Presented at European Sociologist Association Conference, Glasgow, Scotland, 3-6 Sept 2007, research thread “Resisting Neoliberalism and the Panel on Resistan icon

Presented at European Sociologist Association Conference, Glasgow, Scotland, 3-6 Sept 2007, research thread “Resisting Neoliberalism and the Panel on Resistan

Draft presented at European Sociologist Association Conference, Glasgow, Scotland, 3-6 Sept 2007, research thread “Resisting Neoliberalism” and the Panel on Resistance Studies. Do not quote without permission from the authors.

The State of Resistance Studies

Dr Stellan Vinthagen and Dr Mona Lilja, School of Global Studies, Department of Peace and Development Research (Padrigu), Göteborg University, Sweden. &

Suggested questions for discussion of the paper:

  1. What problems do you see in the definition of “resistance”? Should it be more elaborate, showing the variation of resistance and its dynamics (e.g. which might “negotiate”, “reproduce”, “shake” or “destabilize”)? Is it too broad? Do you have an alternative?

  2. Are there other fields of “resistance studies” in social science which we have omitted? Are any of the described fields misrepresented?

  3. Is “resistance studies” a “doable” research field? Is it called for? How should it be focused in order to contribute to our knowledge of resistance as a social phenomenon?


Our paper is a literature review which describes various existing theories and concepts related to what could be loosely called “resistance studies”; an interdisciplinary field of social research which is still underdeveloped, contradictory and indistinct. In contrast to the discourse on “power”, resistance is typically described as a sporadic reaction to existing realities, a reaction that is destructive or unsophisticated. Still, as Foucault claims, where power exists, we will also find resistance, thus implying resistance as a common and permanent feature of social life. Furthermore, we claim, resistance, as power, comes in different forms; some resistance is productive and some is even more sophisticated and innovative than the power it challenges. Resistance is, as power, a part of social life, not exceptional or asocial, but often relational within networks of productive social interactions.


We understand resistance as a subaltern response to power; a practice that challenge and which might undermine power. Thus, depending on our definition of power, different types of activities will count as resistance. Resistance is distinctive yet manifold and continually invented. Different actors do resist different things for different reasons and with different means. James Scott, for example, describes how resistance among oppressed becomes hidden and anonymous, only rarely an open challenge. Understanding resistance is vital since, we claim, there are historic links between resistance, power and social change.


Through our literature review we describe existing understanding of resistance and we point out the need for sustained and systematic research in a number of wanting areas; together constituting a need for a conscious and collective development of a new coherent research field: resistance studies.



Today, with on-going globalisation, social change happens to an ever-increasing extent (Beck 1998; Beynon & Dunkerley 2000; Castells 1997; Clark 1999; Lechner & Boli 2000). One of the most striking features of globalisation is the scope and changing nature of mobilisations, struggles and resistance against, for or within present change processes. The 1st of January 1994 the world witnessed the birth of an untypical ethnic guerrilla group – the Zapatistas or EZLN. These Chiapas Indians claims to fight for all excluded and marginalised groups – Christians in Saudi Arabia, homeless people in Scandinavia, Muslims in USA, as well as Chiapas Indians in Mexico and others – and this ethnic guerrilla soon developed into a peaceful civil society organiser. Today this “armed movement” gains unprecedented legitimacy throughout the world by not using its arms, thus raising the question what makes a guerrilla group or a social movement. In Seattle 1999 on the 30th November thousands of workers and environmentalists – “Teamsters and Turtles” – made the meeting of the mightiest economic institution in the world – the World Trade Organisation – collapse. They formed smart mobs through small action groups coordinated with mobile phones and a “pie-sector” strategy of nonviolent blockades of all the streets leading to the conference building – a resistance method that 2001 through creative use of text messages (SMS) brought down the regime in the Philippines (Reingold 2002). In 2007 every day brings yet another suicide-bombing in Iraq, Afghanistan or other places. A desperate and small-scale resistance method, which a couple of years ago were relatively unknown, is today the main vehicle against what earlier seemed to be overwhelming powers. As yet another example we might consider the recent development of virtual resistance, “electronic civil disobedience” or “net wars”, i.e. mobilizations on the Internet and through ICT, where social struggles occur in cyberspace (Cleaver 1999; Klang 2006; Ronfeldt & Arquilla 2001). Such resistance made one of the major proposals of corporate globalisation – the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) – impossible (Varney & Martin 2000).

