The term subaltern derives from Latin sub - (below, under) plus alter (other) or alternus (alternate), which produced subalternus (subordinate). It designated a lower-ranking, even an inferior, individual. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, subaltern was employed as a military term. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, under the influence of Marxism, nationalism, postcolonialist theory, and feminism, subaltern has come to be used broadly to represent subordination in social, political, religious, and economic hierarchies. Diverse aspects of societies, histories, and other human situations have been examined at the national, communal, and individual levels to recover the roles of marginalized or subaltern participants displaced by stratification. In particular the term has come to symbolize disruption and distortion of indigenous history, values, and polity in the wake of external conquest, colonization, and prominence given to Westernization at the expense of indigenous mores.
In martial contexts, the term was applied to commissioned military officers below the rank of captain. Essentially it denoted a junior officer, particularly at the various grades of lieutenant. Temporary command would be handed over to a subaltern officer during “trooping the colors” in honor of a monarch’s birthday.
The term was employed regularly by the British army until the Cardwell reforms in 1871. The senior subaltern rank was captain lieutenant. The junior subaltern rank in the cavalry was cornet, while its counterpart in the infantry was ensign. During the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), the colonial army had ranks such as cornet, subaltern, and ensign—marked by green cockades in their hats. The rank of second lieutenant eventually replaced that of subaltern.
Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), an Italian political theorist, prominent socialist, founding member of the Communist Party in Italy (the Partito Comunista d’Italia), parliamentarian, and prisoner under the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini (1883–1945), provided the intellectual impetus for transforming the notion of subaltern into a political and social concept through his writings. He wrote of workers in Europe as belonging to classes that had been subordinated through sociopolitical hegemony, were exploited through economic methods, and were excluded from meaningful participation in the offices and benefits of the nation-state. A binary, almost dualist, relationship was said to arise between dominant and suppressed groups. Gramsci noted that such subaltern or proletarian classes could be exploited because they lacked unity and common cause and would remain oppressed unless they developed a unifying ideology that would lead them to alter the balance of power and form a new state or governing institutions that embodied and represented their wills and wishes. Gramsci, elaborating on Karl Marx (1818–1883), postulated that the working classes could and would under conditions of political coercion, economic exploitation, and social marginalization eventually develop a collective consciousness or common philosophy. That collective ideology would serve to transform them by generating self-awareness of their subordinate situations and galvanize them into resistance— thereby relocating the agency of change from the elite classes to the proletariat.
Another important intellectual influence was the notion that all forms of discourse are shaped—both overtly and inadvertently—by ideology. The literary theorist Edward Said (1935–2003) argued that the dominant views of politics, literature, religion, and history plus writings on those topics reflect Occidental, imperialist permutations. The loci of those ideological foundations were supposed to have been England and France during the colonial period of the fifteenth through twentieth centuries and the United States from the mid-twentieth century onward. The consequences of ideologies have permeated individual and collective assumptions and actions, it was suggested.
Drawing upon Gramsci’s theories and influenced by Said’s writings, an academic subdiscipline called subaltern studies developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Other influences on the development of the concept of subaltern into a theoretical framework that has displaced previous radical frameworks, such as the notion of history as an accurate record of the past, include postcolonial historiography (on which it became a major influence as well) and deconstructionism. Subaltern studies attempt to offer a theory of change grounded in notions of dominance; colonialism; subservience; alienation, including loss of self-identity; resistance; confrontation; and transformation. It postulates that even when marginalized, those who are oppressed can display agency. The common people are regarded as closely if not completely synonymous with the subaltern classes within each society. The elite of each society, whether of indigenous or expatriate origins, are designated as the dominant groups. Exploitation of the subaltern by the elite is considered an existing precondition that must be acknowledged and investigated in order to comprehend the masses in each society. The field of subaltern studies can therefore be viewed as a form of postcolonial studies.
