ANTH 423, Dr. Maximilian Forte, Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology, Concordia University


Chelsea Matheson, 2013, Version 1

(Preliminary editing by Maximilian Forte)

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The concept of resistance was first introduced into the social sciences by the philosopher Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century, who argued for resistance against revolutionary progress (Duncome, 2008, p. 209). Mahatma Gandhi brought the concept to modern prominence, however, during the mid-20th-century in India’s anti-colonial struggles against Britain (Duncome, 2008, p. 209). The concept in anthropology gained prominence in the discipline as anthropologists started to take notice of the many groups of people mobilizing collectively in the post-World War Two period, especially the anti-colonial movements that started proliferating in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The post-World War Two period also brought with it attention to those defying the hegemonic cultural system of mass media and capitalism that had come to characterize modern Western society, leading to studies of counter-culture starting from the 1960s (Duncome, 2008, p. 209). Thus, the understanding of resistance in anthropology during this time period was a relatively narrow, simplistic one, consisting of highly visible acts of collective mobilization against an oppressor, usually in the form of mass protests, or studies of highly visible counter-cultural groups (Ortner, 1995, p. 175). In general, anthropologists did not study the large anti-colonial mass movements as much as smaller-scale phenomena of resistance, such as cargo cults, millenarian movements, nativism, and revitalization, and the history of such studies could be dated back to the work of James Mooney in the U.S. in the 1890s.

Since the late 1970s, resistance has transformed into a dominant conceptual framework in anthropology (Seymour, 2006, p. 303). During the 1970s and 1980s, anthropologists began focussing their attention to how the spread of global capitalism was affecting small communities around the globe (Sivaramakrishan, 2005, p. 346). When it became clear that communities were failing to mobilize collectively based on their class-interests in the face of global capitalism, as per the expectations of Marxist theory, anthropologists turned to looking at resistance as an explanation (Sivaramakrishan, 2005, p. 347). Resistance has furthermore become a popular topic in anthropology, especially as the discipline transferred its focus more from social control, to social agency (Hollander & Einwohner, 2004, p. 5). In light of Marxist revolutionary theory not panning out as many had thought it would, the focus of inquiry has consequently shifted more to the political nuances of daily life, making resistance a more suitable conceptual framework for research (Brown, 1996, p. 729). Resistance has also become an attractive topic in light of anthropology’s relatively recent focus on social inequality, power, and cultural hegemony (Seymour, 2006, p. 315).

A major breakthrough in anthropological studies of resistance came in 1985 with James Scott’s Weapons of the weak: everyday forms of peasant resistance (Kastrinou-Theodoropoulou, 2009, p. 3). In that work Scott argued that resistance rarely occurs in the form of mass collective mobilization, and actually far more often occurs through “hidden transcripts” and “everyday resistance” (as cited in Withagen, 2007, p. 1216). Scott directly challenged the notion of resistance as narrowly consisting of highly visible, coordinated mass mobilization; he instead proposed an understanding of resistance as consisting of everyday acts that stop short of outright defiance, and are more ordinary, indirect strategies of opposition, that often exist under the radar of the dominant group (Kastrinou-Theodoropoulou, 2009, p. 3). Scott’s work served as a new theoretical “discovery” for anthropologists, that resistance takes place a on a low-key, routine daily-basis (Reed-Danahay, 1993, p. 223). This initiated a trend in anthropology, as anthropologists began actively looking for cracks in hegemonic systems to study Scott’s concept of everyday resistance, which has become a major theme in anthropological literature ever since the late 1980s (Seymour, 2006, p. 303). This has opened up the concept of resistance in anthropology, generating diverse works relating to human opposition to various forms of power and dominance, in a myriad of differing contexts. The trend Scott initiated was so enthusiastically embraced by anthropologists, in part because it fit well within the post-modern critique of grand theory, and anthropology’s traditional emphasis on engaging in “small-scale, close-to-the ground” research (Sivaramakrishan, 2005, p. 348).

