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Anthropological Theory Copyright © 2006 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) http://ant.sagepub.com Vol 6(3): 303–321 10.1177/1463499606066890

Resistance Susan Seymour Pitzer College, USA

Abstract Since the late 1970s and early 1980s the concept of resistance has become ubiquitous within contemporary cultural anthropology. Theorizing resistance, however, has been problematic from the start and, as I shall argue, a significant part of the problem resides in the anti-psychological position taken by most cultural anthropologists. How can actors protest and resist hegemonic powers if they are not endowed with internalized cultural understandings that motivate such actions? This article briefly reviews some of the resistance literature in cultural anthropology and then focuses upon three ethnographies of resistance, representing three different decades of research and three different theoretical approaches within resistance studies, to demonstrate how different branches of psychological anthropology can enhance our understanding of some of the behaviors that have been labeled ‘resistance’. Key Words hegemony • power • resistance studies • subaltern studies

The concept of resistance has become ubiquitous in contemporary cultural anthropology. As analyses of power and hegemonic asymmetries replaced functionalism as the predominant theoretical framework for ethnography in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Brown, 1996; Ortner, 1984; Sahlins, 1999), the need arose for a counter-hegemonic concept – a concept that allowed for social change and transformation. Members of subordinate groups had to be given the capacity to challenge – that is, resist – the power of dominant groups. In the concise but somewhat tautological language of Foucault (1978: 93), ‘[W]here there is power, there is resistance’. Thus arose an extensive ethnographic and theoretical literature known as ‘resistance studies’ and ‘subaltern studies’. From the 1980s on, ethnographers and historical anthropologists have actively sought ‘cracks’ in systems of dominance and ‘sites’ of resistance by subordinate groups. These range from studies of long-term group opposition to conditions of slavery and colonialism (e.g. Comaroff, 1985; Fox, 1985; Guha, 1982, 1994, 1997; Mintz, 1989; Stoler, 1985; Taussig, 1980) to ‘everyday forms of resistance’ – a concept inspired by Foucault (1972, 1978) and de Certeau (1984) (e.g. Colburn, 1989; Scott, 1985, 1990; Scott and Kerkvliet, 1986). The latter focus upon small acts of defiance that do not constitute a social movement but that suggest a person’s or small set of persons’ dissatisfaction with 303 Downloaded from http://ant.sagepub.com by Juan Pardo on November 14, 2007 © 2006 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.


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the status quo. In addition, anthropologists have used the concept of resistance for special expressive genres such as poetry among Bedouin women (Abu-Lughod, 1990), songs among women of North India (Raheja and Gold, 1994), and love letters by Nepali youth (Ahearn, 2001a). Thus, the concept of resistance has been applied to a broad spectrum of activities investigated by cultural anthropologists. THEORIZING RESISTANCE

Theorizing resistance has been problematic from the start. First, social theorists had to move beyond the Gramscian notion of cultural hegemony – that is, ongoing systems of dominance and subordination that shape people’s cultural beliefs and practices so that they become complicit in their own subordination – to conceptualize hegemonic systems as dynamic and continually in need of being renewed, defended, and modified (Williams, 1977: 112). The question remained, however, under what circumstances would people challenge hegemonic systems. Could we be satisfied that resistance would somehow just occur – that social reproduction could become social transformation – regardless of people’s states of conscious or unconscious (or, to use the Marxist term, ‘false consciousness’) dissatisfaction? Such broad theorizing by Williams, Foucault, and others offered little that was explanatory, in large part because of the theoretical gap between their discussions of large-scale social processes and the actual thoughts and motivations of individuals engaged in them. Practice theorists tried to address this gap by borrowing the concept of agency from post-structuralists in order to provide individuals and groups with the capacity for action, resistance, and accommodation in the face of cultural hegemony (Ortner, 1984, 1989; Dirks et al., 1994; Ahearn, 2001a, 2001b). While much has been written about ‘actors’, their ‘agency’, ‘desires’, and states of ‘consciousness’, because these discussions of agency have not been tied to any theory of how individuals learn, internalize and then are motivated by ‘cultural forms’, it has inadequate explanatory value (Mahoney and Yngvesson, 1992; Strauss and Quinn, 1997). For example, Ortner (1989: 15, 197) has noted the ‘inadequate theorizing of the actor’ in her discussion of Sherpa society and the ‘contradictions’ between Sherpa culture (writ large) and individual actors’ ‘needs’ and ‘desires’. However, her solution to this inconsistency between dominant cultural beliefs and meanings and those held by particular individuals is to posit a ‘loosely structured’ actor – one whose thoughts, feelings, and actions are constrained but not determined by culture.1 The vagueness of this concept, together with Ortner’s neglect of relevant theories and constructs from psychological anthropology, is striking.2 Subsequently, Ortner (1995: 190) has criticized resistance studies for producing ‘thin description’ – for an inadequate discussion of the internal politics of dominant groups, their cultural richness, and the ‘intentions, desires, fears . . .’ of actors who are engaged in ‘these dramas’. While Ortner (1995: 183) rightly recognizes the need for resistance studies to address issues of ‘consciousness, subjectivity, intentionality, and identity’, she and other cultural theorists have not provided an adequate theory for doing so and have eschewed psychological anthropology, which could help provide them with one. In recent years there have been other critiques of resistance studies, but most do not address the fundamental issue of how individuals learn a system of cultural meanings, internalize and draw upon these meanings and, as a result, are motivated to act in ways that are, at times, contrary to dominant powers and beliefs. Resistance studies have been 304 Downloaded from http://ant.sagepub.com by Juan Pardo on November 14, 2007 © 2006 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.


