With images of protest and dissent widespread and frequently circulated in news broadcasts and social media posts, resistance to prevailing power structures seems to be an expected and regular feature of contemporary life. This entry explores how anthropology has linked these spectacular moments of resistance to broader social questions. It further explains how identifying a particular practice or process as a form of resistance is not always straightforward when the broader context is thus taken into consideration. I do this by considering how resistance has appeared (or has been neglected) as a topic of study through the history of anthropology until the present day, and how prevailing theoretical frameworks and political contexts shaped what anthropologists made of resistance in different periods.
The entry begins from early political anthropology’s avoidance of questions of conflict and social inequality and moves through paradigm-shifting moments in the discipline – in particular, post-colonial and Marxist analyses – whereby resistance and social change became central concerns. It then examines how anthropologists began to study ‘everyday resistance’ and to emphasize how ethnography can reveal many small and subtle acts as forms of resistance, and as linked to more obvious and public forms of protest. Questions of consciousness and intentionality in political practice that are raised by everyday struggles are then considered in connection to the problem of defining resistance. In light of a focus on unconscious practices or acts that simultaneously challenge certain power structures and reinforce or create different ones, resistance is framed as that which constitutes a subversive relationship to forms of domination or systems that reproduce inequality, but that is not necessarily intentional or outside of prevailing political structures. Additionally, I consider anthropologists’ changing relation to resistance – from one of neglect to the position of activist or engaged researcher – as shifting forms of media and communication highlight researchers’ involvement in shaping perceptions of more and less organised forms of political struggle.