What Does Subaltern Mean Anyway?

In Postcolonial Theory, “Subaltern” describes people in the lower social classes and the Other social groups that are displaced and marginalized while also living in an imperial colony. If there is little access or no access at all to the cultural imperialism then one is described as subaltern. The term Subaltern was coined by Antonio Gramsci, who was an Italian Marxist intellectual. He used it when describing cultural hegemony, in order to identify groups that were excluded, displaced, and marginalized due to the socio-economic institutions put into place, so their political voices would be denied. Gayatri Spivak states that “the reasonable and rarefied definition of the word subaltern that interests me is: to be removed from all lines of social mobility” (Spivak, 475).*

Now knowing what subaltern means, I am going to apply it to examples. In India, “the evidence suggests that Subaltern Studies has been an effort by secular “Southerners” (Biharis, Bengalis) to withstand the hegemony of the ‘North’, represented by the liberal-Marxist alliance centered in New Delhi” (Gran). It has also been an effort to withstand the religious fascism that has been rapidly trending in the “South” of India. Anyone who is not associated and one with the hegemony force, or part of the religious fascism that is spreading is considered to be subaltern. There is no line of mobility in the social hierarchy for the marginalized group(s). “Consciousness of the oppression of the subaltern, one senses from reading Guha, will induce the ruling class to change its ways” (Gran). Even with this consciousness of what is happening, it would be extremely hard, and near impossible to change the institution from the inside out to revert from its oppressive practices in the hierarchy.

The field of Subaltern Studies is about examining the “histories from below” (Ludden, 403). Ludden states that, “Subaltern Studies from its beginnings was felt by many, with some justice, to be somewhat too dismissive about predecessors and contemporaries working on not entirely dissimilar lines, and the claims of setting up a new ‘paradigm’ were certainly overflamboyant” (Ludden, 403). It studies the conditions of those in the social groups that have virtually no way to climb up the hierarchy of power within the institution that they dwell in. It studies the socio-economic conditions and statuses of those considered to be subaltern, and how the groups are affected as they are. The late Subaltern Studies has focused on three areas to study, which comprise of ‘derivative discourse,’ indigenous ‘community,’ and ‘fragments (Ludden, 407)’. The ways in which in this field is studied have and continue to change. This can be attributed to always evolving institutions, new scholarly perspectives, etc.


Works Cited:

Ludden, David. (2005). “Reading Subaltern Studies: Critical History, Contested Meaning, and the

Globalisation of South Asia”Permanent Black

Gran, Peter. (2004). “Subaltern Studies, Racism, and Class Struggle: Examples from India and the United States”. International Gramsci Society Online Article. http://www.internationalgramscisociety.org/resources/online_articles/articles/gran01.shtml

Spivak, Gayatri. (2005). “Scattered Speculations on the subaltern and the popular”. Postcolonial Studies, 8(4). https://doi.org/10.1080/13688790500375132


*Quick note from Caroline: Devon is doing a great job explaining a really tricky concept, and I want to highlight this important quote. Someone, or a group, who is subaltern is not just Other, minority, or disadvantaged; they are essentially unable to speak for themselves in the existing structures of power. That’s what Spivak is talking about here, and what Devon is talking about in the second paragraph.