Resistance, resistances?

The word “resistance” has a very strong presence for what concerns the study of political contention – especially outside Northern America and Europe – as a form of contentious politics of the weak, the poor, or the deprived. From Paul Routledge’s Terrains of resistance to Michel De Certeau’s tactics of resistance, passing by virtually every research led to the arts, techniques, practices and methods of opposing power by diverting it in the West Bank, South America, China, but also the UK, France or the USA, Canada, there has been a development of interest for this form of political opposition which seems to remain hidden or, at least, under a certain threshold of intensity. This is internally logical since the notion draws a lot from Michel Foucault, whom Susan Seymour quotes in her well-titled article “Resistance” (Anthropological Theory, 6(3), 2006): “[W]here there is power, there is resistance”.

The concept of “resistance” has of course been employed in politics much before Michel Foucault. Without developing a pointless historical investigation of the notion, it is common to attach it in the first place to the reflection about power insofar as it concerns itself with the relation between power, obedience and legitimacy. Present for parts in the Ancient Greek political philosophy, this problem becomes central in the classical, and then modern, philosophical debate on political power. Yet it really becomes important – as far as the understanding of resistance we currently have is concerned – in the development of the constitutions, and the unfolding of the American and French revolutions, based on the idea that a power should not be applied if not attached to some sort of legitimacy or obeying to certain rules, and therefore that there is a moment in which it becomes legitimate and necessary to oppose this power. This first conception is not framed yet in terms of “resistance”, a term which emerges more clearly in Henry David Thoreau’s lecture, Resistance to Civil Government, better known as Civil Disobedience, in which Thoreau associates it to a form of revolution, in front of a state which behaves in an unjust fashion despite not being autocratic in its definition:

All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not the case now. But such was the case, they think, in the Revolution of ’75. If one were to tell me that this was a bad government because it taxed certain foreign commodities brought to its ports, it is most probable that I should not make an ado about it, for I can do without them: all machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counterbalance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it. But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer.

A second period for forming the term is obviously the Second World War and the story of civil armed or unarmed resistance from parts of the societies occupied by the Third Reich. More than in itself, the period was extremely relevant as it massively popularised the term “resistance” in the social movements which followed the war and particularly in the decolonisation, anti-racist and civil rights movements, partly because of a rediscovery of Thoreau’s work, and partly because of the symbolic meaning of the term.

A quick and non-developed look at the use of the term in social sciences seems to situate “resistance” at first in anthropology and geography, and the interest these disciplines develop in the second half of the 20th century for mechanisms of contention. The term got more legitimate and used in social sciences to describe specific movements and practices which did not fit a revolutionary agenda. The development of the term in these disciplines is somewhat marked by James Scott’s study on an Himalayan village in 1985, in which the author associates the adjective “everyday” to the term “resistance” in order to describe the small, almost non-contentious, forms of opposition to an oppressive economic and political system, in which open opposition would lead to violent, and potentially lethal, repression: “Everyday resistance is quiet, dispersed, disguised or otherwise seemingly invisible; something Scott interchangeably calls ‘infrapolitics’. Scott shows how certain common behavior of subaltern groups (for example, foot-dragging, escape, sarcasm, passivity, laziness, misunderstandings, disloyalty, slander, avoidance or theft) is not always what it seems to be, but instead resistance” (Stellan Vinthagen and Anna Johansson, “‘Everyday Resistance’: Exploration of a Concept and its Theories”). A part of Scott’s agenda, in which he succeeds, is to demonstrate how the Marxist conception on “false-consciousness” by showing how certain practices of opposition can occur only by pretending to fit in the oppressive system they oppose.

