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Book Review – Southern Theory – Part 1

August 29, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science, Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell sets herself the ambitious task of extirpating the imperialist roots of Western social science (sociology in particular) and bring to the fore the social science projects of the periphery through the exploration of a variety of sociologists from the Global South. In the context of globalization, such a project is long overdue.

The book is roughly divided into three parts. In the first part, Connell provides a critique of Northern theory, and in particular, the work of James Coleman, Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu for a common theoretical attitude in the metropole: taking the Global South either as source of data to be theorized about in the metropole, or as subjects of application of Northern theory assumed to be of universal validity. That is, theories devised in the metropolitan universities based on work in societies of the Global North are taken to have automatic valid application to the societies of the Global South. That move, in itself, makes sociology an imperialist discipline and that is this unexamined imperialist core that Connell sets out to extirpate. As she puts it,

“Sociology was formed within the culture of imperialism, and embodied an intellectual response to the colonised world. This fact is crucial in understanding the content and method of sociology, as well as the discipline’s wider cultural significance.” (9)

For instance, the evolutionary nature of early sociology provided a neat justification to colonialism and imperialism under the guise of scientific objectivity.

The hegemonic universalizing tendency of sociological theorizing is especially visible in James Coleman’s work:

“Coleman’s theoretical ambition is announced in his first sentence: ‘A central problem in social science is that of accounting for the functioning of some kind of social system.’ A social system is defined as a set of individuals linked by transactions in which they must engage to satisfy their own  interests because the other individuals have some control over the resources they need. The interplay between individual and system, the micro-macro link becomes a formative problem in Coleman’s theorising, and is generally a central problem in modern positivism.

Less readily noticed, because it is so common in sociological theorising, is Coleman’s assumption that this language of individual and system, interest, control and resource, micro and macro, is of universal relevance. The concepts can be applied in any time and place.” (29)

Not to mention that such a system is unable to account for colonial and imperial social relationships, or even slavery or any other type of power relations for that matter. And of course, this theorizing is ahistorical:

“Coleman’s actors move in an energetic dance, calculating, bargaining and exchanging on a featureless dance floor, It is not entirely accidental that his visual models of action systems resemble teaching diagrams for the foxtrot or the jazz waltz. The featurelessness of the dance floor follows from the ahistorical method. In each derivation, the same limited set of elements and possible relations is set in motion, The theoretical logic will not work, any more than one can dance a foxtrot, if the dance floor is lumpy with footprints from previous dances of with the bodies of previous dancers.” (31)

So, what of Giddens and structuration theory? After all, Giddens borrows from a variety of traditions (all the way to ethnomethodology and conversation analysis) to transcend the traditional dichotomies of sociology (e.g. micro – macro or structure – agency). The problem, for Connell, is that Giddens does not escape his own version of “stages of human societies” in which the Global North is more advanced than the Global South. Here again, colonialism and imperalism are evacuated.

“Giddens implies that the West is dominant not because it conquered the rest of the world, but because of its ‘temporal precedence’. the West industrialised and modernised first. Other social orders are passing away not because Europeans with guns came and shattered them, but because modernity is irresistible.” (38)

One can already discern the similarities with modernization theory and common approaches to globalization (including Giddens’s own).

And for Connell, Bourdieu can be credited for crafting a powerful toolkit for sociological research (the concepts are familiar: structure, field, habitus, symbolic violence, social reproduction, etc.) deemed to be universally applicable even though Bourdieu’s own analysis of Algeria are devoid of references to colonialism.

The bottom line is that Northern theory is guilty of four traits:

  • Claim of universality
  • Reading from the center
  • Gestures of exclusion (there are apparently no theorists in the Global South)
  • Grand erasure (the experiences of the people of the Global South is erased to make room for projections of Northern theorizing about them)

Connell finds similar problems with contemporary theorists of globalization. For many theorists, globalization is the next state beyond modern society dismantling its main tenets, such as the nation-state structures. In many cases, globalization is capitalism’s next stage and we are all in it, all in the same boat in a decaying environment for which global solutions have to be found. But here again, Northern theorizations (“world risk society”, “liquid modernity”, “individualization”, “global scapes” and so on) are taken to be universally valid. It is again a view from the North upon the rest of the world and non-metropolitan thinkers are absent.

