The first chapter introduces us to Sedaka, with a brief description of two individuals at extreme ends of the social spectrum and a look at the roles they (or rather the stories told about them) play in the ideological conflict between rich and poor in the village. The second presents the basic motivation for the study; Scott feels that inordinate attention has been paid to the rare occurrences of open revolt by peasants, and too little to ordinary, everyday forms of resistance and their symbolic and ideological underpinnings. He also stresses the importance of placing individual agents, in their particular settings, at the centre of analysis.
The third and fourth chapters provide the economic and political background to the study. Scott begins with Malaysia, then narrows in on Kedah State, the Muda plain and the village of Sedaka itself. He then recounts its economic and social history over the decade or so preceding, concentrating on such things as land tenure and ownership, income distributions and the effects of the Green Revolution. This is set within the background of national politics.
With the next chapter we move into the ethnography proper; Scott now describes the different interpretations placed by the inhabitants of Sedaka on the history he has just described. While the villagers still share a common universe of discourse and have access to the same cultural materials, class divisions are intensifying, largely as a result of the divergent effects of the Green Revolution on rich and poor; the two groups tell very different histories of the village. Particular changes that are the subject of dissension include a move to rents paid before rather than after the harvest, the introduction of combine harvesters, a decline in the availability of land and the frequency and generosity of zakat peribadi (religious charity) and feast-giving. It is significant that the poor villagers blame their richer neighbours for what is happening, not absentee Chinese landlords or the government; they have no claims of community and obligation on the latter.
The following chapters look at how these interpretations clash in practice. Scott first analyses the language associated with exploitation and the ways in which the truth is distorted to serve class interests. The rich rationalise their exploitation and refusal to abide by the traditional dictates of community feeling and tolong-menolong (mutual help) by such devices as claiming to be poor themselves or denying the morality of the poor; they do not attack the shared norms of the village directly. The poor cling to a disappearing way of life; while not in actual danger of starving, they are fighting a losing battle to retain their status as full members of the community. Several case studies are used to illustrate this: the means landowners use to justify sacking tenants; a dispute over control of the village gate; and drastic bias in the distribution of funds handed out by the national government for a village improvement scheme. Scott then goes on to look at forms of resistance that go beyond words — striking against the introduction of combine harvesters, petty theft, the killing of animals, and so on. The overt mechanisms of physical repression are also described, but it is the need to make a living which is most influential in compelling resistance to be covert.
In short: conformity is calculated, not unthinking, and beneath the surface of symbolic and ritual compliance there is an undercurrent of ideological resistance, just as beneath the surface peace there is continuous material resistance. Scott considers the consequences of all this for definitions of resistance. Four criteria have commonly been required for 'genuine' resistance: it must be collective and organised rather than private and unorganised; it must be principled and selfless rather than opportunistic and selfish; it must have revolutionary consequences; and it must negate rather than accept the basis of domination. None of these requirements make sense when one looks at Sedaka.
In the last chapter Scott presents his main theoretical theses. Material base and normative superstructure in Sedaka are inextricably interwoven. The rich expend effort and material in molding the latter to suit their own ends at the expense of the poor, who oppose them with whatever means are available. And, at least in Sedaka, it is political power that underlies exploitation, not the relations of production. As a result, Scott suggests that the ideological superstructure must always be seen as a product of struggle, not as something preexisting. As for hegemony, Scott argues that: elite values do not really penetrate into the lower classes; inevitability is not seen as implying legitimacy; hegemonic ideas are always the subject of conflict, and are continually being reconstructed; and resistance is rooted in everyday material goals (so called "trade unionism") rather than in a "revolutionary consciousness". If anything, in Sedaka it is the rich who are busy breaking the ideological "hegemony" of the poor. He suggests that this analysis applies to the working class as well as to peasants, and that there is a clear need to rethink concepts of hegemony and ideological domination.
In Weapons of the Weak Scott draws on an impressively wide range of material, both theoretical and comparative. As well as studies of other peasant communities within Malaysia and Southeast Asia, he also uses historical work on European peasants (following historians such as Bloch, Hobsbawm and Thompson) and slaves in the United States. Here, as well as the historians, Scott also draws on sources such as folk songs and novels, managing to quote from Dickens, Balzac, Zola, Disraeli, George Eliot and Brecht. (It might have been interesting to compare these with Malay writers writing about modern Malay peasants, but Scott appears to have left this for a more recent book, Domination and the Arts of Resistance.) The principal theoretical source is, of course, the running debate within Marxism over the concepts of false consciousness and hegemony, following thinkers such as Gramsci, Lukacs, Althusser and Habermas.
Weapons of the Weak is not just a political study, however; it is also an outstanding work of ethnography. Based on thorough research and careful, perceptive fieldwork, it manages to avoid some of the failings of traditional ethnography by its emphasis on the centrality of individual human beings in their particular situations. Whether or not it offers definitive answers to the questions it investigates, it certainly provides some solid ground to stand on in looking for them.
More generally, Weapons of the Weak is an example of how much anthropology has to contribute to history and political science. To historians it offers one way around the problem - almost paradox - of how to reconstruct the unwritten history of the illiterate from written records (something which appears very clearly in a work like Hobsbawm and Rude's Captain Swing). To political scientists it offers the essential corrective of empirical evidence, without which their theorising tends to lose contact with reality. Weapons of the Weak is beautifully written and eloquently argued, and fully deserves its place as a classic alongside The Moral Economy of the Peasant.
Acknowledgements: thanks to Richard Basham for comments on an earlier version of this given as a tutorial paper.
- Related reviews:
- James C. Scott - Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play
- books about Southeast Asia + Southeast Asian history
- books about agriculture + pastoralism
- more ethnography
- books about politics
- books published by Yale University Press
- other "best book" selections