When and how to use the term subaltern?

This article was written by Shabnam Holliday (University of Plymouth)
This article was published on

Following the 2015 CPD group workshop - 'Thinking With/Against/Past the “Subaltern”' - Shabnam Holliday discusses the term subaltern and its use.

One of the themes that I found emerged during the CPD workshop was the issue of who our audience is; and in light of this how and whether we should use the term subaltern. On reflection, I feel that two groups of people are important when thinking about the term subaltern in terms of when and how it should be used: our students and the people about whom we carry out research. It seems to me that the notion of responsibility is important for both groups. With regard to the latter, what is our responsibility to those about whom we carry out research? This question raises a series of important questions that were discussed at the workshop. Do those about whom we do research consider themselves as ‘subaltern’?  Does it matter whether or not they consider themselves as ‘subaltern’? If they do not consider themselves as ‘subaltern’, how should we be using the term in our academic work? Or, should we be using the term at all?

With regard to the students we teach, what is our responsibility to them? In this instance, I found the discussions about how we teach the ‘subaltern’ stimulating and, again, discussions raised a series of important questions. How do we teach the ‘subaltern’? Should we use the term at all when teaching about a particular social group, community, society, region, polity? Which areas of knowledge should be taught first in a module on IR theory, for instance? In this context should the starting point be critical approaches to IR, as opposed to traditional approaches? Should the starting point be issues such as identity, poverty etc. rather than the development of theory in the context of the discipline of IR? What would the implication of this be for undergraduate and postgraduate students who are trying to navigate the discipline of IR? That is, are we putting students at a disadvantage if they do not have the traditional tools of the discipline? Therefore, should we in fact be teaching IR theory with traditional theories as our starting point?

I have outlined several questions here, all of which were discussed at the workshop in the context of stimulating discussions about the concept of the ‘subaltern’. As was clear during our discussions, there is a need to try and answer these questions and somehow address them in our work as academics. For me, in order to have a meaningful reflection on my own practice, there is the need to think about the issue of responsibility. As ‘learning facilitators’, what is our responsibility in the process of providing a space for students to learn, to both the students, as well as to those about whom we carry out research? It was clear at the workshop that this issue of responsibility is influenced by a number of factors among which are: stage of career and type of contract (e.g. a GTA or Teaching Fellow who is told what to teach and may not have power to change curricula), the academic discipline, the module being taught, and the priorities of the academic department.

It is also important to remember that we work in very fluid environments and carry out research on very fluid social groups, communities, regions, societies, polities. Nevertheless, perhaps we should always bear in mind our sense of responsibility in changing environments.