As power-relations effectively are maintained, challenged and resisted, while the interaction amongst people globally increases, there is a renewed need for research that pinpoints issues of social change, resistance and power. Especially for those of us who are interested in strengthening liberation sociology and democratising development from below. Yet resistance strategies, mobilisations and methods are normally not what interest scholars of social science. Traditionally social science focus on understanding world order, nation state systems, capitalism or other established power structures, while research on the transformation of power is a lot less established (Lilja 2007; Parry 1994; Vinthagen 2005). To our knowledge there do not anywhere in the world exist any research centre – even less a department – dedicated to the study of resistance to power and its social change.1

Social change is a broad subject with many components, one of them being resistance. The understanding of how resistance – here understood as a subaltern response to power, a practice that challenge and which might undermine power (Vinthagen & Lilja 2007) – contributes to social change is plainly poor. While “power” is a well-developed and even contested concept, “resistance” is often simplified and reduced to “counter-power”: i.e. a (minor) power against the (major) Power, without its own distinguishing features. When characterised, resistance is typically described as a sporadic reaction to existing realities, a reaction that is either destructive or unsophisticated. With a simplified understanding of resistance it becomes difficult to distinguish between different forms, ideologies and effects of resistance towards different kinds of power relations, e.g. economic, political or cultural. But if resistance, as power, is understood as multidimensional, unstable and a complex social construction in dynamic relations related to differences of context (Chabot & Vinthagen 2007; Lilja 2007; Vinthagen 2005), then there is a major need for increased research.2 Even violent resistance needs to be understood in terms of social construction: “Violence, like other forms of collective action, is subject to norms, involves the calculation of advantages and risks, and is geared towards meaningful goals” (Melucci 1996:368). And both violent and non-violent forms of resistance might be a defence or reaction, i.e. protecting certain existing values (resistance as in “holding back”), like in Argentine during the period of “Resistencia”, or it might be more strategic and pro-active (resistance as in “fighting against”) aiming for structural and radical change, even with the ambition of creating a revolution, like in Latin America during the period after the Cuban revolution. Some pro-active resistance groups might attempt to take over power positions, while others might try to destroy power itself.

Many researchers have thus discussed the shape and structure of power (Arendt 1986; Foucault 1974; 1975; 1980; 2003; Lukes 1974; Bourdieu 1986; 1995) while leaving out its transformation.3 The concept of “resistance” has only recently come into fashion and research in the field is meagre, see e.g. The Global Resistance Reader by Amoore (2005), Critical Resistance: From Poststructuralism to Post-Critique
by Couzens Hoy, ^ The Problems of Resistance: Studies in Alternate Political Cultures by Martinot and James (2001), or the Cultural Resistance Reader by Duncombe (2002). Some researchers have discussed aspects of power change or mentioned separate practices of resistance and promoted various well-known concepts vaguely related to resistance: such as performativity (Butler 1990; 1997b), mobile subjectivities (Ferguson 1993), mimicry (Bhabha 1994), identity politics (Castells 1997; Woodward 1997), irony (Hutcheon 1994), intertextuality (Kristeva 1986; Fairclough 1992), multitude (Hardt & Negri 2004), whistle-blowing (Martin 1999), hidden transcripts (Scott 1987), anti-identity and anti-power (Holloway 2002), contention (Tilly et al 2001), disobedience and non-cooperation (Arato & Cohen 1994; Sharp 1973), civil resistance (Carter; Clark & Randle 2006), critical resistance (Couzens Hoy 2005), queer (Rosenberg 2002), rightousness (Gilbert 2002), counter-power (Mathiesen 1982), and, deconstruction (Derrida 1997). While all these might be important components of resistance, their relevance and conceptual inter-relations are basically unclear since there is a lack of coherent research discussion on the phenomenon resistance.

Resistance will vary according to what social structure it resists; if it is done against e.g. the state institutions and laws, corporations and market-rules, cultural institutions, traditional norms or discoursive rules; and, what form of power relation that is engaged (e.g. disciplinary, hegemonic or suppressive power). It will vary depending on social space; if it is done in e.g. an established and recognised public arena (e.g. TV or parliaments), in an informal and emergent political space (e.g. in a neighbourhood), or is transcending “private”/”apolitical” space, as e.g. feminists’ politisation of sexual relations in the family. And resistance will also vary according to if it is individual or collective resistance, what social category is resisting/resisted and the relative size and power of contending groups (if e.g. a majority or minority); in what historical context resistance is played out (e.g. in an authoritarian European state in the 17th century or in a liberal democracy with a welfare-system like Sweden today), and what values or ideologies that guides the resistance. And also other factors will matter, e.g. if the resistance is part of a strategic plan or a spontaneous reaction. Accordingly, resistance will also have a variation of consequences depending on all these factors (leading to democratisation, equality, chaos or increased repression, etc.).

There is a need to show the manifold nature and complexity of resistance and to fill in the gaps in order to provide a more multifaceted and coherent analysis of resistance and power, and in particular of its relation to social change.



Some historic form of “resistance studies” was developed early. During the religious wars of the 16th century French political theorists developed a “resistance theory” based on a combination of three elements from the Roman, church and medieval law; the right to self-defence of oneself and ones property, the contractual relationship between the ruler and the people, and, just war theory. The earliest example we have found is Étienne de la Boétie, a law student, who already 1548 wrote “Discours sur la servitude volontaire”, an excellent argument for the possibilities and right to resist tyrants (Vinthagen 2005:117). The text is a mirror of the classic piece of Machiavelli from 1513, this time not with advice to the Prince but to his subjects, not on how to wage sovereignty but how to resist it.