This perspective is very close Michel de Certeau’s notion of “users tactics” which aim at explaining how there is still a margin of appreciation and diversion for actors who do not hold the power to determinate the meaning of products or practices (for instance, an inhabitant rarely has the power to influence the master plan of his or her city, which doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t have a partial power to influence the meaning of the city through the very way he or she uses it). This may be the reason why it appears that the concept of “resistance” is generally separated from the study of social movements: social movement studies carry a strong interest to organisations and democratic contexts, even though they have changed that perspective for a while. Anchored in scientific traditions closer to postmodernism, and developed in “non-democratic” contexts, resistance studies seems to bear a clearer interest for the actor and the notion of agency, in other words the practical, experienced forms of social organisation (rather than the overarching structures, the particularity of agencies being that they are not necessarily univocal and, therefore, the whole paradox of how do you think of your situation as a situation of oppression if there is a cultural hegemony imposing certain representations on your own experience). Therefore we find a development of studies on the inscription of resistance in bodies, micro-practices, leisure, diversion of norms, and so forth. This is made by several authors, among which Asef Bayat who employs it to describe social movements in the Middle East, or actually what he calls “social nonmovements”: collective actions that matter because they do not conceive themselves as such and act through a phenomenon qualified of “quiet encroachment of the ordinary”, that is, an accumulation of small acts that nonetheless leads to important change in the life of people (the practice that led Bayat to that way was to notice how in certain cities the illegal tapping of electricity by inhabitants of informal neighbourhoods led to more change in the access to electricity than any campaign on this access). This specific comprehension of the term (in terms of “everyday”) is well defined by Vinthagen and Johansson (“Dimensions of Everyday Resistance: An Analytical Framework”):

(1) Everyday resistance is a practice (not a certain consciousness, intent or outcome); (2) it is historically entangled with (everyday) power (not separated, dichotomous or independent); (3) Everyday resistance needs to be understood as intersectional with the powers that it engages with (not one single power relation); and (4) it is heterogeneous and contingent due to changing contexts and situations (not a universal strategy or coherent form of action).

The advantage of this definition is the way in which the authors think their concept in relation with social movements, which will be important later on.

Therefore “resistance” takes many meanings, but there is clearly an overlapping of the scientific meaning, and the meaning given by the groups engaged in it. The Palestinian nationalist movement, as a part of the anticolonial movements created after the Second World War, was concerned with the term of resistance, even though taken in a double framing because of the importance in the Palestinian struggle of the imaginary and practices of the Palestinian revolution. The interest for resistance covers a variety of periods and of approaches, as can be for instance seen in comparing three good studies on the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon: Rosemary Sayigh’s Too many enemies, the Palestinian experience in Lebanon, Julie Peteet’s Landscapes of hope and despair, Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, and Rebecca Roberts’ Palestinians in Lebanon, Refugees living with long-term displacement. The three studies have somewhat to treat the question of resistance (whether the term is explicitly employed or not), but do it in very different ways (even, and it is important to point it, if “resistance” appears as well to describe organisations of resistance such as the PLO and its bodies). To put it in a nutshell, Sayigh’s work focuses on the memory, by the members of one specific community, of the experience of resisting in a conflict situation, and how a locale became the emblem of this capacity to survive the conflict; Julie Peteet has a much more organisational approach of the term, since “the resistance” is, in her book, always clearly used to describe the nationalist movement, during a period, in Lebanon, which has had effects on both the historiography of the camps (the “resistance” era) and a certain apprehension of the camps as centres of resistance; finally, if “resistance” as a term is used by Roberts more or less in the same way as Peteet, another concept of hers, that of “coping”, is to be taken in consideration, indicating the everyday tactics developed by the refugees to survive in a precarious and deprived situation.

I take apart the question of the organisations of national struggle – as if it made sense for the actors to distinguish on the field, while it is not the case – to focus on “resistance” as a political and social phenomenon. In the development of my own research project, I have encountered the concept of resistance in several occasions, from activists, fellow researchers, and in seminars. As far as this post is concerned, the concept has appeared, for what concerns my object, as problematic for three main reasons: it is unclear, it is incomplete, and it is normative.

A woman vomits all the plagues of Lebanon (Photo taken in Beirut)


Finding “resistance”

Thinking “resistance” a minima is any opposition to the application of a power, “from studies of long-term group opposition to conditions of slavery and colonialism […] to ‘everyday forms of resistance’ – […] small acts of defiance that do not constitute a social movement but that suggest a person’s or small set of persons’ dissatisfaction with the status quo” (Seymour). The obvious advantage is the ability to think of opposition to power in all its possible forms. Nonetheless, this advantage quickly turns into a lack of definition of the terms, and, warns Jean-Pierre Olivier De Sardan, into what can quickly become an over-interpretive bias: in a deprived society, virtually everything can be labelled as “resistance”:

“Resistocentrism” comes under abusive emic imputation. One will turn any peasant (or, depending to the needs, any youth, any woman, any worker) into a passive or active, direct or indirect, manifest or latent “resistant”, via a systematically oriented reading of every of their behaviours. Through their rituals, they display resistance. Through their rumours, they display resistance. Through they games and booze-ups, they display resistance. Through their migrations, they display resistance. Through their refusal to migrate, they display resistance. […] The examples could be numbered infinitely. In all cases, we face a particular case of the projection of preconceptions, which consists in dressing up the actors with whatever clothing we find fit them the most.