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criticized for ‘romanticizing’ (Abu-Lughod, 1990) and ‘fetishizing’ (Kellner, 1995) resistance, for ‘essentializing’ subordinates (O’Hanlon, 1988), and for ‘a totalizing focus on power’ (Brown, 1996; Sahlins, 1999), but only a few critics have addressed the problem of motivation. In his studies of Marxist guerrillas in eastern Peru, Brown (1996) recognizes the need to move beyond a focus limited to relations of power and to examine the ‘special motives’ of people who emerge as leaders. Similarly, Fletcher (2001) struggles to understand why the majority of Pewenche in southern Chile choose not to resist relocation so that a dam can be built on their land. He laments, ‘What do we do when the so-called “oppressed” embrace the very cause of their supposed “oppression”?’ (Fletcher, 2001: 8). While Fletcher begins to use such terms as ‘consciousness’, ‘perception’, ‘motivation’, and ‘identity’ in his efforts to understand Pewenche behavior, like Ortner, he makes no use of psychological theory and the relevant work of psychological anthropologists, concluding merely with a call to re-examine the concept of power. This theoretical impasse is to a large extent the result of the anti-psychological stance of Geertz and other leading cultural interpretivists and symbolic anthropologists who have actively rejected ‘the intrapersonal, internalized, meaning-making side of culture’ – an antipathy shared by most post-modernists (Strauss and Quinn, 1997: 23–4 and 255; see also Seymour, 2004a). As Strauss and Quinn so cogently write, ‘How can actors invent, negotiate, and contest their cultural worlds if they lack learned, internalized motives and intentions to do so?’ (1997: 256, emphasis added). To resist coercive institutions, they remind us, requires recognizing ‘that resistance also rests on internalized cultural understandings . . . that motivate actions leading to both social reproduction and social change’ (Strauss and Quinn, 1997: 256).3 The fact that some recent critics of resistance studies are using psychological terms, as well as noting some of the discordant and unexpected behaviors of their informants, suggests a latent, as yet unrecognized, need for psychological theory and the more person-centered ethnography that would bring that theory into focus. Explanations of resistance that focus only upon structures of political economy and dominant cultural discourses without theorizing how relationships of power are experienced, transmitted, and changed by individuals in their everyday practices, are both dissatisfying and inadequate. Furthermore, psychological glosses that are not grounded in some kind of psychological theory or research are just that – labels rather than explanations. In this article, by discussing several specific ethnographies of resistance, I shall try to demonstrate how different theories and findings from psychological anthropology can enhance our understanding of some of the behaviors that have, in recent decades, been labeled ‘resistance’. Interestingly, authors rarely define what they mean by resistance, so I offer the following definition for the purposes of this analysis: In a context of differential power relationships, resistance refers to intentional, and hence conscious, acts of defiance or opposition by a subordinate individual or group of individuals against a superior individual or set of individuals.4 Such acts are counter-hegemonic but may not succeed in effecting change. They can range from relatively small and covert acts, such as a surreptitious meeting between a young unmarried woman and man in Nepal (see discussion of Ahearn’s ethnography later in this article), to an organized feminist demonstration against the burning of brides in North India. In each case the act is intentional, although the surreptitious meeting may never be discovered by the family patriarchs and thus may never be openly recognized as an act of resistance against family traditions. By 305 Downloaded from http://ant.sagepub.com by Juan Pardo on November 14, 2007 © 2006 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.


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contrast, the organized demonstration is an example of overt consciousness-raising for the purpose of effecting change. APPLICATIONS OF PSYCHOLOGICAL ANTHROPOLOGY TO ETHNOGRAPHIES OF RESISTANCE

For purposes of illustration, I have selected three ethnographies that represent three different decades of research, as well as three different theoretical approaches within resistance studies, and that deal with women in South and Southeast Asia – one of my areas of specialization. They are: Aihwa Ong’s Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline: Factory Women in Malaysia (1987); Gloria Goodwin Raheja and Ann Grodzins Gold’s Listen to the Heron’s Words: Reimagining Gender and Kinship in North India (1994); and Laura Ahearn’s Invitations to Love: Literacy, Love Letters, and Social Change in Nepal (2001a). Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline: Factory Women in Malaysia

In this ethnography, Aihwa Ong utilizes a structural Marxist approach to examine the ‘encounter’ and ‘incorporation’ of young single rural Malay women ‘into the world capitalist system’ as they become factory workers (1987: 9). Citing such theorists as Williams (1977) and Taussig (1980), Ong asserts that hegemonic systems are ‘necessarily incomplete’, without oppositional forms, and that her focus in the book will be the ‘culture of resistance’ that her informants exhibit in this new context of work (1987: 3, 9). It is assumed that factories are hegemonic institutions against which workers will inevitably resist. Interestingly, Ong does not apply the concept of hegemony to the male control and protection that she reports these same women experienced in their rural villages. Rather, using the language of Foucault (1980), she asserts that young Malay factory women are ‘being reconstructed as instruments of labor and as new sexual personalities’ who engage in ‘acts of defiance on the shopfloor’ (1987: 8, 141). Ong frequently uses such psychological language as ‘sexual personalities’, ‘new subjectivity’, ‘changing personhood’, and ‘alienation’ to describe her informants but does not define these terms or anchor them to any psychological constructs that might help explain the intrapersonal transformations these women were experiencing and how such experiences might be tied to acts of resistance. Ong’s Marxist structural approach inclines her to focus upon broad socioeconomic transformations and to treat young Malay women factory workers as pawns in that process. Their social roles, she claims, have become ‘paradoxical’. On the one hand, as wage earners, they have acquired a new-found familial respect and autonomy. Many reside away from home and can escape the constraints of adolescent village life where young unmarried women are considered ‘fraught with danger’ and ‘weak in spiritual essence’, requiring continual vigilance so as not to bring dishonor to their male kin. (Significantly, one source of danger is their presumed susceptibility to attacks and possession by evil spirits believed to inhabit rocks and trees on the outskirts of villages.5) In addition to increased autonomy, as wageearners they are now allowed to participate in family decision-making, including their own marriage arrangements, formerly the sole prerogative of parents. In fact, Ong asserts, the earning-power of daughters has begun to undermine systems of male authority and male honor in the countryside (1987: 107–8). 306 Downloaded from http://ant.sagepub.com by Juan Pardo on November 14, 2007 © 2006 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.


