A Note on History from Below
The disciplines of History from Below and Subaltern Studies deserve intentional integration into modern scholarship on the Middle East. This argument finds its roots in reevaluating the perspective from which history has been recorded and returning agency to the narratives of those who have been co-opted or ignored.
The study of History from Below (HfB) seeks to correct an absence of non-elite history by drawing on Marx, Gramsci, and Hobsbawn to focus on episodes of social protest, resistance, and mass movements from the perspective of non-elite classes, whose views are often invisible or subsumed under the hegemony of more powerful social and economic groups.
The current discourse of modern Middle East scholarship, regional power dynamics, state sovereignty, and global institutions continues this trend of utilizing traditional history and top-down narratives of those in power, with little room for non-elite classes and their influence, capabilities and agency. Grassroots history is fundamental to subaltern studies and both approaches offer the traditional Middle East scholar a more comprehensive lens through which to understand the complexities of the region.
The term subaltern refers to a wide range of groups who possess subordinate social, political, economic, and ideological status. Its usage was popularized after Ranajit Guha’s publication of the Subaltern Studies project. This work drew on Antonio Gramsci and his fluid concepts of class and state to shape a "politics of the people"----a move away from grassroots history’s orthodox-Marxist economic determinism----as well as Michel Foucault's discursive method of analysis to focus on subaltern agency and consciousness. The strength of the original project was the presence of differences and lack of a covering theory.
Grassroots history drifted away from revisions on elite historiography toward popular culture after the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism. The shift marked a point at which Subaltern Studies began to exclude the Subaltern on which it built its foundations. Sumit Sarkar coined this shift the "Saidian" turn, where an increased emphasis upon colonial discourse, concern with the intellectual foundations of colonialism and attempts to deconstruct the Euro-centricity of colonial discourse all led to the unintended consequence of restoring Euro-centricity. Often accused of its own universalism, the post-modern critique of universalism can grossly simplify and homogenize while Said's relentless cultural focus on colonial domination can erase any pre-colonial or indigenous roots.
Champion of a similar critique in the seminal but gravely opaque work, "Can the Subaltern Speak?," Gayatri Spivak elicits concern with the processes of postcolonial studies that ironically reinstated the imperatives of political domination, economic exploitation and cultural erasure that it sought to dismantle. Spivak suggested scholars who attempt to offer voice to the dispossessed will invariably encounter a collectivizing assumption of cultural solidarity among a heterogeneous people as well as a dependence upon western intellectuals to "speak for" the subaltern condition. To put more simply, at the core of her main theoretical objection is a frustration with academic assumptions of a subaltern collectivity, which further reinforces a totalizing, essentialist myth and which does not account for the heterogeneity of the colonized.
These post-modern evolutions underline their theoretical and methodological importance for modern Middle East scholarship. Given the depth and breadth of Middle East Studies, it is imperative that current discussions seek to engage intersectionalities and avoid approaches that essentialize culture and consciousness. Reflected in HfB and later Subaltern Studies’ evolution toward a more inclusive and critical discipline, modern MES must be reflexive. Postmodern scholarship has helped scholars of the Middle East cut down on sweeping generalizations----e.g., Sherene Seikaly and Erik-jan Zürcher----and grand narratives by deconstructing identities while retaining political and social context.
MES must continue to battle methodological and theoretical objections that prioritize elite historiography and allow for the dominance of imperialist constructs. “If the West sentenced the otherness of the conquered to History," writes Gyan Prakash, "to recognize that project now as the work of a universal logic which used and produced difference without compromising its sovereignty is to repeat that act of incarceration” (236). Scholars must remain diligent if they wish to take seriously the multiplicity and difference inhabiting the social world. They must be aware of the dangers of such a project, underscored by Prakash, in order to further discussions that include the agency of the non-elite.
Jessica Wamala is a member of the Peace Corps Volunteers in Fez, Morocco. Wamala received a Master's Degree from the University of Oxford, where her research focused on women's social movements in Palestinian civil society.