Anthropology And Hegemony Research Paper

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1. Introduction

By the time anthropologists discovered Antonio Gramsci’s idea of hegemony in the late nineteen eighties, it had been reworked by others so that it barely resembled Gramsci’s. Although anthropologists cite Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks (1971) when they refer to hegemony, most are inspired by revisionist interpretations of hegemony.

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2. Hegemony

Hegemony is the central idea among many by which Antonio Gramsci established a humanistic, neo-Marxist approach to revolutionary change. Instead of subordinating the superstructure of ideas to the force of the economic base, Gramsci empowered the influence of ideas over Marxism’s economic determinism. At the core of Gramsci’s methodology is the dialectical relationship between hegemony (consent–support) and domination (coercion–force). His primary theoretical concern was how to resolve this contradiction, for in political practice one is always tempered by the other. He tried to reach resolution in part by redefining hegemony.

Lenin defined hegemony as domination. Gramsci redefined it as an intellectual and moral leadership directed by contradictory political and cultural agents and organizations he called organic and traditional intellectuals. Organic intellectuals represented the interests of working classes. One of their tasks was to make the proletariat aware of capitalist domination and exploitation. Traditional intellectuals represented the interests of the bourgeoisie. One of their tasks was to quell counter-hegemonic resistance to capitalism.

More than other Marxist thinkers, Gramsci recognized the significance of culture in revolutionary practice. Gramsci defined culture as ‘the exercise of thought, the acquisition of general ideas the habit of connecting cause and effect … enlivened by organization’ (Kurtz 1996a, 1996b). Culture was central to Gramsci’s political strategy. He argued that culture was a political product of intellectuals, for another of their tasks was to develop the people’s culture through education and ideological indoctrination. Traditional intellectuals worked to convince people of the virtues of capitalism and obtain their consent to capitalist rule. Organic intellectuals worked to help people develop an alternative to a capitalist culture. Among other strategies, Gramsci suggested how organic intellectuals might use popular cultural forms and signs to marshal working class revolutionary energies, depose capitalism, and construct a unitary proletarian culture.

3. Revisionists

Of the many works that explore Gramsci’s thinking (Kurtz 1996a), anthropologists rely largely on those of Williams (1977) and Laclau and Mouffe (1985). Williams is concerned with the relationship between culture and hegemony. He argues that hegemony goes beyond culture, is synonymous with culture, serves as a form of ‘cultural domination,’ and, as a structure of cultural forms, provides a repository for traditional values. But, by equating hegemony with tradition, Williams divests it of Gramsci’s political specificity.

Laclau and Mouffe are concerned with the heterogenous social organization of contemporary capitalist nations. They equate hegemony with ideology grounded in discourses by which oppressed categories in capitalist societies—women, gays, ethnic categories, and the like—can be made aware of their oppression. For Laclau and Mouffe hegemony (read ideology) provides the ‘organic cement’ of political formations that will transform western capitalism into a ‘radical socialist democracy.’

These authors appropriated Gramsci’s idea of hegemony and made themselves its authority, yet little that they say corresponds to Gramsci’s idea of hegemony. They also ignore the role of intellectuals in political practice. Still, the beauty and bane of their interpretations are the extent to which hegemony becomes amenable to diverse interpretations by anthropologists, but sometimes at the cost of the political intent with which Gramsci imbued it.

4. Anthropology And Hegemony

Anthropologists were attracted to the idea of hegemony for several reasons. It provided a neo-Marxist approach that complemented the idealist orientation among anthropologists who emphasize the power of ideas over material forces; it provided a new way to explore political relationships; it enabled reconsideration of old ideas, such as culture. Above all, it was thought provoking. Consequently there is little consistency regarding how anthropologists use it.

Most often anthropologists use hegemony as a trendy buzz-word that dilutes the concept’s power. The idea of hegemony becomes more complicated when anthropologists use it seriously to analyze political relations. Only rarely do anthropologists use Gramsci’s definition of hegemony to explore relations of domination and subordination. Instead, most anthropologists cite Gramsci, if only in passing, as the source of the idea of hegemony. Then they relegate his idea of hegemony to a secondary status and make it a point of departure to use or develop other interpretations of hegemony (Kaplan and Kelly 1994, Kurtz 1996a).

As a tool for analysis, anthropologists most often equate hegemony with a political force in society which usually emanates from those in power. Some anthropologists use revisionist ideas of hegemony to focus on other of Gramsci’s ideas, such as common sense (peoples’ awareness of their condition) (American Ethnologist 1993). However they approach hegemony, anthropologists infer that a hegemony of the proletariat to counter domination is rare (American Ethnologist 1993, Kurtz 1996b).

When anthropologists explore the relationship between hegemony and culture, it is Williams’ ideas of hegemony and culture, not Gramsci’s, that informs these explorations. Others use Laclau and Mouffe’s idea of hegemony as ideology in conjunction with Williams’ ideas of hegemony as culture and tradition to rework Gramsci’s ideas. In these instances anthropologists become the source and authority of new ideas of hegemony. Almost no anthropologist places either hegemony and domination or traditional and organic intellectuals in the dialectical context that Gramsci thought to be important in hegemonic encounters.