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Despite this newly acquired power and autonomy at home, however, Ong’s informants have little control in the workplace. There they experience long, inflexible hours and a new patriarchal order comprised of ‘foreign’ (non-Malay), ‘overzealous’ male supervisors. Furthermore, beliefs about their potential for sexual transgressions have become the locus of public discourse in an increasingly conservative Islamic state, and gangs of young men have taken it upon themselves to police young female workers. The paradox Ong identifies is that ‘the labor power which enables them to challenge male authority at home is also the means whereby they are subjected to intense capitalist discipline’ (1987: 113). Accordingly, Ong identifies the workplace as a site of resistance for these women. What is the evidence for resistance? Some of Ong’s informants – we are not told how many – engage in frequent absences from the shop floor to attend to ‘female’ problems or to perform obligatory Islamic prayers; feign ignorance of the technical details of work, thus slowing down production; surreptitiously destroy microchips or jam machines; and experience attacks of spirit possession that severely disrupt the workplace. Spirit possession is what Ong uses as her principal diagnostic of resistance, writing that she wishes ‘to discover, in the vocabulary of spirit possession, the unconscious beginnings of an idiom of protest against labor discipline and male control in the modern industrial situation’ (1987: 207, emphasis added). There are, however, several problems with Ong’s argument. For one, attacks of spirit possession produce an unconscious state, followed by amnesia, and according to Ong, neither the victims (and their families) nor the witnesses (other female workers and male supervisors) perceived these attacks as protests. Rather, they were treated as an illness, and the afflicted woman was sent home to recover. Thus, they do not meet my criteria of being intentional acts of defiance or opposition, and it is unclear how they meet Ong’s ‘idiom of protest’. She concedes, for example, that attacks of spirit possession do not result in any serious challenge to a woman’s working conditions. The principal problem with Ong’s argument, however, is that in seeking evidence of social resistance, she has selected a largely psychodynamic phenomenon that requires psychological analysis, something signaled by her use of the word ‘unconscious’. Spirit possession is a psycho-physiological state that involves alterations in consciousness, personal identity, and bodily movements (Bourguignon, 2004). It is, according to Bourguignon, a state of dissociation that can be learned volitionally and produced by hypnosis as well as by conditions of distress. Two aspects of the cross-cultural record are significant here: (1) women predominate as victims of spirit possession and as participants in spirit possession religions; and (2) the state of dissociation ‘is structured as an expression of the total identification with and submission to powerful others [usually male spirits] who temporarily displace the personality or self of the human individual’ (Bourguignon, 2004: 559). Spirit possession involves a culturally shared belief that a person’s mind and body have been entered and possessed by another entity to which they are in abeyance. Because a person is believed to be temporarily inhabited by a powerful force external to her, she is not held accountable for her words and actions during a possessed state. Furthermore, possession trance is generally followed by amnesia: the person has no memory of her behavior while possessed. All of these well established psychodynamic characteristics of spirit possession fit the ethnographic record for rural Malaysia where the capacity to be possessed by angry spirits 307 Downloaded from http://ant.sagepub.com by Juan Pardo on November 14, 2007 © 2006 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.


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is part of Malay ideology and where unmarried, sexually mature women are considered vulnerable. This vulnerability not only traveled with young women to a new setting – the industrial factory – but the incidence of spirit possession and ‘mass hysteria’ seems to have proliferated during the 1970s and 1980s in Malaysian free-trade zones (Ong, 1987, 1988; see also Ackerman and Lee, 1981). The question is why. We know that Malay factory workers who are afflicted by spirit possession are not consciously protesting or effectively resisting their work conditions. What, then, would better explain their agitated and sometimes violent behavior on the shop floor? In a recent article entitled, ‘Suffering and Healing, Subordination and Power: Women and Possession Trance’, Erika Bourguignon (2004) has developed the idea of ‘dissociation in the service of self ’. Using psychodynamic theory, Bourguignon argues that for women who are in structurally powerless situations, spirit possession allows for the safe expression of anger and distress because they will not be held accountable for their behavior during a possessed state and, instead, will receive attention in the form of healing rites. They can seek relief from what is troubling them without danger of blame or reprise. The temporary change in identity helps to protect the self – the underlying feelings and motivations of a distressed person. Such behavior could be construed as indirect, unconscious, and ineffective resistance to a new male patriarchy in the case of Ong’s informants, but this is not what Ong had in mind in using spirit possession as a diagnostic criterion of a new culture of resistance against labor discipline and male control. According to Bourguignon’s psychological explanation, however, spirit possession is not a new strategy of resistance but rather an old one used by women to cope with their powerlessness in patriarchal societies, not to challenge these hegemonic systems. What is most interesting in Ong’s case study is that her informants have experienced a significant change in status at home, which should reduce incidents of spirit possession in rural areas – something that is not addressed by Ong. However, that new status has not been transferred to their place of work, which must leave them in a state of psychological conflict about their new-found earning power, autonomy, and self-esteem – in other words, their ‘new subjectivity’. Instead of being afflicted by dangerous spirits believed to inhabit the edges of villages, they are afflicted by datuk apparitions that are sometimes headless and gesticulate angrily at them (Ong, 1987: 205).6 Datuk, ironically, is the honorary title for a man of high status, a grandfather, or an ancestral male spirit associated with a sacred place. Suppressed anger with and anxiety about traditional male authority figures, it would seem, has been transferred to a new set of males – the male hierarchy of the factory. Listen to the Heron’s Words: Reimagining Gender and Kinship in North India

The second ethnography, published in 1994, represents a very different genre and theoretical perspective from the first one. Its focus is rural women’s songs and oral performances in two North Indian villages – one a Rajasthani village studied by Ann Grodzins Gold, the other a village in Uttar Pradesh where Gloria Goodwin Raheja has worked. Listen to the Heron’s Words is a post-structuralist, post-modernist work concerned with the politics of representation and the South Asian subaltern studies project (Guha, 1987, 1989). In addition to their effort to recover women’s voices, Raheja and Gold explore 308 Downloaded from http://ant.sagepub.com by Juan Pardo on November 14, 2007 © 2006 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.


