The roots of insurrection: The role of the Algerian village assembly (Djemâa) in peasant resistance, 1863–1962

Neil MacMaster

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Interpretations of the origins of the Algerian war of independence have tended to emphasize either discontinuity - the radical dislocation of precolonial social and political structures following the French conquest - or the continuity of a culture of peasant resistance between 1871 and 1954. Little investigation has been carried out into the latter, or how, if at all, socio-political institutions enabled rural society to sustain an unbroken tradition of resistance over nearly a century of unprecedented crisis. Most debate has focused on the role of the tribe, a largely moribund institution, and this has obscured the importance of the village assembly, or djemâa, a micro-level organization that historians have largely neglected. The djemâa, in both its official and covert forms, enabled village elders to regulate the internal affairs of the community, such as land disputes, as well as to present a unified face against external threats. This article shows how emerging nationalist movements starting in the 1920s penetrated isolated rural communities by adapting to the preexisting structure of the djemâa, a tactic that was also followed after 1954 as independence fighters established a guerrilla support base among the mountain peasants. While Pierre Bourdieu and other scholars have emphasized the devastating impacts that economic individualism had on peasant communalism, this study employs the djemâa as a case study of a traditional institution that proved flexible and enduring as rural society confronted settler land appropriations and a savage war of decolonization.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)419-447
Number of pages29
JournalComparative Studies in Society and History
Issue number02
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2013


  • decolonization
  • historical perspective
  • individualism
  • peasant agriculture
  • rural area
  • rural history
  • rural society

Cite this