Within all contemporary social science disciplines we will find some individual research which focus on resistance of some relevant kind. Still, it is rare that any discipline does have an elaborate interest to understand resistance, but it does happen. Within contemporary critical pedagogics resistance studies focus on students’ opposition to dominant discourses and/or teachers (critical) strategies, often as attempts to protect subordinated identities/positions (Hardin 2001; Pare 1994). As such much resistance theory in pedagogics unfortunately reduces resistance to a problem and difference to a “deficit” (Welsh 2001). Within post-colonial literature studies it is possible to find a more complex field of resistance studies, especially within what is now called “subaltern studies”. The post-colonial literature genre deals as much with the problem of representation (of the pre-colonized/colonized) as with resistance (to the colonizer/colonialization) through developing a “counter-discourse” in the process of “writing back” to the colonizer in the language of the Empire (e.g. Azar 2002; Bhabha 1984, 1994; Helgesson 1999, Min-ha 1987; Spivak 1988).4 And much of feminist studies deal with resistance, mainly against patriarchy and gender norms (see e.g. Allen 1998; Braidotti 1994; Brown 1988; Butler 1990, 2004, Enloe 1989, 1990; Ferguson 1993; Frye 1983; Grosz and Probyn 1995; Kabeer 2000), as do studies on racism, which sometimes investigate the opposition to racism (see e.g. Marable 2002), although most of the work study forms of power and suppression.

Depending on our understanding of “power” different forms of resistance becomes relevant for the study of social change. In general there is a wide spectra of “power”; monolith, consent or plural perspectives with different emphasis on ideology, economic-technology, political-bureaucracy, socio-culture or biological-embodiment (de los Reyes 2002; Eriksson & Hettne 2001). The articulation of resistance varies in a similar fashion. The means of resistance might be violent or nonviolent, confrontational or circumventing, deconstructing or reconstructing, refusing or hindering, individual or collective, accommodating or enforcing, materialistic or idealistic. Moreover, resistance may materialize as theatre, ironic utterances, ironic identities, mimic, unexpected identities, hybrid truths, etc.

Power in terms of decision-making on national and global level in political, economical or cultural organisations is resisted by individuals, groups, organisations or movements using various kinds of actions (Baylis & Smith 1997; Bredgaard 2003; Chin 2000; Eriksson, Eriksson-Baaz & Thörn 1999; Escobar 2000; Harvey 2001; O’Brien et al 2000; Richter 2001; Starr 2000).5 Resistance might be locally contained and isolated as well as globally coordinated in joint strategies (Fisher & Ponniah 2003; Gills 2000; Jogdand & Michael 2003; Rupert 2000). There exist 10th of thousands critical social movement organisations (SMOs) in the world, and at the same time less visible but seemingly stronger mobilisations of people in informal networks of transnational movements (Smith & Johnston 2002).6 The decentralised network cooperation between various movements was made visible during the internet-facilitated global peace demonstration against the planned Iraq war on the 15th of February 2003 when between 15-30 million participated in more than 600 cities (Vinthagen 2003). Other mobilisations take the form of direct resistance; such as the civil disobedience by 75 000 Indians against laws protecting the structural adjustment program.7

While there has been a particular attention given to the studies of social movements and their organised protest (Eyerman & Jamison 1996; Singh 2001; Tarrow 1994; Thörn 1997; Wignaraja 1993), just a few researchers have studied actions that are neither organised nor politically articulated (Scott 1987; Martin 1999). Those studying social movements limit traditionally resistance to “protest”, recently to “contention”. Amongst the exceptions is, for example, Castells (1997) who claims that movements’ “resistance identity” is a core identity within the evolving “network society”, constituting a seabed for progressive change through development of new “project identities”.

There exist a difference between research approaches that can be labelled “identity-oriented theories” (Melucci 1996) versus the “resource mobilisation approach” (McAdam, McCarthy & Zald 1996). The latter focuses on the formal organisation, cognitive goal and leadership of social movements including the recourses and opportunities available to them as well as strategies utilized. It addresses processes over time and have been criticised for studying strategies as if the actors are defined by their goals. Identity-oriented theories, on the other hand, tries to understand how collective actors strive to create identities, commitment and solidarity, as well as identify what developments within society that shapes the character of the social movement. Unfortunate, both the above-mentioned research approaches fails to explore the connections between movement resistance and democracy and there exists a lack of empirical studies of how movements develop proactive and democratising resistance strategies of global social change. Tilly (2004) which looks on democratising effects through 250 years of movement history is an exception, still without per se highlighting the role of resistance, but “movement contention”.

