FIGGINS, JAMES: QUESTIONING AN ETHNOGRAPHIC TEXT: SCOTT, JAMES: WEAPONS OF THE WEAK

Text

Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance

Scott, James C. 1985. Weapons of the weak: everyday forms of peasant resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.

 

What is the text “about” -- empirically and conceptually?

What modes of inquiry were used to produce it?

How is the text structured and performed?

How can it circulate? 

 

What is the text about – empirically?

The text is about subtle ways in which peasants disrupt and rebel against the state. Scott claims that, while rebellion and revolution receive disproportionate attention, peasants more often employ foot-dragging and desertion to more overt expressions of political dissatisfaction

 

Where is this phenomenon located – in a neighborhood, in a country, in “Western Culture,” in a globalizing economy?

The phenomenon is located in rural Malaysia but even though it sounds tautological, it’s located in a state  the stateness of the backdrop is essential to theory and exigence of the book. The state may be considered a result of modernity, but the ordinal ontology of the phenomenon can’t really be separated. The village is also a key unit of the environment. 

 

What historical trajectory is the phenomenon situated within?  What, in the chronology provided or implied, is emphasized -- the role of political or economic forces, the role of certain individuals or social groups?  What does the chronology leave out or discount?

The historical phenomenon is the structure of the state being imposed upon a people who were quite happy without it. You had peasants, whose lives had been unchanged for centuries, who were suddenly told, “You’re in a modern state now. You’re a citizen. You have responsibilities, and a new facet of identity, and if you don’t do what you’re told, there will be consequences.” It’s a story of responding to exogenous pressure. 

 

What scale(s) are focused on -- nano (i.e. the level of language), micro, meso, macro? What empirical material is developed at each scale?  

 The scale of the work is primarily micro, but can be better understood as an integrated and dynamic relationship between micro, meso, and macro. The thrust of WoTW is that individuals respond to uncomfortable state structures by micro-processes of refusal; if they’re drafted into the army, they won’t stage a coup, but they will desert. But that process relies on all three levels. The macro-level of the state has to want something. It is the prime mover. The individual reacts to it by subtle noncompliance. But individuals rely on their interpersonal network (meso-level) to turn an individual decision into a group decision to desert or otherwise fail to comply. But of course the state responds, reintroducing the macro-level. 

 

Who are the players in the text and what are their relations?  Does the text trace how these relations have changed across time – because of new technologies, for example?

 The players in the text are primarily articulated as the peasants and the state. The author also articulates these as classes: the working class and the bourgeoisie. The work traces the historical processes of both state modernization and capitalism. The growing emphasis on wage-earning and labor away from subsistence farming is key to the group relations. 

What is the temporal frame in which players play?  In the wake of a particular policy, disaster or other significant “event?”  In the general climate of the Reagan era, or of “after-the-Wall” globalization? 

1967-1979 saw changes in production ability through the use of combine harvesters as the primary change in village life, but internal conflict, regime change, and ethnic tension characterized the macro-sphere of politics.

  

What cultures and social structures are in play in the text?

In many ways, what we’re treating with is a conservative or recalcitrant peasant culture. People want to keep doing things the way they always have and changing environments keep trying to force them into new roles. The urban/rural divide as well as ruling/peasant class is also salient. 

 

What kinds of practices are described in the text?  Are players shown to be embedded in structural contradictions or double-binds?

Similar answer to the above. In many ways, the cultural structures are the primary battlegrounds. There’s also the issue of expectation and legibility. Scott is describing a hitherto unexplored medium of participation. If you participate too loudly (by rebelling) you’re legible but in danger. If you participate softly (through foot-dragging) you may be invisible (which is be preferred by the subjects).

 

How are science and technology implicated in the phenomenon described?

The combine harvester represents a sort of exogenous shock to the culture of these people. They have to adapt to expectations by the state that they produce and be productive.

 

What structural conditions– technological, legal and legislative, political, cultural – are highlighted, and how are they shown to have shaped the phenomenon described in this text?

 

 

How – at different scales, in different ways – is power shown to operate?  Is there evidence of power operating through language, “discipline,” social hierarchies, bureaucratic function, economics, etc? 

The main power dynamic is bilateral tension between the state, who seeks to impose its requirements and expectations on a reluctant people, and a class of people who can disrupt the state by not playing along. In a sense, it’s a labor dispute. The state has its martial power to fall back on, but the power of anonymity and cost-imposition involved with identifying and punishing the non-compliant peasants is an equally powerful force. 