“Perhaps the most remarkable example is on Beck’s What is Globalization?, which end with a short essay on ‘The Brazilianization of Europe’ (Beck 2000: 161-3). This does not discuss Brazil at all, but uses the name to evoke a horror scene of social fragmentation, violence and selfishness which the European readers surely do not want. The remarkable social educational reconstruction efforts undertaken by the Brazilians, in the aftermath of a violent military dictatorship and in the teeth of corporate power, does not enter Beck’s argument.” (65)

Actually, since we are talking about Brazil, see this, this and this for what is going on in Brazil… and yes, it is more Northern perspective. Still very interesting, though.

When the Global South is considered, it is through Development Studies or Area Studies or International Relations. Connell is more merciful with World-system analysis which is historical, was always global in its analysis of the capitalist world system, and never evaded analysis of imperialism. The missing pieces are gender and race in this context though. As I have quoted before,

“The underlying problem of the social-scientific approaches considered in this chapter [Ed: everything I read: Bourdieu, Beck, Bauman, Robinson...] is their geopolitical logic. They rely exclusively on the metropole for their intellectual tools and assumptions, and therefore treat the majority world as object. This closes off the possibility of social science working as a shared learning process, a dialogue, at the level of theory.

Inhabitants of the majority world are not just the objects of theory, the data mine for social science. They are also subjects – the producers of theory about the social world and their place in it. (…)

Every colonised [sic] culture produces interpretations of imperialism. Intellectuals in the majority world have been studying empire, colonisation and globalisation processes as long as intellectuals in the metropole have. This represents a huge resource for learning, which metropolitan social science currntly discards. Because of the metropole’s hegemonic position in the global organisation of social science (as Sonntag (1999) shows for sociology), this waste is difficult contest.” (68)

This concludes the first part of the book and it is extremely compelling and should make any sociologist think twice about the way we teach sociology and social theory. In the second big part of the book, after reviewing the sociological landscape in Australia, Connell dives into Southern theory per se. I have to say that even though it makes for an interesting read, this was the weakest part of the book, ironically and I will get to it in a moment, but first, this important issue, that Connell mentions regarding Africa but which is, I think, relevant for the rest of the Global South intellectuals as well:

“Intellectuals had mostly supported nation-building in the 1950s and the 1960s, but repressive regimes closed the spaces for debate and often demanded ideological conformity. African social scientists in particular were cut off from policy-making. When neoliberalism and Structural Adjustment Programs arrived in the 1980s and 1990s, the alienation was renewed. Governments turned to foreign advisers, while NGOs wanted only consultancies, not basic research programs, assuming that ‘poor research was good enough for the poor’.” (109)

This is almost the statement that was made to me by Professor Mutumba Bull, Director the Institute of Economic and Social Research of the University of Zambia and former Minister in the first independent governments of Zambia under Kenneth Kaunda. This is a statement of neo-colonialism and persistence of imperialism that also explains the precarious position of intellectuals and theorists in the Global South.

That being said, I especially had problems with the chapter on Islam and Western Dominance. While Connell presents interesting work by Al-e Ahmad and the important and powerful concept of Westoxication, I had problems with the idea of building social theory from Islam. As much as I understand using Islam as a tool of political action against Westoxication, Islam, per se, cannot be legitimately be seen as sound theoretical basis. Political Islam is a topic of analysis (see Olivier Roy on this) but not a theoretical position. After all, would we take seriously a sociologist basing his theory on Christianity (especially of the revival kind) or any other religion? I personally would not. Liberation Theology has demonstrated that Christianity can be used as a political basis for liberationist projects. That does not make a proper theoretical foundation. This may have sounded interesting to Connell, but religion is not basis for good sociology.

Ironically, as I was reading Southern Theory, I was also reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe of Nigeria. It is a very interesting novel whose plot takes place as an indigenous culture gets its first taste of colonial oppression and its socially dislocating effects. Certainly, the sociologist in me was fascinated by that aspect of things but, here again, a novel is not a social theory.

Similarly, and this is, I think, another difficulty with Connell’s book, any political project that seeks emancipation requires some analysis / diagnosis of society and power. Again, this is not automatically sociology. Interestingly, though, the one African theorist that comes to mind, Franz Fanon, is mentioned but not examined at all. I don’t know if this is because Connell assumed her readers would already be familiar with him, but I thought it might have been interesting to have more on him.