One of the few resistance researchers, James Scott (1987; 1992), has shown how resistance rarely appears as the expected violent eruption on urban streets but rather as “hidden transcripts” and “everyday resistance” behind the public discourse and open scene, masked as irony, theft, slander, slow-downs in the workplace or playing dumb. Hidden forms of resistance are especially crucial when resisters’ basic needs and security depends on the regime they resist, for example, for hospital patients (Vinthagen forthcoming, 2007), prisoners, children, soldiers or factory workers. It is those who can afford to lose who wage open battles and dare public challenge. The silent and veiled resistance is not a formally organized or explicit confrontation but one that avoids creating awareness of ongoing challenge yet de facto might undermine power relations. As a “nomadic” form of resistance, it avoids control and the scientific gaze of power and is resistant even to identification. As such, resistance also creates counter discourses. Yet scattered, random, and individualized everyday resistance may be understood as building material in an emergent resistance culture which then might feed occasional open confrontations. To Hardt & Negri (2001; 2004) the non-organised “exodus” of disloyal individuals who for various reasons weakens the control of the contemporary global Empire builds up a new plural, non-homogenous and non-coordinated entity of global confrontation; the “Multitude”. This multitude is (optimistically) suggested to be possible without a global strategy of resistance, realised by people’s desire and communication which create their multiple evasions from capitalist exploitation.

Another divide worth elaborating on is that between forms and strategies of nonviolent/non-armed and violent/armed resistance (Oppenheimer 1971).8 Militarised strategies have dominated radical resistance thinking for a long time, especially within Marxism (Peralta 1990) and ethnic or religious radicals (Barber 2000). Although studies of nonviolent action strategies have shown nearly 200 already used action forms in world history, e.g. civil disobedience, land occupations or “sit-ins” (Sharp 1973), this type of resistance is virtually unexplored within academic circles (Lofland 1993; Zunes 1999; Vinthagen 2001).

Still “nonviolent action” became a (small) social science field in the 1970s with the classic work of Gene Sharp (1973) and was developed from the Hindu liberation theology and revolutionary organising of Mohandas K. Gandhi and the Indian anti-colonial freedom struggle. Gandhi showed that a colonial regime could be challenged by the creation of a parallel system of economic and political institutions competing with and attempting to replace the foreign power, e.g. through the creation of a “parallel government”. Pared with boycotts, massive civil disobedience, strikes and other forms of nonviolent non-cooperation and intervention such a resistance has later been called “people power” (e.g. in the Philippines 1986 with the revolution against Marcos). Nonviolent resistance builds on the assumption that subordinates can effectively undermine power by breaking their subordination and withhold their participation in the power system, exposing the power holders’ dependency on citizens’, workers’, consumers’ and servants’ obedience (Vinthagen 2005). By refraining from using violence the resistance movement is able to undermine the legitimacy of existing power holders’ repression and thus make power loose critical support from various third parties (through “political jiu-jitsu”, Sharp 1973). In this form of resistance the strength of power is turned back against itself, the more brutal repression is used the less access to the sources of power is provided (declining legitimacy, economic production, functional political systems, loyal support, etc).

“Terrorism” is another form of activity that might be of relevance for resistance studies. Terrorism studies is, especially after 9-11 2001 a fast growing field. But it is a highly politicised field, still struggling with a lack of clear definitions, weak empirical foundation of its speculations and its Machiavellian loyalty to the State and its interest to develop effective counter-terrorism [add reference to Jackson et al]. Still, if we understand (non-state) terrorism as the strategic use (or threat) of direct violence against civilians (non-military and/or non-combatants) in order to achieve a goal of defending or changing something in a society with the help of the terror created among civilians it becomes a research field of interest for resistance studies. As such it is at least a three-folded action in which the victim of the terrorist act is different to the target which the act tries to influence, making the victim a tool for pressure on someone else (Bergersen 2007). Not only selective terrorist acts (assassins) but also indiscriminate/general terrorist acts against a certain population is possible to understand as strategic (“A Theory of ‘categorical terrorism’”, Goodwin 2006). A promising sub-field is the newly suggested “critical terrorism studies” (Jackson 2006) in which not only the general flaws of current terrorism studies are challenged but also the problematic unwillingness to understand (some) terrorists’ rational and political motives and strategies.

One extreme social change process resulting from resistance is revolution. Studies of revolution focus on historical case types, general social factors contributing to system change and the use of military means of opposition (Foran 1997; Skocpol 1994; Tilly 1993), with still a predominant state-orientation even in explaining revolutionary movements rise and effects (Goodwin 2001).9 The illuminating analysis of Goldstone (2001) shows that research on revolution is today breaking away from the structural, class-based understanding of revolution, based on the paradigmatic work of Theda Skocpol (1979, “States and Social Revolutions”). In fact the contemporary “fourth generation” of revolutionary theory can be understood as standing Skocpols theory “on its head” (Goldstone 2001: 171). Regime stability is today not taken for granted but instead in focus of research.

A kind of new “fourth” generation of revolution theories is a generation that, taken together, combine economic (“class”), political (the “state”) and cultural (“ideas”) factors. But interpreting them as belonging to three different strands; a) a structural/relational state perspective which incorporates agency and culture (“state-orientation”, Goodwin 2001), b) a perspective which focus on the role of ideology and culture (“cultures of opposition”, Foran 1997), and, c) a perspective which merge social movement theory with revolution theory (“contentious politics”, Tilly 2006).

