An interview with Gurminder K. Bhambra

By Alf Gunvald Nilsen

“There’s something about the nineteenth century”, says Gurminder K. Bhambra, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Social Theory Centre at the University of Warwick. “There was a concerted attempt to begin to demarcate Europe from the rest of the world.” What Bhambra has in mind is the emergence at this point in time of a way of writing history, in which Europe was posited as superior to the rest of the world. This mode of history-writing stood in sharp contrast to earlier approaches, which were characterized by much broader orientations in which interconnections, continuities, and fluid boundaries were key themes. The irony of this, Bhambra argues, is that it happened at a time when the West and the rest of the world was particularly deeply imbricated in each other as a result of the onward march of colonial rule: “So it seems that the absolute high point of global interconnections, as constituted through imperial relations, was also the point at which there occurred an attempt to demarcate an absolute difference. And for me, these two things just don’t add up.”


But why is it that a professor of sociology and social theorist is concerned with this problematic turn in the writing of world history? The reason, according to Bhambra, is that this understanding of history has had ramifications for the discipline of sociology and the historical-sociological understanding of modernity and the modern. In her award-winning book Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination (Palgrave, 2010), Bhambra singles out for critique what might be called the Eurocentric deep-structure of the historical-sociological conceptualization of modernity.

Across theoretical orientations, she maintains, sociologists have assumed that the emergence of modernity and the characteristic features of its definitive economic, political and cultural institutions have been a quintessentially European affair: “When I started to explore sociological approaches to modernity, there were two things that struck me. One was that there was said to be a clear temporal rupture between a pre-modern, agrarian past and a modern industrial present, and the other, that this temporal rupture was located spatially within Europe or the west more broadly and constituted a spatial disjuncture between Europe and the rest of the world. Modernity was then seen as something that happened in this western space and then diffused outwards.” Bhambra’s undertaking in Rethinking Modernity and numerous articles has been to critique this understanding of modernity through a dialogue with postcolonial theory, and to argue for the necessity of understanding modernity as the outcome of “connected histories” that criss-cross the West-East dichotomies that were constructed in the nineteenth century and came to have such a profound impact on the social sciences since then.

Sociological Histories

Bhambra’s project originates in previous research in which she investigated the way in which social movements that emerged and were active in different phases of modern society – ranging from resistance during the early passages to modernity, via the social movements of high modernity, to the more recent late- or postmodern alterglobalization movements – are construed by sociologists as differing from each other precisely due to their relationship to the modern.

On starting this research, Bhambra came to the realization that there were more features that united movements across these periods of time than what made them differ from each other: “I wasn’t quite clear why the sociological conceptualization of these movements presented them as old and new and so on in terms of their relationship to modernity. So I thought that, before I look at these movements in more detail, I should just work out what this thing modernity really is.” It was in doing this that Bhambra came to realize the metanarrative of temporal and spatial ruptures that is so central to dominant ways of thinking sociologically about modernity. This was a metanarrative that she found to be deeply problematic: “With my background in history, it was clear to me that very few historians would actually give weight to the argument that there have occurred such clear ruptures in time and space. And there has been a lot of work that has addressed continuities across time and across space.” With this as her point of departure, Bhambra started to look more critically at sociology as a discipline: “What is the history that sociology uses in order to establish its own parameters as a discipline? If this history is deemed by historians to be inadequate while sociologists continue to use it, there is a problem.”

In extension of this, Bhambra’s work came to concentrate on what would happen if more globally oriented histories were taken as a point of departure for sociology’s engagements with modernity: “If we rethink the foundational moments of modernity from the point of view of what the historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam has called “connected histories”, how might that make sociology develop new and different perspectives?” Bhambra identifies the source of the metanarratives that prevail in much sociological inquiry in the Eurocentric turn in history-writing that occurred in the nineteenth century.

It is natural, therefore, to ask whether this development in history-writing can, in turn, be related to the transition from, what the Indian political scientist Partha Chatterjee in his recent book The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power (Permanent Black, 2012) has called, early modernity to colonial modernity. Bhambra responds by reflecting on the nature of epochal demarcations: “Epochs are always established in retrospect. If we’re pushing the boundaries of modernity back, are we still talking about some kind of rupture? And I’m not sure that ruptures are what the human condition is about – actually, it is much more about continuities and regularities.” Bhambra does not take this to imply that change does not happen, but emphasises that it is necessary to reflect on when quantitative changes coalesce to produce a more substantial qualitative change. Such processes, she argues, normally take place in several different locations, at different times, and then converge to produce a deeper form of change: “But I don’t see this as a singular linear process.”

