Academic journal article Law, Social Justice and Global Development Journal

Micro Level Factors in the Pursuit of Social Justice: A Study of Power Relations in the Santal Village

Academic journal article Law, Social Justice and Global Development Journal

Micro Level Factors in the Pursuit of Social Justice: A Study of Power Relations in the Santal Village

Article excerpt


This paper argues that if we can gain a better understanding of the possibilities (and limitations) of the individual's strategies of renegotiating inequalities in societies, communities and households we will be better equipped to address complex factors affecting social justice outcomes. There is no quick fix to inequality and the pursuit of social justice is an ongoing process that demands structural, institutional, political, economic and social change. However, the daily process of renegotiations of power relations by marginalised groups and individuals has a vital role to play in the success or failure of social justice initiatives. In this paper I use the concepts of legal pluralism and power relations to discuss the ways in which the individual is constantly negotiating power. In understanding this process we can better facilitate the inherent struggle by the underprivileged to reduce inequality.


Santal communities; social justice; individual strategies; modes of power; modes of resistance; legal pluralism; marginalisation;

1. Introduction

Why do the most underprivileged consistently find themselves in positions of subordination despite the efforts of law and policy to ameliorate their situation? This question provides an underlying frustration for academics and activists working in the fields of human rights and social justice. These frustrations can be read by some as indicators that the subjugated are failing to help themselves, are beyond help or inert with no inherent capacity for resistance. Studies of subaltern resistance such as the Subaltern Studies Series (2) and James Scott's (1985) work in Malaysia have helped to promote a different picture of a fighting, conscious subordinate. (3) But this leaves us back at the start: why, when there are laws in place to assist and an inherent will to resist, do poverty, inequality and injustice persist?

In this paper I discuss the ways in which inequality is maintained through power relations in multiple legal orders and how, within each legal order individuals engage in strategies of struggle to resist disadvantages in a number of ways. In order to understand how, when and why individuals resist we need to understand how the inequalities are formed. My research has led to the conclusion that we can distinguish three forms of relations of inequality. I call these relations of domination. But power relations do not only encompass forces of domination, they have at their core a free subject and with that the possibility of resistance. I identify three forms of resistance that correspond loosely to different relations of domination. I show how these relations of domination and modes of resistance function at the normative levels of the family, village, and state, and give examples of the different forms of resistance used.

The arguments put forward in this paper were developed as part of ethnographic research carried out on the Santal, an adivasi/tribal people in Jharkhand, India and Rajshahi, Bangladesh. The research involved five fieldwork trips between 2002-2004 using sociological and anthropological methodologies to collect qualitative and quantitative data from Santal villagers, judiciary, academics and activists, and primary materials from government departments and national libraries. The longest field trip involved five months living in four villages, two in each country, carrying out structured interviews in Santali and using participant observation and focus groups to collect additional data. (4)

I will begin by introducing the Santal and the three concepts on which my findings are based (power, resistance and legal pluralism) before discussing the forms that relations of inequality and resistance takes in the context of Santal village life.

2. The Santal

The Santal are an adivasi (indigenous, tribal) (5) people living predominantly in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. …

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