The development of the concept of resistance in anthropology has also been heavily influenced by the work of Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci. As anthropologists started increasingly studying relations of power and hegemony, the need arose for a concept to counter these forces (Seymour, 2006, p. 303). Foucault influenced anthropology heavily, with his conceptualization of power as existing everywhere, in different forms, and in multiple complex relationships of power in society (Duncome, 2008, p. 210). Attention to everyday resistance fits well with these understandings of pervasive, less institutionalized “everyday” forms of power, and as Foucault himself stated, “where there is power, there is resistance” (as cited in Seymour, 2006, p. 303). Gramsci was also influential in the development of research on resistance in anthropology with his concept of cultural hegemony, which Scott adopted by transforming it to fit his concept of everyday resistance (Duncome, 2008, p. 210). Whereas Gramsci views hegemony as a totalizing phenomenon that sees subordinated groups as having internalized the dominant ideology, and thus complicit in their own subjugation, Scott altered this concept of hegemony to one that is less all-encompassing, more dynamic and is continually renewed (Seymour, 2006, p. 304). Therefore, in Scott’s view, subordinated individuals are not passive subjects but rather possess a measure of agency to engage in resistance (Sivaramakrishan, 2005, p. 347). The result of these theoretical additions to the development of the concept is that anthropology now has a more nuanced understanding of how hegemony and resistance operate. Thus, the anthropological concept of resistance from the late 1960s to early 1980s, which consisted of a simple dichotomy opposing resistance versus domination, was expanded with Foucault’s attention to pervasive, less institutionalized forms of power, and James Scott’s emphasis on unorganized, hidden, everyday forms of resistance (Ortner, 1995, p. 175). This work was further developed in Jean Comaroff’s Body of power, spirit of resistance in which she argued that,

“The fact that the oppressed are frequently forced to voice their protest in domains seemingly marginal to the real exercise of power makes them ‘primitive’ and ‘pre-political’ only to a vulgar, ethnocentric social science”. (Comaroff, 1985, p. 263)

Despite the high prominence of resistance in anthropology since the 1980s, there is little consensus on what the term actually means, and consequently this one term has been used to describe widely diverse phenomena (Brown, 1996, p. 730). Literature on the topic ranges from more traditional understandings of resistance, such as political uprisings, to newer “everyday” understandings of resistance, such as stealing rice from a landlord, and ranges far to the outer limits of symbolic understandings of resistance, such as speaking an indigenous language or wearing a particular hairstyle (Hollander & Einwohner, 2004, p. 536). Many anthropologists now argue that the recent focus on resistance as a dominant theme in anthropological research has been hampered in its analytical usefulness by the vagueness of the concept and the unfocussed way it has been and is currently used (Brown, 1996, p. 730). This is due to the diverse, incoherent body of literature that exists all under the same category of resistance, serving to dilute the concept and reduce its explanatory power (Seymour, 2006, p. 315). Furthermore, many anthropologists have also failed to define what they mean by the term resistance in their published works, and consequently fail to use the term in a systematic way (Weitz, 2001, p. 669).

The diversity of topics covered under resistance as a category is largely due to certain conceptual debates about resistance. A point of contention among anthropologists when defining resistance is whether or not an act must be recognized as an act of resistance by the target oppressor group in order for it to qualify as an act of resistance (Hollander & Einwohner, 2004, p. 541). There are those who contend that an act of resistance must involve the target of the act necessarily recognizing and reacting toward the act as overtly resisting their authority or power (Hollander & Einwohner, 2004, p. 541). Others, notably Scott and those who have adopted his understanding of resistance, assert that everyday, low-profile acts of resistance most often go unnoticed by the dominant group against which the resistance is directed, designed to be hidden by resistors for varying reasons (Hollander & Einwohner, 2004, p. 539). Therefore, resistance need not be recognized as such by the dominant group for it to still constitute resistance (Hollander & Einwohner, 2004, p. 541).

An even larger point of contention considering understandings of resistance revolves around the issue of intent. The question looming large in resistance debates, is whether or not the subject needs to be aware that they are challenging power, in order for it to qualify as an act of resistance (Hollander & Einwohner, 2004, p. 542). A question related to this, is whether or not subjects really undertake resistance actions without being conscious of them (Seymour, 2006, p. 304). On one side of the debate, Lauraine Leblanc argues that an act of resistance needs to be conscious and intentional; the subject needs to perceive a sense of oppression, feel a desire to challenge that oppression, and undertake an action to do so (as cited in Hollander & Einwohner, 2004, p. 542). From the position of James Scott, it is possible to ascertain the intent of subjects by looking at their actions, and furthermore, subjects will not always be aware that their acts are resistant, such as the farmer who conceives of stealing rice as a survival strategy, while simultaneously posing a challenge to the economic hegemony of the dominant group (Hollander & Einwohner, 2004, p. 542). There is also the position among some anthropologists who do not view intent as an important variable when discussing acts of resistance, as subjects may not even be conscious that what they are doing is resistance (Hollander & Einwohner, 2004, p. 543). Examples of this position often include anthropologists studying styles of dress, hairstyles and the like as constituting unconscious resistance. Mary Ellen Brown’s study of women engaging in resistance against traditional gender expectations by watching television soap-operas is a good example of this position (as cited in Hollander & Einwohner, 2004, p. 545). Along with this position, some anthropologists point out how problematic it is to study intent, especially when subjects do not realize their resistance acts as such (Weitz, 2001, p. 669). This occurs because individuals are often not really able to articulate their motivations for an action, and can have multiple, sometimes contradictory motivations for engaging in acts of resistance (Collins, 2009, p. 10). For example, women practising female bodybuilding are simultaneously challenging gender expectations that women be delicate, and also conforming to the gender expectation that women be thin and concerned with their bodily appearance (Hollander & Einwohner, 2004, p. 545). Moreover, different researchers can interpret the intent behind the same act in differing ways, and can also read their own political agenda into their subjects’ intent (Weitz, 2001, p. 669). With all these varying positions on intent, and complications for analyzing it, this remains a contentious issue in anthropological discussions on resistance. That being said, however, despite the considerable debate on the topic, there remains a basic consensus among anthropologists that resistance necessarily involves some sort of action in opposition to something (Hollander & Einwohner, 2004, p. 538). These debates prove though, that resistance is not a straightforward easily identifiable phenomenon; it has inherent complexities within itself that anthropologists cannot agree on (Hollander & Einwohner, 2004, p. 549).