This diversity of application of hegemony by anthropologists can be explained by their frequent argument that Gramsci did not define hegemony clearly. It is true that Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks are fragmentary and open to interpretation. But anthropologists also do not read the Notebooks’ informative footnotes, Gramsci’s preprison writings, or the authoritative exegetes of his work. As a result they privilege others’ interpretations of hegemony. Regardless how anthropologists define and locate hegemony theoretically, it is most applicable to two related concerns: the consequences of state and colonial policies and political relations of domination and subordination.

4.1. State–Colonial Policies

Only a few anthropologists apply Gramsci’s formulation of hegemony to explore the impact of colonial policies. Carstens (1991) used Gramsci’s idea of hegemony to account for how unequal relations between dialectically opposed intellectuals, British missionaries and Okanagan Indian chiefs, changed Okanagan culture and relegated the Indians to an inferior economic status in contemporary Canada. Kurtz (1996b) extrapolated from Gramsci’s idea of hegemony to develop the idea of hegemonic culturation to explain why political leaders strive to instill an ideology of work in their political communities and why resistance to these efforts is rare.

More commonly, analyses rely on Williams’ idea of hegemony as cultural domination. Fox (1989) used Williams’ idea of hegemony as culture to explore how cultural meanings arose in colonial India and compelled colonizer and colonized to conform to certain behaviors. Contrary to Williams, hegemonic agents are central to Fox’s idea of hegemony. He demonstrates how intellectuals continually experiment with existing cultural meanings which both enable and constrain resistance to colonial rule. But hegemony is not a source of revolutionary change for Fox. Instead, as Williams’ cultural domination, hegemony continues to subordinate behaviors to the meanings it encodes.

In analyzing cultural confrontations in colonial South Africa, the Comaroffs (1991) emphasize Williams’ ideas of hegemony as tradition, and Laclau and Mouffe’s idea that discourse has the power to transform indigenous culture. For the Comaroffs, hegemony represents a tradition which, through discourses, acquires an ideology that helped to reorganize indigenous South African societies in accord with colonial rule. Ideology, not hegemony, provided the force of change. As tradition, hegemony had power only to shape actions, perceptions, and changes to the extent that it provided the source of new ideological challenges to existing traditions. As a process, hegemony (read tradition) is reproduced by its interplay with ideology into a functionalist ‘hegemonic order’ that provides a repository from which cultural forms may be created through the discursive power of ideology.

4.2 Domination And Subordination

Anthropologists who analyze the impact of state and colonial policies on anthropological subjects do not ignore the relationship between resistance and domination. Domination and subordination are implicated in almost all application of hegemony. But anthropologists who emphasize these relations explore them largely in post-colonial and authoritarian societies, such as Sri Lanka and Bolivia, through ideas of hegemony that are largely of their own making. They agree only that hegemony is always a process.

Among these explorations hegemony is perceived as a synthesizing principle for welding class interests into a coherent world view (McDonogh 1991). In another context hegemony is a social process embedded in discourses aimed at instilling an ideology of nationalism (Brow 1988). The persistence of patron–client relations is maintained by hegemony identified as a force that maintains a social structure through the cultural shaping of experience (American Ethnologist 1993). Hegemony, conceived as a historical moment, explains how a ruling class shapes perceptions of ideas, such as female beauty, to legitimate their rule over the working class (American Ethnologist 1993). Some anthropologists load the idea of hegemony with an array of theoretical considerations. In one instance, hegemony functions as the source of education for Gramsci’s idea of ‘common sense’ (Woost 1993). In another it represents an ongoing formati e process that may promote resistance to domination (American Ethnologist 1993).

Most anthropologists who consider the role of agents in these relations emphasize the role of elites, and argue that proletarian agents are not very effective in developing counter-hegemonies. Even those few anthropologists who emphasize the role of working class intellectuals in confrontations with elites conclude that proletarian intellectuals have little impact on changing the sources of rule and domination. As Laclau and Mouffe suggest, this is because the proletariat is too alienated and submerged under a dominant culture and rule. A logical consequence of this tendency is to privilege hegemony as tradition and render it apolitical.

Although anthropologists use hegemony as understood by others than Gramsci, and often in more convoluted fashion, they tend to agree on what could only be disheartening to Gramsci: the hegemonic impact of colonial and some contemporary governments has sufficiently restructured the culture and society of subordinate peoples that counterhegemonies to domination are difficult to attain. Hegemony, however conceived, seems to accommodate best the interests of the elites.

5. The Future Of Hegemony In Anthropology

The concern of anthropologists with the idea of hegemony peaked in the early 1990s. Now hegemony is firmly ensconced in anthropological discourse and theoretical orientations concerned with culture, structuralism, a poststructuralism cum postmodernism, even a revised historical materialism that objectifies ideas as material forces. Regardless how anthropologists conceive hegemony, it holds a privileged place among a cadre of non-materialist, neo-Marxist anthropologists and provides them a humanistic methodology to explore novel cultural and political relations. The collapse of the Western European and, more recently, Soviet empires and the energy of the expanding world capitalist order have produced global disjunctions in social, cultural, economic and political relations. To explain these epiphenomena, anthropologists are likely to continue to develop creatively the explanatory power of the idea of hegemony.


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