This “resistocentrist” posture is associated for De Sardan to a refusal to perceive the life of the people outside of its relation to the dominants. In the case of the Palestinian camps, this is particularly striking: it is more or less possible to explain or describe every form of interaction through a resistance perspective, from the way people eat to their professions, the way they obtain their water or their electricity. But, in the everyday life of the camps’ inhabitants, the occasions are very scarce in which domination, relegation or oppression are evoked by the refugees, who mostly either attempt to go on with a normal life as much as possible or face entire considerations entirely, not only from the position of being deprived, but also in interacting in organisations and relations completely detached from any form of dependence. What is more, the definition of behaviours as resistant or not resistant, as related or not to an oppressive power, and which oppressive power, are the object of struggle inside the camp and inside the collective actors of the camps as well: the types of local mobilisations I have interest for, around questions of collective consumption, are only thought and lived in relation to an external power as far as certain actors are concerned, the others giving completely different justifications and representations of the phenomena. This neglect has partly been voiced in the report made by Maysoun Sukarieh and Stuart Tannock on the question of over-research in the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon. A comment carried by some of the informants mentioned the neglect of general research for “The good things in the camp” and “The talent in the camps”, describing a miserabilist discourse underlying an important part of the research on these spaces, which is associated to the over-interpretive bias as described by De Sardan. The resources at disposal of the Palestinian refugees are not merely resistant resources, an important part of what takes place, in terms of contention as well as anything, relies on social relations internal to the camps, and without relation to anything external to it.

What is more, the concept of “resistance”, when it is defined, generally settles on an unilateral relation of domination: power is applied from a dominant on a dominated, and the latter resists to the former. Nonetheless these “sides” appear much less obvious on the field, a similar actor being in somewhat contradictory positions depending on the period or the type or place of action, switching between domination, resistance, resistance while being dominant, resistance in alliance with a dominant actor, or encouragement of a specific form of resistance to another form of domination than his or hers. In other words, politics do exist. Of course conceptions in terms of resistance do not ignore that


Resistance or mobilisation?

The second issue posed by the problem of resistance is the spontaneous and almost unreflexive dimension behind the term. The physical metaphor, if etymology were of any scientific relevance, would indicate it: resistance is not, in its origins, a social but a mechanical phenomenon. But, more than that, the very idea presented earlier and apparently taken from Michel Foucault that “Where there is power, there is resistance” is as an axiom much clearer, and the issue somewhat emerges from the previous remark about the risk of over-interpretation present in the approach in terms of everyday resistance: everything can be analysed as resistance partly because resistance “has” to be there, and comes in as soon as a power is exerted. It is asserted that “resistance” occurs whenever a phenomenon of control is established. The forms of resistance studied by De Certeau, who focuses on the actual practices of actors when they do not concern collective actions, fit perfectly in that model, because they correspond to the way people behave when a power is applied to them. For Vinthagen and Johansson, resistance describes, as we have seen earlier, forms of actions that do not fit in an organised or spectacular context. The difference should be clear: “Even if Scott recognizes occasions when the hidden everyday resistance becomes public and collective, his conceptualization seems to create a dichotomy between the two main forms: everyday resistance and public resistance”. Yet in facts, these two activities can only be separated artificially, as engagement in public mobilisations is never entirely separated from more mundane, hidden and less obvious actions and identities.

