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. First, 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). Next it 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.


Although the world may seem to be formally decolonised, the present-day social, political, cultural and economic power relations are still fundamentally shaped by their colonial past. The modern state, the nation and nationalism are chief examples of this. How have the replication of these originally Western models of organising power and society shaped power hierarchies and resultant conflicts in the postcolonial world? And what are the implications of these structures for building peace?


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 delegitimise colonial continuities to open space for comprehending the world beyond the forcefully legitimised 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 West and non-West or the two sides of the global colour line, respectively. While the West/non-West distinction defines the cultural reproduction of hierarchies between the West and the rest, the global colour line refers to a race-based division and domination line between the global north and the global south, as well as people of colour in the global north. In teaching us about historically legitimate forms of knowing, being and enacting that are different from the enforced structures of global coloniality, these distinctions have had an irreversible impact on the Eurocentric conduct of social scientific enquiry (Patel, 2013; Shilliam, 2021; Smith, 2012), including in the field of peace and conflict studies.


However, the dichotomous thinking embedded in both post- and decolonial studies often leads scholars in these fields to obscure, either 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; this is a primary device employed to comprehend the world, but it has a strong tendency to totalise the two sides of the line. Among decolonial thinkers, too, there is a strong tendency to view the world solely through the global colour line and place the blame entirely on conquistadors and coloniality. This tendency results from a highly complex philosophical focus, and leads to the depoliticisation of decolonisation (cf. Sunca, 2023a, 4). Notwithstanding, there is a significant analytical difference with postcolonialism: Latin American decolonial thinkers attribute the existing hierarchies in the Americas to colonial continuities (Grosfoguel, 2011; Maldonado Torres, 2008, 7).


In postcolonial political discourse this dichotomous thinking divides the world into coloniser and colonised, places a historically justified suspicion on the coloniser, and assigns an indivisible and unquestionable duty of resistance to the colonised under the leadership of postcolonial nationalism (cf. Ghosh, 2015; Sōkefeld, 2005; Yamahata, 2019). The colonial matrix of power hierarchically reorganises 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 legitimised 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 minoritised groups to nationalism protected by postcolonial state power, or the domination of non-Muslims in Muslim-majority states.


Such power relations are conceptualised as inter-subaltern hierarchies (Matin, 2022; Sunca, 2023b), proposing a framework as a location for debate. The conceptualisation 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, this does not justify, and nor should it 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, the particular focus of this entry is the triangle of the nation, nationalism and the modern state, due to its intimate relation with conflict dynamics.



There is an emerging literature investigating the hierarchical power relations between different ethnopolitical groups in the postcolonial space that are 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 people as a colonial practice of nation-states, and suggests the decolonisation of citizenship. Osuri (2017) substantiates the relationship between colonialism and nationalism, while Anand (2002) tests the limits of postcolonial nationalism by problematising the entrapment of postcolonial studies between postcolonial states and the West.


However, inter-subaltern hierarchies are significantly neglected in postcolonial scholarship. According to Matin, this is due to four main reasons: (1) the focus on postcolonial states’ position within the Western-dominated world order leads to less attention to their internal affairs; (2) class-centred critiques of postcolonial nationalism reproduce the unitary conception of the nation, and thereby elide the reproduction of inter-subaltern hierarchies; (3) postcolonialism is susceptible to postcolonial orientalism, which involves internalising orientalism’s cultural essentialisation; and (4) postcolonialism’s hostility to “the universal” blurs the line between the immanent critique of cultures and cultural relativism (2022, 199–200). Matin’s critique of postcolonialism reveals the intellectual architecture of postcolonialism that enables the obscuring of inter-subaltern hierarchies. I contend that this originates in the expansion of the nation-state as an inherently problematic model of polity formation, composed of the nation as an imagined unity and the modern state as a model for organising political authority.