Are ruptures of the kind that she subjects to criticism then simply figments of the sociological imagination? “Yes – I think they’re attempts to try and make sense of our world. But they are not adequate to the task, because in order to identify rupture, there is so much that we have to disavow in terms of continuities.”

No Civilization is an Island

Bhambra explains that at centre of her project is a critique of civilizational analysis: “It’s a critique of the idea that there are these entities called civilizations which have internal logics to them, which are completely separate from other civilizations. So there’s a basis for critique at that level, but there’s also a critique of the implications of this for how we think about the present.” She explains this with reference to how an issue such as poverty is discussed in the mainstream. When poverty on the African continent is spoken of, Bhambra argues, this is often framed in terms of its origins being located solely within Africa itself.

And responses to poverty in Africa then come to revolve around benevolence and charity: “But, if we look at why Africa is poor in historical terms, we see that this is because it has been made poor as a consequence of processes that have made other places rich.” And in these terms, seeking a solution to the problem of poverty is no longer an issue of benevolence and charity, but of justice and redistribution: “For me, this a much more politically productive way of thinking about these things.”


When phrased in these terms – in terms of arguing for the importance of relations between places, rather than in terms of the properties of a singular place – Bhambra’s argument seems to echo some of the perspectives developed by Latin American and African theories of dependency, in which the development of the “core” capitalist countries was seen to be predicated on the underdevelopment of the “periphery” of colonized territories.

Bhambra acknowledges this lineage, and emphasises its influence on her own thinking: “What I’m saying is not necessarily new; there is a long history where others have developed similar arguments. What I’m trying to do is to use those arguments to rethink the paradigm of sociology itself. Without these dialogues across disciplines, sociology can allow itself to simply reproduce flawed ways of thinking.” It is arguably at this point that the political implications of mainstream sociological approaches also become most apparent, in that their logic implicitly contributes to absolving the west of its role in global historical injustices. This, according to Bhambra, has to be related to what she refers to as “episodical thinking”: “If we see colonialism as an episode, then we could say that colonialism is now over, and now we just need to deal with postcolonialism. But if we understand it in the sense that Quijano and Mignolo talk about it, as coloniality, we see that while the overt structures and processes of colonialism that previously existed may not now exist in the same way, they still continue in new ways. And coloniality can be understood as a way of making sense of these conditions, because there is much more that needs to be done in terms of deconstructing and dismantling those structures – things that go beyond the simple idea of “that was then, we are now past that, now we are in a new time”. When I’m confronted with this argument, I tend to think “well, we’re not!””

The Colonial at the Core of the Modern

In Bhambra’s work, a strong argument is made that colonialism and the colonial has to be placed at the core of our understanding of what the modern is and how it came to be in the first place. She makes this point particularly forcefully through a re-reading of the history of the three key events that are typically seen as giving rise to modernity: the industrial revolution, the French revolution, and the Renaissance: “When I read the standard accounts of these events within sociology, the thing that came up for me was that in history there are so many different histories of these events that don’t necessarily support the ideas of standard sociological accounts. How can these broader histories contribute to a different sociological understanding of these events?” SLAVESHIP

Bhambra uses the example of the industrial revolution to illustrate her point. Most accounts will locate this event broadly within western Europe, and more specifically in relation to the Lancashire cotton industry. However, the flaws of such an account are glaringly obvious as the historian David Washbrook, among others, has pointed out. Cotton is not a crop that grows in Europe or England; it is grown under colonial control in India and in the American south by enslaved people that had been forcibly brought there from Africa; the raw material is then brought for processing in England, where Indian technologies for weaving and dyeing are deployed; the finished products are then ultimately sold across the expanding swathes of the British empire, in markets that had been created through the systematic use of force by the colonial state apparatus. “If we take that as the point of departure for how we understand and teach the industrial revolution, then we have to admit that the industrial revolution was already global. It wasn’t something that became global; rather it had global preconditions. And not to take that “global” seriously is to misidentify and misunderstand the processes that were at play at that point.”

For Bhambra, then, the colonial was crucial for the emergence of modernity: “For me, modernity is something that happens as a consequence of events from the late fifteenth century onwards. And the last 500 years can be understood as the extension of a colonial mode around the world.”

