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sociology and postcolonialism

There’s an increasing amount of great sociological work about places and people that are not European or North American.  That’s important not just because they provide empirical sites and theoretical resources that European and North American scholars have previously ignored* but because looking at the world from the south helps deprovincialize North American sociology, and given the power of the ASA, AJS, ASR et al, global sociology as well.

Here, for example, is a really wonderful interview with three very important figures in discussions of postcolonialism, feminism, and social science. It’s an interview by the student editors of Political Power and Social Theory (which Julian Go edits) and part of a special issue edited by those same figures, Evren Savci, Ann Orloff, and Raka Ray.  (Full disclosure: I was part of another PPST volume on postcolonialism). Evren Savci

I’m pasting a chunk of the interview below, though I’d encourage you to read the whole thing:

SE [Student Editors]: This volume complicates a simple understanding of feminism. How would you define something as feminist, especially if it is “a set of political projects” rather than a “unified movement”? (a) What do you think/how do you feel about the term “feminism”? Must we replace or reshape it?

ES [Evren Savci]: During one of our meetings, I remember mentioning that I would much more willingly give up “woman” as a category before I give up feminism, and I believe that this is also at the heart of our volume. Inspired by many feminist scholars, the authors in this issue are putting pressure on the effectiveness of “woman,” and still are committed to feminist theory and politics to think about social justice. Feminist thought and movements themselves are always changing, yet generation after generation, many people find feminism’s political vision inspiring and appealing. They challenge the parts they find unfit, modify certain things, add others, but they do not feel that they need to discard feminism altogether. One of the outcomes of this interrogation is that there is no “we” who is in charge, and who could or should replace or reshape feminism.

Raka Ray (RR): There was a time when the term feminism was so synonymous with its dominant liberal expression that I had to distance myself from it. The feminism I embrace today is capacious. It is the opposite of Mackinnon’s Feminism Unmodified. It understands the fundamental inequalities inherent in the gendered ordering of the world, but understands also that while the gendered ordering of the social world is foundational, it does not stand alone.  It is co-constructed at the very least with race, class, and nation.  This feminism therefore understands why all women do not wish to vote for Hillary Clinton! It is a democratic stance towards the world that must include but does not end with gender.

AO [Ann Orloff]: Speaking as a social scientist as well as political actor, I am in favor of “remaking,” historicizing and contextualizing our foundational terms, including “feminism.” The feminisms emerging in different times and places may have a certain commonality in challenging gendered hierarchies, but the specific elements of the hierarchies to be targeted, and the particular political strategies and tactics to be deployed are sure to vary. I would appeal to a notion of multiplicity – varieties of feminisms, rather than a single feminism, however modified (or not).  Feminist analysts should understand that different women will respond differently to particular political hailings (e.g., the Clinton campaign, or MacKinnon’s anti-sex-trafficking projects). Different groups of people embrace different visions of how to challenge very diverse gendered hierarchies.  The unity of such projects has to be seen as a contingent political achievement, and we should be prepared for debate and dissent, and the possibility that different groups of feminists will not see eye to eye.  Demands for perfect unity and perfect inclusiveness are, I think, harmful. Unity and inclusion cannot be guaranteed prior to politics; a democratic feminist politics consists in (imperfect) claims being made and challenged, and remade. My own feminism is linked with my commitments to social-democratic and anti-imperialist politics, but I can see that other varieties of feminism are also thriving.  Each of us as feminist political actors does our best to convince others of the rightness of our calls, but we need to be prepared to debate! I’d like to note also that, in studies of change, multiplicity (or multiple schema, such as might be present in different feminisms) is associated with innovation!  

There are a lot of important networkers in this deprovincializing project (not least the three editors described above, or the student editors who interviewed them).  Among those people who push sociology to be more global, Julian Go has been an important voice for some time, not least as editor of PPST.  Here he is on a “southern solution” in an essay excerpted from his book,  Postcolonial Thought and Social Theory (Oxford University Press, 2016):

To propose a Southern standpoint sociology is not to reinsert cultural essentialism. Feminist standpoint theory was correct to point out that the “woman” standpoint does not summon an essential identity but a gendered social position: a social location based upon experiences rather than biology or culture. “Groups who share common placement in hierarchical power relations,” Hill Collins (1997: 377) avers, “also share common experiences in such power relations.” A Southern standpoint is thus not an essence but a relational social position that lies at the lower runs of a global social hierarchy. To assume that the Southern solution requires essentialism is to overlook its fundamental sociology – and (mis)read it for a traditional anthropology.