Ranajit Guha, a historian studying South Asia, has been highly influential in popularizing the term subaltern, in defining its mandate and intellectual parameters, and in applying resultant concepts to historical and contemporary sociopolitical issues. He also edited several volumes of Subaltern Studies and anthologies drawn from those volumes. Guha and other scholars working on subalterns, such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Homi Bhabha, have suggested that attempts to reconstruct past events—that is, the process of historiography that produces historical accounts—is inextricably bound with and constantly reflects the impact of interactions between dominant or elite and subordinate or subaltern groups. Guha critiqued elitism by colonialists and nationalists while urging that historiography be constructed from below, not above. Spivak raised the issue of agency among the subordinate. Chakrabarty has examined reasons for historical accounts remaining centered on the state. Partha Chatterjee and Gyanendra Pandey have focused on the fragmentary aspects of history, memory, and historiographical accounts. Shahid Amin analyzed relationships between peasants and capitalists in economic production. Amin also demonstrated how and why accounts of the past are reshaped by individual and collective memory to fit new predilections. Focusing largely on the historiographies of colonialism in India and of subsequent Indian nationalism, they have proposed that those accounts were shaped by elitist British feudatory imperialism and by neo-elitist Indian bourgeois patriotism, respectively. As such, they conclude that established historiography and histories should be rejected as unrepresentative and inaccurate. The spotlight of inquiries into societies should be on the contributions of the people rather than on the accomplishments of the elites, according to scholars utilizing methodologies that incorporate the concept of the subaltern.
The term subaltern has come to be used to denote the underclasses of societies and often replaces other designations for those lower classes. Those groups are thereby distinguished from members of the ancien régime and from members of the new elites. The term has been employed in the contexts of investigations into political, religious, and social interactions between dominant and subordinate groups. Such studies have examined not only agencies of change but also how and why particular ethnoreligious communities, societal classes, and economic clusters are displaced by the might, convictions, organization, and vitality of other, emergent new elites. Moving beyond a rejection of established methodologies for analyzing societies, the study of subalterns has expanded to include investigations of social transformation and inquiries into how and why some groups developed into elite classes who control resources and perpetuate stereotypes, while other groups become subaltern communities experiencing crisis and displacement. Studies of the subaltern have suggested that the actions of elites and subalterns are affected by regional religiopolitical and socioeconomic factors and that therefore neither group can develop homogeneously. Indeed conflation and separation of modes of domination and subordination seem to have differentially determined the relationships that arose between elites and subalterns living in diverse areas.
It has been recognized that the presence of elitist and subaltern classes affects not only the patterns of interaction between groups but also influences the historiography of each community. The official historical record, often crafted by elites and instilled with a sense of social dominion and political hegemony, must be read not simply as a record of the past but also as an elite ideological product of rule that may have slowly but surely appropriated aspects of the subordinated people’s past. This increasing marginalization of subordinate communities and individuals could even eventually reduce references to members of the indigenous confessional group to fleeting stereotypical images.
Examples from historical contexts to which the term has been applied by modern scholars include the dhimmi or protected minority communities of Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians in the medieval Middle Eastern Islamic caliphates of the Umayyads (661–750) and the Abbasids (750–1258), the peasants and workers of early modern France (1492–1789) and tsarist Russia (1721–1917), and the indigenous working classes of British India (1858– 1947).
Reassessment of the concept of the subaltern and of the field of subaltern studies has commenced with deliberations regarding their significant contributions and limitations. Indeed the representativeness of subaltern studies can be questioned in terms of selectivity of topics, choice of source materials, and parameters of inquiry. Sumit Sarkar in particular has noted a reductionist tendency that excludes the complexities inherent in historical events while simultaneously being “simplistic and retrogressive” in paying short-shrift to the impacts of precolonial hierarchies (1997, p. 51). An original founder of subaltern studies turned critic, Sarkar perceives subaltern studies as mired among forms of Marxism recast in the guises of cultural, class-based, and minutia or fragment-focused investigations. Achin Vanaik, who approaches disenchantment for subaltern studies from the viewpoint of a political scientist, conflates it with postmodernism and post-structuralism. He notes a tendency to ground many studies on the subaltern in an assumed notion of secularism. Vinay Lal has raised the issue of why studies of the subaltern constantly utilize Western theories to comprehend Eastern data rather than turning to Oriental models to comprehend those who were and are subordinated. Lal also pushed for a more nuanced appreciation of the nexus between history and myth and of influences by the latter on the former’s creation, propagation, and preservation. Dane Kennedy and Richard Eaton have critiqued the rigid framework of the subaltern specifically and the amorphousness of cultural studies generally. Moreover the disillusionment and radical dissent with historiography that spawned and shaped inquiry into the situations of subalterns have become relatively mainstream in academia and broader intellectual settings.