The modern state first emerged as an apparatus for organising political power and exercising domination over a whole or segments of a population within a defined territoriality. It is defined both internally through its monopoly over legitimate violence, and externally through war against other similar political units (Jessop, 2016). The nation, on the other hand, represents an imagined community of equal citizens (Anderson, 1991) united against the domination of the aristocracy, at least as it was defined after the French revolution (Hobsbawm, 1990). The concept of the nation has been gradually condensed and reproduced by modern states in Europe, responding to the need for “national unity” against others. Nationalism, as an ideology of inclusions and exclusions that define the criteria of homogenisation and form the imagined “glue” of national unity, has been constantly reproduced in the discourse of national elites. 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 has gradually expanded to the rest of the world (Matin, 2019).


This model aligns with the Hobbesian understanding of the state of nature, in combination with an 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). However, this model was already highly problematic even in its birthplace, and subsequent events have mostly invalidated its republican romanticism. The process of state-making through war was famously likened by Tilly (1982) to organised crime on a very large scale. The ambiguity of national sovereignty, both internally and externally, serves as both a self-referential and a self-legitimising concept (Bartelson, 1995), often characterised by globally organised hypocrisy that prioritises gains over international norms and principles (Krasner, 1999). The nation has been criticised as an imagined community organised under elite domination in the constant process of war (Miley, 2018), and is unquestionably dependent upon the total homogenisation of society to create a workforce to satisfy the emerging needs of industrial capitalism (Conversi, 2007; 2012), where women are relegated to the role of “reproducer” of the imagined nation (Yuval-Davis, 1993). Within this community, 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.


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


The borders within which anti-colonial struggle took place form the territorial basis of inter-subaltern hierarchies. The majority of these borders were drawn arbitrarily by colonial powers. For example, as suggested by Branch (2012), 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, 11–13). As Clapham (1999, 47) explains, though, in African border-drawing the very artificiality of frontiers made them more, rather than less, central to the identity of newly created states. Anti-colonial struggles based on 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 across two or more nation-state borders, as in the case of the Kurdish, Tamil, Baloch and Berber populations as well as many more. However, when administrations were decolonised after anti-colonial struggles the colonial borders remained in place, forming the territorial basis of the existing world order and the boundaries of state control, but also perpetuating the conflict-prone division of peoples.

“… after formal colonial rule ended, the popular anticolonial political position was instrumentalized by postcolonial political elites to capture the state, stabilise 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 colonised 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 colonisers. Anticolonial nationalism was perceived as (Chatterjee, 1993; Loomba, 2015). However, after formal colonial rule ended the popular anticolonial political position was instrumentalised by postcolonial political elites to capture the state, stabilise 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 criteria of inclusion and exclusion, although with country-specific differences, wherein certain groups were supported by state power while others were marginalised and placed on the lower levels of politico-social hierarchies. Postcolonial nation formation often considered some groups, such as indigenous peoples in Latin America (Sanjinés, 2010) and many other examples (cf. Mamdani, 2020), as inferior due to their ethnic, racial, social, regional, etc. origins, seeing them as obstacles to the “modernisation” of the nation and therefore subjects requiring correction through nationalist exclusion or total homogenisation.


Sovereign equality, a principal foundation of the existing world order, allowed for an international legal legitimisation of inter-subaltern hierarchies. (Lawson & Shilliam, 2009). Until recently sovereign equality shielded postcolonial elites from international intervention and criticism as they conducted “legitimate violence” against segments of their “national society.” This was because historical politico-social issues were seen as internal problems of postcolonial states, obscuring the colonial burden and the forcible reproduction of society in the image of the hegemonic West. Since the permissive unipolar world order of the 1990s, intervention has become the rule rather than the exception. As Çubukçu (2018) noted, imperial interventions, decorated with the humanitarian discourse of cosmopolitanism, advocate universal principles, while postcolonial nationalism seeks specific autonomies. However, neither of these forces is concerned by the marginalisation of 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 being able to celebrate a genuine end to colonialism. The nation-state model, which was already problematic in Europe, its birthplace, has expanded across the world as a response to resolving myriad politico-social problems, but this has served to replicate the violent and exclusionary nature of nation formation. The nation-state-based world order normalises and recognises postcolonial states, which has enabled international legal shielding for the persistence of inter-subaltern hierarchies. Studies of peacebuilding and conflict analysis cannot continue to normalise this problematic 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 influential peace NGOs, international organisations such as the UN, or regional organisations such as the EU, it immediately becomes obvious that peacebuilding is a practice that takes place almost exclusively in the non-Western world. The exceptions are places like Northern Ireland, often advanced as an example of “best practice” in peacebuilding, where armed conflicts have been successfully resolved through negotiation. In contrast, in the non-Western world, black and brown people are instructed on how to live in peace. Some peace organisations are genuinely problematising their position and role, but this does not hold them back from reproducing global hierarchies. In a world where the West has a hegemony, its prescribed ways of living in peace, the nature of the 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 the Western hegemony. This short entry suggests a framework within which the originally colonial hierarchies that are prone to violent conflicts may be understood and studied.