Not only are there debates on the actual definition of resistance, there is a growing number of critiques coming from anthropologists who not only see the way resistance has been studied as problematic, but also the discipline’s preoccupation with resistance. Michael Brown criticizes a “theoretical hegemony” of the concept of resistance that has arisen in recent anthropological literature that, he argues, has come to monopolize the anthropological imagination (Brown, 1996, p. 729). Because of the dominance of resistance as a conceptual framework, anthropologists now focus less on other facets of social life, such as cooperation and reciprocity (Brown, 1996, p. 729). Furthermore, by focusing on resistance, anthropologists can inadvertently claim a moral high-ground, as this can serve as a way to portray personal opposition to hegemonic forces, while elevating subjects to the status of anti-hegemonic “soldiers” (Brown, 1996, p. 732).

Aside from the critiques on the prominence of resistance in anthropology, there are many critiques with how anthropological resistance studies have been conducted. Resistance studies have been variously criticized for romanticizing and fetishizing resistance, essentializing subjects, and for too much of a totalizing focus on power (Seymour, 2006, p. 305). Resistance is often framed in anthropological literature in ways that ignore cultural particularities, leading to an idealized understanding of the resistant group (Hoffman, 1999, p. 672). These studies of resistance consequently tend to produce ethnographically “thin” material, as they portray rather one-dimensional representations of their subjects, losing detail to “inspiring stories of resistance” (Brown, 1996, p. 732). Specifically, the internal politics of subordinate groups are often lost when the focus is on resistance (Seymour, 2006, p. 304). This occurs because anthropologists mainly frame the discussion between dominant and subordinate groups, consequently marginalizing the internal politics, conflicts, and power hierarchies that exist within subordinate groups (Ortner, 1995, p. 176). This has led to a “romanticizing” of these groups engaging in resistance, for a failure to critically engage their internal workings (Ortner, 1995, p. 177). This can lead to an inadequate analysis of resistance itself, for failure to properly understand the groups engaging in it (Ortner, 1995, p. 179). Despite the major debates surrounding the topic, resistance remains a productive conceptual framework in anthropology for highlighting various dynamics within diverse power relations, and very few anthropologists would advocate an abandonment of the concept altogether. These debates are helpful however, in that they work toward clarifying the meanings behind resistance, with the goal of increasing its analytical utility to anthropological work.


Brown, M. (1996). On resisting resistance. American Anthropologist, 98(4), 729-735.

Collins, P. (2009). On resistance: The case of 17th century quakers. Durham Anthropology, 16(2), 8-22.

Comaroff, J. (1985). Body of power, spirit of resistance: the culture and history of a South African people. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Duncome, S. (2008). Resistance. In W. Darity (Ed.), International encyclopedia of the social sciences (Vol. 7, pp. 207-210). New York: Macmillan Reference USA.

Hoffman, D. (1999). Turning power inside out: Reflections on resistance from the (anthropological) field. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 12, 671-687.

Hollander, J. & Einwohner, R. (2004). Conceptualizing resistance. Sociological Forum, 19(4), 533-554.

Kastrinou-Theodoropoulou, K. (2009). Editorial note: political anthropology and the fabrics of resistance. Durham Anthropology Journal, 16(2), 3-7.

Ortner, S. (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. American Quarterly, 66(4), 221-229.

Seymour, S. (2006). Resistance. Anthropological Theory, 6(3), 303-321.

Sivaramakrishan, K. (2005). Intellectual genealogies for the concept of everyday resistance. American Anthropologist, 107(3), 346-355.

Weitz, R. (2001). Women and their hair: Seeking power through resistance and accommodation. Gender and Society, 15, 667-686.

Withagen, S. & Lilja, M. (2007). Resistance. In G. Harrison & K. Herr (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice (Vol. 3, pp. 1215-1217). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Reference.