Inter-Subaltern Hierarchies

Hierarchies, nation, postcolonial, state, Subaltern,


The world is assumed to be formally decolonized. But can one legitimately assume that the existing social, political, cultural, and economic power relations are completely free from their colonial past? If colonialism continues to shape the present day, to what extent does postcolonial intellectual and political discourse on subalternity relate to these colonial continuities? How would the replication of originally Western models such as the nation, the modern state, and nationalism shape the power hierarchies and resultant conflicts? What are the implications of these structures for building peace?

Le Grelle illustrating Inter-Subaltern Hierarchies

Credtis: Sophie Le Grelle illustrated the concept “Inter-Subaltern Hierarchies”

Dr. Jan Yasin Sunca is an associated researcher at the Bielefeld University, Faculty of Sociology, to the “World Politics” Research Training Group. 



This entry aims to shed light on inter-subaltern hierarchies as a conceptual framework for examining conflict-prone power relations within the postcolonial political space. While postcolonial and decolonial studies have revealed enduring colonial legacies in global polity formation, they have somewhat overlooked hierarchical power relations among historico-social groups and political entities. Inter-subaltern hierarchies disentangle the West/non-West dichotomy and provide insight into conflict-prone hierarchies stemming from colonial continuities in nation- and state-formation.
The argument unfolds as follows: Firstly, it situates the debate on inter-subaltern hierarchies within the existing body of postcolonial and decolonial literature in the fields of politics and international relations (IR). It subsequently explores the roles played by the nation, nationalism, and the modern state in the perpetuation of colonial legacies in postcolonial polity formation. Finally, the entry reflects on the implications of inter-subaltern hierarchies, for the imagination, practices, and discourses of peacebuilding within the postcolonial sphere. Ultimately, this entry reveals how the replication of Western models in constructing polities reproduces hierarchical structures that not only underlie violent conflicts but also constitute a fundamental element in sustaining Western hegemony globally.


In post- and decolonial studies, the debate on colonial continuities constitutes the core of formative texts, such as Said’s Orientalism (1978) , nuanced reflections on the subaltern (Guha, 1982; Spivak, 1994), Quijano’s account of the nexus of coloniality and modernity/rationality (1992), and Mignolo’s geopolitics of knowledge (2002). These works reveal and delegitimize colonial continuities to open space for comprehending the world beyond the forcefully legitimized epistemological and spatiotemporal location of Eurocentrism (Dussel, 1995). In other words, post- and decolonial currents have enabled us to view the world through coloured lenses, differentiating between the West/non-West or the two sides of the global colour line, respectively. Teaching us the historically legitimate variations of knowing, being, and enacting, they have made an irreversible impact on the Eurocentric conduct of social scientific inquiry (Patel, 2013; Shilliam, 2021; Smith, 2012), including the field of peace and conflict studies.


However, a dichotomic thinking embedded in both post- and decolonial studies often leads many scholars in this field to obscure, intentionally or unintentionally, the hierarchical construction of postcolonial space. This is most visible in postcolonial thinkers, such as Said’s division between the West and non-West, which is a primary device employed to comprehend the world but has a strong tendency to totalize the two sides of the line. Among decolonial thinkers, as well, there is a strong tendency to view the world through the global colour line and place the entire blame on conquistadors and coloniality. This tendency results from a highly complex philosophical focus and leads to the depoliticization of decolonization (cf. Sunca, 2023a, p. 4). Notwithstanding this, there is a significant analytical difference with postcolonialism: Latin American decolonial thinkers attribute the existing hierarchies in the Americas to the colonial continuities (Grosfoguel, 2011; Maldonado Torres, 2008, p. 7).


In postcolonial political discourse, this dichotomic thinking divides the world into colonizer and colonized, places a historically justified suspicion on the colonizer, and assigns an indivisible and unquestionable duty of resistance to the colonized under the leadership of postcolonial nationalism (cf. Ghosh, 2015; Sōkefeld, 2005; Yamahata, 2019). The colonial matrix of power hierarchically reorganizes the world under the historically constructed domination of European, capitalist, military, Christian, patriarchal, white, heterosexual males (Grosfoguel 2011). These dominations do not exist solely between the two sides of the global colour line; rather, the nature of colonial/modern political power continues to shape hierarchical power relations at the inter-subaltern level. Accordingly, while being subaltern themselves in global politics, some power constellations’ subordination of other groups becomes invisible and is often legitimized mainly by state power in the name of national unity against imperialism. Examples include the subordination of black or brown women to men of the same colour, the subordination of minoritized groups to the nationalism protected by postcolonial state power, or the domination of non-Muslims in Muslim-majority states. This is what we have come to conceptualize as inter-subaltern hierarchies (Matin, 2022; Sunca, 2023b) as a conceptual framework, proposing a location for these debates. The conceptualization of inter-subaltern hierarchies departs from the principle that just because an individual, group, or institution holds a certain subaltern position vis-à-vis the West, it neither justifies nor should they obscure the use of spatiotemporally specific forms of domination or subordination.