 

Does the text provide comparative or systems level perspectives?  In other words, is the particular phenomenon described in this text situated in relation to similar phenomenon in other settings?  Is this particular phenomena situated within global structures and processes? 

Since the work is presented in terms of class dynamic, and Scott frames the actions he describes as against hegemony, it is intended to be generalizable. 



What is the text about – conceptually?

Is the goal to verify, challenge or extend prior theoretical claims?

WotW challenges and expands theoretical claims and assumptions about resistance. Previous theories described resistance as an explosive and dramatic process and Scott challenged that assumption by identifying new modes activity. 

 

What is the main conceptual argument or theoretical claim of the text?  Is it performed, rendered explicit or both? 



What ancillary concepts are developed to articulate the conceptual argument?

The concept of hegemony is explored to articulate resistance. 


How is empirical material used to support or build the conceptual argument?

Scott uses a combination of interviews and observations with quantitative data. He uses the qualitative material for theory-craft; he learns the motivations and internal reasonings of his subjects. He then uses quantitative data on production, income, ownerships, plowing, etc. to demonstrate that what he says is going on is actually going on.

 

 

How robust is the main conceptual argument of the text?  On what grounds could it be challenged?

The theory itself is very convincing to me. The theory of micro-processes of resistance is one of those things that seems obvious until you realize that no one had codified it. I include this meme as an example:

 

 

How could the empirical material provided support conceptual arguments other than those built in the text?

  Without the political motivation, you may decide that there are times when peasants just get lazy. There may be a connection to season religion to explain mysterious dereliction. 

 

 

 

Modes of inquiry?

What theoretical edifice provides the (perhaps haunting – i.e. non-explicit) backdrop to the text?

I think fear haunts the background of the available information. If a state had evidence that peasants were shirking and that weakened their position, there would be serious consequences. Foot-dragging may not illegal but it is illicit and desertion is an outright crime.

 

What assumptions appear to have shaped the inquiry?  Does the author assume that individuals are rational actors, for example, or assume that the unconscious is a force to be dealt with?  Does the author assume that the “goal” of society is (functional) stability? Does the author assume that what is most interesting occurs with regularity, or is she interested in the incidental and deviant? 

The author is most concerned with function: how do you achieve something without resources. In a sense, the author is more concerned with how to break a state than why a state functions. But he also normalizes their resistance, attempting to illuminate it as legitimate. 

 

What kinds of data (ethnographic, experimental, statistical, etc.)  are used in the text, and how were they obtained?

There’s a lot of data in this book. The mixed methodology increases its scope. But the primary types of data are ethnographic and statistical. The ethnographics information was derived from multiple conversations and communications with community members on the whole. The statistical information was obtained from government project data such as the “Farm Economy Survey Project of the Muda River Project”. 



 

If interviews were conducted, what kinds of questions were asked?  What does the author seem to have learned from the interviews?

I wish he had included a more structured list of his interview questions because, as is, it makes it hard to see what information was derived from an interview and what was derived from observation. 

 

 

How was the data analyzed?  If this is not explicit, what can be inferred? 

This is an interesting question of meta-methodology. The short answer is, I don’t know. But the longer answer is, I don’t know and I also don’t know the methodological standards and norms around analyzing the raw data obtained through ethnographies.

 

 

How are people, objects or ideas aggregated into groups or categories?

Scott alternatingly aggregates and disaggregates his subjects. There are named, identified individuals, but sometimes he extrapolates up to make generalizable statements about classes as a whole or “well-off” versus “poor” farmers. He tends to favor income as a salient cleavage. 

 

 

What additional data would strengthen the text? 

The smoking gun would be a state falling apart from being pecked to death. If the Malaysian government had fallen as a direct result of food shortages or their military was too small because of desertion, Scott’s point would have been perfectly demonstrated. 



 

 

 

Structure and performance?



 

Where is theory in the text?  Is the theoretical backdrop to the text explained, or assumed to be understood? 

It’s an interesting rhetorical device, but Scott bookends his work with theory. The opening chapter throws some theory at you just to position it in its place, but the last chapter is 50 pages on Gramsci and hegemony. I actually appreciate the structure; it’s textbook inductive reasoning. He starts with the necessary theory required to understand his exact case, then he outlines his empirics, then he goes into the theoretical implications and its wider application to existing theories. 



What is the structure of the discourse in the text?  What binaries recur in the text, or are conspicuously avoided?



 

How is the historical trajectory delineated?  Is there explicit chronological development?

