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Resistance, Power and the Everyday

The study of resistance has a lengthy yet shifting eminence within anthropology and indeed the wider social sciences (Hoffman, 1999). Discussed by Marx in his theorizations of peasant rebellion (Kastrinou-Theodoropoulou, 2005), resistance as an analytical concept gained greater prominence in the post-World War II period, when organized anti-colonial movements began to proliferate across the self-styled Third World producing a narrow dichotomy of visible, anti-establishment resistance against oppressive state systems (Victoria, 2016). Yet as the following decades saw communities seemingly failing to mobilize themselves based on their class interests, post-structural and post-modernist scholars began to expand the study of resistance towards more indirect and pervasive forms occurring under the nose of the regimes in charge (Reed-Danahay, 1993).

An ethnographic catalyst in resistance studies, James Scott’s landmark Weapons of the Weak (1985) identified the everyday as a site of resistance, shifting attention from organized forms of resistance against institutions to ordinary, indirect strategies (Kastrinou-Theodoropoulou, 2009). As such, Scott provided an epistemological shift in how oppressive power structures infiltrate the lives of subaltern populations. Highlighting how the Sedaka villagers of Malaysia employed strategies of self-preservation in their resistance (Scott, 1985), critiquing Scott’s perpetuation of the body/mind binary that studies of power and resistance have become hinged on (Mitchell, 1990; Gledhill, 2014) and finally, drawing on notions of ‘dispersed resistance’ (Lilja and Vinthagen, 2018), this article will reveal how the everyday nature of resistance exposes power as pervasive and multi-sited, whilst maintaining that the everyday is not the only site whereby individualized practices against hegemonic orders occur.

Figure 1: Cover of James Scott's Weapons of the Weak (1985)

Scott’s (1985) study on Malay peasant resistance in the village of Sedaka is a highly influential text that shifts attention to everyday strategies of resistance (Kastrinou-Theodoropoulou, 2009) to acknowledge the agentic abilities of subaltern populations, challenging attempts to pathologize these communities as illogical by highlighting their resistive routines as necessary survival strategies (Ortner, 1995). Identifying unremarkable practices that become ingrained in the social fabric of life as a lever for dissent, Scott contested the Marxist concept of ‘false consciousness’ that argued subaltern apathy to oppressive power structures to be on account of mental domination. Employing Gramsci’s notion of ideological domination, Scott reformulated this concept to explain how domination is achieved through cultural hegemony whereby subaltern populations, aware of the risks that bodily actions entail within an entrenched capitalist order, adopt strategies of self-preservation through being “inhibited from more overt action only by a shrewd assessment of its impracticality” (Gledhill, 2014).

Terming these agendas ‘hidden transcripts’, Scott redefined actions by the Sedaka villagers such as pilfering and foot-dragging as ideological acts of resistance against the reforms of the Green Revolution in the 1970s, where neoliberal agendas become subverted through compromising productivity (Mitchell, 1990), regardless of whether the agents explicitly hold this subversive intent or simply do so as a way of survival. Scott exposed cracks in understandings of how hegemonic control is achieved, where arguing against a subaltern false consciousness through identifying the obdurate persistence of hidden transcripts in everyday forms of peasant resistance (Sivaramakrishan, 2005) worked to de-pathologize their actions as logical forms of self-preservation. This reworking of hegemony thus affords agency to the subaltern to recognize them as historical agents, who by carrying out their hidden transcripts supported their own ethics in the face of oppressive powers.

Furthermore, this analysis of the everyday as a key site for resistance crucially reveals the pervasiveness of global power structures of capitalism that force subaltern individuals to only push back in mundane, routine ways. The fact that communities such as the Sedaka are confined to measures of everyday resistance highlights the ubiquity of power that emanates from the capitalist and neoliberal worldview, where these power structures impinge at the scale of everyday bodily practices (Weitz, 2001). Reflecting on Abu-Lughod’s (1990) assertion that “where there is resistance, there is power”, the everyday behaviours that comprise covert resistance against capitalist powers reinforce the pervasive nature of such power structures at the everyday level.

However, although Scott successfully opened anthropology’s eyes to the ways in which subaltern populations may enact hidden forms of resistance, critics argue his work continues to be informed by a single, master metaphor —the distinction between persuading and coercing— which can actually support workings of domination through constructing a dualistic world that prevents forms of oppression from being recognized as such (Mitchell, 1990). In his influential critique, Mitchell finds that Scott separates how power works on the body and the mind, with the body becoming a site of material coercion and the mind a site for the persuasion of legitimacy, functioning to obscure the reality of capitalist ideologies impinging on the mental autonomy of the Sedaka villagers and consequently shaping their resistive behaviour.

