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Subaltern (postcolonialism)

In critical theory and postcolonialism, the term subaltern designates the populations which are socially, politically and geographically outside of the hegemonic power structure of the colony and of the colonial homeland. In describing "history told from below", subaltern was coined by Antonio Gramsci, notably through his work on cultural hegemony, which identified the groups that are excluded from a society's established institutions and thus denied the means by which people have a voice in their society.

The terms subaltern and Subaltern Studies entered postcolonial 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 constitute the mass population, rather than the political roles of the social and economic elites, in the history of South Asia. Marxist historians had already been investigating colonial history as told from the perspective of the proletariat, using the concept of social classes as being determined by economic relations. In the 1970s, subaltern began to denote the colonized peoples of the Indian subcontinent and described a new perspective of the history of an imperial colony as told from the point of view of the colonized rather than that of the colonizers. 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 contentious because it originated as a Eurocentric method of historical enquiry for studying the non-Western people of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. From its inception as an historical-research model for studying the colonial experience of South Asian peoples, subaltern studies transformed from 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, literary criticism,musicology, and art history.

  • 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.
  • 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."


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