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what they call the ‘hidden transcripts’ that are ‘implicit in women’s speech and song, the often veiled, but sometimes overt and public, words and actions through which women communicate their resistance to dominant North Indian characterizations of “women’s nature” . . . and of kinship relationships’ (1994: 1–2, emphasis added). In addition, Raheja and Gold use women’s songs as a way to counteract ‘the mistaken assumption’ in much western scholarship that Indian women ‘have completely internalized the dominant conventions of female subordination and fragmented identity’ (1994: xxxiv). Thus, the authors propose a link between women’s expressive culture, on the one hand, and female identity and resistance, on the other. They do so without recourse to psychological theory, or any evident sense that such a theory is called for. Resistance, in this ethnography, applies not so much to women’s acts of resistance but to their subversive thoughts, harmlessly expressed in nonconfrontational words. The act of singing or storytelling is highly ritualized and securely contained within the ritual context, and does not involve overt acts of opposition to the patriarchal family system in which women are embedded. Women’s songfests are, thus, safe havens for women’s critiques and imaginings. They take place during major Hindu festivals and life-cycle rituals where women, as members of a group or chorus, recite the same stories over and over; they are not idiosyncratic productions that might reveal the personal emotions of an individual woman.7 Furthermore, they are not exclusively female events: men are sometimes present, even as insults are hurled at them, and men are generally familiar with the songs and stories performed by their mothers, grandmothers, and other female kin. Women’s songs and stories are, however, filled with material that does not conform to the North Indian cultural stereotype of the quietly obedient, nurturing, and modest wife and mother. It is in that sense, I think, that Raheja and Gold want to characterize them as ‘subversive’. For example, women sing of such things as taking lovers and enjoying extramarital sex, as well as humiliating their husbands and other patrilineal kin. In addition, their songs are filled with ironic discourse on the contradictions inherent in their position as sisters and daughters, on the one hand, and wives and mothers, on the other. The songs constitute a critique of the North Indian patrifocal family system, and its accompanying ideology, that requires women to leave their natal kin at the time of marriage and to join and adapt themselves to their husband’s family.8 Do these oral productions, as the authors claim, constitute resistance? Clearly, they are not so threatening to the family patriarchy that they need to be suppressed. In the course of their analysis, Raheja and Gold (1994: 44, 71, 193) equivocate about the degree to which women’s songs do, in fact, constitute resistance, while remaining firm about their thesis regarding women’s identity. And yet, as explained later in this article, these two ideas are inextricably linked in their analysis. North Indian women’s songs, Raheja and Gold assert, reflect a different identity from the one represented in many of the culturally dominant Hindu canons and myths where the feminine – as represented by epic heroines and goddesses – is commonly split between good and bad, controlled or controlling, sexual or non-sexual, and so on. Village women’s songs and stories thus constitute a counter-hegemonic feminine identity that could lead to acts of opposition (Holland and Skinner, 1995: 280). In this regard they are a potential form of resistance; hence, I think, the authors’ preference for the word ‘subversive’. In trying to account for the alternative identity they see voiced in women’s songs and stories, Raheja and Gold propose what is intrinsically a psychological explanation – that 309 Downloaded from http://ant.sagepub.com by Juan Pardo on November 14, 2007 © 2006 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.


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is, village women have not fully internalized aspects of the hegemonic patriarchal culture in which they are immersed. Unfortunately, however, this important line of argument is never pursued, and the relevant research on the socialization and gender development of Indian children and adolescents – in particular, girls and young women – is not utilized. The only psychologically oriented scholar to whom they refer is Sudhir Kakar, the western-trained Indian psychoanalyst whose work has helped to propagate the idea of a split feminine identity.9 Clearly, Raheja and Gold’s argument about identity and resistance requires a psychological model that would provide them with more effective tools of analysis. Such models exist but have been eschewed by most interpretive and post-modernist cultural anthropologists. One that is helpful in thinking about this ethnography is Strauss and Quinn’s cultural schema theory, published in 1997 and thus not available to Raheja and Gold when they were writing. It provides not only a useful general theory but one that points to the relevance of early socialization experiences. Let me illustrate with a specific example. One of the ethnography’s chapters, written by Gold, is entitled ‘Sexuality, Fertility, and Erotic Imagination in Rajasthani Women’s Songs’. In it Gold discusses women’s songs that incorporate feminine images which are ‘simultaneously sexy and motherly’ and which ‘explicitly celebrate continuities between erotic playfulness and procreation’ (Raheja and Gold, 1994: 32, 36). Such images, she concludes, challenge the split images of women common in canonical Hinduism and popular mythology: that is, non-erotic but fertile, nourishing, virtuous, and self-sacrificing women, as represented by the epic heroine Sita, versus women who are erotic, sexually potent, aggressive, and uncontrollable by males, such as the goddess Kali.10 The eminent Sanskrit scholar Wendy Doniger O’ Flaherty (1980) has termed this split one between dominated ‘goddesses of the breast’ and dominating ‘goddesses of the tooth’ (genitals).11 How might cultural schema theory help us understand how and why illiterate Rajasthani village women have created alternative images for themselves? Cultural schema theory provides a general model for viewing humans both as unique individuals, who have their own learned and innate mental structures for processing information – that is, interpretive frameworks – and as members of groups who, by right of shared experiences, also share a large number of cultural schemas. Thus, ‘“culture” is merely a name for all the learned schemas that are shared by some people, as well as all of the diverse things from which these schemas are learned’ (Strauss and Quinn, 1997: 38). The question for Gold, and for Raheja and Gold’s broader analysis, then becomes: What are the shared cultural schemas of Rajasthani village women that might motivate the production of the songs and stories the authors have recorded and analyzed? First, cultural schema theory would not assume that women have internalized the same information as men, nor would it assume that each Rajasthani singer/performer is motivated by the same set of schemas. In this respect it responds to a concern voiced by Raheja and Gold – that is, not to present North Indian women’s voices as somehow uniform and monolithic. Second, and equally important for my argument here, cultural schema theory directs us to examine women’s early socialization experiences for the acquisition and internalization of cultural schemas, thereby making pertinent the research on socialization practices and gender development in North India. Not surprisingly, such research indicates that age and gender have significant effects upon how individual children 310 Downloaded from http://ant.sagepub.com by Juan Pardo on November 14, 2007 © 2006 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.


