I'm trying to understand better how to delineate essentialism from strategic essentialism. To me it would seem strategic essentialism is a political or social act of forming a coalition based aroun a supposedly essential marker (black, gay, woman ...) to fight discrimination along those lines. It seems the term is used like that sometimes. But upon researching the issue a bit, I've come upon this explanation:

Essentialism is bad, not in its essence — which would be a tautology — but only in its application. The goal of essentialist critique is not the exposure of error, but the interrogation of the essentialist terms. Uncritical deployment is dangerous. Critique is simply reading the instructions for use. Essentialism is like dynamite, or a powerful drug: judiciously applied, it can be effective in dismantling unwanted structures or alleviating suffering; uncritically employed, however, it is destructive and addictive.

Spivak’s strategy is deconstructivist, like that of a good lawyer: when on defense, prod the prosecution’s narrative until the cracks begin to appear and when prosecuting, piece together a case by understanding the criminal’s motivation. “Strategic essentialism” is like role-playing, briefly inhabiting the criminal mind in order to understand what makes it tick (See Postcolonial Performance and Installation Art). The Subaltern Studies group, for example, succeeds in unraveling official Indian history by particularizing its narrative: “a strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest” (The Spivak Reader 214). This is also the way Spivak uses deconstruction, for example, without fully subscribing to it as a viable philosophic system or practice, much less a political program. Or, as she puts it, “[Deconstruction] is not the exposure of error. It is constantly and persistently looking into how truths are produced.” (Arteaga interview) “Although I make specific use of deconstruction, I’m not a Deconstructivist” (Post-Colonial Critic).

The misuse of the concept of “strategic essentialism” is that less “scrupulous” practitioners ignore the element of strategy, and treat it as simply “a union ticket for essentialism. As to what is meant by strategy , no-one wondered about that.” She claims to have given up on the phrase, though not the concept (Danius and Jonsson interview).

This is confusing to me. The approach described is about analyzing history or ideology. How would one 'strategically' employ essentialism to these ends? A "strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest", as mentioned in the middle of the quote, again pertains to an analysis of indian history.

I interpret "briefly inhabiting the criminal mind in order to understand what makes it tick" to mean one puts oneself in for example the shoes of a racist for a moment, to better understand them. This doesnt seem spectacular to me.

Ultimately I want to understand what Spivak meant by strategic essentialism. Anyway, the above is mostly to ilustrate where I'm stuck. Spivak's texts themselves are mostly inaccessilbe to me, tried and won't try again soon.

1 Answer 1


It is reffered to the concept of epistemic violence put forward by foucault. You violate agents who are irreductibly heterogeneous by amassing them all under a category such as "black". It was fairly useful for post-colonialist philosophers to dismantle the ideas created by european intellectuals about the so called third world.

For example, the very category "indian" would hardly be used by the dwellers of that sub-continent to describe themselves, until it became politically useful and after the nationalist indian movement, that became a staple category in indian politics. However, it was mainly advanced by the Brittish to refer to the hindus in their fight against the muslim Mughal rulers who challenged their dominance

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .