In critical theory and postcolonialism, the term subaltern designates the populations which are socially, politically, and geographically outside of the hegemonic power structure of the colony and of the colonial homeland. In describing "history told from below", subaltern was coined by Antonio Gramsci, notably through his work on cultural hegemony, which identified the groups that are excluded from a society's established institutions and thus denied the means by which people have a voice in their society.
The terms subaltern and Subaltern Studies entered postcolonial studies through the works of the Subaltern Studies Group, a collection of historians of the Indian Subcontinent who explored the political-actor role of the men and women who constitute the mass population, rather than the political roles of the social and economic elites, in the history of the Indian Subcontinent. Marxist historians had already been investigating colonial history as told from the perspective of the proletariat, using the concept of social classes as being determined by economic relations. In the 1970s, subaltern began to denote the colonized peoples of the Indian subcontinent and described a new perspective of the history of an imperial colony as told from the point of view of the colonized rather than that of the colonizers. In the 1980s, the scope of enquiry of Subaltern Studies was applied as an "intervention in South Asian historiography".
As a method of intellectual discourse, the concept of the subaltern is contentious because it originated as a Eurocentric method of historical enquiry for studying the non-Western people of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. From its inception as an historical-research model for studying the colonial experience of the peoples of the Indian Subcontinent, subaltern studies transformed from a model of intellectual discourse into a method of "vigorous post-colonial critique". The term "subaltern" is used in the fields of history, anthropology, sociology, human geography, literary criticism,musicology, and art history.
In postcolonial theory, the term subaltern describes the lower classes and the social groups who are at the margins of a society: a subaltern is a person rendered without agency by social status. Nonetheless, the feminist scholar Gayatri Spivak spoke against an overly broad application of the term in 1992:
...subaltern is not just a classy word for "oppressed", for [the] Other, for somebody who's not getting a piece of the pie.... In post-colonial terms, everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is subaltern--a space of difference. Now, who would say that's just the oppressed? The working class is oppressed. It's not subaltern.... Many people want to claim subalternity. They are the least interesting and the most dangerous. I mean, just by being a discriminated-against minority on the university campus; they don't need the word 'subaltern'.... They should see what the mechanics of the discrimination are. They're within the hegemonic discourse, wanting a piece of the pie, and not being allowed, so let them speak, use the hegemonic discourse. They should not call themselves subaltern.
In Marxist theory, the civil sense of the term subaltern was first used by the Italian communist intellectual Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). In discussions of the meaning of the "subaltern" in Gramsci's writings, Spivak and others have argued that he used the word as a synonym for the proletariat (a code word to deceive the prison censor to allow his manuscripts out the prison), but that interpretation has been contested, with evidence indicating that it was a novel concept in Gramsci's political theory. In several essays, the postcolonial critic Homi K. Bhabha emphasized the importance of social power relations in defining subaltern social groups as oppressed, racial minorities whose social presence was crucial to the self-definition of the majority group; as such, subaltern social groups, nonetheless, also are in a position to subvert the authority of the social groups who hold hegemonic power.
In Toward a New Legal Common Sense (2002), the sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos applies the term subaltern cosmopolitanism to describe the counter-hegemonic practice, social movement, resistance, and struggle against neoliberal globalization, especially the struggle against social exclusion. Moreover, de Sousa Santos applies subaltern cosmopolitanism as interchangeable with the term cosmopolitan legality to describe the diverse normative framework for an equality of differences in which the term subaltern specifically denotes the oppressed peoples at the margins of a society who are struggling against hegemonic globalization. However, context, time, and place (but perhaps not the Marxist emphasis on the economic relations) determine who, among the peoples at the margins of a society, is a Subaltern; in India women, dalits, rural, tribal, immigrant laborers are part of subaltern.
Postcolonial theory studies the power and the continued dominance of Western ways of knowing, of intellectual enquiry. The work of Edward Said in the book Orientalism conceptually addresses oppressed subaltern peoples, to explain how the Eurocentric perspective of Orientalism produced the foundations and the justifications for the domination of the Other, by means of colonialism. Before their explorations of The Orient, the Europeans had created an imagined geography of the Orient, predefined images of savage and monstrous places that lay beyond the horizon of the known world. During their initial Oriental explorations, the Europeans' mythologies were reinforced, when the travellers returned to Europe with reports of monsters and savage lands. The concepts of the "difference" and the "strangeness" of the Orient were perpetuated through the mass communications media of the time and through discourse that created an "Us" and "Them" binary social relation with which the Europeans defined themselves by defining the differences of the Orient from the Occident, the European West. The Us-and-Them binary social relation was a foundation of colonialism, because it represented the Orient as backward and irrational lands, and, therefore, in need of European help to become modern, in the Western sense. Hence, the discourse of Orientalism is Eurocentric, and does not seek to include the voices of the Oriental peoples, the subalterns, themselves.
