16 May, 2021


People Without Power – Subalterns: Why Sociologists Miss These Groups?

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

Some of us live in liberal democracies where elections are held to choose representatives for the parliament for a specific period of time. For example, this is the case in Australia and India. There are other types of democracies –some combined with executive Presidency (e.g. Sri Lanka). Some are combined with strong monarchies (e.g. Thailand). Countries like Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia are also referred to as having democratic forms of government. Myanmar is in a state of transition due to the military take-over of an elected government. In its parliament 25% of the seats are allocated to the military. In all of these societies, people get a chance to vote in elections but after the elections majority of them lose power. Who are these powerless people? What do they do in such a situation? Do they have a voice and identity?  Unfortunately, sociologists and other political commentators do not focus on such questions as powerless people (Perhaps they use other names and categories to refer to them). Their focus is rather on political leaders, parties and what they do?

Sociologists for example when they discuss social stratification in society, do not generally take power as a criterion in dividing society into those who hold power and those who don’t. Instead they talk about class, ethnicity, gender, age etc. as dividing factors and attempt to show what inequalities exist in terms of such criteria and how they affect each group? Political scientists focus on matters of governance, pressure groups, constitutions, democracy, alliances etc. but not necessarily on how parties gain power and exercise it afterwards? Nationalist groups look for ways to sway the voters in their favour away from parties and groups who campaign for a pluralistic model of democratic governance.

Category of powerless group cannot be reduced to poverty –even though the latter can be a characteristic of powerless person or a group. Even those who are not economically poor can be powerless. For example, a university graduate who works in a government department as a clerk or an army soldier may not have power beyond their area of responsibility. They are there to follow orders from their superiors. They may possess a degree of symbolic power outside their organisations. This raises the question as to what exactly is power? It is generally understood as the capacity of an individual or a group to influence other people, determine their life chances with a degree of control over material other resources generally belonging to the State or Corporations. Usually, in a democracy such individuals and groups consist of elected representatives. However, in South Asian context as family and kinship as well as friendship come into play in the appointments to key positions(nepotism), unelected individuals also enter the power scene. There are also markers of power such as the residence of a powerful person, vehicles used, dress, mannerisms, language used, access to the public or lack of it, and the retinue (those who accompany). Here we need to distinguish between formal and informal power that a person can exercise as well. Informal power is derived through social networks one enjoys. Culture capital can also add to the power a person enjoys. E.g. whether one was educated in an elite school or university, whether one can speak in English?

It is time that we focus on the powerless groups and communities (subaltern=position without identity) more and find out who are they, why they are powerless, and what are the consequences of being powerless? Who speaks on their behalf and what matters are emphasised in such speeches? Identification of these factors are important for not only conceptualising the conditions of subalterns but also for understanding twisted realities of human existence by political, ideological, religious and social discourses.

On the basis of Sri Lanka’s experience, we can identify special interest groups such as trade unions, farmer organisations, organisations representing tea plantation workers or fishermen, organisations representing women working in the middle east, ad hoc activist groups focused on specific localities or issues who talk about their respective groups and their conditions of existence. Added to this list are the minor political parties that are organised along ethnic lines e.g. Tamil and Muslim. Within the Sinhalese majority community also there are minor parties such as the JVP and the frontline socialist party.  Some TV shows also focus on the plight of rural and remote villagers. Thus, we can see a plethora of groups, associations and parties who seem to speak on behalf of the powerless people –men and women. But the issue is that the leaders of mainstream political parties also talk about and on behalf of powerless people. Many of the powerless people are swayed toward such parties especially at election times not only due to the talk(discourse) as such but also due to various material benefits provided directly or indirectly. One can describe such a situation as one where the vote is for sale.

This poses the question as to whether the subalterns (identity and powerless people) have a voice? This was a question raised by Gayathri Spivak several decades ago. It led to a plethora of seminars and publications on the subject especially in the postcolonial studies field.

Since its publication, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” has been cited, invoked, imitated, and critiqued. In these phenomenal essays, eight scholars take stock of the effects and response to Spivak’s work. They begin by contextualizing the piece within the development of subaltern and postcolonial studies and the quest for human rights. Then, through the lens of Spivak’s essay, they rethink historical problems of subalternity, voicing, and death. A final section situates “Can the Subaltern Speak?” within contemporary issues, particularly new international divisions of labour and the politics of silence among indigenous women of Guatemala and Mexico. In an afterword, Spivak herself considers her essay’s past interpretations and future incarnations and the questions and histories that remain secreted in the original and revised versions of “Can the Subaltern Speak?”both of which are reprinted in this book.

Such questions formed part of the field called subaltern studies in India spreading into the global north a few decades ago. It also led to significant interest in deprived groups in India such as the Dalits. Today Dalit studies forms a significant part of minority studies in the world with contributions from scholars located in both global north and south. However, no such enthusiasm is visible to do studies of powerless people in Sri Lanka as such? For example, we don’t have good sociological or anthropological studies about deprived castes in the country or other groups such as women working in middle east or the estate sector. If there are any, they are policy oriented research studies rather than ones that attempt to bring about details of their living and working conditions (however I should qualify this statement by saying that there a few studies that attempt to do this but they are theses submitted for higher degrees mainly). Why is this? Is it because our academic enterprise is still caught in a time dwarf within the Western disciplines and the topics that they dictate? Or the disjuncture created between disciplinary knowledge vs the social reality in the country? Or indeed whether our academia is still elitist or pseudo-elitist? I will address these questions in another article in due course.

