Regarding Postcolonial Sociology

Marx, Weber and Durkheim are often accredited with being a kind of triadic foundation to classical sociological theory. All three of them dealt with issues pertaining to the historical development of capitalism and the rise of modernity. In this way, sociology was from its inception a discipline oriented toward theorizing modernity and diagnosing its ills. Postcolonial theorists have criticized sociology for being Eurocentric and narrowly focused, ignoring non-Western societies and downplaying colonialism and other transnational dynamics (Connell, 1997; Chakrabarty, 2009; Go, 2013b). Some recent authors have taken up Durkheim and Weber from a position of postcolonial criticism (Kurasawa, 2013; Zimmerman, 2013; Boatca, 2013). Functionalist modernization theory, descending from Durkheim’s (2014) earlier social evolutionary thought, is specifically teleological and ascribing of normality to a general Western model. Although perhaps providing a more varied analysis than Durkheim, Weber nevertheless centrally problematized a teleological process of rationalization in the development of Western capitalism, while identifying early German theologians as its progenitors (Weber, 1998). Durkheim and Weber valorized the comparative method in sociology, which requires analytical separation of societies, and entails blindness to dynamics such as colonialism that transcend the typical demarcation of societal boundaries (Magubane, 2005).

Marx has been a much more mutually engaged intellectual rival with the postcolonial challenge than have Durkheim and Weber, Marxist and postcolonial theory having a contentious if mutually influential relationship over the past quarter century (Loomba, 2015). On one side, postcolonial theorists accuse Marxism of minimizing or outright ignoring the importance of non-economic, cultural dimensions and taking a totalizing, teleological stance which oversimplifies difference and perpetuates or echoes the legacy of Western global dominance and assumptions of rightful supremacy and cultural superiority (Connell, 1997; Chakrabarty, 2007). Said accused Marx of ‘Orientalism,’ of homogenizing non-Western societies and, despite showing some emotional resonance regarding the plight of those dominated and transformed by Western expansion, ultimately theorized this development as inevitable and for the best (Said, 1978).

On the other side, Marxists accuse postcolonial theory of minimizing economic power imbalances, removing the theoretical tools which allow for a thorough critique of exploitative global relationships – a critique that might help empower the oppressed – and replacing these tools with narrow fixations on discourses and identities (Ahmad, 1992; Dirlik, 1998; San Juan, 1999). While some Marxists polemically deny the validity of postcolonialism, instead insisting the Marxism as classically construed has the appropriate tools for analyzing global inequalities and non-Western societies (Ahmad, 1992; San Juan, 1999; Chibber, 2014), others take the postcolonial challenge seriously yet argue optimistically for a revisiting of Marx’s ideas in light of this challenge (Lazarus, 1999). Recent readings of Marx and Engels’ (1975) complete collected works have added new material on pre-capitalist and non-Western societies for consideration, and Anderson (2010) presents a compelling case that Marx is not Eurocentric or teleological in his later writings. In recent years, scholars have mined the complete collected works of Marx and Engels in order to reemphasize areas of Marx’s corpus largely ignored in the past that might help re-punctuate Marx with less teleology and more focus on non-Western societies (Anderson, 2010; Pradella, 2014).

Despite these varying opinions and often heated debates, strides have been made that bridge the divide between postcolonialism and Marxism. Some scholars treat the two as compatible, and uphold that reconciling materialist and discursive analysis – the latter underlying much postcolonial work – is a possible and fruitful step forward (Gibson-Graham, Resnick and Wolff, 2001; Magubane, 2004; Kraidy, 2005). Volosinov (1973) provided a pivotal theoretical link between materialism and semiotics several decades ago in his Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Bhaskar’s (1979, 1986) critical realism might be drawn upon to reconcile and combine material and discursive threads (Chouliaraki and Fairclough, 1999). Within sociology, Bourdieu (1977, 1984) and Habermas (1973, 1991) have famously combined theories of discourse and economic inequality. Scholars in the recently articulated traditional of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) industriously integrate discursive and materialist approaches into a variety of new theoretical frames with practical research applications (Chouliaraki and Fairclough, 1999; Wodak and Meyer, 2009).

In recent years some sociologists have started building a “postcolonial sociology” that can effectively respond to the charges of Eurocentrism and myopathy levelled at the discipline and allow sociologists to productively engage in research that incorporates the strength and flexibility of postcolonial work (Go, 2013a; Steinmetz 2013). There are a number of ways scholars looking to engage this task might choose to make progress. In outline, sociologists need to look for the precise points in the theoretical corpus where the Eurocentric perspective falls short, and at those sites, reconfigure assumptions to integrate a wider, more explanatory view. Of most immediate appearance in these terms, sociologists can a) revisit and rework sociological theories with a critical eye toward Eurocentric tendencies, b) devote more study to non-Western societies, and c) explore topics and contexts where the limits of the old simplistic teleological modernity narratives are particularly glaring, and move beyond these limits using more relevant theoretical tools.

