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Subaltern (post-colonialism)

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Subaltern (post-colonialism)

In critical theory and post-colonialism, subaltern is the social group who is socially, politically, and geographically outside of the hegemonic power structure of the colony and of the colonial homeland. In describing “history told from below”, the term subaltern derived from the cultural hegemony work of Antonio Gramsci, which identified the social groups who are excluded from a society’s established structures for political representation, the means by which people have a voice in their society.

The terms subaltern and subaltern studies entered the field of post-colonial studies through the works of the Subaltern Studies Group, a collection of South Asian historians who explored the political-actor role of the men and women who are the mass population — rather than the political roles of the social and economic élites — in the history of South Asia. In the 1970s, the application of subaltern began to denote the colonized peoples of the South Asian Subcontinent, and described a new perspective of the history of an imperial colony, told from the point of view of the colonized man and woman, rather than from the points of view of the colonizers; in which respect, Marxist historians already had been investigating colonial history told from the perspective of the proletariat. In the 1980s, the scope of enquiry of Subaltern Studies was applied as an “intervention in South Asian historiography”.

As a method of intellectual discourse, the concept of the subaltern is problematic because it remained a Eurocentric method of historical enquiry when studying the non–Western people of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. From having originated as an historical-research model for studying the colonial experience of South Asian peoples, the applicability of the techniques of subaltern studies transformed a model of intellectual discourse into a method of “vigorous post-colonial critique”. The term “subaltern” is used in the fields of history, anthropology, sociology, human geography, and literary criticism.[1]


In Post-colonial theory, the term Subaltern describes the lower classes and the social groups who are at the margins of a society — a subaltern is a person rendered without human agency, by his or her social status.[2] Nonetheless, the philosopher and theoretician Gayatri Spivak advised against a too-broad application of the term, because:

. . . subaltern is not just a classy word for “oppressed”, for [the] Other, for somebody who’s not getting a piece of the pie. . . . In post-colonial terms, everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is subaltern — a space of difference. Now, who would say that’s just the oppressed? The working class is oppressed. It’s not subaltern. . . . Many people want to claim subalternity. They are the least interesting and the most dangerous. I mean, just by being a discriminated-against minority on the university campus; they don't need the word ‘subaltern’ . . . They should see what the mechanics of the discrimination are. They’re within the hegemonic discourse, wanting a piece of the pie, and not being allowed, so let them speak, use the hegemonic discourse. They should not call themselves subaltern.

Interview with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: New Nation Writers Conference in South Africa (1992) [3]

In Marxist theory, the civil sense of the term Subaltern was first used by the Italian Communist intellectual Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), possibly as a synonym for the proletariat; a code-word to deceive the prison censor to allow his manuscripts out the prison.[4] In several essays, the Post-colonial critic Homi K. Bhabha, emphasized the importance of social power relations in defining subaltern social groups as oppressed, racial minorities whose social presence was crucial to the self-definition of the majority group; as such, subaltern social groups, nonetheless, also are in a position to subvert the authority of the social group(s) who hold hegemonic power.[5]

In Toward a New Legal Common Sense (2002), the sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos applies the term subaltern cosmopolitanism to describe the counter-hegemonic practice, social movement, resistance, and struggle against neo-liberal globalization, especially the struggle against social exclusion. Moreover, Prof. de Sousa Santos applies subaltern cosmopolitanism as interchangeable with the term cosmopolitan legality, to describe the diverse normative framework for an equality of differences, in which the term subaltern specifically denotes the oppressed peoples at the margins of a society who are struggling against hegemonic globalization. Yet, context, time, and place determine who, among the peoples at the margins of a society, is a Subaltern; in India women, dalits, rural, tribal, immigrant laborers are part of subaltern; within India, in the Punjab, the most oppressed people are the rural folk, the dalit, and illiterate women.


Post-colonial theory studies the power and the continued dominance of Western ways of knowing, of intellectual enquiry. The work of Edward Saïd on Orientalism conceptually addresses the oppressed subaltern man and woman, to explain how the Eurocentric perspective of Orientalism produced the foundations — and the justifications — for the domination of The Other, by means of colonialism. Before their explorations of The Orient, the Europeans had created an imagined geography of the Orient — predefined images of savage and monstrous places that lay beyond the horizon of the known world. During their initial Oriental explorations, the Europeans’ mythologies were reinforced, when the travellers returned to Europe with reports of monsters and savage lands. The concepts of the “difference” and the “strangeness” of the Orient were perpetuated through the mass communications media of the time, and through discourse that created an “Us” and “Them” binary social relation with which the Europeans defined themselves — by defining the differences of the Orient from the Occident, the European West. The Us-and-Them binary social relation was a foundation of colonialism, because it represented the Orient as backward and irrational lands, and, therefore, in need of European help to become modern, in the Western sense. Hence, the discourse of Orientalism is Eurocentric, and does not seek to include the voices of the Oriental peoples, the subalterns, themselves.[6][7]