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experience the patrifocal family (Minturn, 1993; Minturn and Hitchcock, 1966; Roy, 1972; Seymour, 1999; Whiting and Edwards, 1988). For example, although males formally hold authority, age crosscuts gender. Thus, in the household older females can have authority over younger males, especially mothers over sons. As a consequence, girls do not grow up viewing women as passive recipients of a male-dominated world and ideology. They are active participants in that world, and if they have resided in extended households during their childhood, they have had an intimate view of women, such as grandmothers, who wield considerable power and authority in the home (Seymour, 1999). Furthermore, within Hindu ideology, women have enormous innate power (sakti) that they are taught to use constructively for the well-being of their families (Menon, 2002). Thus, they are unlikely to internalize schemas of feminine passivity and universal subordination. Rather, they learn that they will move through different roles and statuses in life that are differentially restricting and empowering but that do not imply a split identity. An outwardly subservient daughter-in-law, for example, must one day become an assertive mother/mother-in-law with considerable responsibilities for and power over other family members.12 Unquestionably, the move at the time of marriage from one’s natal household to a potential stranger’s household, and from the comfortable status of daughter to the lowly status of new wife and daughter-in-law, can be a difficult transition that might result in widespread emotional disorders if most women were not psychologically prepared for it, having achieved what Katherine Ewing (1991) describes as ‘intrapsychic autonomy’. Ewing argues that in South Asia, despite a childhood where interdependence rather than autonomy is cultivated, girls develop an inner sense of self that helps them through such transitions. In addition, they are exposed to a variety of gender-related schemas from which to build such an identity and are not restricted to split feminine images that do not match their experience. Furthermore, it is probable that split images of women result from psychodynamic processes specific to male identity formation and thus have more salience for men than for women, especially in patriarchal societies where men conceptualize themselves in opposition to women (Quinn and Luttrell, 2004). Raheja and Gold recognize that feminine split images are the product of men – from male authored Sanskrit texts to Kakar’s psychoanalytic work with male patients – but they lack a theory with which to address their observation. In India, such split images are congruent with a patrifocal kinship system where descent and inheritance are carefully traced through males, making women revered for their reproductive capacities but simultaneously feared for sexuality that might occur outside of marriage. Hence, the efforts to promote female chastity through such institutions as early arranged marriage and purdah, which are buttressed by an ideology of male honor and female danger. North Indian women thereby experience and internalize competing discourses – ones derived, in part, from male insecurities in the context of a patriarchal society and others derived from women’s own diverse roles and experiences in that system. Although Strauss (1997: 230) theorizes about the different ways such competing discourses may be cognitively integrated, here I simply want to assert that women have internalized a variety of gender-related discourses from which they can select cultural schemas for particular occasions – cultural schemas that may hold slightly different meanings for each participant. Most women have learned, for example, how to behave modestly in certain contexts and assertively in others. They have also learned to be critics of the system that 311 Downloaded from http://ant.sagepub.com by Juan Pardo on November 14, 2007 © 2006 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.


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imposes constraints upon them. Festive occasions that bring groups of women together provide suitable moments for such criticism that are not threatening to men. These are ritualized and contained events where women, in groups, can safely express humor, criticism, and dreams that may conflict with the more paramount patrifocal ideology. Raheja and Gold rightly see these discourses as evidence of a fuller, more coherent, and un-fragmented feminine identity than the one represented by split images. The question remains, nonetheless, as to whether such discourse constitutes resistance. Not according to my definition: North Indian women’s songs and stories include critiques of, but not oppositional acts against, the patrifocal family.13 To the extent that they represent important alternative feminine images that young girls hear and internalize, they are, as Raheja and Gold argue, potentially subversive.14 One could argue that they constitute mental preparation for a changed reality, such as the one described later for Nepal. However, to the extent that they currently provide safe and restricted outlets for women’s dissatisfactions, one must argue that they are actually anti-subversive.15 As a consequence, men do not object to them, and some find the sexual content entertaining (see Note 13). Invitations to Love: Literacy, Love Letters, and Social Change in Nepal