The book “Dynamics of Contention” (Tilly, McAdam and Tarrow 2001) is part of that merger of revolution theory and social movement theory in which political opportunity and resource mobilisation plays a greater role than before in the understanding of revolution, a field in which various volcanic theories dominated earlier.

A major part of irregular regime changes since the 1980s has occurred in connection with wide spread non-armed resistance in civil societies (e.g. Iran 1979, Philippines 1986 and 2001, Eastern European countries and Chile 1989, South Africa 1994, Georgia 2003, Ukraine 2004, Kyrgyzstan 2005, etc.), in revolution studies described as a “new type” of revolutions (or “refolutions”, Goodwin 2001). Still research on the conditions of non-armed resistance techniques and strategies is still marginal (Ackerman & Kruegler 1994; Johansen 2004; McCarthy & Sharp 1997; Sharp 2004). The need to understand these change processes is vital, especially since they seem able to result in democratic transitions of authoritarian regimes. Since historical cases show that non-violent and violent actions may be combined, used parallel or at different stages of conflicts, the relations between resistance strategies and social change are complex and motivate intense research. Even Al Qaeda advocates a combination of resistance methods: there is “no ‘single recipe for change’ but that ‘force must be an element in the pursuit of change,’ whether through a military coup, a popular uprising or civil disobedience against corrupt governments”.10 Further, violent means might bring democratic change as well, even in formal democracies. Urban riot-making within liberal democracies might contribute to democratisation or inclusion of marginalized groups (Piven & Cloward 1979; Katsiaficas 1997).11 A major example is the “ravaging” suffragettes in Britain who contributed to the voting and citizen rights for women.

Resistance often transcends the being-against-something, constructing alternative or prefigurative social institutions (i.e., confrontative alternatives or constructive resistance) as, for example, the landless workers’ movement MST in Brazil, which not only attempts to expropriate non-used land through land occupation but also undertakes to create a cooperative farming society on that very land. Accordingly, such groups attempt to fight the existing system by replacing it with a new society.

If social change is studied as a discursive phenomenon resistance may also take yet other forms. In ordinary speech, stereotyped and hierarchical discourses are recreated, changed as well as sustained. But how can these power-loaded discourses transform and by what means? Discursive change has been discussed by poststructuralists as well as by post-colonial researchers. For example, in Foucault’s texts resistance appears in the shape of reversed discourses (Butler 1995:236), to describe how underdogs involve the categories and vocabularies of the dominating force or superior norm, precisely in order to contest it. Butler agrees with Foucault that the subject is in a constant process of being produced. It is the idea that the subject is never produced instantly in its totality, but repeatedly and partially constituted in subjection, that enables the reverse discourse, i.e. the possibility of a repetition that repeats against its origin (Butler 1995; 1997a; Foucault 1986). In other words, different users may add different values to the same word. While the first speaker values the term as low, the second may add new value to the word by repeating it. This opens up the way for inferiors to reload the name applied to them with new, positive meanings. Notice e.g. the different use of “nigger” in white racist versus black hip-hop cultures.

Resistance to dominant discourses may also involve the use of resistance narratives (Azar 2002; Johansson 1999; 2005:57ff), as the creation of competing discourses within counter hegemonic blocs (Gills 2000), or, since power discourses are performed, resistance might as well be active performativity (Butler 1997b). Such resistance might happen through political dramatisation: where movements use strategic symbolic frames, staging a scene, roles and a script, dramatize a situation as “injustice”, some people as “victims”, and others as “perpetrators”, suggesting a possible and preferable “solution”, while asigning the movement as “key” for such a solution (Benford & Hunt 1995; Johnston & Klandermans 1995). Even masked riot-makers from the autonomous movement are possible to understand as symbolic brokers in a power-resistance-change role-play in society. “Our masks are not to conceal our identity but to reveal it…Masking up releases our commonality, enables us to act together…[giving] resistance a face”.12 By de-personalizing the resistance the riot-making “Black Bloc” makes it transferable. Masks are not only hiding faces, they are creating the impression that anyone of us could have been there: your neighbour next door or someone from your work place. You do not know for sure where the riot-makers are and who they are. Their dramaturgy displays the unconscious or suppressed rage of the civilised citizen or an angry no-nonsense shadow civil society. Depending on social position or culture the normalised members of civil society interprets the image differently. For some the image is frightening, for others it is promising.



An important point is that power and resistance are not the dichotomous phenomenon that is often implied, instead, in practical interactions they get mixed and interconnected hybrids. Because power relations may involve different categories or relations (e.g., patriarchal, sexual, ethnic, and capitalist), with manifold relations within each, resistance can be directed toward one power relation without attempting to disturb others. Instead, resistance might actively support some power, even depend on one and defy another. Thus, the production of resistance does not mean that power is not created. Parallel use of power and resistance sometimes also produces integrated or mixed forms, for example, the military discipline of a terrorist group. Agents of resistance often simultaneously promote power-loaded discourses, being the bearers of hierarchies and stereotypes as well as of change. This suggests that each individual is both the subject and the object of power – the subject is exposed to the ranking and stereotyping as well as promoting repressive “truths” – thus being both an agent exercising powers and a subaltern who has been subjugated and reduced to order by disciplinary strategies. Foucault labels this process disciplinary power, which is thus aimed directly at the soul, the mind and body, and the will of the subject:

Discipline ‘makes’ individuals; it is the specific technique of power that regards individuals both as objects and as instruments of its exercise. (Foucault 1975: 170)

However, individuals are not only brought to order by power mechanisms but they also use their selves to disturb boundaries, shake the cultural order, reverse or transform hierarchies and stereotypes, and position themselves better in relation to the hierarchies and stereotypes that shape their political opportunities. Thus while for many their lives are marked by relations of power, the inextricably linked reply to these practices of domination not only takes the form of self-domination and subordination, but also intended resistance as well as unconscious, accidental performances of resisting practices.

The point of departure is thus power as oppressive, that is, discourses that label and rank identities, create boundaries, reduce complexity, and then promote power-loaded images of identities to be invested in, while resistance involves the elaboration of identities, images of identity and discourses in order to alter stereotypes and hierarchies.

Some makes no explicit difference between power and resistance, instead speaking of “power struggle” or a matching of “forces”. Analytically speaking resistance, we claim, has to differ from power. If not, we are per definition not speaking of “resistance” but simply another form of power, “counter-power”, which logically speaking makes empirical cases of hybridization of power/resistance difficult to understand. We, on the contrary, have an interest in studying the phenomenon of resistance, connecting it to power relations and social change processes by maintaining analytical differences.



Generally there is a need to map the different possible relational configurations between resistance, power and social change and understand when different types of resistance contribute to certain types of change, and when not.

This general mapping might facilitate our main interest in hyped, neglected, downplayed, visible as well as less visible forms of resistance contributing to new forms of democratisation (Lilja 2000; 2007; Vinthagen 2005). Because movements’ resistance have historically and occasionally contributed to democratic change, e.g. the 19th century abolition of slavery movement in USA (Keck & Sikkink 1998), ending of genocide (Hochshild 1998) or the 20th century workers movement in Europe (Appelquist 2001), and it might be possible once again, probably from new movements using new resistance strategies and methods. Since the 1980s an “explosion” of action groups with aspirations to deepen democracy has been observed throughout the global south (Haynes 1997). And, civic associations in general have been proposed as a key factor behind democratic development (Putnam 1996; 2000).

On the other hand, social movements’ resistance against development projects in the South – e.g. when tribal groups blockade construction work at the large Narmada dam in India – are often regarded as a problem for necessary development, modernisation and democratic governance (Drèze et al 2000; Sethi 1993: 138; Ramagundam 2001; Ranjith 2004; Sangvai 2000), as a localist search for autonomy by “claiming exclusion” (Rist 1999: 244) or as attempted “deglobalisation”. Sometimes resistance of movements’ raises financial costs, creates social tensions within a country, spur reactionary opposition and makes development projects impossible. Or movements themselves become ineffective change agents because of diverse internal problems (Chakraborty 1999). Change is thus never one-sided, progressive or granted, but rather mixed in causes and with blurred outcomes.

Resistance may also be a response to power relations within democracy. Formal and liberal democracy has its democratic qualities as well as flaws (Habermas 1997; Held 1995), and only half of the worlds 200 nation states have that form of regime, thus demands exists for democratisation in all types of regimes today (Hydén 1998; Khan 2004). Today, some groups are more or less excluded from the democratic rule while their identities are either given a low status or don’t correspond to the image of a leader. For example, the characteristics usually associated with women are often not considered qualifications for leadership. The distribution of political power is made in line with existing discourses about leadership. Different truths are established that govern who becomes the politician within the formal democracy. The connections between the discourses of power and the decision-making power are thus crucial to understand the character of democracy as well as resistance. Resistance against this uneven distribution of decision-making power may take the form of, for example, reinterpretation, and irony, mixing hybrid truths or sliding multiple identities, with the purpose to change gendered discourses of society (Lilja 2005; 2007).

The concept of resistance may also be connected to the empowerment debate. Many feminist researchers, especially in development studies, have made successful attempts to theorize empowerment in the sense of individual and collective resources and capacities to influence your own life-conditions (Cheater 1999; Steeves 2001). Empowerment is often described as a process of which the cornerstones are self-confidence, self-esteem and a feeling of an I/We that is connected to a sense of agency. Or as Rowland summarizes it: “Empowerment cannot simply be equated with self-confidence and dignity; it is also what happens as a result of having self-confidence and dignity. Hence the need for a ‘sense of agency’ as an essential element of personal or collective empowerment” (Rowland in Erwér 2001: 246). Similarly, Nadia Youssef emphasizes self-confidence as a starting-point for improving women’s societal positions. Through self-confidence women’s participation in decision-making increases and shows the way to empowerment, i.e. the possibility for women to increase their right and ability to self-determination despite existing obstacles (Youssef 1995: 279-288). This is resistance by refusing to define female gender in terms of subordination but instead construct and act from a power-resistant identity. Thus the normalising processes that aim women to internalise subaltern identities are resisted (Marchand & Rynyan 2000).