Things got more interesting, for me, when Connell gets to dependency theorists, because these guys are more up my alley than religious activists. I also think that dependency theory is not just economic theory but also good social theory of the relationships of exploitation and domination between metropole and periphery:

“The core of Cardoso and Faletto’s dialectical sociology is the interplay between global structures and local political dynamics – the formation of the local state and the struggles to control and reshape it. (…)

Their strength, therefore, is not in a subtle analysis of the structure of Latin American society. It is rather in their subtle analyses of the historically changing relationships between systems of domination within Latin America and the structures of the international economy. In this regard, Dependency and Development has implications far beyond Latin America and is still, I think, an intellectually important text. It offers a carefully thought out method for the analysis of transnational social processes that is far more sophisticated than most of the metropolitan literature on ‘globalisation’ that appeared 25 years later.” (148)

Hear hear. And Connell’s summary of the insights in How to Read Donald Duck by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart is just plain fun to read in addition to making important points. These insights on the cultural reproduction of colonial attitudes and prejudice along with a pro-capitalist position is familiar for anyone who has also been raised with Tintin comics or watched the Tijuana Toads as a child, as I did… I mean, seriously…

It is so bad it is painful to watch.

Connell’s developments on the contemporary Latin American’s women’s movement is also important as she shows how gender was a major blind spot  for the Southern theorists she reviews in previous chapters.

Finally, Connell turns to India to examine the theory under the label of subaltern politics, as illustrated by the journal Subaltern Studies in which articles explore local forms of resistance to oppressive power by peasants or working class movements into coherent theory, as Connell demonstrates with her analysis of Partha Chatterjee’s ‘modes of power’:

“He defines three basic forms: communal where entitlements are allocated on the authority of a whole social collectivity; feudal, where entitlements derive basically from physical force (i.e. a situation of direct domination); and bourgeois, where property rights are guaranteed by generalised law, and indirect domination is achieved through the institutions of representative government. (…)

The most interesting part of Chatterjee’s argument concerns the interplay between these modes. Feudal society was not established as a homogeneous system; rather, it involved the intrusion of the feudal mode of power into the communal realm. The result was constant resistance to feudal lords, with unstable outcomes. (…) Expanding capitalism does [not] simply obliterate feudalism. Indeed, it can incorporate feudal structures of domination. What capitalism does tend towards is the extinction of the communal mode of power. (…)

It is the complex combinations of modes of power around postcolonial states that are characteristic, opening up ‘an entirely new range of possibilities for the ruling classes to exercise their domination.” (171-2)

And these variegated forms of resistance are the subject of Subaltern Studies. It is clear that such a framework as Chatterjee’s modes of power can be applied beyond India. Reading through these sections, I was, of course, reminded of the Zapatistas’s struggle in the Chiapas where one can clearly see the interplay of all three modes within the specific Mexican context.

It is also in this chapter, and especially in the section titled ‘Intimate Oppositions’ that I felt the most Fanon’s relative absence especially as he is presented as the counterpoint to Ashis Nandy’s insights on the colonized self:

“In his 1978 essay ‘Towards a Third World Utopia’, he criticises Fanon’s idea of cleansing violence as being insensitive to the cultural resistance of oppressed (Nandy 1987: 33). He considers this strategy of opposition to be contained within the logic of colonialism, reproducing its hypermasculinity, cult of violence, loss of emotional connection and dehumanisation of enemies.” (188)

It is indeed central to reintroduce questions of masculinity into discussions of colonial oppression and that seems to have been something that most theorists, Northern and Southern missed (apart, of course, from the feminists).

So, having laid out some more or less convincing examples of Southern Theory and thrown some pretty devastating criticisms at Northern Theory, what is left for Connell to do if not lay out clearly the foundations of a non-imperialist sociology. She does so in the last section of the book and I will pick that up more in details in part 2 of the review.

Posted in Book Reviews, Culture, Development, Global Governance, Global Sociology, Globalization, Indigenous Populations, Neo-Colonialism, Patriarchy, Social Disadvantages, Social Exclusion, Social Inequalities, Social Institutions, Social Justice, Social Privilege, Social Research, Social Theory, Sociology, Structural Violence, Symbolic Violence | 1 Comment »



One Response to “Book Review – Southern Theory – Part 1”

  1.   Tiago Ferreira Says:

    “This may have sounded interesting to Connell, but religion is not basis for good sociology.”

    Why not? All westerner thought has influence from christianity. Why non-westerner can not use their philosophical backgrounds (including religion) to think differently?

    Reply

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