book spotlight: postcolonial thought and social theory by julian go
This is probably the book that Julian Go will be remembered for. For the last forty or fifty years, there’s been a stream of theoretical writings in the humanities that has been ignored by most sociologists and Postocolonial Thought and Social Theory is the book to bring it into sociology. It’s a joy to read and raises important issues. If Go succeeds in persuading sociologists that this is important, it would have a big impact on historical sociology, the sociology of race, urban studies, globalization, and related areas.
So I will briefly summarize the contents and then tell you about the strong and weak points in the book. First, in the humanities, there has been an extended discussion about the role that imperial politics and culture has on the literature, historical writing, and the arts. It might be summarized in the following way. The colonization of the world by European powers from 1500 to the mid-20th left an ubiquitous mark on everything. “Postcolonial” theory is a collection of ideas and claims about how one should incorporate an appreciation of imperial and colonial culture and politics into the study of arts and letters. For example, if a novel discusses brown and black people, you should think about the sense of “otherness” they feel since they are the subordinate class in a colonial society. Another example – the way we interpret “indigenous” cultures is wrapped up in our desire to either conform to narratives that support imperial power or the narratives that nationalists offer.
What does colonial theory offer positivist social science? Roughly speaking, Go suggests that social science should refine and amend its empirical focus. For example, there is a “metropolitan bias.” We use the imperial center as our model of global society. There is also an elaboration of standpoint theory, which suggests that there is great value to be had in exploration the social world of non-elites in the empire.There is a lot more in the book and I suggest you read it if you have an interest in the issues I raised.
Here, I’ll praise the book and critique it. One extremely strong feature of the book is that it is very well written. This is important to say because so much postcolonial theory is written like garbage. If Go’s only contribution to social theory were to produce a lucid account of Spivak, Bhabha, and others, it would be well worth reading. I use a social theory anthology when I teach, which includes a selection from Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and, frankly, it’s horridly written. This book will help me explain it better.
Another praiseworthy feature of the book is that Go does not get tangled up in the critical aspects of postcolonial writings. I have often found that authors in the postcolonial tradition spend too much time complaining about the Enlightenment, positivism, and science. This is bad for two reasons. One is that critique is valuable, but limited. I need the “so what?” Second, quite simply, a lot of these authors seem to know very little about intellectual history or the philosophy of science. Like a like of “critical theory,” they don’t really engage in the literature and often attack straw man versions of their opponents.Thankfully, Go reviews their arguments and moves on.
This brings to me some criticisms. Perhaps the biggest one is that Go let’s a lot of authors off the hook when they deserve more scrutiny. He takes a lot of postcolonial claims for granted. One example: the critique of the Enlightenment. Yes, it is absolutely true that many Enlightenment figures profited from or were active participants in colonialism. But it is also true that the Enlightenment also birthed the classical liberal tradition. For example, Adam Smith was an opponent of slavery, John Stuart Mill fought in parliament for relief for Jamaicans who were subject to colonial abuse, and Herbert Spencer was an anti-colonialist. So, yes, the Enlightenment included many hypocrites, but it included a lot of genuine criticism of slavery, servitude, and colonialism. Similarly, a lot of postcolonialists have other empirical and historical claims that should not be taken at face value.
Bottom line: If you like social theory, buy this book. Recommended!