Option (a) is indispensable, but by itself it is not enough to constitute a productive new branch of sociology. Charges of Eurocentrism will always be valid to raise, and indeed they should be raised. Yet Western academics striving to get beyond Eurocentrism – and Western academics make up much of the discipline – may be inevitably caught in something of a Heideggerian hermeneutic circle, where every study of non-Western societies and every polemic against Eurocentrism are predicated on intellectual tools whose use supports and therefor perpetuates Eurocentrism. Even Connell’s arguments for ‘Southern theory’ have been called out as having Eurocentric bases (McLellan, 2013; Connell, 2007). Indeed, postcolonial criticisms of sociology rest upon sociological principles, hence if sociology is dismantled due to postcolonial challenges, then these very postcolonial challenges fall apart with it (Go, 2013c). Metaphorically speaking, if Hegel and Kafka had a child it might look this way too. Criticism is an irreplaceable part of growth. We need to understand where, how and why we fall short. With this knowledge, we learn to move ahead in ways that overcome these prior problems as well as we can. And yet a circle of scholars simply calling out one another on their presuppositions, ad infinitum, is a dizzying and nauseating prospect. Sadly (or comically), there may be no complete way out of this Chinese finger trap. The question of whether we are tainted is easy to answer: we are tainted. Where we go from here is another question.

Regarding option (b), the goal of expanding to incorporate difference is a step in the right direction; but as Go (2013c) points out, aiming to focus specifically on “non-Western” societies is predicated on the distinction between those societies and “Western” ones. This presupposition perpetuates the same sort of binary thinking that Said (1978) pointed out, and correspondingly supports Eurocentrism and fails to meet the postcolonial challenge. This means that a postcolonial sociology, while freed up more to study societies that have been neglected in sociology due to being thought of as “non-Western,” should not specifically seek out nor be confined to studying societies that could fit the “non-Western” profile. Eisenstadt (2000) moved beyond the Western/non-Western divide somewhat when he famously introduced the notion of “multiple modernities.” Yet the theory of “multiple modernities” does not go far enough to get away from Eurocentrism. The theory is plagued by something akin to the “don’t think of a pink elephant” paradox. In its ostensible recognition of difference, the multiple modernities idea frames difference in relation to an initial defining yardstick of the classically conceived West (Bhambra, 2007).

This leaves option (c). Steps have been taken by historical sociologists to intervene through developing accounts that situate Western development within trends from elsewhere that set the course for it (Hobson, 2004), or that otherwise knock the West from its pedestal of supposed exceptionalism and self-creation (Pomeranz, 2000). Yet postcolonial theorists go further, claiming that not just the historical narratives, but also the intellectual tools with which Western scholars construct the historical narrative, have been replete with Eurocentrism (Chakrabarty, 2009; Seth, 2009). Answering this further theoretical issue requires a radically different – but not irreconcilable – methodology. It requires moving beyond reified categorical notions sociology is often predicated on. As Go has indicated, it requires integrating relational ontology (2013c). Sociology needs to recognize “hybridity” (Bhabha, 2004) not just as a special case of blending between disparate primary cultural entities, but as a challenge to the notion that said entities are in fact primary or disparate (Benhabib, 2002; Said, 1993). Different societies and their cultures need to be understood in their connections, that they are mutually related and participate in flows of all types. Every nation imports and exports not only money and commodities but also cultural influence, in ways that dynamically interact with their various senders and receivers. Or more appropriately put, “nations” are not in fact separate substances, but collections of relations that are articulated as “nations.” Through this articulation they (“nations”) take on a certain force; and yet these articulations do not exhaust the totality of relations relevant to them (Anderson, 1983; Laclau and Mouffe 1985). Other relations can be identified which are not limited to the boundaries of nations, or other legal or geographical divisions. Colonialism and imperialism need to be understood not as peripheral to the development of the modern world, but as prominent elements throughout this history (Seidman, 2013). More developed societies have integrally achieved their “modern” status through exploitative and despotic linkages to less developed societies.


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Jeremiah Morelock

Jeremiah Morelock

Jeremiah Morelock is a Doctoral Candidate and Teaching Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Boston College. He is also the Director of the Critical Theory Research Network. His research interests include critical theory, infectious disease, and discourse analysis; as well as epistemology, bureaucracy, age norms, and film and media studies. His recent work has appeared in Social Theory & Health.
Jeremiah Morelock

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