The complex effects of many resistance strategies may be due to the fact that they constitute resistance by mere chance. For example, the research results of Mona Lilja (2000; 2005; 2007), reveals that many “strategies” of resistance seem to be about “accidental” resistance, just being by-products, unintended spin-off effects, of women’s acting: in many cases, the practices of female politicians seem to be merely adjustments connected with performing in order to survive in a male environment. However, these actions seem to have unintended effects of resistance. Thus, nevertheless, whatever the goal, the strategy of multiple identities tends to work as resistance. The concept of resistance must therefore be used in a broad sense, including all practices that seem to have an emancipatory effect, considering the definition of power.



There exist obviously a pressing need for a coherent and systematic research on resistance. While resistance studies need to study all kinds of resistance we would like to focus on the connections between resistance and social change, especially change which in a broad sense contributes to democracy, human rights, equality, freedom, justice or improved living standards, locally as well as globally. We recognise that it is necessary to understand power in order to understand resistance, so we want to connect others’ analysis of power while conducting our own studies, networking and educational work on the relationship between resistance and social change.

Recognised resistance will be a focal point while our main interested still will be invested in less obvious kinds of resistance, which today are virtually unknown but might be crucial for processes of social change. We will use the following categories of analysis as we approach different theoretical and empirical areas:

First, what circumstances make the negotiation of power possible? The production of resistance also involves its construction of resources, skills and knowledge that makes it possible. For example, Ferguson argues that coalition politics always involve some notion of identity by shifting from the “I” to “What can we do about X”? Coming together to solve a mutual interest always presumes some sense of we (Ferguson 1993:181).13 Resistance is not necessarily organised in a formal and explicit or even collective sense, it might arise from a seabed of a counter-culture of some kind, i.e. a social field of groups related to a number of practices and ideological positions or beliefs.

But also other knowledge and skills are probably constructed to enable the existence of resistance. To understand these processes must be a key to understand the development of social change. But when and how do such counter cultures arise? What motivates people to make resistance and what hinders them? Under what conditions are certain kinds of resistance facilitated? What aspects of power are possible to negotiate? These are all questions that need to be explored.

^ Secondly, how may power be negotiated? Using which means/strategies/practices? Resistance of all types will have its different kinds of means – it will take the expressions of, for example, physical articulations, concepts, images and symbols – i.e. its discourses and repertoires of action and organising. What kinds of resistance practices do exist? We need to map out different performances of resistance at different levels in order to understand the driving forces of social change. Here exists a need to develop taxonomies that take various articulations of resistance into account.

Thirdly, in what situations or circumstances do the negotiations/resistance have any impact? And what kind of impact? Is there a way to measure or evaluate the levels and impacts of everyday and silent forms of resistance? In what sense is resistance destructive or constructive in terms of human relations? Are riots spontaneous or organised and in what sense are they affecting policies?

^ Fourthly, when do movements and actions of resistance in itself contribute to new relations of power? What kind of new power relations are produced in resistance movements? Of special interest are movements with “progressive” goals (e.g. democracy) which unintentionally produce oppressive relations (Vinthagen 2005). We are here also interested to understand the “internal” resistance forms managing this internal power production.

^ And finally, what is the relationship between power, social change and resistance?

This research-subject will form an integrated part of all the above questions but still deserves an own space. For example, in what ways are the structures of the power relations influencing the articulations and effects of resistance? As stated above, power has different looks and different forms of power create varies forms of resistance. The relationship between social change, power and resistance must be further researched with the aim to develop resistance theories.

While looking for general types and relations of resistance, power and social change we are aware of that in social interaction they are mediated by specific time and space structures. Resistance is constructed according to specific contexts (Chabot & Vinthagen 2002), which means that even the same type of action will have different meaning and function in different contexts, i.e. demanding contextually sensitive research approaches.



In an attempt to remedy the lack of academic study in the field of resistance to power and its social transformation we took the initiative to a global Resistance Studies Network during 2005, hosted at the School of Global Studies at Gothenburg University, Sweden. With the help of networking, collaborative conferences, research and publication projects and thematic educational events, this network hopes to deepen the cooperation between researchers interested in understanding practices of resistance, and its connections to power and social change.

Despite that the network is so far unfunded some activities have started. We have a resource web-site ( which is a communication hub within the network and which aims to become a global resource site (with articles, videos, literature reviews, ongoing research results, abstracts, etc.) and a mailing-list, a local working group, an international advisory board and a multi-disciplinary resistance seminar at Gothenburg University, a first international seminar (which also was the Inauguration) in June 2007 and a first undergraduate full-time course on “Power, resistance and change” (20 weeks, from 2008 onwards). We are also in the process of writing two anthologies on resistance studies, collecting both younger Swedish researchers and classic texts on resistance relevant themes.

The network brings so far together researchers and authors connected to peace and development studies, sociology, geography, feminist studies, health studies, ethnology, history of ideas, philosophy, technology and society studies, information communication technology, international relations and a number of independent authors/activists.