Despite inbuilt liberal orthodoxies, there is a promising critical peace and conflict studies literature. Mainstream conflict resolution implements the regulatory mechanisms of the liberal peace in conflict settings. This tends to disregard the lived experiences of coexistence, and presupposes processed arrangements within nation-states as objectively neutral social containers (cf. Mitchell, 2010). By serving as a blueprint for peace-making the practice of liberal peace subjugates other spatially and temporally particular forms of peace to the imposition of security and order (cf. Richmond, 2014), and places limits on emancipation from injustice due to a immanent logic of exclusionary ethnic nationalisms (cf. Visoka & Richmond, 2016). As an alternative framework, critical peace studies explores possibilities for peace-making through various proposals such as relational (Söderström, Åkebo, & Jarstad, 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, however, there is still a lack of a conceptual framework that 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 at least five implications for conflict analysis and peacebuilding. The first of these is historical causality. Many armed/violent conflicts, whether 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 to engage in effective nation- or state-formation or building democratic institutions. However, this narrative obscures the global colonial order of hierarchies that cripples the historical capacity and culturally acceptable methods of societies 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 related implication is imagination with a critical approach, rather than merely problem-solving. The fundamental difference between these is that the problem-solving approach attempts to address the problems, obstacles or processes that render a system, mechanism or structure dysfunctional, whereas a critical approach problematises the structure, mechanism, or system itself (for a formative discussion on problem-solving vs. critical approaches, see Cox, 1981). For instance, in a conflict situation the critical approach examines the processes, entanglements and historical power relations that constitute the dynamics of that conflict, and seeks to elucidate the hierarchies, injustices and inequalities built into the politico-social structures that enable it, rather than simply accepting those structures as they are designed to be. Treating the nation-state as a more or less solid model and employing a problem-solving approach to address a conflict within the boundaries of this predefined model not only reinforces the enclosure of societies within the cages of nation-states legitimated by a global order of similar states, but also removes the possibility of imagining alternatives.


The third implication 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. Historical and social groups and polities are discursively coerced by the fear of an imperialist resurgence if they do not support the new revolutionary leadership. However, emancipation differs from liberation. The latter demands more profound structural engagement, involving freedom from all forms of domination rather than a simple change of ruler. The field of peace and conflict studies urgently needs to expand towards more liberatory approaches.


Fourth, postcolonial states perpetuate the victimhood of already marginalised communities through a dual-edged discourse. On one hand, those seeking liberation from domination are labelled “terrorists”, “enemies of national unity” or “traitors” in the external discourse of postcolonial states. On the other hand, however, the states’ internal discourse assigns such activists the role of “proxies”, portraying them as pawns of imperialist forces. Once the stigmatisation as “enemies of national unity” or “proxies of imperialist forces” enters the mainstream discourse about a particular group, this is followed by the punishment of that group in different ways; Muslims in India, the Baloch in Pakistan and the Kurds in Iran, Syria and Turkey are primary examples of this. Consequently, struggles for liberation are delegitimised both internally and externally. The conceptualisation of inter-subaltern hierarchies and their implications for peaceful coexistence offer a potential solution to the problem of “proxyisation”, a discourse that continually obscures the historically embedded causes of conflicts.


Finally, the structures of the hegemonic world order are legitimised through a cosmopolitan discourse 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, while 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 if we are to prevent the perpetuation of marginalisation and contribute the conditions necessary for achieving peaceful coexistence.




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How to cite this entry:

Yasin Sunca, J. 2024: “Inter-subaltern hierarchies”. Virtual Encyclopaedia – Rewriting Peace and Conflict. 29.04.2024. .

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