On Resistance: The Case of 17th Century Quakers

On Resistance: The Case of 17th Century Quakers

By Peter Collins

Durham Anthropology Journal, Vol.16:2 (2009)

Abstract: Among the most influential theories of political resistance is that of the American political theorist, James C. Scott,. Drawing on Scott’s influential paradigm I present an historical anthropology of seventeenth century Quakerism, focusing on this religious movement from its genesis in around 1650, to the Act of Toleration in 1689. My intention is to draw on accounts of early Quaker faith and practice in order to interrogate key components of Scott’s thesis. I conclude that despite the undoubted usefulness of Scott’s work it is at once both too broad and too narrow and that it should be tested against other, apparently ‘marginal’, cases.

Introduction: It is here that Scott lays out his theory of political resistance, a theory which has received a great deal of scholarly attention and which remains influential both within the field of political theory and in closely related fields, including sociology and anthropology. I review and interrogate Scott’s work on resistance through the lens provided by my own work on seventeenth century (English) Quakers. The Quakers provide a case which is both interesting and challenging with Scott’s work. On the one hand, Scott himself presents examples from the seventeenth century, on the other hand he draws only on secondary literature (Christopher Hill in particular) and never develops his discussion of such cases. There are, I believe, several reasons for his rather half-hearted consideration of such cases. Firstly, Scott  focuses almost entirely on a single case, the contemporary Malay peasantry. In this largely ethnographic study, Scott presents an often brilliant account of the modes of resistance adopted by the Malay villagers amongst whom he lived (during the 1970s). Secondly, in DAR, it is Scott’s intention to present a comparative and generalized theory, drawn both on his Malay material and on dozens of other cases which he argues supports his central thesis. Given his objective ± to present a general theory of peasant resistance²he quite rightly eschews the temptation to present these exemplars in any detail. I suspect, however, that there are other reasons why Scott merely mentions seventeenth-century cases. Scott is a political theorist and not a historian; seventeenth century texts are available but their study is time-consuming and requires considerable knowledge of the period if they are to be properly understood in their context. Finally, Scott is primarily interested in explaining peasant resistance and it could be argued that by the mid seventeenth century, England was no longer a feudal society and the peasantry had disappeared. This is largely, though not entirely, true in that seventeenth century England remained overwhelmingly rural and agricultural, and manifested a significant political, economic and cultural residue of feudalism.

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