Although there are numerous forms of hierarchical relations in postcolonial space among different social groups or formations, my particular focus is on the triangle of the nation, nationalism and the modern state due to its intimate relation with conflict dynamics. There exists an emerging literature that investigates the hierarchical power relations between different ethnopolitical groups in the postcolonial space that are at the origins of violent conflicts. Mamdani’s (2020) recent work illustrates how postcolonial nationalism mirrors European direct colonial rule and applies genocidal practices against minorities. Similarly, Eliassi (2021) defines the subordination of stateless peoples as the colonial practices of nation-states and suggests the decolonization of citizenship. Osuri (2017) substantiates the relationship between colonialism and nationalism. Anand (2002) detects the limits of postcolonial nationalism by problematizing the entrapment of postcolonial studies between postcolonial states and the West.


As this brief summary of literature shows, inter-subaltern hierarchies are highly neglected in the postcolonial scholarship. According to Matin, this is because of four main reasons: (1) The focus on postcolonial states’ position within the Western-dominated world order leads to pay less attention to its internal affair. (2) Class-centred critiques of postcolonial nationalism reproduce the unitary conception of the nation and therefore elide the reproduction of inter-subaltern hierarchies. (3) Postcolonialism is susceptible to postcolonial orientalism which involves internalising orientalism’s cultural essentialisation. (4) Postcolonialism’s hostility to “the universal” blurs the line between the immanent critique of cultures and cultural relativism (2022, pp. 199–200). Matin’s critique of postcolonialism reveals the intellectual architecture of postcolonialism that allows obscuring inter-subaltern hierarchies. I contend that this originates in the expansion of the nation-state, composed of the nation as an imagined unity and the modern state, as a model for organizing political authority, as an inherently problematic model of polity formation.




The modern state first emerged as an apparatus of organising political power both internally and externally against the rule of the church and aristocracy. The nation, on the other hand, was representing a society of equal citizens against the domination of the aristocracy in Europe. Nationalism, as an ideology of inclusions and exclusions defining the criteria of homogenization and the imagined glue of national unity, has been constantly reproduced in the discourse of the national elite. The combination of the nation as a social form and the modern state as an institutional framework with nationalism, their underlying ideology, resulted in a model that would gradually expand to the rest of the world.


However, this model was highly problematic already in its birthplace, and its subsequent practices have mostly invalidated this republican romanticism. This model aligns with the Hobbesian understanding of the state of nature, in combination with the anarchic pre-state structure and the need to control a population, economy and political authority within a pre-defined territory (Bartelson, 2001; Beier, 2002; Lacher, 2003). This structure was famously named as organized crime on a very large scale. The ambiguity of national sovereignty, both internally and externally, serves as a self-referential and self-legitimizing concept (Bartelson, 1995), often characterized by globally organized hypocrisy that prioritizes gains over international norms and principles (Krasner, 1999). The nation has been criticized as an imagined community organized under elite domination in constant processes of war (Miley, 2018) and unquestionably dependent upon the total homogenization of society to create a workforce that would satisfy the emerging needs of industrial capitalism (Conversi, 2007, 2012), where women were relegated to the role of “reproducer” of that imagined nation (Yuval-Davis, 1993). The modern structures such as citizenship and democracy are systematically tied to ethnic and national exclusions (Loh, 2017; Wimmer, 2004). These are the central issues that highlight the problematic nature of the nation-state, primarily constructed to control rather than liberate social relations.


Decolonization in the form of nation-states has almost invariably reproduced originally colonial hierarchies within and between presumably decolonized states. This can be traced through the arbitrary border-drawing by colonizers and its recognition by anticolonial struggles, the instrumentalization of anticolonial struggle by postcolonial political elites, and sovereignty as the foundation of the existing world order.