De facto, an important part of the literature on resistance (the least example of which wouldn’t be Paul Routledge’s Terrains of resistance), does not consider resistance in a way restricted to the definition given by Vinthagen and Johansson, but rather talks about contentious collective action, that is, about social movements. Yet, if the history of the development of resistance or the description of its tactics are common, it is much less the case of the question of how resistant movements emerged, taken from a social movement perspective. To be clearer: part of the question of social movement studies has come from re-considering the two positions that collective actions came from collective moments of emotional excitement (the psychology of masses described by the First School of Chicago, which associated riots, demonstrations and trade-unionism to public panics and the Middle Ages “dance epidemics” in a single object) and that they were attached to a necessary movement of history taking place because of the objective conditions of oppression of a part of the society and the realisation of such conditions (present both in the classical Marxist approaches of revolutions and in the studies in terms of relative deprivation). The point is made for instance by Mancur Olson, whose paradox is employed to describe a simple idea: even when social actors have interest of mobilising, and believe it, it still remains pretty much doubtful that they will, because it is not obvious to go demonstrate (or to take action in any form for that matter). Therefore a part of the answer has been found in the various approaches in terms of political configurations (social movements occur more easily when the capacity to repress them diminishes or is perceived to be diminished by the occurrence of other successful social movements in a relatively comparable area), social resources (certain actors have the money, time, ideological capacities, knowledge allowing them to “invest” in a social movement), and others occurred, with at their centre the idea that what matters are the “levers” of mobilisation, both at the individual actors and organisation level.

This goes hand in hand with the reduction to a “civil society” which would not be traversed by any relation of power but its spontaneous determination to confront power: not seeing the relations of the individual, intimate, loosely-organised or “civil society”-related movements of resistance prevents seeing how these categories can be deeply intertwined with movements or organisations perceived as taking no part in the dynamics of resistance. The everyday practices of resistance, as well as the “civil society”, fit in a broader context of mobilisation, which is not marked by a strong separation between resistance and organised activism, but by a form of continuity between discreet and apparently disorganised practices (but one can ask himself, when all the members of a social group have exactly the same everyday and discreet practices of resistance, to what extent it is not an very conscious form of action), and contentious politics. Looking at the actors of everyday resistance tends to show much more organisation and much relations to “traditional” groups or organisations busy with visible contentious politics.

Untitled, Naji al-Ali
Untitled, Naji al-Ali

Romance and normative-ness

As Lila Abu-Lughod puts it, “there is perhaps a tendency to romanticize resistance, to read all forms of resistance as signs of the ineffectiveness of systems of power and of the resilience and creativity of the human spirit in its refusal to be dominated. By reading resistance in this way, we collapse distinctions between forms of resistance and foreclose certain questions about the workings of power” (“The Romance of Resistance: Tracing Transformations of Power Through Bedouin Women”, 1990). This point is particularly important, as, if there is no particular issue with being on a side in social sciences, it can become an issue when we end up making very string normative statements and delegitimising certain actors or actions on the field.

The first and most obvious one concerns the label of activities as “resistant” on the field while others are not granted this label, we tend to apply a normative perspective in terms of what movements are acknowledged as truly opposing an arbitrary power, and therefore are legitimate, and what movements are not. The very choice of the objects is already such an element, of course, but it is increased by the incredibly positive prejudice attached to resistance, to the point of rejecting other forms of activism which do not satisfy certain expectations. This relation to the object is not particularly original, and a quick look at an issue of journals such as Mobilization to notice that social scientists busying themselves with social movements generally tend to focus on movements associated with social progress or democratic agendas. This has changed over time, and some mobilisations poorly legitimate in a perspective of social engagement as being left-wing, minority, progress-driven or generally “positive” have been realised (Vinthagen and Johansson quote Pete Stimi and Robert Futrell on white power activists, one can also think of works on “NIMBY” movements, or indeed Michel Pinçon and Monique Pinçon-Charlot’s work on the forms of activism in the French grande bourgeoisie). An analogy can maybe be drawn here with the trend that has called itself new social movement studies and aimed at approaching what was then perceived as a new form of militancy attached to non-economic identities and using new means of action (going from the urban social movements to the LGBT activism, including people of colour’s activism, feminist militancy, and so forth; or, in the case of Palestinian activism, typically the phenomena of, in a first period after the Intifada, stone-throwing as opposed to guerrilla, and more recently temporary occupations and party militancy as opposed to stone-throwing and demonstrations). In his summary of the study of the latter (in the Dictionnaire des mouvements sociaux), Didier Chabanet points out how this school of study failed at apprehending the processes of integration of certain social movements (and types of actions) by reifying the category of social movements which seem to emerge from the 1960s, as well as the same tendency to ignore certain conservative or reactionary types of mobilisations: “possibly under the motive that they would have questioned certain of its predicates and notably its emancipatory aim”. A good example of that can be found in the study led by the Pinçon/Pinçon-Charlot program (nominally in Les ghettos du Gotha, which focuses on the privatisation of space by the French grande bourgeoisie). We see a phenomenon which could almost be identified to the definition of everyday resistance given earlier: we are confronted to a group of actors who are partially defined by the space they inhabit, who wave into their everyday life a set of tactics aimed at reproducing the group and its spaces, partially by using the social life of the said groups (in clubs, leisure, invitations, cultural activities and so forth) and partly by using an acceptable pretext (landscape and environment preservation) as a way to guarantee a monopoly on the use of said spaces. Except the group is extremely dominant, thus leading to a problem for what concerns the definition of its activism as resistant. It is on that matter part of the epistemological debate the program aims at setting to define these activities as militancy: it takes a great deal of the activity of these people to do so, because the reproduction of their privilege is not an obvious, mechanical and simple phenomenon.