This is revealed through Mitchell’s close reading of Weapons of the Weak, where he maintains Scott focuses too much on the calculative rationality of resisting actors to hide from the fact that discourses of resistance communicate with —and sometimes form in juxtaposition to— discourses that represent more or less explicitly a dominant view of the world (Theodossopoulos, 2014). Despite the radical transformation of agricultural life, Mitchell uncovers how the vocabulary of capitalism in the village remains unacceptable, where straightforward talk about property rights and profit-making “has no moral standing” (Mitchell, 1990), and as such peasants do not talk about land reform spontaneously, instead focusing on the possibility of securing a reasonably tenancy within the existing system of landownership rather than radically questioning property rights or the state and its local officials. This is therefore clear evidence of how political domination in Sedaka worked through shaping what can be thought and said, operating in the realm of the mind, and thus leaves the most pertinent form of resistance at the level of the everyday. Mitchell highlights how power structures are able to exploit the continued juxtaposition between body and mind put forward by Scott’s framing of the subaltern as autonomous from the wider cultural and politico-economic relationships they are situated in. As such, Scott’s study of everyday resistance endangers obscuring and thus reproducing the operation of dominating structures of power.

A final way to address the impact that the focus on resistance at the level of the everyday has on understandings of power can be revealed through troubling Scott’s (1985) synonymizing of subaltern methods of resistance with these ordinary sites and mundane routines. Through failing to adequately impress the degree to which subaltern populations are able to access and carry out forms of resistance beyond the scale of the everyday, Scott risks not only undermining how power and resistance are found in multiple and unexpected, but inadvertently provides support for a binary between everyday and ‘extraordinary’ practices that works to relegate subaltern populations to notions of small-scale and marginal (Ortner, 1995).

Figure 2: A woman throws a white scarf over Tibetan Buddhist nun Palden Choetso in Tibet. Reuters, 2012.

Through exploring the concept of ‘dispersed resistance' (Lilja and Vinthagen, 2018), understood here as small-scale, often individual actions that are not coupled with communicative networks, collective identities or sustained collective actions —as is often the case for definitions of social movements, yet also do not fall under the category of subtle, everyday resistance—, the inference that oppressed subaltern communities only have hidden, small-scale forms of resistance available to them is challenged. This is exemplified through actions such as the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in Tibet as a protest against Chinese occupation (Kaufman, 2013); these oppressed individuals enacted highly visible and dramatic forms of protest despite their subordinate status. Paying attention to the multiple ways that subaltern populations may carry out resistive actions beyond the everyday environment is therefore critical in understanding how dominant power systems can benefit from the endorsement of an everyday/extraordinary binary, and how this can be challenged to afford greater recognition to the experiences of subaltern actors.

The refocus of resistance studies towards everyday sites and practices as developed by Scott has been pivotal in troubling classical understandings of hegemonic control. By shining a light on the multi-sited and unexpecting forms of subversion against capitalist structures, Scott (1985) pushed anthropology towards recognizing agency within subaltern populations and mundane lived experience. Nevertheless, Mitchell’s (1990) critique that such everyday approaches can exploit the Cartesian mind/body dualism, alongside wider acknowledgments of a contingent liminal space between the extraordinary and the everyday (Lilja and Vinthagen, 2018), demonstrates how operations of power can remain as multifarious and elusive as the acts of resistance that oppose them.

Bibliographical References

Abu‐Lughod, L. (1990). The romance of resistance: Tracing transformations of power through Bedouin women. American Ethnologist, 17(1), 41-55.

Gledhill, J. (2014) Indigenous autonomy, delinquent States, and the limits of resistance. History and Anthropology, 25(4), 507-529. Hoffman, D. (1999). Turning power inside out: Reflections on resistance from the (anthropological) field. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education: QSE, 12(6), 671-687. Kastrinou-Theodoropoulou, K. (2009). Editorial note: political anthropology and the fabrics of resistance. Durham Anthropology Journal, 16(2), 3-7. Kaufman, M. (2013). Self-Immolation In Tibet: Beyond The Lens Of The Western Media. Bucknell University. Lilja, M. and Vinthagen, S. (2018). Dispersed resistance: unpacking the spectrum and properties of glaring and everyday resistance. Journal of Political Power, 11(2), 211-229. Mitchell, T. (1990). Everyday metaphors of power. Theory and Society, 19(5), 545-577.

Ortner, S. B. (1995). Resistance and the problem of ethnographic refusal. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 37(1), 173-193. Reed-Danahay, D. (1993). Talking about resistance: ethnography and theory in rural France. Anthropological Quarterly, 66(4), 221-229. Scott, J. C. (1985), Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Yale University Press. Sivaramakrishnan, K. (2005). Some intellectual genealogies for the concept of everyday resistance. American Anthropologist, 107(3), 346-355. Theodossopoulos, D. (2014) On De-Pathologizing Resistance. History and Anthropology, 25(4), 415-430. Victoria, J.L.E. (2016). Anthropology of power: Beyond state-centric politics. Anthropological Theory, 16(2-3), 249-262. Weitz, R. (2001). Women and their hair: Seeking power through resistance and accommodation. Gender & Society, 15(5), 667-686.

Visual Sources

Cover Image: [A person resisting against a giant fist. Illustration]. The Kathmandu Post. Figure 1: Scott, J. (1985). Weapons of the Weak. [Book Cover]. ACLS Humanities Ebook. Figure 2: [A woman throws a white scarf over Tibetan Buddhist nun Palden Choetso in Tibet. Photogram]. (2012). The Atlantic.


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Emily Duchenne

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