The cultural theorist Stuart Hall argued that the power of discourse created and reinforced Western dominance. The discourses on how Europe described differences between itself (The West) and others, used European cultural categories, languages, and ideas to represent "The Other." The knowledge produced by such a discourse becomes praxis, which then becomes reality; by producing a discourse of "difference" Europe was able to maintain its dominance over "The Other", with a binary social relation between the European and The Other, thereby creating and establishing the Subaltern, made possible by excluding The Other from the production of the discourse.
Gayatri Spivak's line of reasoning was developed in Joanne Sharp's Geographies of Post colonialism (2008), who proposed that Western intellectuals relegate other, non-Western (African, Asian, Middle Eastern) forms of "knowing", of acquiring knowledge of the world, to the margins of intellectual discourse, by re-formulating these forms of knowing as myth and as folklore. To be heard and known, the subaltern must adopt Western ways of knowing, of thought, reasoning, and language; because of such Westernization, a subaltern people can never express their ways of knowing (thought, reasoning, language) and instead must conform expression of their non-Western knowledge of colonial life to Western ways of knowing the world. Subalterns' abandonment of culturally customary ways of thinking and the subsequent adoption of Western ways of thinking are necessary in many situations. The subordinated can be heard by oppressors only by speaking the language of the rulers; thus, intellectual and cultural filters of conformity muddle the true voice of the subaltern. For example, in Colonial Latin America, non-elites must conform to the colonial culture and use the filters of religion and servitude, in the language, when addressing the Spanish Imperial rulers. To make their appeals to the crown effective, slaves and natives would address the rulers in ways that might mask their own ways of speaking.
Early modern historian Fernando Coronil said that the goal of the investigator must be "to listen to the subaltern subjects, and to interpret what I hear" and to engage them and interact with their voices. We cannot ascend to a position of dominance over the voice, subjugating its words to the meanings we desire to attribute to them. That is simply another form of discrimination. The power to narrate somebody's story is a heavy task, and we must be cautious and aware of the complications involved. Spivak and bell hooks question the academic's engagement with the Other, and argue that, to truly engage with the subaltern, the academic would have to remove him or herself as "the expert" at the center of the Us-and-Them binary social relation. Traditionally, the academic wants to know about the subaltern's experiences of colonialism, but does not want to know the subaltern's (own) explanation of his or her experiences of colonial domination. According to the received view in Western knowledge, hooks argued that a true explanation can come only from the expertise of the academic, thus, the subordinated subject, the subaltern surrender knowledge of colonialism for the use of the Western academic; hooks describes the relationship between the academic and the subaltern:
[There is] no need to hear your voice, when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you, I write myself anew. I am still author, authority. I am still [the] colonizer, the speaking subject, and you are now at the center of my talk.-- "Marginality as a Site of Resistance" (1990)
As a means of constructing a greater historical picture of society, the Subaltern's story is a revealing examination of society; the perspective of the subaltern man and woman, the most powerless people who live within colonial confines; therefore, the investigator of post-colonialism must not assume a lumbering cultural superiority in the course of studying the voices of the oppressed subalterns.
Mainstream development discourse, which is based upon knowledge of colonialism and Orientalism, concentrates upon modernization theory, wherein the modernization of an underdeveloped country should follow the path to modernization taken (and established) by the developed countries of the West. As such, modernization is characterized by free trade, open markets, capitalist economic systems, and democratic systems of governance, as the means by which a nation should modernize their country en route to becoming a developed country in the Western style. Therefore, mainstream development discourse concentrates upon the application of universal social and political, economic and cultural policies that would nationally establish such modernization.
In Making Development Geography (2007), Victoria Lawson presents a critique of mainstream development discourse as mere recreation of the Subaltern, which is effected by means of the subaltern being disengaged from other social scales, such as the locale and the community; not considering regional, social class, ethnic group, sexual- and gender-class differences among the peoples and countries being modernized; the continuation of the socio-cultural treatment of the subaltern as a subject of development, as a subordinate who is ignorant of what to do and how to do it; and by excluding the voices of the subject peoples from the formulations of policy and practice used to effect the modernization.
As such, the subaltern are peoples who have been silenced in the administration of the colonial states they constitute, they can be heard by means of their political actions, effected in protest against the discourse of mainstream development, and, thereby, create their own, proper forms of modernization and development. Hence do subaltern social groups create social, political, and cultural movements that contest and disassemble the exclusive claims to power of the Western imperialist powers, and so establish the use and application of local knowledge to create new spaces of opposition and alternative, non-imperialist futures.