Ethnography: Forms of Peasant Resistance

In 1985, James C. Scott released his book ‘Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance:’. Scott book Weapon of the Weak is a study of peasant resistance in a small Malaysian village Sedaka primarily based on his fieldwork. Within the nineteen-seventies Scott brought his family to Sedaka for two years of fieldwork. Scott’s intention is to strengthen a new view of domination and resistance. The understanding of daily life as a field of struggle depends not solely on the limits of resistance, but also on the limits of domination. During James Scott’s two-year fieldwork, he focuses on local class relationships in a small rice farming community of seventy households in Kedah’s main paddy-growing areas in Malaysia. Scott spent his two years thereafter the 1976 Green Revolution, where 2/3 of the opportunities for smallholders and landless laborer to earn wages have been eliminated.

Methodology In a very small community, Scott is able to give a remarkably sophisticated account of class relationships experiencing the full impact of the Green Revolution. Scott noted their attitudes by observing their mannerism, choice of words, and “frequent departures form professed standards of behavior” by working with villagers in the paddy field and engaging in informal discussion and interviews. Scott recorded relevant data – such as the acreage farmed by each family and whether the land is owned or rented, and the respective yield – allowing him to analyze the social structure of the village in terms of ‘rich’, ‘middle’, or ‘poor’ incomes.

Everyday Forms of Resistance Scott tries to shed light on the more unexplored aspects of resistance. He focuses on the subtle and everyday forms of resistance he aptly calls ‘weapons of the weak’ . Some examples of these 'weapons' are foot-dragging, gossiping, false-compliance, feigned ignorance, pilfering, dissertation, and sabotage acts. Scott argues that the peasantry resort to using these measures because they require little to no effort, requires no coordination, and usually bring about de facto gains. This is the opposite in regards to the strategies that the higher groups of the stratagem might employ. For example, the elites will have better coordination amongst themselves in the event of a potential coup. Scott also stressed that to risk a peasant insurrection, can potentially bring about more negative consequences rather than those benefitting the oppressed e.g. demoralization, greater law imposition and etc. As such, the “weapons of the weak” are favored by the peasantry. 

Impacts of Such Weapons All these ‘weapons’ share several common features. Despite being seemingly inconsequential, and bordering petty acts, the repercussions they bring are not trivial. In terms of direct impact, outright rebellions are favorable. However, Scott believes that these small acts are much more effective. He argues that the weapons are debilitating rather than aggressive in nature. They have the potential to reduce peasantry exploitation to a more bearable state, cripple the agendas of those in power, and produce unprecedented problems to the oppressors. For example, Scott explains how the desertation and evasion of conscription and forced labor have limited the imperial aspirations of many monarchies in Southeast Asia and Europe in the past. Evasion of taxes can also bring about dire consequences towards the state as it can curb the ambitions of those with authority.

Struggle, and the Relationship between the Rich and the Poor Sedaka is a state in Kedah and is not the village’s real name. However, in Sedaka the focus for they are “facts” that have been directly experienced, for example, changed in rental forms, mechanization wages, land tends and charity. Sedaka is a very small town with approximately 70 households that are strung out along a nearly mile-long dirt path, that also leads from all beaten weather road joining Yan to Kepala Batas. Scott examines the struggle within the community between the rich and the poor. This ethnography also discusses the impact on these people of the Green Revolution. In 1972, double-cropping was introduced that changed their lives. However, with the double-cropping and the Green Revolution, the wealthy become richer and the poor continue to be poor. The Green Revolution is a new method of farming for agriculture such as chemical fertilizers and new improved systems and machines for irrigation. These new practices have resulted in an increase in food supply. As for the machines, it allowed more farmers to be unemployed and the pesticides started killing off the wildlife. However, although the new farming method expands in production, it still does not satisfy the Sedaka community. Furthermore, Scott chose to understand the struggle between the rich and the poor as Sedaka applies capitalist methods such as double-cropping to their pre-existing agriculture methods. In chapter one, he mentioned two names, Razak and Haji “Broom”, in this ethnography, Scott uses two examples of individuals to illustrate the struggle and the relationship between the rich and the poor at the opposite ends of the social spectrum. The two examples of individuals also depict how the Sedakan society generally reacts to the arrogant, rich farmers’ exploitative behavior as well as how they react to the dishonest, lazy peasant. Razak complains how poor he is, even though he has land for farming he does not use it to generate income. The rich do not want to give him charity because he is an ‘undeserving poor’. On the other hand, Haji “Broom” uses his power to steal lands away from the poor by lending a substantial amount of money to a person in return for which he would be transferred the borrowers’ land title. Since these individuals serve as examples of generally unacceptable behavior, they achieve their intention in a similar manner that any socially sanctioned acts of deviance help to define what is normal, preferred behavior. Scott also mentioned that Razak, being the poor peasant that he is, was ridiculed and talked badly of directly to his face, while Haji “Broom” was talked about behind his back. The poor villagers of Sedaka would be penalized if word was to spread that they had talked badly about Haji “Broom”. This illustrates how the poor and rich are treated, although the rich are not affected by material sanctions, they cannot escape symbolic sanctions such as slander and gossip.

