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Strategic essentialism is an approach developed by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, which describes the political use of what is considered to be an ”essence” with a critique and recognition of the essentialist nature of the essence itself. This concept operates in relationship to the concept of the subaltern. The subaltern is a term often used to represent the oppressed or ”Other” in society and Spivak recognizes that what constitutes the subaltern is defined by the elites.
Strategic essentialism seeks to identify the use of labels out of political interest while acknowledging the complexities of the core meaning (or essence). For example, a group of disabled veterans may be fighting for benefits owed to them by the government; the elites. At the same time they are recognizing the complexities of what it means to be a ”disabled veteran” as defined by the elites. The literal categorization of the term ”disabled veteran” may not mesh with the current cultural understanding both inside and outside of the group itself. The group identity serves as a basis of struggle and yet within the group, there is also debate related to what ”disabled veteran” actually means.
There are a number of critiques of strategic essentialism, including Spivak who sees the concept evolving into a means for promoting essentialism rather than as a means of analysis. Some question the concept’s accountability for the intricacies of identities, due to the focus on specific issues within a certain political, geographic, historical context. The concept has morphed into a theory rather than remaining a technique or strategy for understanding the complexity and fluidity of subject/object positions, of identity and power.
- Spivak, G. C. (1996) The Spivak Reader, ed. Landry, D. & MacLean, G. Routledge, London.