The borders within which the anti-colonial struggle took place formed the territorial basis of inter-subaltern hierarchies. The majority of these borders were drawn arbitrarily by colonial powers. As suggested by Branch (2012), for example, the invention of linear territoriality originates from the complex processes of drawing borders by Europeans in the supposedly empty “New World” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Similarly, the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement between France and Britain in 1916 served as the basis for arbitrary state borders in West Asia (Bozarslan, 2011, pp. 11–13). As Clapham (1999, p. 47) explains, through African border drawings, the very artificiality of frontiers made them more, not less, central to the identity of the states. Anti-colonial struggles, based on the unified ethnic, religious, or tribal multiplicity, were necessarily taking place against a colonial power that controlled a pre-arranged territorial continuum. This often resulted in dividing certain groups into two or more nation-state borders, as seen in the case of the Kurdish, Tamil, Baloch, or Berber populations. While the administrations were decolonized due to anti-colonial struggles, the colonial borders remained in place as the territorial basis of the existing world order, as the boundaries of state control, and as the conflict-prone division of peoples.


… after the formal colonial rule ended, the popular anticolonial political position was instrumentalized by postcolonial political elites to capture the state, stabilize their power, dominate the masses, and reproduce oppressive structures of privilege and conditions of continuous unrepresentative governance. “

Nationalism, the ideology of inclusions and exclusions that expanded from Europe to the rest of the world (Matin, 2019), formed the ideological foundations of inter-subaltern hierarchies. It took the form of anti-colonial nationalism (Getachew, 2019) as an ideology of liberation. Anticolonial nationalism, the nationalism of colonized people demanding an end to colonial rule, typically in the form of an independent state (Go & Watson, 2019), has been an effective means of unifying people against the colonizers. Anticolonial nationalism was perceived as culturally differentiated and authentic but institutionally mimicked (Chatterjee, 1993; Loomba, 2015). However, after the formal colonial rule ended, the popular anticolonial political position was instrumentalized by postcolonial political elites to capture the state, stabilize their power, dominate the masses, and reproduce oppressive structures of privilege and conditions of continuous unrepresentative governance (Getachew, 2019; Rao, 2010). This elite-led process of postcolonial nation-formation replicated the criteria of inclusions and exclusions, with country-specific differences, where certain groups were supported by state power, while others were marginalized and placed on the lower levels of politico-social hierarchies. Postcolonial nation-formation considered some groups, such as indigenous peoples in Latin America (Sanjinés, 2010) and in many other examples (cf. Mamdani, 2020), as inferior due to their ethnic, racial, social, regional, etc., origins, as obstacles to the “modernization” of the nation, and therefore subjects to be corrected through nationalist exclusion or total homogenization.


Sovereign equality, a principal the foundation of the existing world order, was an international legal legitimization of inter-subaltern hierarchies. Non-interference in sovereign territories was a primary goal of anti-colonial struggles, offering essential resources to former colonies, although it was far from eradicating originally colonial hierarchies at the inter-state level (Lawson & Shilliam, 2009). Sovereign equality shielded postcolonial elites conducting “legitimate violence” against segments of their “national society” from international intervention and criticism until recently. This was because historical politico-social issues were considered as the internal problems of postcolonial states, obscuring the colonial burden and forcible reproduction of society in the image of hegemonic West. Since the permissive unipolar world order of the 1990s, intervention became the rule rather than the exception. As Çubukçu (2018) noted, the imperial interventions, decorated with the humanitarian discourse of cosmopolitanism, advocates universal principles, while postcolonial nationalism seeks specific autonomies. However, neither of these forces is concerned by the marginalisation of the subordinated communities in the postcolonial space.


Ultimately, formal decolonisation in the form of the nation-state has been an immense step towards the decolonisation of the world; however, we are far from claiming a genuine end of colonialism. The nation-state model, which was problematic in Europe, its birthplace, has expanded to the world to resolve the myriad politico-social problems, which, however, replicated the violent and exclusionary nature of nation-formation. The nation-state-based world order normalized and recognized these postcolonial states, which has also meant international legal shielding for the continuity of inter-subaltern hierarchies. The studies of peacebuilding and conflict analysis cannot continue normalizing this historical structure.


…. historical politico-social issues were considered as the internal problems of postcolonial states, obscuring the colonial burden and forcible reproduction of society in the image of hegemonic West. “

When one checks the websites of prevailing peace NGOs, international organizations such as the UN, or regional organizations such as the EU, it immediately becomes obvious that peacebuilding is a practice exclusively in the non-Western world. The exceptions are places like Northern Ireland, often advanced as “best practices” of peacebuilding, where armed conflicts have been successfully resolved through negotiations. In the non-Western world, on the other hand, black and brown people are instructed on how to live in peace. Some peace organizations are genuinely problematising their position and role. Nonetheless, this does not hold them back from reproducing global hierarchies. In a world where the West holds hegemony, the prescribed ways of living in peace, the nature of relationships that underpin that particular kind of peace, and the necessary structural and institutional framework for ensuring its continuity have historically been constructed to perpetuate Western hegemony. This short entry suggests a framework within which the originally colonial hierarchies prone to violent conflicts can be understood and studied.