The cultural theorist Stuart Hall argued for the power of discourse to create and reinforce Western dominance. The discourses on how Europe described differences between itself (The West) and others, used European cultural categories, languages, and ideas to represent "The Other." The knowledge produced by such a discourse becomes praxis, which then becomes reality; by producing a discourse of “difference” Europe was able to maintain its dominance over “The Other”, with a binary social relation between the European and The Other, thereby creating and establishing the Subaltern, made possible by excluding The Other from the production of the discourse.[8] About such a binary social relation, Owen ’Alik Shahadah said that:

The Eurocentric discourse on Africa is in error, because those foundational paradigms, which inspired the study, in the first place, were rooted in the denial of African agency; political intellectualism bent on its own self-affirmation, rather than objective study.

The Removal of Agency from Africa [9][10]

The voice of the Subaltern

Gayatri Spivak’s line of reasoning was developed in Geographies of Postcolonialism (2008), wherein Joanne Sharp proposed that Western intellectuals delegate other, non–Western (African, Asian, Middle Eastern) forms of knowing — of acquiring knowledge of the world — to the margins of intellectual discourse, by re-formulating said forms of knowing as myth and as folklore. Therefore, in order to be heard and known, the oppressed subaltern must adopt Western ways of knowing, of thought, reasoning, and language; because of such Westernization, a subaltern people can never express their ways of knowing (thought, reasoning, language) and instead must conform expression of their non–Western knowledge of colonial life to Western ways of knowing the world.[11] The subaltern’s abandonment of his and her culturally customary ways of thinking — and subsequent adoption of Western ways of thinking — is necessary in many post-colonial situations. The subordinated man and woman can only be heard by his oppressors if he or she speaks the language of the oppressor; thus, intellectual and cultural filters of conformity muddle the true voice of the subaltern. For example, in Colonial Latin America, the oppressed subaltern must conform to the colonial culture and utilize the filters of religion and servitude, in his or her language, when addressing the Spanish Imperial oppressor. In order to appeal to the good graces of their Spanish oppressors, slaves and natives would mask their own voices with the culture of the Spanish Crown.

In year 1600, Francisca de Figueroa presented a request to the King of Spain, that he permit her reunion with her daughter, Juana de Figueroa, in the Americas; as an Afro–Iberian woman, Francisca must repress her native African tongue, and speak in Spanish, her adopted colonial European tongue:

I, Francisca de Figueroa, mulatta in color, declare that I have, in the city of Cartagena, a daughter named Juana de Figueroa. And she has written, to call for me, in order to help me. I will take with me, in my company, a daughter of mine, her sister, named María, of the said color. And for this, I must write to Our Lord the King to petition that he favor me with a license, so that I, and my said daughter, can go and reside in the said city of Cartagena. For this, I will give an account of what is put down in this report. And of how I, Francisca de Figueroa, am a woman of sound body and mulatta in color . . . And my daughter María is twenty-years-old, and of the said color, and of medium size. Once given, I attest to this. I beg your Lordship to approve, and order it done. I ask for justice in this. On the twenty-first day of the month of June 1600, Your Majesty’s lords presidents and official judges of this house [Casa de Contratación] order that the account she offers be received, and that testimony for the purpose she requests given.

Afro–Latino Voices: Narratives from the Early Modern Ibero–Atlantic World: 1550–1812 (2009) [12]

Layers of meaning must be considered when engaging the voice of the subaltern. In Francisca’s eyes, it is crucial to portray herself as servile; there is no hint of pride or defiance in her words. In the letter of appeal to the King of Spain, Francisca does not mention her own religion; by identifying herself as a Catholic, her request probably would have been granted sooner. One of the first questions that the Spanish Inquisition asked of Francisca’s neighbors concerned her religion; upon finding that she was a third-generation Catholic, and “not of Moorish or Jewish caste, or of those recently converted to Our Holy Catholic Faith”, Francisca’s request acquired greater regard for consideration by the King.[13] To attain the reunion with her daughter in Cartagena, in her letter to the King of Spain, Francisca must make herself a subject; thus, she continually identifies herself by her race, as a “mulatta”, rather than by her ethnic lineage as an African woman; she continually degrades herself, by identifying herself with the cultural and ethnic labels that the Spanish applied to her heritage. Such a form of self-subjugation is a common example of the sound of the voice of the Subaltern: self-relegating.