In this third ethnography, Laura Ahearn (2001a) applies Sherry Ortner’s (1996) version of practice theory to a Magar village (Junigau) in western Nepal that has been experiencing rapid socioeconomic change. The book focuses upon changing marriage and gender systems, particularly as the result of literacy and formal schooling that spread to rural parts of Nepal in the 1960s. From 1963 to 1993, in Junigau’s central ward, 68.8 per cent of boys became high school graduates, with 12.5 per cent attaining some college education; girls’ schooling jumped from 0 per cent to 56.5 per cent, with 8.7 per cent of them completing high school but none attending college (Ahearn, 2001a: 192–3).16 The result was a new population of educated village youth, some of whom had begun to use their literacy skills to write love letters to one another and to begin romantic courtships – something previously unheard of in rural parts of Nepal where romance was considered dangerous and marriages were mostly arranged by parents between young people from suitable groups of kin. The Magars of Junigau, it should be noted, are patrilineal and patrilocal, and they formerly practiced marriage by capture as well as parentally arranged marriages. Ahearn uses the tools of practice theory to examine literacy, love letters, and changing marriage practices in Junigau. Accordingly, there are ‘actors’ with ‘agency’ to accommodate to and/or resist their social systems. Social systems are conceptualized as cultural hegemonies, in the Raymond Williams sense: they are ‘created and recreated, reinforced, reshaped, and reconfigured by the actions and words of particular individuals, groups, and institutions acting in socioculturally conditioned ways’ (Ahearn, 2001a: 52). In addition, Ahearn utilizes Williams’s (1977) concept of ‘structures of feeling’ and Ortner’s (1989) concept of ‘loosely structured’ actors. These two concepts allow Ahearn to remain a-psychological in her analysis but occasionally to talk about actors with ‘inchoate, often unconscious stirrings that signal potential changes in the status quo’ or with ‘agency at the subindividual level, thereby shedding light on things like internal dialogues and fragmented subjectivities’ (Ahearn, 2001a: 52, 55). For Ahearn, endowing individuals with agency is what is critical, and resistance is just one kind of agentive act that is 312 Downloaded from http://ant.sagepub.com by Juan Pardo on November 14, 2007 © 2006 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.


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complexly interwoven with accommodation – ‘there is no such thing as pure resistance’ (Ahearn, 2001a: 93). It is ironic then that, according to my definition, Ahearn’s ethnography, alone among the three I have discussed, is filled with evidence of resistance – for example, intentional challenges by Junigau youths to parentally arranged marriages. I shall focus here on just one case study to which Ahearn devotes a chapter of her book – the one-and-a-half year courtship of Sarita and Bir Bahadur, both of whom in 1992 attended a university in a nearby town. Ahearn had had Sarita as a student in the early 1980s and knew her to be a serious young woman. Letter-writing, initiated by the young man, was a major ingredient of their initial courtship. With the help of friends, they exchanged numerous letters that kept their growing friendship and expressions of love covert. However, love letters were gradually supplemented by secret meetings, visits to the cinema and so on, where friends and kin sometimes served as chaperones. Thus, other youths were complicit in this courtship. Even more significant, however, was Sarita’s mother’s complicity when the relationship became known by her father. From early on the young couple had talked of marriage, with Bir Bahadur in favor of eloping after they finished their university exams. According to Ahearn, Bir Bahadur used the language of economic development – to which he had been exposed in school and the media – to express ‘the goal of making something of one’s life by making one’s own choices – academically, professionally, and romantically’ (2001a: 219). Here, interestingly, Ahearn uses the word ‘internalized’ to describe the different sources of Bir Bahadur’s ideas about love, success, and independence. Sarita, however, remained ‘ambivalent’ – a word Ahearn uses but does not ground in psychological theory – about eloping, out of concern for family honor and the couple’s distant kinship relationship, one that made their marriage unsuitable. This did not, however, stop Sarita’s continuing involvement in an illicit relationship (Ahearn, 2001a: 232). A crisis occurred when Sarita’s father learned about the relationship and adamantly opposed it and the idea that it might culminate in marriage. Sarita, with her mother’s moral support, confronted her angry father but could not convince him to arrange her marriage with Bir Bahadur so that she would not have to elope. Ultimately, the couple did elope after their exams, but Sarita continued to express conflict in her discussions with Ahearn, shifting back and forth between a more traditional perspective of fatalism as in the following example: What to do? . . . [A] daughter’s life is unfortunate . . . Who knows how to tell what one’s fate will be? (Ahearn, 2001a: 243) and a more modern one of ‘individual agency’, for example: It’s up to one’s own wishes, it is! You should wear the flower you like, you know. You should wear the flower that you yourself like . . . [I]t’s the daughter’s life! It’s not the father’s life! (2001a: 244, emphasis in original)17 What is striking is that, despite this couple’s overt defiance of family authority figures and marital customs, Ahearn does not characterize it as resistance. Nor does she connect their actions with the dramatic statistics provided in a different chapter. From 1983 to 313 Downloaded from http://ant.sagepub.com by Juan Pardo on November 14, 2007 © 2006 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.


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1998, in the ward that Ahearn surveyed, arranged marriages had declined by half (from about 72% to 36%) and elopements had increased dramatically from about 16 per cent of all marriages to 58 per cent (2001a: 77). During this 15-year period, a majority of Junigau’s youth had taken marriage into their own hands. Resistance to arranged marriages, it seems, had become widespread in Junigau, but Ahearn does not recognize it as such. Why? The answer, I think, lies in her effort to utilize practice theory, which treats culture as largely external to individuals – as something that impinges on them, constraining their agency rather than motivating it. To move beyond this externalized view of culture and the individual, Ahearn occasionally resorts to such language as ‘agency at the subindividual level’, which sounds like a substitute for subconscious motivation, and ‘new or emergent structures of feeling’, which sound very much like cultural schemas. What psychological anthropology has to offer is a means of connecting some of these concepts, such as the capacity for agency and new structures of feeling. As in the previous case of North Indian women’s songs, this connection can be made through the mechanisms of early learning, the internalization of cultural schemas, and the motivation to act on some schemas rather than others. Let me illustrate by returning to the case of Sarita and Bir Bahadur. Ahearn provides little background on these two individuals, but we know that Sarita is unusual as a woman attending college and residing separate from her family. This implies certain things about Sarita and her parents – that she wanted to continue with her schooling and that her parents allowed it and did not force her into an early arranged marriage. Furthermore, we know that Sarita’s mother covertly supported her daughter’s illicit liaison with Bir Bahadur despite her husband’s opposition. Extrapolating from my own longitudinal study of girls and their development in a similarly changing community in India, I know these are significant factors that can contribute to a girl’s sense of independence (‘individual agency’) and capacity for resistance (‘agency at the subindividual level’?). Furthermore, I have identified connections between a girl’s early childhood socialization and her mother’s desires, on the one hand, and some of her subsequent actions, on the other (Seymour, 1999). One of my long-term informants shocked the community by leaving her husband and the home of her in-laws after bearing two children – unheard of behavior in this part of India in the 1980s. Gitali, in interviews with me in 1989, identified herself as a rebel – as ‘too fast’ and ‘out of step with society’ (Seymour, 1999: 235–8). Here I can only briefly sketch how she had developed this self-concept and the capacity for dramatic resistance, but it is important to know that her mother had supported both Gitali’s and her older sister’s higher education and career goals. Furthermore, like Sarita’s mother, she had covertly supported her daughters’ activities in things that their father opposed, such as studying dance. Herself married at 12 with little education, Gitali’s mother wanted her daughters to have the opportunities she had been denied. In addition, socialization for independence – both personal and economic – was a predominant theme in Gitali’s extended family. Thus, when she found herself in a marriage to someone who did not value a companionate relationship and who allowed his mother to dominate her, Gitali decided to leave. Being employed meant that she had some economic independence, but she also had the support of her natal family. For Gitali, the traditional cultural schema of obedient wife and submissive daughterin-law was trumped by an alternative schema acquired during childhood and fostered 314 Downloaded from http://ant.sagepub.com by Juan Pardo on November 14, 2007 © 2006 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.


