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Globalizing Sociology

by Alf Nilsen on October 6, 2016
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In his classic work Europe and the People Without History, Eric Wolf launched a broadside against the methodological nationalism of sociology. The discipline, he argued, was wedded to the idea that “social relations take place within the charmed circle of the single nation-state”. Sociology’s methodological nationalism, he argued, was symptomatic of a general tendency in the social sciences to conceive of societies and civilisations as “internally homogenous and externally distinctive and bounded objects” – and to do so according to the logic of a Eurocentric deep structure in which modernity tends to be understood as a social formation that emerged from a temporal rupture with a traditional past, and that this rupture was unique to the West. In a recently published special issue of The International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, myself and Srila Roy bring together a diverse group of scholars to explore what it would mean to transcend this Eurocentric methodological nationalism and to globalize sociology.

Our intervention, of course, does not happen in a vacuum. For a number of years now, critical sociologists have questioned the western bias of dominant sociological perspectives. Raewyn Connell, for example, has made a strong case for the need for a new sociological canon that incorporates theoretical perspectives and conceptual orientations from the non-Western world, and Sujata Patel has made a similar argument in the Indian context. Writing from Latin America, Anibal Quijano has criticised the persistent legacies of European colonialism in both social orders and forms of knowledge, and Ari Sitas has argued sociology needs an entirely new epistemological and conceptual orientation that posits the modern as a product of planetary interconnections in order to be relevant in the African context.

Equally important, we have been working on this special issue in a context where student movements across the North-South axis have voiced strong demands for new curricula that move beyond the epistemic violence of Eurocentrism. This ferment underscores the need – as South African anthropologist Suren Pillay put it in a speech to protesting students at the University of Cape Town – “not to concede the universal to an imperial imagination, but to work towards a truly universal universalism”. The collection of articles in this special issue can be seen as an attempt to respond to that need by approaching global sociology not as a theoretical fact but as practice – as a doing that involves particular citational, methodological, and obviously epistemological choices.

A significant part of the programme of globalizing sociology involves paying attention to place and, relatedly, to scale. This does not merely involve a decentring of the West from our political imagination and epistemological orientation (an all too common call in the academy today) but attending to the scalar and spatial politics of knowledge production. Consequently, Ronaldo Munck, in his contribution to the issue, puts forward a plea for an alternative paradigm for a global sociology, drawing on a political economy perspective, which is sensitive to the uneven geographies of place and scale. Munck thus argues that global sociology could emerge through a critical Southern lens and draw on the conceptual tools of cultural political economy. Similarly, Robbie Shilliam’s article underscores the legacies and contributions of pan-African pedagogies not only for those in the South (from where they originate) but for the struggles of those who he refers to as ‘the South in the North’ or postcolonial populations settled in the North – as in the UK, which is the point of departure for his engagement with the scalar and spatial politics of knowledge production. Ultimately, he provides us with a sociological pedagogy that is historically aware and rooted, contemporaneous, globally attentive in terms of place and scale, and concerned with the epistemic aspects of ongoing struggles for justice.

The connection between epistemology and politics is another key focus of our combined attempt to globalise sociology. Alf Nilsen focuses on the Eurocentric politics and practice of development, of which there have been many substantial critiques within the academy. While he is sympathetic to aspects of these critiques, charts an alternative line of critique that emphasises the multiple meanings of the idiom of development and locates the source of this multiplicity in conflicting political projects that aim to shape the form and direction of social change in different ways in specific locales across the North-South axis. Deepening the engagement with the connection between epistemology and politics, Srila Roy takes as her point of departure the Indian women’s movement. Whereas attempts to globalize feminism have historically served only to reinforce western hegemony and to silence Third World feminisms, her article goes on to show how women’s movements in the global South have asserted a stridently transnational orientation that defies the hegemony of western feminism in global histories of women’s struggles for liberation. This poses conceptual challenges for sociological engagement with Southern feminisms, which Roy discusses in light of the anti-rape protests that erupted in India in 2012. Ruchi Chaturvedi presents a third intervention on this point, which is grounded in an exploration of the role of the urban poor or the so-called informal or ‘lumpenproletariat’ in popular protests in West Africa. As key to a project of globalizing sociology, Chaturvedi describes these critical agents of resistance in their specific contexts, and describes the nature of political imaginations, possibilities, and agency that they have enacted. Focusing on political performances in the Occupy Nigeria movement, her article draws out a number of novel interpretive threads, including the manner in which the local becomes the pre-eminent scale of political intervention besides other spatial arrangements around what Partha Chatterjee has referred to as “political society”.

The special issue concludes with a clear instance of the actual practice of globalizing sociology – of linking pedagogy, politics and practice – in a reflection, authored by Alison Rooke, on a collaborative arts and research project between European and South African cultural organisations. In illustrating the complexities of such a North-South collaboration as well as between higher education and non-academic partners, her article considers these to be an opportunity – however modest – to develop a genuinely public sociology. While acknowledging and exploring both tensions and unequal power relations between the partners in this North-South collaboration, Rooke notes a more potentially positive fallout of the globalisation of higher education institutions in the North especially in terms of its shifting scales of – from the North to the South – as challenging Eurocentrism in sociological knowledge production and practice. We hope that the contributions brought together in this issue will offer concrete resources to those involved in this difficult project. It will involve nothing less than decolonising and democratising spaces and structures of higher learning today – whether in South Africa, India, Chile or the UK and US – and re-establishing the role of the university in constituting a public culture and space of dissent. It is only in such a space that a programme of globalizing sociology can possibly come to fruition.

Alf Nilsen

Alf Gunvald Nilsen is Associate Professor at the Department of Global Development Studies and Planning at the University of Agder and Research Associate at the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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