Hence, the Colonial Historian Fernando Coronil said that the goal of the investigator must be “to listen to the subaltern subjects, and to interpret what I hear”, and to engage them, and interact with their voices. We cannot ascend to a position of dominance over the voice, subjugating its words to the meanings we desire to attribute to them. That is simply another form of discrimination. The power to narrate somebody’s story is a heavy task, and we must be cautious and aware of the complications involved.[14] Spivak and bell hooks question the academic’s engagement with the Other, and argue that, to truly engage with the subaltern, the academic would have to remove him or herself as “the expert” at the center of the Us-and-Them binary social relation. Traditionally, the academic wants to know about the subaltern’s experiences of colonialism, but does not want to know the subaltern’s (own) explanation of his or her experiences of colonial domination. According to the received view in Western knowledge, hooks argued that a true explanation can come only from the expertise of the academic, thus, the sub-ordinated subject, the subaltern man and woman, surrenders his and her knowledge of colonialism for the use of the Western academic; hooks describes the relationship between the academic and the subaltern:

[There is] no need to hear your voice, when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you, I write myself anew. I am still author, authority. I am still [the] colonizer, the speaking subject, and you are now at the center of my talk.

— “Marginality as a Site of Resistance” (1990)[15]

As a means of constructing a greater historical picture of society, the Subaltern’s story is a revealing examination of society; the perspective of the subaltern man and woman, the most powerless people who live within colonial confines; therefore, the investigator of post-colonialism must not assume a lumbering cultural superiority in the course of studying the voices of the oppressed subalterns.

Development discourse

Mainstream development discourse, which is based upon knowledge of colonialism and Orientalism, concentrates upon modernization theory, wherein the modernization of an underdeveloped country should follow the path to modernization taken (and established) by the developed countries of the West. As such, modernization is characterized by free trade, open markets, capitalist economic systems, and democratic systems of governance, as the means by which a nation should modernize their country en route to becoming a developed country in the Western (First World) style. Therefore, mainstream development discourse concentrates upon the application of universal social and political, economic and cultural policies that would nationally establish such modernization.[16]

In Making Development Geography (2007), Victoria Lawson presents a critique of mainstream development discourse as mere recreation of the Subaltern, which is effected by means of the subaltern being disengaged from other social scales, such as the locale and the community; not considering regional, social class, ethnic group, sexual- and gender-class differences among the peoples and countries being modernized; the continuation of the socio-cultural treatment of the subaltern as a subject of development, as a subordinate who is ignorant of what to do and how to do it; and by excluding the voices of the subject peoples from the formulations of policy and practice used to effect the modernization.[16]

As such, the subaltern are peoples who have been silenced in the administration of the colonial states they constitute, they can be heard by means of their political actions, effected in protest against the discourse of mainstream development, and, thereby, create their own, proper forms of modernization and development. Hence do subaltern social groups create social, political, and cultural movements that contest and disassemble the exclusive claims to power of the Western imperialist powers, and so establish the use and application of local knowledge to create new spaces of opposition and alternative, non-imperialist futures.[16]

See also



  • Bhabha, Homi K. “Unsatisfied: notes on vernacular cosmopolitanism.” Text and Nation: Cross-Disciplinary Essays on Cultural and National Identities. Ed. Laura Garcia-Moreno and Peter C. Pfeiffer. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1996: 191-207.
  • Santos, Boaventura de Sousa (2002) Toward a New Legal Common Sense, 2nd ed. (London: LexisNexis Butterworths), particularly pp. 458–493
  • Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. " Can the Subaltern Speak?" in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988: 271-313.

External links

  • Can the Subaltern Speak? by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
  • An organization for underrepresented artists.
    • The website defines "Subaltern" in the following manner: "Originally a term for subordinates in military hierarchies, the term subaltern is elaborated in the work of Antonio Gramsci to refer to groups who are outside the established structures of political representation. In 'Can the Subaltern Speak?' Gayatri Spivak suggests that the subaltern is denied access to both mimetic and political forms of representation."
  • Subaltern studies bibliography
  • Information on purchase of commissions in Georgian times.
  • Biography and major publications for Spivak.
  • An academic collective for the study of the subaltern within media, communications, and cultural studies
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