Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Scrounger, Worker, Beggarman, Cheat: The Dynamics of Unemployment and the Politics of Resistance in Belfast

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Scrounger, Worker, Beggarman, Cheat: The Dynamics of Unemployment and the Politics of Resistance in Belfast

Article excerpt


Much recent discussion of domination and resistance stems from the stimulating and influential writings of Scott (1985; 1990) in which he criticizes neo-marxists for presenting powerless groups as the dupes of a dominant ideology. By contrast, Scott notes that such ideologies, and their related 'public transcripts', are most effective in binding the dominant group together. Subordinates pay lip-service to the pronouncements, exhortations and moral platitudes of the powerful, but are not taken in by them. Most of the time they do not express explicit opposition to the prevailing social order because the power of the latter makes this too dangerous, and thus engenders a forced acquiescence on the part of the weak. Social stability is therefore generated, not through a consensus of values but through unequal economic and political relationships. Open resistance only occurs in situations of crisis when material survival is at issue. According to Scott, the poor 'display an impressive capacity to penetrate behind the pieties and rationales of the rich' and they 'reject the denigrating characterisations the rich deploy against them' (1985: 304; see also Kerkvliet 1990; MacLeod 1987; and Willis 1977). The weak instead replace the self-serving picture presented by the wealthy with their own private, and very different, understandings. This 'hidden transcript' is articulated in private spaces and expresses both an alternative explanation for the way society is currently organized and blueprints for arranging society in a fairer way.

While not resisting openly, subordinates engage in covert forms of retaliation. Scott identifies three main types of such response to domination: criticism of the powerful for not fulfilling the promises (of assistance, work, gifts, safety, etc.) which validate inequality; hidden, alternative and oppositional understandings of power relations; and a host of actions (boycotts, quiet strikes, theft, malicious gossip, etc.) designed surreptitiously to subvert the prevailing order (1990: 18-19).

None of these, however, describes accurately the reaction I found amongst long-term unemployed men in Belfast to the way workers dominate them by representing them as welfare 'scroungers'. In this article, therefore, I examine aspects of Scott's theory of power, domination and resistance by calling attention to a form of response to subordination that he does not consider. The discursive strategy followed by unemployed men in Belfast involves resisting the application of representations which cast them as 'scroungers' and 'cheats', but at the same time appropriating precisely these images so to describe other unemployed people. What appears to be resistance from one point of view becomes a form of co-operation from another, and what seems to be subordination in one context becomes an attempt at domination in another.

According to Scott, subordinate groups have only one orientation to the images and representations generated by the powerful: they resist them. But in the case to be described here, unemployed men adopt the language of the oppressor and use it for their own ends, and in so doing are themselves implicated in reproducing the structures of domination. In such a situation the simple notion that it is the powerful who create these images against which the weak rebel cannot be sustained because the latter are also directly involved in the process, even if it is not their intention to be so.

In my view, the principal reason Scott neglects to consider such a response is his emphasis on dominance and subordination as permanent attributes of fixed groups rather than as shifting features of situations. This makes it impossible to analyse that common circumstance in which domination and subordination are exercised at every level of a graded hierarchy, so that those who are subordinate in one context may become dominant in another. Moreover, his analysis of social formations as essentially consisting of two antagonistic groups parallels exactly his division of discourses into public and hidden transcripts. …

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