One way that the voice and thinking of the powerless can become compromised or diluted is the use of race, ethnicity, religion, identity or language, in other words nationalistic rhetoric, by some political parties and leaders at election times to get the ‘unthinking’ voters from the powerless people to vote in their favour.  Such exercises are called as identity politics. In such situations, powerless and poor people act according to the discourses and impending material benefits promised or distributed rather than according to their class condition/character. If they act according to the class condition/character, they should ideally vote for those minor parties that voice their grievances better and a genuine, lasting concern. This is a classic question discussed in Marxist literature i.e. class condition vs consciousness. My own PhD thesis compiled in the late 80s address this issue on the basis of an anthropological study in Kandyan highlands, Sri Lanka.

From a sociological point of view, we need to further breakdown the concept of powerless people or subalterns into specific categories so that we can explore in depth the predicament that these groups are surviving not only as groups per se but as individuals (aged, middle age, youths, children). One way to do this is to look at powerless people among different ethnic groups. For example, does a powerless Sinhalese person entertain more benefits or privileges compared to a Tamil or Muslim purely because of his/her standing in society with a majoritarian mentality and cultural-political practices? Or we can put the question in reverse order: Does a woman of Tamil or Muslim origin face specific difficulties due to her race compared to a Sinhalese woman? Here I am alluding to certain cultural norms and practices that may privilege one over another. For example, the fact that a Sinhalese person has the opportunity to mingle with high status Sinhalese in culturally significant situations may offer some advantages not available to a Tamil or a Muslim in a limited way.

However, social interactions are not only mediated by ethnicity or race. They are mediated by a whole range of factors in society. education, occupation, regional ties, political party affiliation, caste, gender, class.  Each of these categories can be used as analytical tools to further desegregate the macro category called Powerless People or subalterns. Caste itself is a criterion that specifies certain social etiquette. By this I mean it limits the avenues of close interaction in weddings and similar family events for certain people belonging to certain castes. Socio-economic status functions in a similar way. Various alumni organisations affiliated with schools and universities etc. function to mix people with different origins in social situations and through online forums. Networks are built through such categories.

The question we have to ask is irrespective of all these avenues for social interaction, networking, upward social mobility, are there specific groups who are powerless and fall at the bottom of social hierarchy today? If so, why don’t our sociologists focus their research on such groups of people and find out the mechanisms at play and potential solutions to provide them a way out? Are our social work professionals sufficiently tuned into such questions?.

The point about all this is that we need more studies and focus on subalterns or the powerless people whoever they are? Sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists as well as creative thinkers and writers can initiate such studies and constructions of knowledge – as emancipatory anti-hegemonic projects as against the dictates of western disciplinary knowledge that tend to emphasise regulation and integration more so than emancipation, transformation or change. For such a task, some leads and guidance can be obtained from the vast array of literature on subaltern studies as well as the broader fields of post-colonial studies or decolonial studies.

Further readings

Rosalind Morris(eds.,) 2010. Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea, Columbia University Press.

Spivak, G.        The Trajectory of the Subaltern in My Work (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ZHH4ALRFHw)  Video

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Developed countries are so called not because of all their citizens are rich but
    because they have devised a mechanism that meets average citizen’s basic
    daily needs . How they do it , one has to take a deeper look into how their
    Democracies function to guarantee this basic requirement to make their
    citizens support them in their endeavours to provide efficient services . It is a
    long story that needs careful attention with details . And now , why the
    Developing countries remain still Developing and undeveloped are suffering
    in that condition yet is also another mechanism in place as I believe .
    Careful and very close study will reveal why ! One very simple example will
    reveal how it happens in Srilanka ! Honestly our politicians have no respect
    whatsoever , to their voter public and in return , the same public is indifferent
    to the way they are being ignored or disrespected by their leaders ! How does
    this happen ? Look at the way they are living with heaps of lies piled up on
    them by their leaders of all hues ! They take it and they leave their children to
    take it after them , no lessons and no learnings , how do you expect such a
    society to progress ? Many opportunities the country had , has been either
    deliberately ignored by the rulers at the times or missed due to unhealthy
    policy lines of party politics .

  • 0

    The author is among the rare few who take a non-partisan view of issues.
    His writings, unsurprisingly, do not attract many in a forum of people deeply divided across ethno-religious and party political divides.
    However, had he paid more attention to the electoral system which is based on mustering a majority of the votes, he would have identified a fundamental flaw.
    Systems that are denounced as ‘undemocratic’ (because they do not have our kind of ballot boxes and rabble rouser politicians) accommodate the interests of the tiniest ethnic minority. They accommodate small interest groups. Such minorities can state their grievances without being suffocated by the dictatorship of an ‘elected majority’. Democracy operates even at the lowest levels of society.
    We can see such trends in Latin America.
    Nepal is some way towards broader representation, but grassroots devolution of power is inadequate.
    I think that the author has occasionally erred in his generalisations: “For example, the fact that a Sinhalese person has the opportunity to mingle with high status Sinhalese in culturally significant situations may offer some advantages not available to a Tamil or a Muslim in a limited way.”
    I would dare say that 80% or more of the Sinhalese cannot even dream of ‘mingling with high status Sinhalese in culturally significant situations’. Culturally and socially, they are in different worlds. In fact, one dictates what the other consumes.

    • 0

      Thanks for the above comment. Sri lanka has an electoral system that elects one set of representatives to the parliament but at the same time give permision to appoint unelected set of family members to key positions in the government, ministries etc.Proportional representation syustem favours those with the largest amount of money to spend in campaigns. If we had single electorate system,then at least we would have had fairer system. i.e. an MP for the electorate. On hyour point re high status Sinhalese: they have networks of relations with lower status Sinhalese in certain circumstances,funerals, weddings, religious festivals, caste based events, shool based events, village based events. I am not talking about very high status individuals who dont go to villages.

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