If the charge of essentialism can be dispatched, so can the charges of epistemic relativism. A sociology based upon a southern standpoint does not impede scientific truth, it facilitates it because all truths are perspectival. Enter perspectival realism. This is the notion that there is indeed a “world” out there that is knowable, but (a) knowledge is always socially-situated, and hence perspectival, and (b) no single perspective (or theory, concept, or discipline) can represent everything we might want to know about the world. “Objective” truth can indeed be had. But those truths must always be recognized as partial– precisely because all knowledge is perspectival (Go 2016).

At UCLA, we’re getting an increasing amount of students interested in studying majority Muslim countries and looking at parts of the world sociology has traditionally ignored or left to the anthropologists. From what I understand, that’s the case across the discipline, which is a great sign.

On a much more pedestrian note, I’d say one of the biggest hindrances we still face is that there’s no value-added for language study and cultural immersion, and, in fact you get just as much reward for studying the United States or Europe, in a language you already know.  Why learn Arabic or Thai or what have you when you could get better at stats, or do a few more years of ethnography down the street? The opportunity costs are too great. That means that global sociology is much harder for people who don’t enter graduate school with the language and cultural tools already ready to go.

 

*an earlier version of this said “previously unexplored” and while I meant this in reference to North American and European scholars actually learning about parts of the world that aren’t them, it did sort of sound like columbusing.

Written by jeffguhin

May 30, 2016 at 2:58 pm

3 Responses

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  1. An earlier version of this post misspelled Evren Savci’s name. I apologize for the error, which is symbolic of so much that’s wrong with North American sociology!

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    jeffguhin

    May 30, 2016 at 3:54 pm

  2. This is a very light treatment of what a synergy between sociology and postcolonialism would bring to both fields of study. I’m sympathetic to the project and even I came away with the sense that this is just another PoMo or post-structuralist project in complicating Western social theory.

    The big payoff here isn’t more word games arguing over local vs. global epistemic/ontologic assumptions. Rather, sociology is an extraordinarily methodologically diverse discipline, whereas postcolonialism is a body of historical research and social theory that is extraordinarily relevant to practical questions of inequality/stratification/culture. That neither has turned to the other reflects both the narrow geographic and cultural scope of sociology as well as the deep mistrust of quantitative methods among postcolonialists. Both issues are an artifact of colonialism. Until both groups embrace the fact that each provides useful analytic/theoretical tools we will not see interdisciplinary discourse rise beyond the recognition that essentialism is a deep part of (social) science.

    I long for a cross-national study with PI’s in each country developing their own unique measures/methods to explore a topic of collective interest. This research vacuum has been filled by the cringeworthy field of development studies. It would be nice if sociology could have global relevance, and postcolonialism could have analytic relevance, but it will probably take some big thinking by well-established scholars in each field to get the ball rolling. Conversely, does anyone know of such efforts?? Is this what Julian Go is basically working toward? God I hope so…

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    Postcolonialism is best colonialism

    May 30, 2016 at 10:37 pm

  3. A related point is that sociologists residing in North America are holding different passports, and are therefore subjected to different passport and visa regimes. Citizenship determines the borders you can cross, and also the pool of available grants. A grant like FLAS, for instance, is only available to US citizens (see a detailed account of the significance of passport/visa issues here: http://www.chapatimystery.com/archives/univercity/passport_tales_ii.html). Also, the assessment of “risk” is a significant factor in the distribution of resources and finding grants is becoming more and more difficult for conflict-ridden geographies. So I think we have to be careful about generalisations about “rewards” and “trade-offs”, because even though there is a small common aspect of the experience that is defined by “doing research outside of US and Europe”, the experiences are mostly coloured by where your destination is, and who you are.

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    pinarustel

    June 1, 2016 at 12:57 pm


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