Browsing through 51 Years of EPW | After Subaltern Studies

As an intellectual project, Subaltern Studies was perhaps overdetermined by its times. Given today's changed contexts the tasks set out by it cannot be taken forward within the framework and methods mobilised for it. Subaltern Studies was a product of its time; another time calls for other projects. An exploration of what Subaltern Studies achieved, what remained unasked and unrecognised and what has changed in the historical context to necessitate new intellectual project(s).

It has been some time that people started talking about “After Subaltern Studies”. In fact, if one thinks of the coming and going of intellectual fashions, 30 years is an unusually long time for a school or trend to stay in or around the limelight. In the half a century or so that has passed since I first became aware of such things, I have seen the rise and demise of existentialist philo­sophy, structural anthropology, structural-functionalism, modernisation theory, structuralist Marxism, history from below, d­ependency theory, world systems theory, postmodernism and deconstruction; there must have been a few other trends that were once in vogue but I cannot now recall. Many are unaware of the fact that I was present at the birth, more than 40 years ago, of rational choice political t­heory and participated in it with some diligence, if not enthusiasm or conviction. So it is neither a matter of surprise nor of sadness to engage with the subject “After Subaltern Studies”.

Nonetheless, it is not an elegy that I will offer. Instead, I will argue that sev­eral of the questions raised by Subaltern Studies have been neither dismissed nor properly answered, while others are only now beginning to be addressed. The task, as it now stands, cannot, I think, be taken forward within the framework of the concepts and methods mobilised in Subaltern Studies and certainly cannot be carried out by the original participants in that project. What is needed is not an extension or reformulation of Subaltern Studies; what is needed are new projects.

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