Beyond Protest: What is Resistance?

By Megan Byrom - HSPS Student @ Queens' College, Cambridge

Revolution, upheaval, and political mobilisation often appear synonymous with the idea of resistance. In the 21st century, media and the historical narratives characterise resistance in a broader context, marked by protest, strikes, and collective action.

We would perhaps think of the French revolution, followed by the famous image of ‘Liberty' leading the people. Even in contemporary culture, from ‘Les Miserables’ to dystopian revolutionary fantasies such as ‘The Hunger Games’, resistance occupies a unique space in our cultural imaginations as well as our political realities with movements such as Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion fighting for political change today.

However, is this view of protest and collective action, a productive way to think about the true nature of power and resistance? Social anthropology wishes to address such a question.

For James. C. Scott, resistance was not just limited to these ideas. Instead, he wished to move away from Marxist and Gramscian ideas of hegemony, and class revolution to unveil a more complex picture.

Looking at a range of ethnographic research and historical anthropology, Scott formed his ideas of ‘everyday forms of resistance and ‘weapons of the weak.’ Whilst other anthropologists looked at violent upheavals and protest as the most important forms of opposition to power, Scott believed that most resistance went unnoticed. His work concluded that overt forms of resistance rarely occurred, and covert, hidden and everyday forms of resistance were key to understanding the true dynamics of power in different societies.

Many dismissed these ideas, suggesting that resistance must be characterized by collectivities and agency. But to Scott, ‘everyday forms of resistance also fulfilled these ideas, believing the subordinates were agent in devising tactics such as non-cooperation, feigned ignorance and sabotage. These were active decisions that then created classifications of those who were involved.

Furthermore, he believed that simply looking at what happened in the public sphere created misunderstandings of people's lives under systems of domination. He believed in the notion of ‘hidden transcripts’, that discourse is more complex than what we publicly say, and instead, we must look beneath the surface of this behaviour.

However, Scott’s exploration of covert resistance perhaps has the same shortcomings as many of our simplistic and romanticised ideas of overt revolution and protest. Scott’s everyday forms of resistance present the subordinated as a unified collective and ignore the internal politics of these groups. Power and resistance work in different ways, and power too, can act overtly and covertly. For example, within working-class groups, prejudice and oppression still exist, within what Scott frames as an equal collective. This impacts the internal power dynamics of groups and influences the action we take. Therefore, we shouldn't so easily divide people into subordinate vs dominant groups, when in reality power does not work along this binary.

To understand the true nature of power and resistance, we have to go beyond protest, but we should not omit it. Political mobilizations and outward collective action are still effective tactics of resistance that shouldn't be undermined. However, Scott’s ideas are also essential to see how power and resistance work in all spheres of life, beyond the picket lines and banners.

Further reading:

  1. Scott, James C. 1986. ‘Everyday forms of resistance. The Journal of Peasant Studies.

  2. Lila Abu Lughod: The Romance of Resistance: Tracing Transformations of Power Through Bedouin Women’ American Ethnologist 17(1): 41-55

  3. Cultural Anthropology Fieldsights series on Black Lives Matter protests, 2015: