Alf Gunvald Nilsen
(Originally published in Norwegian in the November issue of Sosiolognytt)
“Can non-Europeans think?” – this was the title of an op-ed penned by Hamid Dabashi, professor at Columbia University for Al Jazeera in January this year. The op-ed commented on the tendency in public and academic debates to portray western philosophers as figures that articulate perspectives that are of universal significance, while non-western philosophers – on the rare occasions when they are actually acknowledged – are considered to be producers of forms of knowledge that are only relevant to their specific African, Asian or Latin American context.
The same question comes to mind in relation to the theoreticians who constitute the main focus of attention in the textbook Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory, by Scott A. Appelrouth and Laura Desfor Edles (Sage, 2012) – a text which constitutes the cornerstone of students’ first encounter with sociological theory at my own institution, the University of Bergen. In this book, the vast majority of scholars represented are white, western men, while non-white, non-western, and women thinkers constitute a fledgling minority.
Appelrouth/Edles: Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory: Texts and Readings
The scenario is much the same in other texts used at higher level theory courses, and the sub-text is easy enough to decipher: whatever has been or is being done in terms of systematic theorizations of the form, dynamics and development of the entity that we refer to as “society” has occurred or is occurring in the west. And whatever is going on in terms of knowledge production in the social sciences south of the Equator is not of interest or relevance for us as sociologists or for sociology in general.
It is this situation that constitutes the point of departure for Raewyn Connell’s book Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science (Polity Press, 2007). The books title points to the power relations that have left their imprint on theoretical work in the social sciences in general and sociology in particular in such a way that perspectives and analytical tools produced by intellectuals in the global South are effectively marginalized in the dominant scholarly discourse.
In the first – and by far most interesting – part of the book Connell presents a compelling analysis of the “westernness” of dominant sociological paradigms, and how this “westernness” is concealed beneath a thin veneer of claims to universality. She starts off by problematizing the conventional origin story that is normally peddled about sociology: contrary to what textbooks claim, Connell writes, sociological theory did not originate as a response to socioeconomic and political transformations in European societies. On the contrary, early sociology spanned much more than just the European orbit, and founded its theories of change and order on a notion of global difference, in which the western “metropole” represented civilization and the non-western “periphery” represented the primitive. And this was in turn a result of the spatial and historical context in which sociology emerged: “Sociology was formed within the culture of imperialism, and embodied an intellectual response to the colonised world.” (p. 9).
However, this context was erased in early sociological treatises and then entirely relegated in the perspectives that emerged in the post-war era. This, however, does not entail that the metatheoretical assumptions that flow from the fact that sociology is moored in the west as a centre of geopolitical power simply vanish. In a fascinating reading of Coleman, Giddens, and Bourdieu, Connell shows how sociological theories that make claims to universal validity and relevance consistently evade colonialism as a historical process and experience when analyses of social relations, societal institutions and structural change are articulated. The same pattern characterizes sociological theories of globalization. The underlying logic remains the same: a system of theoretical categories are created in the west and then turned “outwards”, in the direction of the global South, where the categories are then “filled” with empirical data. The majority world – and lest we forget, that means the global South – is thus reduced to being merely an object for a thoroughly Eurocentric social science.
The second and third parts of the book turn to the global South and a discussion of theoretical contributions to social science from Australia, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Reading these chapters entails acquiring compelling knowledge about everything from sociological critiques of western dominance developed through dialogues with Islam to Latin American theories of dependency between centre and periphery in the world economy. In and of itself, this is very interesting, and as far as I’m concerned, it is as much a matter of course that a student – having completed her undergraduate degree in the social sciences – should be familiar with the work of Partha Chatterjee and Nestor García Calini as it is a matter of course that she should know the work of Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu.
However – there is something that remains unsatisfactory about this part of Connells project. Despite the fact that we are provided with an overview of theories from the South, Connell does not – to any significant extent, at least – put forward a systematic attempt to explain to us as readers how these perspectives can be brought together in such a way as to effectively challenge the explicit and implicit Eurocentrism of sociology. As I see it, such a project would demand a far more thoroughgoing rethinking of the most foundational concepts that we have at our disposal in sociology – particularly in terms of understanding how the processes through which societies crystallize always entail a relation – or rather, a set of relations – between different societies. This will be a core theme of my next review, which will engage with Jean and John Comaroff’s Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa (Paradigm Publishers, 2011).