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by a college education, employment, and economic independence. Her resistance to her arranged marriage thus becomes explicable. I suspect that if Ahearn were to use a more person-centered and developmental approach, drawing upon her long-term fieldwork in Junigau, she could make similar connections and then explain why some of her informants had a greater capacity for resistance to arranged marriages than others. CONCLUSION

This article has tried to demonstrate how psychological theories and the work of psychological anthropologists can enhance our understanding of what has been labeled ‘resistance’ in the work of cultural anthropologists during the past two decades. In discussing the first illustrative ethnography, Ong’s Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline, I have argued that Malay factory women’s attacks of spirit possession have been misclassified as resistance. Although they could be viewed as unconscious and ineffective expressions of resistance, a more powerful psychodynamic theory, derived from the extensive cross-cultural literature on spirit possession, can better explain why attacks of spirit possession by young unmarried women have moved from the village to the factory. The second illustrative ethnography, Listen to the Heron’s Words, treats resistance as a conscious and intentional phenomenon, but one that relates to identity rather than to action. North Indian village women’s songs, according to Raheja and Gold, serve as a countervailing voice to dominant depictions of women as asexual, nurturing, obedient, and psychologically fragmented beings. Their book has been criticized for valorizing women’s resistance in a context where familial power relations have remained largely unchanged (Ahearn, 2001a; Jeffery and Jeffery, 1996). According to my definition of resistance, these North Indian women’s songs and stories do not constitute acts of resistance. However, they do allow women to safely critique their patrifocal family system and its accompanying cultural ideology and to cultivate ‘counterhegemonic femininities’, as Holland and Skinner (1995) have argued that Tij festival songs do for rural women in Nepal. They provide preparation for a changed reality but remain anti-subversive in their present form. Finally, Ahearn’s ethnography, Invitations to Love, provides evidence of overt and effective resistance by village youths against parental authority and the tradition of arranged marriage. A large number of young villagers have instituted a new form of marriage – elopement – with a new expectation for husband–wife relations, that of ‘life-long friends’. Yet Ahearn equivocates about naming this phenomenon ‘resistance’. She gets trapped by the circumlocutions of practice theory that try to bring individuals back into analyses of social structure as actors, by endowing them with ‘agency’ and ‘structures of sentiment’ but without any psychological mechanisms for internalizing and processing culture. Although Ahearn has documented the socio-economic context that has enabled village youths to oppose parental authority and to implement new ideas about romantic love and conjugal marriage, lacking a theory of internalized culture and motivation, she is reluctant to categorize the production of love letters, dating, and marriage by elopement as acts of resistance and cannot explain why some youths resist and other do not.18 The ethnographic study of resistance has burgeoned during the past several decades as cultural anthropologists have addressed issues of power, social inequality, and cultural hegemony. The result has been a diffuse literature lacking coherence and explanatory power. In this article, I have tried to demonstrate that part of the weakness of this 315 Downloaded from http://ant.sagepub.com by Juan Pardo on November 14, 2007 © 2006 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.


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research, regardless of its theoretical genre, is the reluctance of cultural anthropologists to utilize a psychological approach or to avail themselves of relevant work by psychological anthropologists. Because resistance implies actors’ intentionality to oppose in some way coercive institutions – whether by means of small, everyday acts of defiance or by organized revolt – they need to be endowed with the psychological capacities to do so. Acknowledgements

I want to thank the editors of this special issue, Naomi Quinn and Claudia Strauss, as well as Lee Munroe, for their careful readings and insightful comments and suggestions on several drafts of this article. Notes