Ideas of Hegemony & False Consciousness in Sedaka Sedaka was experiencing a massive transformation of production relations due to double-cropping and mechanization supported by the state causing ideological conflict between the classes. Rich farmers have become wealthier and more powerful; they no longer have to pay labour’s wages and are able eliminate some social practices that were integrated in the earlier time of production relations. The rich would use material and symbolic “voluntary” acts of social consideration and generosity; such as zakat peribadi, to attain status, prestige, and social control. Scott calls it the “euphemization” of economic power of the wealthy. Poorer members of the village depend on this possibility of assistance from these rich farmers in order to maintain their household. These acts of generosity are then repaid through labor services and this thus, gives the rich farmers material wealth. Bordieu calls it the disguised purchase of labor power. However, the poor of Sedaka are aware of their reality and understand the accumulation, proletarianization, and marginalization of capital by the bourgeoisies. Although they accommodate themselves to these social relations of production publicly, they still continue to act on redefining them to their own advantage and act upon their interests and against the rich, despite fear of repression and economic compulsions. Abercombie argues that neither capitalism nor feudalism has been successful in achieving the internalization of the dominant ideology by subordinate classes. The main assumption of hegemony and false consciousness is that, to the extent that the upper class can persuade the poor to adopt their self-serving view of existing social relations, it will bring about ideological consensus and harmony that will block the perception of conflicting interests, especially class conflict. The function of the dominant ideology may be largely to secure the cohesion of dominant classes but the conformity of subordinate classes rests instead primarily on their knowledge that any other course is impractical, dangerous, or both. The concrete action of workers defending their material interests clearly suggests that there is radical consciousness. However, this development is undermined by the foundation of values and perceptions socially determined by the rich. Gramsci claims that radicalism of subordinate classes is found more in their acts than in their beliefs. However, Scott argues that it is quite the opposite. It is at the level of beliefs that subordinate classes are least constrained. The rich farmers in Sedaka can forcefully attain conforming public behaviors, but they cannot and does not need to attain private ideological conformity. Another explanation of hegemony is that it is a system of social domination that often appears to be inevitable; considered natural, and thus legitimate. Barrington Moore associated inevitability with justice and legitimacy. People are evidently inclined to grant legitimacy to anything that is or seems inevitable, no matter how painful it may be. Scott proposes that; “so far as the realm of ideology is concerned, no social order seems inevitable”; to all of its subject.

Main Argument: James Scott vs. Marxian & Gramscian Ideas of Hegemony & False Consciousness The theories of Scott are often contrasted with Gramscian ideas about hegemony, Scott’s Weapons of the Weak shows that Scott disagrees with Gramscian theory of false consciousness and hegemony. Scott argues against Gramsci that the peasant’s ‘everyday’ resistance shows that they did not consent to dominance. Scott argues in Weapons of the Weak that the bourgeoisie’s will because they do not know better, but because of a multitude of largely material and ideological reasons. Scott criticized Gramsci and other Marxists whose theories of hegemony and its related concepts of false consciousness, mystification, and ideological state apparatuses mislead us seriously in understanding class conflict. Scott has a cultural view of hegemony in this sense as subconscious and internalized rather than as willful, coordinated acts of domination. But with resistance he sees the Gramscian model’s power was to propose a concept of everyday forms of resistance’ that holds virtually all is or can be resistance. Scott shows the peasants making subtle protests against the authority in Weapons of the Weak. Although it looks like they are hegemonic, against the higher class they actually do something. The poor do not go directly against the rich, but through subtle acts of rebellion such as foot-dragging, acts of sabotage, and feigned ignorance. While Scott argues with Marxian and Gramscian theory, Scott is open to the view that false consciousness is not wrong, but only different, as ideologies are not defined in terms of a direct relationship to a class conflict, and are not objective.

Main Strengths and Weakness of the Ethnography The main strength of Scott’s ethnography 'Weapons of the Weak' lies in the intricacy of his research. By interacting with the small population of Sedaka, he managed to gain an in-depth insight of their everyday lives. It also allowed him to ‘see the world through the villagers eyes or verstehen since they trusted him enough to let him inside their small social sphere. In short, Weapons of the Weak provides very qualitative information due to its very specific nature. It is also nearly impossible to replicate the research as the people there, and times, have changed. The ethnography gives a rare glimpse of Sedaka during the time of Scott’s study. However, Scott’s work is not without any faults. Scott’s method of classification may be questionable due to the fact that there is a lack of social class. Distinctions for class stratifications is almost completely in Scott’s hand to decide. Additionally, Scott had studied in-depth the relationship between members of the ‘lower class’ and the ‘upper class’ with little to no to relation to the role played by the ‘middle class’. Nevertheless, this can be further debated as Scott’s focus lies in the intimate interaction between the two distinguished classes. Scott methodologies and studies have been criticised as eccentric by other anthropologists, but they are without doubt influential and invaluable. 

Conclusion In Weapons of the Weak, Scott looks at less visible, everyday forms of resistance rather than seeing ‘resistance as an organization’. In rural and factory settings, as well as among the middle class and elites, he finds these, but especially among rural people who are less politically organized than urban people. Scott introduces the idea of the constant flux of oppression and resistance. We can easily miss subtle but powerful forms everyday resistance by focusing on visible historical ‘events’ such as organized rebellions. Although some forms of resistance, which may not seem revolutionary and, in other words, do not produce directly revolutionary backgrounds against domination and create ways of corroding pillars of domination.

29 April 2022
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