The Subaltern

        © 2015 Mark A. Foster, Ph.D. All rights reserved.        

  • “The original usage of the term subaltern in social sciences can be traced to the prison writings of Antonio Gramsci, who used the term as a disguise to refer to the working class. In a more recent interpretation, the term is not confined to an economic class and is used more broadly to connote subordinate groups. Some scholars have cautioned against a broader interpretation of the term and have argued that subaltern should be specifically employed to refer to the most oppressed groups in a society. This entry uses the term subaltern to refer to the economically marginalized groups such as urban proletariat and peasants, among others. In delineating a state of oppression, this entry briefly delves into subaltern consumersʼ material deprivation, subjectivity, and methodological challenges in interpreting marginalized groups.” [Rohit Varman, “Subaltern.” Encyclopedia of Consumer Culture. Dale Southerton, editor. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications. 2011. Pages 1392-1394.]
  • “The subaltern as a concept within political theory gained momentum through the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. His conception of the subaltern has been reworked by Indian scholars such as Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Spivak and is now a fundamental concept in postcolonial studies. Subalternity refers to diminished political voice, organization, and representation on the part of nonelite social groups, their relative invisibility in historical documentation, and their non- or extrahegemonic subjection to the power of elites. For Gramsci, these groups include peasants, slaves, women, religious groups, different races, and the proletariat in Southern Italy; Guha includes all groups in South Asia subordinated by class, caste, age, gender, and office, or any other modality; for Spivak, a paradigmatic figure is the gendered and racialized peasant or subproletarian of the global division of labor. For all three, the subaltern is unpossessed by the state and outside the purview of state hegemony; theoretical consideration of the subaltern is based on a political concern with radical social transformation at multiple levels. Conceptually, subalternity has been significant to the field of political theory in its challenge to the prevalent categories of (sovereign) subjectivity, agency, political representation, and (rigid definitions of) class.” [Nalini Persram, “Subaltern.” Encyclopedia of Political Theory. Mark Bevir, editor. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications. 2010. Pages 1340-1341.]
  • “The notion of subalternity is associated with the subaltern, in other words marginalized individuals or groups who are disenfranchised because they are not part of the hegemonic power structure of a society or colony. It means belonging to or being the subaltern. The word subaltern has a long history of usage. The perspective of the marginalized, or the study of cultures ‘from below,’ has been part of colonial histories and literature from the eighteenth century onwards. The term as it has come to be used today, however, has its origins in [Antonio] Gramsciʼs writings on the proletariat or working-class struggles.” [Muiris Ó Laoire, “Subalternity.” The SAGE Encyclopedia of Action Research. David Coghlan and Mary Brydon-Miller, editors. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications. 2014. Pages 738-739.]
  • “‘Subaltern studies’ refers to the study of social groups excluded from dominant power structures, be these (neo)colonial, socio-economic, patriarchal, linguistic, cultural and/or racial. When people lack voice, when they are barred from systems of political or cultural representation, they are called subaltern; their subalternity is the consequence of their limited access to structures of authority. Subaltern studies investigate both these structures of authority and the consequent conditions of subordination experienced by marginalized groups.” [Ilan Kapoor, “Subaltern Studies.” The SAGE Encyclopedia of Action Research. David Coghlan and Mary Brydon-Miller, editors. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications. 2014. Pages 737-738.]