J. H. Plumb (New York Times Book Review [February 18, 1979]: 3.28). Said's own "Orientalism Reconsidered" in Race and Class 7:2 [1985]: 115) gives some of his own thoughts about the pitfalls of the post-Orientalist project. Major monographs in the 1990s include Nicholas Dirks, ed., Colonialism and Culture (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1992); Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York, 1994); Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton, 2004); Gyan Prakash, After Colonialism: Imperial Histories and Postcolonial Displacements (Princeton, 1995); Arif Dirlik, The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism (Boulder, Colo., 1997); Gayatri Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge, Mass., 1999); and Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, N.J., 2000). Numerous essays and more specialized monographs have appeared from these authors in the early 2000s as well. Major critiques of the Subalternist/postcolonial project include that of Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory: Classes, Nations, and Literatures (London, 1992), and Sumit Sarkar, Writing Social History (Delhi, India, 1997), especially "The Decline of the Subaltern in Subaltern Studies."

Amin, Shahid. "Gandhi as Mahatma: Gorakhpur District, Eastern UP, 192122." In Subaltern Studies III, edited by Ranajit Guha, pp. 161. Delhi, 1984.

Arnold, David. "Famine in Peasant Consciousness and Peasant Action: Madras 187678." In Subaltern Studies III, edited by Ranajit Guha, pp. 62115. Delhi, 1984.

Arnold, Philip. Eating Landscape: Aztec and European Occupation of Tlalocan. Boulder, Colo., 2001.

Bayly, C. A. "Rallying Around the Subaltern." In Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Post Colonial, edited by Vinayak Chaturvedi, pp. 116126. London, 2000.

Bays, Daniel H., and Grant Wacker, eds. The Foreign Missionary Enterprise at Home: Explorations in American Cultural History. Tuscaloosa, Ala., 2003.

Campbell, Horace. Rasta and Resistance: From Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney. Trenton, N.J., 1987.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. "Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for 'Indian' Pasts?" Representations 37 (1992): 126.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Colonizing Europe. Princeton, N.J., 2000.

Chatterjee, Partha. "Peasants, Politics, and Historiography: A Response." Social Scientist 11.5 (1983): 5865.

Clarke, Sathianathan. Dalits and Christianity: Subaltern Religion and Liberation Theology in India. Delhi, 1998.

Dirlik, Arif. "Chinese History and the Question of Orientalism." History and Theory (December, 1996).

Donaldson, Laura, and Kwok Pui Lan. Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Religious Discourse. New York, 2002.

Dube, Saurabh. Untouchable Pasts: Religion, Identity, and Power among a Central Indian Community, 17801950. Albany, N.Y., 1998.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. The Ideology of Religious Studies. New York, 2000.

Gladney, Dru. Dislocating China: Muslims, Minorities and other Subaltern Subjects. Chicago, 2003.

Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. London, 1971.

Guha, Ranajit, ed. Subaltern Studies I. Delhi, 1982.

Guha, Ranajit, ed. Subaltern Studies III. Delhi, 1984.

Guha, Ranajit, ed. Subaltern Studies VI. New Delhi, 1989.

Gupta, Dipankar. "On Altering the Ego in Peasant History: Paradoxes of the Ethnic Option." Peasant Studies 13.1 (fall, 1985): 920.

Hackett., Rosalind. Art and Religion in Africa. New York, 1999.

Harding, Rachel, et al., eds. A Refuge in Thunder: Candomble and Alternative Spaces of Blackness. Bloomington, Ind., 2000.

Hilton, R. "Peasant Society, Peasant Movements and Feudalism in Medieval Europe." In Rural Protest: Peasant Movements and Social Change. Edited by H. A. Landsberger. London, 1974.

King, Richard. Orientalism and Religion. London, 1999.

Landsberger, H. A., ed. Rural Protest: Peasant Movements and Social Change. London, 1974.

Larson, Pier M. "Capacities and Modes of Thinking: Intellectual Engagements and Subaltern Hegemony in the Early History of Malagasy Christianity." American History Review 102, no. 4 (October, 1997): 9681002.

Lincoln, Bruce. Authority: Construction and Corrosion. Chicago, 1994.

Mallon, Forencia E., "The Promise and Dilemma of Subaltern Studies: Perspectives from Latin American History." American Historical Review (December 1994): 14911515.

McCutcheon, Russell T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion. Albany, N.Y., 2001.

McCutcheon, Russell T. The Discipline of Religion: Structure, Meaning, Rhetoric. New York, 2003.

Mohammad-Arif, Aminah. Salaam America: South Asian Muslims in New York. London, 2002.

O'Hanlon, Rosalind. "Recovering the Subject: Subaltern Studies and the Histories of Resistance in Colonial South Asia." In Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Post Colonial, edited by Vinayak Chaturvedi, pp. 72115. London, 2000.

Pandey, Gyan. "Peasant Revolt and Indian Nationalism: The Peasant Movement in Awadh, 19191922." In Subaltern Studies I, edited by Ranajit Guha. Delhi, 1982.

Prakash, Gyan. "Postcolonial Criticism and Indian Historiography" Social Text 31 (1992): 819.

Prakash, Gyan. "Subaltern Studies as Postcolonial Criticism." American Historical Review 99.5 (1994): 14741490.

Prakash, Gyan. "Who's Afraid of Postcoloniality?" Social Text 9.14.4 (1996): 187203.

Rabasa, Jose. Inventing America: Spanish Historiography and the Formation of Eurocentrism. Norman, Okla., 1993.

Rabasa, Jose. Writing Violence on the Northern Frontier: The Historiography of New Mexico and Florida and the Legacy of Conquest. Durham, N.C., 2000.

Rafael, Vincente. Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society under Early Spanish Rule. Ithaca, N.Y., 1988.

Spivak, Gayatri. "Can the Subaltern Speak: Speculations on Widow Sacrifice." Wedge 7/8 (winter/spring 1985): 12030.

Spivak, Gayatri. "Feminism in Decolonization." differences 3.3 (1991): 139170.

Spivak, Gayatri. "The New Subaltern: A Silent Interview." In Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Post Colonial, edited by Vinayak Chaturvedi. London, 2000.

Stephens, Julie. "Feminist Fictions: A Critique of the Category 'NonWestern Woman' in Feminist Writings on India." Subaltern Studies VI, edited by Ranajit Guha. New Delhi, India, 1989.

Tharu, Susie. "Response to Julie Stephens." Subaltern Studies VI, edited by Ranajit Guha. New Delhi, 1989.

Thompson, E. P. Customs in Common. New York, 1991.

Thompson, E. P. "The Making of the Working Class: E. P. Thompson and Indian History." In Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Post Colonial, edited by Vinayak Chaturvedi. London, 2000.

Laurie Louise Patton (2005)