Scott: resistance

Art work by Raul Leon James C. Scott provides another perspective on hegemony and ‘invisible power’ that has been both influential and controversial. In is influential book Weapons of the weak: everyday forms of resistance (1985) Scott introduces the idea that oppression and resistance are in constant flux, and that by focusing (as political scientists often do) on visible historic ‘events’ such as organised rebellions or collective action we can easily miss subtle but powerful forms of ‘every day resistance’. Scott looks at peasant and slave societies and their ways of responding to domination, with a focus not on observable acts of rebellion but on forms of cultural resistance and non-cooperation that are employed over time through the course of persistent servitude.

Scott’s research finds that overt peasant rebellions are actually rather uncommon, do not occur when and where expected, and often don’t have much impact.  Rather than seeing ‘resistance as organisation’, Scott looks at less visible, every-day forms of resistance such as ‘foot-dragging, evasion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander and sabotage’.  He finds these in rural and factory settings, and also among the middle class and elites (e.g. through tax evasion or conscription), but particularly among rural people who are physically dispersed and less politically organised than urban populations (Scott 1985).

Closely linked to the idea of resistance is Scott’s notion of ‘transcripts’ (hidden and public) which are established ways of behaving and speaking that fit particular actors in particular social settings, whether dominant or oppressed.  Resistance is a subtle form of contesting ‘public transcripts’ by making use of prescribed roles and language to resist the abuse of power – including things like ‘rumour, gossip, disguises, linguistic tricks, metaphors, euphemisms, folktales, ritual gestures, anonymity’ (page 137). These methods are particularly effective in situations where violence is used to maintain the status quo, allowing ‘a veiled discourse of dignity and self-assertion within the public transcript… in which ideological resistance is disguised, muted and veiled for safety’s sake’ (page 137).  These forms of resistance require little coordination or planning, and are used by both individuals and groups to resist without directly confronting or challenging elite norms.

Importantly, with his idea of ‘transcripts’ Scott recognises that the dominant as well as the weak are often caught within the same web of socialised roles and behaviour (Scott 1992) often expressed without  any explicit or conscious intent. In this sense Scott has a cultural/psychological view of hegemony as subconscious and internalised (through transcripts) rather than as wilful, coordinated acts of domination. But with ‘resistance’ he sees power as lying somewhere between structure and agency:

‘Most of the political life of subordinate groups is to be found neither in the overt collective defiance of powerholders nor in complete hegemonic compliance, but in the vast territory between these two polar opposites’ (Scott 1985: 136).

There are clear connections between resistance and the ideas of hidden and invisible power. Just as hidden forms of power can be used by powerful actors to keep certain issues and voices off of the agenda, similarly relatively powerless groups can employ strategies of resistance which ‘hide’ their actions from the powerful, or which use codes to make them invisible. An example may be found in the rich history of African-American spirituals, which were sometimes used in the times of slavery as codes for communication, disguising hidden messages from the workers under the guise of singing a hymn (John Gaventa, pers. comm.). Also, read about resistance as hidden power amd invisible power and false consciousness.

References for further reading

Scott, J. C. (1985). Weapons of the weak: everyday forms of resistance. New Haven and London, Yale University Press.

Scott, J. C. (1992). Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven and London, Yale University Press.

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