Overall it could be suggested that historiography and other analyses of past and present societies benefited from being reshaped through inclusion of the subaltern or subordinate within the basic repertory of historical themes, events, and agents.
SEE ALSO Fascism; Feminism; Gramsci, Antonio; Hegemony; Hierarchy; Marx, Karl; Marxism; Memory; Mussolini, Benito; Nationalism and Nationality; Postcolonialism; Resistance; Stratification; Working Class
Amin, Shahid. 1995. Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura, 1922–1992 . Berkeley: University of California Press.
Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. The Location of Culture . London: Routledge.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 1992. Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for “Indian” Pasts? Representations 37: 1–26.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 1992. The Death of History. Public Culture 4 (2): 47–65.
Chatterjee, Partha. 1994. The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Post-Colonial Histories . Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Chaturvedi, Vinayak, ed. 2000. Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial . London: Verso.
Das, Veena. 1989. Subaltern as Perspective. In Subaltern Studies, ed. Ranajit Guha, vol. 7, 310–324. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Eaton, Richard M. 2000. (Re)Imag(in)ing Other2ness: A Postmortem for the Postmodern in India. Journal of World History 11 (1): 57–78.
Gramsci, Antonio. 1967. The Modern Prince and Other Writings . Trans. Louis Marks. London: Lawrence and Wishart; New York: International.
Gramsci, Antonio. 1992–1996. Prison Notebooks . Trans. Joseph A. Buttigieg and Antonio Callari. New York: Columbia University Press.
Guha, Ranajit. 1988. On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India. In Selected Subaltern Studies, ed. Ranajit Guha and Gayatri C. Spivak, 37–44. New York: Oxford University Press.
Guha, Ranajit. 2002. History at the Limit of World-History . New York: Columbia University Press.
Kennedy, Dane K. 1996. Imperial History and Post-Colonial Theory. Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 24: 345–363.
Lal, Vinay. 2001. Subaltern Studies and Its Critics: Debates over Indian History. History and Theory 40: 135–148.
Ludden, David E., ed. 2002. Reading Subaltern Studies: Critical History, Contested Meaning, and the Globalization of South Asia . London: Anthem.
Pandey, Gyanendra. 1992. In Defense of the Fragment: Writing about Hindu-Muslim Riots in India Today. Representations 37: 27–55.
Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism . New York: Pantheon Books.
Sarkar, Sumit. 1994. Orientalism Revisited: Saidian Frameworks in the Writing of Modern Indian History. Oxford Literary Review 16: 205–224.
Sarkar, Sumit. 1997. Writing Social History . Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Spivak, Gayatri C. 1988. Can the Subaltern Speak? In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, 217–313. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Spivak, Gayatri C. 1988. Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography. In Selected Subaltern Studies, eds. Ranajit Guha and Gayatri C. Spivak, 3–32. New York: Oxford University Press.
Vanaik, Achin. 1997. The Furies of Indian Communalism: Religion, Modernity, and Secularization . London: Verso.
Jamsheed K. Choksy
sub·al·tern • n. / səbˈôltərn/ an officer in the British army below the rank of captain, esp. a second lieutenant.• adj. / səbˈôltərn/ 1. of lower status: the private tutor was a recognized subaltern part of the bourgeois family.2. / ˈsəbəlˌtərn/ dated Logic (of a proposition) implied by another proposition (e.g., as a particular affirmative is by a universal one), but not implying it in return.