1 For a fuller discussion of these concepts see Ahearn’s (2001b) review article, ‘Language and Agency’. 2 In their critique of symbolic anthropology, Strauss and Quinn (1997: 23) note the limitation of Ortner’s ‘loosely structured’ actor. This vague concept, they note, does not adequately revise the ‘fax model’ of internalization whereby extrapersonal messages are simply reproduced in people’s psyches. ‘[I]t only introduces some noise into the system.’ 3 Mahoney and Yngvesson (1992) have also made this important observation. 4 My use of the word ‘intentional’ implies that acts of resistance are generally conscious acts. I am aware that there is a problematic ‘chain of consciousness’ built into resistance studies that I cannot resolve. Part of the problem, as Strauss and Quinn (1997: 38–41) have noted, is that ‘several different cognitive states are lumped together at the hegemonic end where power is naturalized and in the “liminal space” in between hegemony (uncontested) and ideology (contested ideas)’. This area of resistance studies needs further attention. 5 In a later article, Ong reports that spirit possession in rural Malay villages is primarily a manifestation of married women – ‘given the particular stresses of being wives, mothers, widows, and divorcees’ (Ong, 1988: 29). Yet, the behavior of young unmarried women is partly controlled by threats of evil spirits believed to reside on the peripheries of villages and to attack them for moral transgressions. Ong (1988: 32) reports, for example, that a schoolgirl became possessed by a male spirit when she urinated on an ant-hill ‘off the beaten track’. Unfortunately, Ong does not comment on the gender of such village spirits in general, but one would expect them to be male just as they are in Malay factories and in most other parts of the world (Bourguignon, 2004). 6 McHugh (2002) has discussed a similar phenomenon in a Gurung village in rural Nepal where young, unmarried women are taught to fear peripheries of villages where ban manche (forest men) are believed to reside and prey on them. McHugh (2004) has recently discussed a case study of a young woman, freed from most of the constraints of patriarchy, who, while she does not doubt that the ban manche once existed, is convinced that they are now gone from the forests. McHugh argues that patriarchy creates distinctive pressures on women that produce inner tensions and conflicts which are externalized in symbolic form. With the disappearance of those pressures, there is no longer a need to believe in the existence of ban manche. 316 Downloaded from http://ant.sagepub.com by Juan Pardo on November 14, 2007 © 2006 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.


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7 As Raheja and Gold point out, North Indian women’s songs are in this regard unlike the expressive singing reported for Bedouin women by Abu-Lughod (1986). 8 In the theoretical introduction to our book, Women, Education, and Family Structure in India (1994), Mukhopadhyay and I used the terminology ‘patrifocal family structure and ideology’ as a general model to describe the predominant family system in North India that is characterized by patrilocal residence; patrilineal descent; patrilineal inheritance and succession; gender-differentiated family roles and responsibilities; a gender-differentiated family authority structure and ideology that gives same-generational males authority over socially equivalent females; control and regulation of female sexuality and reproduction; and arranged marriage. 9 I discuss this issue at greater length in a recent publication (Seymour, 2004b). 10 Interestingly, even Kali is not without some control. Menon and Shweder (1994) discuss how in an Orissan narrative about Kali’s tongue, both men and women provide an antidote to Kali’s anger by associating her tongue, which protrudes when she accidentally steps on her husband Shiva, with acute shame (lajya). 11 Split images of women are common to many parts of the world, including the western virgin/whore version (Quinn and Luttrell, 2004). Wendy Doniger (1999) has analyzed the splitting and doubling that occurs in both Hindu and Greek mythologies, more so with women than with men. 12 Early on such feminist anthropologists as Collier (1974) and Wolf (1972, 1974) made the observation that even in highly patriarchal societies women could have considerable power. Wolf, for example, devised the concept of the ‘uterine family’ to describe the context in which rural, married, Taiwanese women strategized to gain power within their husbands’ patriarchal families. 13 In their conclusion, Raheja and Gold (1994: 187) note that in Rajasthan in the early 1990s village women who had been trained as development workers intentionally reformulated themes of resistance and equality from their folk songs to use as organizational and educational tools for other village women. However, North Indian women’s songs have also been used for a very different purpose: recordings have been sold as erotic material to men (1994: 192). 14 Holland and Skinner similarly note the role of counter-hegemonic Tij songs for girls in Nepal: ‘[T]hey kept the songs in their man (heart/mind) year round . . . individual girls and women remembered the Tij songs and used them to express their sense of self to themselves throughout the year’ (1995: 289). 15 The feminist historian Natalie Zemon Davis (1975: 124–51) makes a similar argument in her discussion of gender role inversions and reversals during carnivals and festivals in early modern Europe. Playing the role of the disorderly woman ‘on top’, Davis argues, allowed women ‘a temporary period of dominion’, ‘the license to be a social critic’, and an outlet for expressing their dissatisfaction with the patriarchal family system. Because such inversions were considered play rather than acts of opposition, they did not constitute resistance but ‘could prompt new ways of thinking about the system and reacting to it’ (Davis, 1975: 143). 16 Such broad socioeconomic change is occurring throughout much of what is labeled the ‘Third World’ – a process that is not adequately acknowledged by theorists of political hegemony and resistance. 317 Downloaded from http://ant.sagepub.com by Juan Pardo on November 14, 2007 © 2006 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.


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17 McHugh’s (2004) case study of a Gurung woman from a nearby Nepali village makes a striking contrast with this one. Unlike Sarita, McHugh’s informant had experienced a more complete and smooth transition to modernity, resulting in little inner conflict. For example, both her mother and father supported her full participation in arranging her marriage. She did not have to resort to elopement as her mother had done. 18 In her concluding chapter, Ahearn does discuss the potential for transformative change, but she does so in the language of ‘structures of feeling’ and ‘new theories of agency’ rather than endowing her informants with the capacity to make conscious, anti-hegemonic choices. References

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Whiting, B.B. and C.P. Edwards (1988) Children of Different Worlds: The Formation of Social Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Williams, R. (1977) Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Wolf, M. (1972) Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Wolf, M. (1974) ‘Chinese Women: Old Skills in a New Context’, in M.Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere (eds) Women, Culture, and Society, pp. 157–72. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. SUSAN SEYMOUR is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at Pitzer College. She is editor of The Transformation of a Sacred Town: Bhubaneswar, India (1980); co-editor of Women, Education, and Family Structure in India (1994); co-author of Asian College Women’s Aspirations: A Comparative Study of the Effects of Maternal Employment (1995); and author of Women, Family, and Child Care in India: A World in Transition (1999). Address: Pitzer College, 1050 N. Mills Ave., Claremont, CA 91711, USA. [email: susan_seymour@pitzer.edu]

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