The second way in which the term is normative is its tendency to deny certain behaviours a right to legitimacy. This goes back to the trend to use the concept in an over-interpretive way: not only does the tendency to analyse any behaviour, as long as it concerns poor people, as resistance, it also for a part beseeches them to resist, and to resist in certain fashions. In the Palestinian camps of Lebanon, for instance, where the arrangement of the everyday life in order to reproduce a Palestinian memory and society has been studied in a thorough manner and over a long period of time, very little remains done on the forms of complete disengagement to that question that exist as well (such as the strategies of exile studied by Kamel Doraï, for instance, or the rejection of the Palestinian movement by certain actors in order to privilege other issues such as humanitarian relief or the question of services). For instance, the study of NGOs as agents of depoliticisation in the camps is partly carried by a message on what a “proper Palestinian civil society activism” should be, and a refusal to see certain actors on the Palestinian camps simply refuse to attach their engagement to the perspective of the right to return or resistance against the Lebanese policies towards the camps. A part of the problem with “resistocentrism”, says De Sardan, is the way it denies to poor people the right to have their own agencies, the way it fails at seeing that opposing power or domination also passes by “dodging” it in situations in which it is forgotten or absent, or, could be added, by living situations that are not related to an attempt to resist it, but driven by different social relations entirely.


What to do of resistance?

These questions are of course well-comprehended in resistance studies, and have been tackled previously. The answer has always been to present the limitations induced by the concept and to try to reintegrate it in a more critical framework. Mainly, in the few articles and books I looked at writing this post, there seems to be two main points as to how the concept of resistance retains an importance and cannot be discarded, but rather reconsidered. The first argument is already contained in the discussion earlier: one of the limitations that have been presented is the tendency to either include any form of contention into “resistance”, or to mark a strong distinction between resistance and contentious politics. A more constructive way to approach the question is to consider the everyday politics of resistance, at an individual or loosely-organised level, as taking place in the politics of contention, even if under a different register (marked by discretion, a certain lack of politicisation, and so forth). Yet its register doesn’t involve a separation from the activity of social movement organisations, and can be seen as planned. In other words it allows overcoming a limitation of the approach of contentious politics as visible politics, which is a limitation of social movement studies: “The concept of repertoire of collective action […] elaborated by [Charles] Tilly considers in the continuum of actions only the forms of ‘open, collective and discontinue contestation’. […] Yet, the everyday forms of individual resistance are an important share of contestation in non-democratic regimes, and it is not scarce that organisations alternate between routine and contentious forms of actions” (Cécile Péchu, “Répertoires d’action”). A second argument, maybe broader, is made by Abu-Lughod who proposes to turn back Foucault’s quote and state that “Where there is resistance, there is power”. In other terms, observed forms of resistance (and that is an important point, as it implies overcoming the over-interpretive bias and focusing on actual practices) are a way to identify forms of power that are always inscribed in complex agencies and take meaning differently according to the actors, the events, and the moments. Therefore resistance can be seen, as put by Abu-Lughod, as a “diagnostic of power”: observing what people do resist concretely is not only a good way of seeing what domination is relevant to them in their specific social, historical, political and geographical outset, but also what other forms of power they are subjected to.


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