More on Theory from the South

By Alf Gunvald Nilsen

In my previous review I wrote about Raewyn Connell’s book Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science (Polity Press, 2007), where the author argues that sociological theory is crafted within a framework of power relations that systematically marginalize perspectives and analytical approaches developed in the global South. Connell also maintains that the theoretical work that has been and still is prevalent within sociology consistently fails to acknowledge the specificities of social relations and institutions that characterize colonial and postcolonial societies. The result of this foundational Eurocentrism is a cognitive asymmetry between North and South, in which the periphery becomes merely a passive source of data that are to be conceptualized through theories developed in the centre of the world-system: ”The common logic is that a system of categories is created by metropolitan intellectuals and read outwards to societies in the periphery, where the categories are filled in empirically” (s. 66).

This theme is also the central concern of a recent contribution to the debate over Southern theory, penned by the comaroffanthropologists Jean and John Comaroff – Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving Towards Africa (Paradigm Publishers, 2012). Western Enlightenment, the Comaroffs argue, has portrayed and perceived itself as a wellspring of universal learning and knowledge. Accordingly, the non-western world could not and still cannot be perceived as a source of sophisticated knowledge, but simply as a reservoir of raw data. Theory from the South aims to destabilize this mythology, taking its point of departure in the following crucial question: ”What if we posit that, in the present moment, it is the global south that affords privileged insight into the workings of the world at large?” (s. 1).

The assertion that ”the global south is running ahead of the north” (p. 19) is then provided with a foundation through the development of two key arguments in the book’s introductory essay.

Firstly: It is not the case, the Comaroffs argue, that modernity emerged first in the West, and only later proceeded to encompass the Rest. Paralleling the argument in Gurminder Bhambra’s Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination (Palgrave, 2007) the two anthropologists claim that modernity emerged through a global process in which North and South were inextricably intertwined in each other from the very start through the asymmetrical power relations that were at the heart of colonialism. Consequently, modernity in the South must be understood on its own terms – and not as a derivative of an originary Western phenomenon.

Secondly: Within the parameters of a global modernity, the West is not ahead of the Rest. On the contrary – precisely because of their adverse incorporation into the world system, it is in societies and among popiulations in the global South that the consequences of modernity are most advanced. And as a result of this, the knowledge produced in these societies to understand these consequences are rich in insights that can illuminate nascent processes of change in the global North.

Theory from the South is packed with case studies from southern Africa that further substantiate this line of argument. For example, the Comaroffs maintain that the challenges that western societies are currently faced with in terms of the unruly relationship between migration, citizenship, and other political rights have a long lineage in the African context where ”policulturalism” – that is, ’a politicization of diversity that expresses itself in demands not merely for recognition but also for a measure of sovereignty against the state and against the idea of the universal citizen …’ (p. 24) – is a well-established fact. The ”imagined community” that provides the foundation for the form of the nation-state has therefore also changed in the direction of recognizing a greater diversity of collective identities and modes of political governance.

The case is also made that the current wave of protest that has swept across Europe in response to the social consequences of financial crisis appears as an echo of more long-standing  social movements in the global South. In an evocative and compelling essay that concludes the book, we are offered insights into how popular mobilization around the AIDS crisis in South Africa has proceeded by constructing alliances to other social movements fighting for a dignified existence for ”the poors” of the country. And this ”popular politics of life” (p. 43) challenges the procedural limits of formal democracy in ways that may also help the new movements of the global North chart a course forward.

Jean and John Comaroff’s book is extraordinarily rich in insights, and should be capable of generating important debates well beyond the disciplinary boundaries of anthropology. Indeed, if sociology is to take seriously the argument that theory from the South can illuminate the consequences of global modernity in the West, we have to contend with a fundamental conceptual challenge. For within our discipline, our most basic object of knowledge – ”society” – tends to be conceived of as a circumscribed and delimited entity, which has its origins in and derives its developmental dynamics from mechanisms and relations that are internal to this entity. Relations between different societies – the relations that ultimately constitute the spaces that we refer to as the international and the global – have not featured centrally in sociological theoretical work at all.

Our challenge, then, is this: To rethink, fundamentally, the ways in which societies are constituted, and to carry out this rethinking with a view to acknowledging that a society never originates from a kind of national immaculate conception. Different societies always exist in relation to each other, and these relations are in turn part of the ontological DNA of a particular social formation. Hence, the ways in which a society emerges, the ways in which it is organized, and the ways in which it develops are driven as much by the relations to other societies that it is embedded in as it is by ”internal” mechanisms and relations – to the extent that the distinction between external/internal carries any substantial meaning at all.

And if we establish such a relational approach as the point of departure for our attempts to grapple with the specific manifestations of global modernity, we will also have taken an important step in the direction of undermining the conceptual deep structure of sociology’s Eurocentrism. For the making of modernity cannot then be construed as a Western achievement; it has to be understood, as the Comaroffs propose, as a ”world-historical process” (p. 6).

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