Scott treats history like punctuated equilibrium. His treatment is mostly chronological, but he also assumes that things remain unchanged until there’s some spike that upends the status quo. 

 

 

How is the temporal context provided or evoked in the text?

The author seems more concerned with dates than the subjects do. There are some key events, migrations, regime changes, conflicts, that subdivide the time between 67 and 79 though.

 

 

How does the text specify the cultures and social structures in play in the text?

The author relies on assumptions of class distinctiveness in his work. The social structures imposed by income and location play heavily on the interactions between the actors. 

 

How are informant perspectives dealt with and integrated? 

 

Scott’s long history with these people make informant perspectives easier. It isn’t explicitly stated, but the text suggests that the interviewees had some level of autonomy and public-commenting process on how their views were presented. 

 

How does the text draw out the implications of science and technology? At what level of detail are scientific and technological practices described?

Infrequently and indifferently. Technology isn’t the most operational of variables. 



How does the text provide in-depth detail – hopefully without losing readers?

Scott’s writing has both a narrative and lyrical quality. His close following of particular named characters grounds his work in human experience; you learn lots from Haji Kadir. There’s a good balance of statistical data with qualitative data so it breaks up the monotony.  

 

 

What is the layout of the text?  How does it move, from first page to last?  Does it ask for other ways of reading? Does the layout perform an argument?

As a medium, academic books read rather similarly: a problem-description, puzzle, or observation, some historical background, some theory, a few empirical chapters, and a conclusion. Weapons of the Weak is no different. I would say that he back-loads high theory at the end - which was slightly different. The layout provides a backbone a basic rhetorical argument. It progresses from topic to evidence into theory.



What kinds of visuals are used, and to what effect?

There are photographs provided, mostly of peasants at work and their living arrangements. I didn’t find them especially compelling partly because I’m not as stimulated by the images as the text but also because they don’t serve much of a purpose. They weren’t curated to show the juxtaposition between the state (though there is a decent disparity shown between classes.)



 

What kind of material and analysis are in the footnotes?

Citation and explanation. The explanatory footnotes mostly entertain alternative theories or origins of the topics he describes.



How is the criticism of the text performed?  If through overt argumentation, who is the “opposition”? 

There isn’t as much counterpoint or predicting criticism in the text. Scott does question some of his own assumptions in his later chapters, but it’s mostly interrogating his own epistemological processes. 

 

How does the text situate itself?  In other words, how is reflexivity addressed, or not?



  

 

Circulation?

Who is the text written for?  How are arguments and evidence in the text shaped to address particular audiences?

This is clearly an academic book, but it’s a decidedly and interdisciplinary one. The primary reader must be thought to be an anthropologist but lots of the theory is political philosophy. Marx and Gramsci and Adorno are sprinkled throughout and since the author is a self-described anarchist, theories of the state widen the readership into the fields of subversive activity and rural studies. 



What all audiences can you imagine for the text, given its empirical and conceptual scope?

See above.

 

 

What new knowledge does this text put into circulation?  What does this text have to say that otherwise is not obvious?

The text is an invitation to place micro-processes under the spotlight. It first argues that, just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. But it also makes bold claims about subaltern sources of power and re-elevates the peasant class as the lifeblood of a society. 

 

 

How generalizable is the main argument?  How does this text lay the groundwork for further research?

Hugely generalizable. This book inspired a study I want to do wherein I find out if civil servants work less hard when their opposition party is in power. I want to learn all the ways people upturn structures of power when they lack the capacity to challenge these structures on their own terms. Scott invites us to find other weapons of the weak hiding in plain sight. 

 

 

What kind of “action” is suggested by the main argument of the text? 




Other modes of expression? 

Describe how the material and arguments of this text could be presented in a form other than that of a conventional scholarly book -- as a graphic novel, museum exhibit, activist stunt, or educational module for kids, for example? 

As we’ll get to later, I think in games. I love grand strategy games where you play as a state or an empire and try to build a simulacrum of a society. I can envision a game wherein you play as a nascent state with internal and external political problems but every time you overexert the peasantry, little events present themselves to make you question your plans. Imagine planning a  military endeavor and you attempt to muster an army but realize the peasants are deserting so you can’t attack at full strength. Or you attempt to collect increased taxes but the wheels of collection slow because of non-compliance so you have to reevaluate how to pay for programs. I’d want a real life balance between ambition and appeasing the so-called lowest order.

 

License

Creative Commons Licence

Contributors

Created date

October 14, 2019

Critical Commentary

This sketch was done for UCI Anthro 215A, Ethnographic Methods, Fall 2019.