Alf Gunvald Nilsen

(Originally published in Norwegian in the May/2013 issue of Sosiolognytt)

“We have been taught, inside the classroom and outside of it, that there exists an entity called the West, and that one can think of this West as a society and civilization independent of and in opposition to other societies and civilizations.” Thus wrote the Austrian anthropologist Eric R. Wold in his classic book Europe and the People Without History (University of California Press, 1982, p. 5). The book posits a seminal critique of the tendency within social science to think of historical processes and social relations as phenomena whose borders dovetail with those of the nation-state: “Each society is then a thing, moving in response to an inner clockwork.” (p. 9).

Wolf’s book in many ways foreshadowed the more recent critique of methodological nationalism that has been put forward by sociologists like Daniel Chernilo and Ulrich Beck. This critique has often been articulated in relation to contemporary globalizing processes such as migration, environmental destruction, transnational social movements, and supranational governance that problematize the notion of the nation-state as a container of the social in the new millennium. Wolf, however, raised a more extensive and profoundly historical question about social processes and territorial boundaries. For, if it is correct to say that at social relations at one point in time social relations actually “respected” territorial boundaries, why is it then that there were more Greeks fighting for Persian kings than there were Greeks in the ranks of the Hellenic Alliance during the Persian wars of 500 to 448 BCE?

RETHMODIt is precisely this kind of historical approach which is characteristic of the argument that Gurminder K. Bhambra develops in one of the most important interventions on the state of sociological thought in recent years – the prize-winning volume Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination (Palgrave, 2007). Bhambra’s critique targets the basic understanding of modernity – and the central political, economic, and cultural institutions of modernity – within historical sociology. The problem that she focuses on can be called the Eurocentric methodological nationalism of the conceptual deep structure of historical sociology: modernity is understood as a manifestation of a qualitative historical rupture, brought about by processes of change across a range of social spheres, which was unique to the cultural and geographical sphere of the west. Accordingly, the modern nation-state emerged from the bourgeois revolution in France; industrial capitalism originated in the British industrial revolution of the late eighteenth century; critical scientific knowledge can be traced back to the Enlightenment era and Europe’s cultural unity is rooted in the Renaissance.

It’s a well-known story for many of us – I have myself, albeit with considerable discomfort, presented this narrative to countless students over the years. And it is, Bhambra argues, a narrative that we need to problematize. The reason why we need to question this perspective is that when classical sociology established the analytical divide between tradition (past) and modernity (present) and drew up hard and fast lines between the west and the rest, it also displaced colonialism from the grand narrative of the emergence of modern society.

So we learn that political modernity – the sovereign nation-state – emerged from the French revolution, but not that the nation-state emerged in tandem with the colonial state, and that many of the political and administrative technologies that are deemed to be unique to European configurations of state power were initially developed in the totalitarian laboratories of colonialism; nor do we learn that many of the early modern, non-western states – for example, India’s Mughal empire – were far ahead of Europe in terms of political and administrative infrastructures in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We learn that economic modernity – industrial capitalism – emerged from the industrial revolution in Britain, but not that western states were marginal entities in global trading networks dominated by Asia in the early modern world system; and we do not ask ourselves whether the ability of the west to move from the periphery to the centre of this world system during a short period of time was rendered possible by a flow of raw materials and human beings (read: slaves) that was ultimately founded on violent coercion military force. And finally – we learn about the Renaissance as the birthplace of Europe’s cultural integrity, but not how the forms of knowledge and the cultural expressions that are so often hailed as defining of this era developed in a space that one cannot credibly describe as western.

A standard response to the kind of critique that Bhambra puts forward is that these are problems of sociology’s past. After all, these days we talk of modernity in the plural: multiple modernities, alternative modernities, regional modernities, and hybrid modernities, for example. In other words, we acknowledge that there are many ways in which to be modern.

However, Bhambra argues that this simply will not do, because the underlying logic of the argument is that modernity first developed within the boundaries of the west, and then spread beyond these boundaries, to the non-western world, where it has been reshaped and moulded according to local and regional conditions. A Eurocentric methodological nationalism still constitutes the deep structure of this perspective, and it is precisely this which is at the heart of the miseducation that defines so much of the discipline of sociology today.

The question we need to ask ourselves – and to find an answer to – is the following: what if modernity was not first western and then became global? What if modernity has always been global? What does that entail for the way in which we think, practice, and – not least – teach sociology?


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