But without proper funding for more lecturing of undergraduate courses and a broad research programme it will be difficult to become the global communication and resource network we strive towards.


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1 We have searched through various scientific data bases, journals as well as Internet without finding anything of relevance. Wikipedia (, a proven scientific encyklopedia which is probably the worlds largest, don’t even have the entries: “resistance studies”, “resistance research” or “resistance theory”. We still hope some organisation exist that we could collaborate with. After extensive searching we have still not found any such organisation. Since we are limited to English we might have missed one dedicated to other languages. While some centers, conferences or networks have resistance as a sub area (e.g. The Albert Einstein Institution in Boston) none has been found that focus on this research area. Concerning armed resistance during e.g. The Second World War there exist some research centers. Examples are The Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania (, the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance (DÖW) ( Interesting enough “resistance” seems like a more common concept in natural science than in social science (searches gives frequently results concerning e.g. medicine, biology or agriculture).

2 One example of inventive and unexplored forms of resistance is the critical mass (Abramsky 2001; Carlsson 2002): an anti-car-culture movement from USA which merges the traditional demonstration and the road blockade into a huge mass of cycling non-organized demonstrators that on a certain time and place fills the roads being on a “bicycling tour”. Since there is no law against bicycling when there is a lot of others doing the same, this de facto demonstration and blockade appears as a hybrid of its own. Another example is the identity correction used by the Yes Men!, a group of people who perform public statements of institutional “representatives” by taking over their roles (from e.g. Dow Chemical or WTO), saying what these representatives “would” say if they followed their interest or ideology to the logical conclusion. In a recent press conference “Dow Chemical” announced that they take the full responsibility for the chemical accident in Bhopal (which ten years ago killed and injured thousands), that they are willing to clean the damaged area and are willing to pay full compensations to all affected. Not until the stocks of the company started to fall did “other” representatives of Dow Chemical deny this “false information”.

3 We recognize of course that power theory might inform resistance studies indirectly, as e.g. Foucault do (see Muckelbauer 2000), still his focus was on power, not resistance.

4 Yang, John (1999) “Representation and Resistance: A Cultural, Social, and Political Perplexity in Post-Colonial Literature”, Brown University, retrieved from (2007-07-09).

5 At the same time as decisions are increasingly made internationally or globally, the public discussions and political forums are still national (Dahlerup 2001: 153f). That is a democratic problem especially for marginalized groups and movements from the global south. This unequal situation is accentuated in some cases when no obvious interest exists for global decision makers to solve social problems of affected groups. Economic globalisation has a democratic deficit (Greider 1997) made visible by multilateral regimes’ crisis of legitimacy (Toussaint 2004). Social tensions arising are not sufficiently treated by national democratic institutions, multilateral regimes or modernist development models (Abrahamsson 2003; Rist 1999).

6 There is now over 2000 consultative non-governmental organisations (NGOs) within United Nations – when UN was formed they where only 50 – which as bureaucratic organisations make the most visible part of a transnational mobilisation of civil societies (Willetts 2002). No reliable statistics exist yet of the global informal networks (cf Anheier et al 2005). A “movement organisation” is an organised part of a movement, here defined as a body with a formal organisational structure – e.g. a non-governmental organisation (NGO), civil society organisation (CSO) or community based organisation (CBO) – which has multiple communicative links – meeting points, loose contacts, tight cooperation or exchange of information – with other parts of a movement. “Social movements” are here understood as major informal networks of interaction and communication between various nongovernmental and non-corporate actors; small action groups, individuals, formal organisations, circles of friends and affected locals, which together articulate public demands through a distinctive discourse.

7 The actions happened within a campaign of several movements’ cooperation in August 1994 (Swami & Singh 1994).

8 Here it becomes important to understand the borderline: under what conditions political movements without a violent strategy might react violently (Melucci 1996:367–371) or what facilitate an armed group to adopt a non-armed strategy of change.

9 Despite being a big research field, studies of revolution is still in general marked by conceptual diffusion and historical empiricism (Melucci 1996:361–367). The sociology of revolution is still left undone.

10 According to Ayman al-Zawahri, “Al Qaeda’s No. 2 commander”, see Claudia Parsons and Reuters in a news release on 04 Jul 2007, “Al Qaeda No. 2 Zawahri appears in new video” (Retrived 2007-07-08)

11 On the other hand riots may contribute to undemocratic change as well as being “issueless” (Marx 1972), e.g. in clashes among sport fans. Under certain conditions it is possible even of “crowds” to become “restructuring” (Melucci 1996:371–378).

12 Quote from the text printed on leaflets accompanying the 9 000 masks (in different colours) distributed during the J18-action in London 1999 against capitalism, (Do or Die! 1999:19).

13 Amongst others, the construction of a class identity is the base for a resistance discourse, which is viewed as the central source of change. James Scott made a study in Malaysia about the relationship between poor and rich villagers. According to Bodil, Folke Frederiksen, identity as a resource seems to be central to Scott’s way of thinking (Frederiksen, 1990, pp. 29–31).

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