Despite built-in liberal orthodoxies there is a promising critical peace and conflict studies literature. The mainstream conflict resolution implements the regulatory mechanisms of liberal peace order in conflict settings. This tends to disregard the lived experiences of coexistence and presupposes processed arrangement within nation-states as objectively neutral social containers (cf. Mitchell, 2010). By serving a blueprint for peace-making, liberal peace subdues the spatially and temporally peculiar forms of peace to security and order (cf. Richmond, 2014) and limits emancipation from injustice due to a immanent logic of exclusionary ethnic nationalisms (cf. Visoka & Richmond, 2016). Against these, critical peace studies explores possibilities of peace-making through various proposals such as relational (Söderström et al., 2020); spatially sensitive (Björkdahl & Kappler, 2019), feminist (Stavrevska & Smith, 2020) or anarchist (Llewellyn, 2018) peace. In addition, a branch of this literature accommodates conflict resolution with decolonial aspirations (Azarmandi, 2018; Courtheyn, 2018; FitzGerald, 2023; Issifu, 2015; Mac Ginty, 2008). Despite this growing critical literature, there is a lack of conceptual framework which specifically engages with inter-subaltern hierarchies.

Peace and conflict studies must no longer advocate state- and nation-building as the primary remedy. Something that lies at the root causes of a conflict cannot be a means of its resolution. “

Neglecting inter-subaltern hierarchies has manifold implications for conflict analysis and peacebuilding. The first one is historical causality. Many armed/violent conflicts, be it national liberation, inter-religious or sectarian, or anticapitalist resistance are linked directly to the initial establishment and maintenance of exclusionary lines. Prevailing discourse attributes conflicts to a lack of democracy and the incapacity of states for nation or state-formation or building democratic institutions. However, the root causes extend beyond this narrative, involving a global top-down hierarchy that cripples societies’ historical capacity and acceptable methods to address violent conflicts. Peace and conflict studies must no longer advocate state- and nation-building as the primary remedy. Something that lies at the root causes of a conflict cannot be a means of its resolution.


The second and a related one is imagination with a critical thinking, rather than problem-solving approach. Treating the nation-state as a more or less solid model and employing a problem-solving approach to address the conflict within the boundaries of a predefined model removes the possibility of imagining alternatives. This is because the problem-solving approach aimed at improving existing models and making them functional, rather than critically examining the structures that circumstance subordinations and ensuing conflicts (for a formative discussion on problem-solving vs. critical approaches, see: Cox, 1981).


Third one is related to the difference between emancipation and liberation. The triangle of nation-state-nationalism creates an almost holy and therefore incontestable discourse of “emancipation” from the colonial past. Various historical and social groups and polities are discursively coerced with the fear of imperialist return if they do not support revolutionary leadership. However, emancipation differs from liberation. The latter demands more profound structural engagement, involving freedom from all forms of domination, rather than simple change of the ruler. The field of peace and conflict studies urgently needs to expand toward more liberatory approaches.


Fourthly, postcolonial states perpetuate the victimhood of already marginalized communities through a dual-edged discourse. On one hand, those seeking liberation from domination are labelled as “terrorists,” “enemies of national unity,” or “traitors” in the external discourse of postcolonial states. On the other hand, their internal discourse assigns them the role of “proxies,” portraying them as pawns of imperialist forces. Consequently, struggles for liberation are delegitimized both internally and externally. The conceptualization of inter-subaltern hierarchies and their implications for peaceful coexistence offers a potential solution to the problem of “proxyization,” a discourse that continually obscures the historically embedded causes of conflicts.


Finally, the structures of the hegemonic world order are legitimized through a cosmopolitan discourse, masked under the guise of “humanity,” while postcolonial states counter this with the discourse of sovereignty and non-interference. However, the former discourse is often employed to justify intervention by hegemonic forces, whereas the latter is used as a cover for internal impunity. Both the academic and practical fields of peace and conflict studies need to be wary of these discourses to prevent the perpetuation of marginalization and to contribute the conditions necessary for achieving a just peace.




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