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subaltern studies

  Originally \'Subaltern Studies\' identified a radical project in contemporary Indian history. The Subaltern Studies collective had its origins in the early 1980s, and owed much to the energies and skills of Ranajit Guha. It set its face against two dominant and, so its architects convincingly claimed, imperial intellectual traditions: (i) a modern secular history, in which the Indian subcontinent was ushered from tribalism, petty brigandage and feudalism into capitalist modernity under the benign tutelage of the Raj; and (ii) a nationalist historiography, that cast a native Indian elite in an heroic role, wresting the state apparatus from the imperialists in order to complete a political trajectory that had nonetheless been inaugurated by the British. The subaltern historians argued that both histories erased the presence — and the power — of various subaltern groups, and they produced a rich stream of case studies which were issued as a series (Subaltern Studies): a selection of these has been gathered together in two synoptic collections (Guha and Spivak, 1988; Guha, 1997).

The term \'subaltern\' was derived from the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, and \'subaltern studies\' also has much in common with the socialist-humanist history of the British historian E.P. Thompson who was deeply interested in writing \'history from below\' and recovering the collective agency of exploited, oppressed and marginalized groups. The subaltern historians have retained their affinities with historical materialism; but, in part through their increasing engagement with literary and cultural studies, many of them have also been drawn towards feminism and post-structuralism. These moves have attracted considerable critical discussion, centring on the place of capitalism in their revisionist historiography, on the relations between resistance and accommodation among subaltern groups, and on the compound, fractured constitution of subaltern subjectivities: it is these immensely challenging issues that have brought their work to the attention of audiences outside the specialized circles of Indian historiography, including anthropology (Sivaramakrishnan, 1995) and geography (Gregory, 1994, pp. 183-94).

This wider interest in subaltern studies has involved both theoretical interrogation and empirical development. Particular theoretical interest has been attached to the ways in which the figure of \'the subaltern\' exposes the limitations imposed on the recovery of subaltern voices through readings of texts produced under the sign of colonialism (Spivak, 1988): this argument has implications not only for post-colonialism but for the understanding of human agency across the field of the humanities and social sciences (Barnett, 1997). Empirical development that has attracted the special interest of human geographers includes an extensive engagement with ecological politics and subaltern groups, often inspired by the work of Ramachandra Guha (Guha, 1989; see also Corbridge and Jewitt, 1997), and a richer understanding of the spatialities of resistance and accommodation. The work of the subaltern historians has also encouraged similar inter-disciplinary projects on other continents (Rabasa, Sanjines and Carr, 1994). (DG)

References Barnett, C. 1997: \'Sing along with the common people\': politics, postcolonialism and other figures. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 15: 137-54. Corbridge, S. and Jewitt, S. 1997: From forest struggles to forest citizens? Joint Forest Management in the unquiet woods of India\'s Jharkhand. Environment and Planning A 29: 2145-64. Gregory, D. 1994: Geographical imaginations. Cambridge, MA and Oxford: Blackwell. Guha, Ramachandra 1989: The unquiet woods: ecological change and peasant resistance in the Himalaya. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Guha, Ranajit, ed., 1997: A subaltern studies reader 1986-1995. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Guha, Ranajit and Spivak, G.C., eds, 1988: Selected subaltern studies. New York: Oxford University Press. Rabasa, J., Sanjines, J. and Carr, R., eds, 1994: Subaltern studies in the Americas. A special issue of Dispositio/n, 19 (46) [published 1996]. Sivaramakrishnan, K. 1995: Situating the subaltern: history and anthropology in the Subaltern Studies Project. Journal of Historical Sociology 8: 395-429. Spivak, G. 1988: Can the subaltern speak? In C. Nelson and L. Grossberg, eds, Marxism and the interpretation of culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 271-313.

Suggested Reading Barnett (1997). Guha (1997). Shurmer-Smith, P. and Hannam, K. 1994: Subaltern geographies. In their Worlds of desire, realms of power: a cultural geography. London: Arnold, 124-39.



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