The Postcolonial Provocation

To develop her critique of Eurocentrism in sociology, Bhambra draws on and engages with postcolonial theory. Postcolonial theory has of course been hugely influential in the humanities over the past three decades, and also in South Asian and Latin American historiography, but less so within the social sciences. A crucial part of Bhambra’s efforts have therefore been geared towards generating a mutual beneficial dialogue between postcolonialism and sociology: “The way that I’ve used postcolonial theory has been as a provocation – to open up questions within the discipline which didn’t think that it had anything to learn through such an engagement.” CONSOS

But Bhambra also emphasises that postcolonial theory has much to learn from sociology. Postcolonial theory as it originated, she argues, produced rich insights in terms of new ways of thinking. But to the extent that postcolonialism is limited to the sphere of culture and identity, it fails to realize its own potential. Through a dialogue with sociology, considerations of the social and the relationship between the social and the postcolonial can enable further innovations. In Rethinking Modernity, Bhambra also issues a critique of postcolonial theory, pointing out how it can sometimes lead to a kind of “Orientalism-in-reverse”. It is therefore necessary to use postcolonialism in a way which is useful in relation to the questions that one wants to address: “You have to find the resources that are necessary in order to say something about the questions you’re concerned with, and that were often not addressed by key postcolonial thinkers.” Homi Bhabha’s statement that modernity will appear different according to whether one’s point of view is Paris in 1789 or Haiti in 1804 is a good example of this, according to Bhambra: “He furnishes little historical evidence for this claim. But it was a provocation that nevertheless prompted me to explore what an alternative historical-sociological account of modernity would look like from these different but related vantage points.”

Another perspective that has been central to Bhambra’s rethinking of modernity is the work of Indian historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam, who has coined the term “connected histories” to grapple with processes of social change that criss-cross national borders and regional boundaries: “Anything that we know – any period, any time, any community that we ever know about – we only ever know about because certain connections have taken us there. Isolated communities are not possible, and if they were isolated, we wouldn’t know about them. In that sense there are these connections that exist, and for me, tracking these connections enables us to see more clearly the things that we are interested in, rather than trying to understand them in their own terms.”  

Sociology and the Academy in a Time of Crisis

Bhambra does not restrict her critical activity to the scholarly field. Over the past few years she has also campaigned actively through the Campaign for the Public University against the impacts of austerity-driven cuts on the university sector. Crucially, she says, the overall context of a crisis-ridden economy, a neoliberal agenda of cuts in public spending, and the struggle against the escalation of tuition fees is not unrelated to her academic projects: “I’ve been forced to think about this much more as a consequence of the crisis, and really reflect upon the role and nature of the university.” ANTICUTS1

She proceeds to explain the interrelations between the endeavour to craft more “connected sociologies” (also the title of Bhambra’s forthcoming book) and the defence of the university as a public institution: “The university has been a very particular site for knowledge production, and to the extent that it’s been an elite space, it’s been a space for the reproduction of elite world-views. But I think that something quite distinct happened in the last fifty years in Britain and Europe to broaden education and to have an idea of mass higher education. And what opening up education at that level began to do was to enable women, working class people, ethnic minorities and other groups to begin to be a part of an institution where knowledge is produced and validated. So being able to introduce different perspectives and different ideas, and to think about the world differently and to have those views validated has been incredibly powerful for the democratization of knowledge production more generally.”

The on-going attacks on the university, Bhambra argues, therefore have to be seen as a direct attack on democratizing processes both within and outside the university: “So, if there is an attack on the university, we have to also think about the implications this might have for democratization more generally.”

An obvious question that follows from this concerns the role that social movements have played not only in shaping society but also in producing forms of knowledge that then “migrate” into academia in the form of theories and perspectives that have made crucial contributions to scholarly debates – for example, feminism from the women’s movement, socialism from the workers’ movement, and postcolonialism from the anticolonial struggles of the global South, to name but a few. According to Bhambra, the current neoliberal attacks on the university are also attacks on the achievements of these movements in terms of the expansion of our understandings of the world. This is most obvious, she says, in the case of the current attempts of the minister of education to revamp the historical curriculum to focus strictly on events that took place inside Britain, and to concentrate on the affairs of kings, queens and other ruling elites: “So, at a stroke, what he’s trying to do is to wipe out all the work that has been done in the past fifty years that has validated working class perspectives, women’s histories, wider colonial histories as central to understanding what Britain actually is.”

Bhambra is crystal clear that the current situation warrants resistance:SUSSEX “One would hope that everybody who has benefited from this broadening of education over the last 50 years – and this also includes elite groups, whose world view, it is hoped, has also been enriched through this expansion – would recognize what is going on, realize that a historic achievement is in danger of being lost, and organize to defend it. What this means is that we have to recognize our responsibilities in relation to a system we have benefited from – so let’s make sure that those benefits continue for future generations.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s