June 21, 2014 - admin

Africana Sociology and the Postcolonial Challenge to “Global” Sociology


Julian Go in his work on Postcolonial Sociology has talked about the Eurocentric bias of sociology as the “imperial unconscious.” Most critical scholars who work on the subject of eurocentricism, androcentricism, and classism within sociology talk about the field often as a space of ideas. Their prescriptions for rectifying the situation is often centered on challenging privileged perspectives and putting forward marginalized ones as alternatives. This manifests itself ideas of cosmopolitanism and Global Sociology. At their core, these conceptions paint a picture of change that leads us to a sociology that is a collection of perspectives and approaches that scholars can chose from freely. In opposition to this view, Gurminder Bhambra (2010) argued Global Sociology and cosmopolitanism is not the solution to the problem of sociology’s “imperial unconscious”. In order to understand why these solution are inadequate, we must understand that the core problem of sociology is not theory and perspectives but power inequalities within academia.

It is a known fact that sociology is primarily concerned with understanding the processes and institutions that uphold and support our modern society aka modernity. What is modernity however? From the Western perspective modernity is whatever Western Europe and America is. All other societies are either “premodern” (the traditional realm of classical anthropology) or “developing” (the realm of political science, “developmental studies”, and area studies). This racist and imperialist view of modernity and what it means to be a modern society is embedded in how sociologists do their work worldwide. Its insertion into the unconscious of sociology was the decision of white men who used their economic, political, and social power to publish work, organize departments, and fund research that reified this idea. In other words the euro/amerocentricism problem in sociology is about institutional power and ideology.

Today sociology is an institution that has an ideology concerning who gets attention, funding, and support that goes beyond epistemological struggled. Even for scholars who do “traditional” sociological work, if they are not from the right universities, in the right country, and cite the right people their work will be ignored regardless of their scholar affinity to eurocentric methods and logics. Like in the rest of western society sociology privileges the voices of whites, men, cisgender, and able scholars regardless of the topic in question and more often than not their perspectives reflect the every present imperial unconscious. They are department chairs, editors of top journals, organizers of conferences, and heads of research grant foundations. In other words these people are the gatekeepers that decide who ad what is considered legitimate in sociology. In order to begin addressing eurocentricism we must acknowledge and challenge the sociopolitical power of privileged voices and actors within the academy.

When we look at our object of interest not as simply a collection of privileged ideas and perspectives but instead as an hierarchical institution that privileges euro and amerocentric ideas the task of decolonizing sociology becomes twofold:

  1. Developing new or utilizing already existing epistemologies and methodologies that can challenge eurocentric standards, approaches, assumptions, and methodologies currently in use in sociology.
  2. Developing the socioeconomic and institutional power to protect these nascent spaces of resistance and decolonization.

On one hand we have to upend the ideas that drive oppressive knowledge production while also challenging the institutions that allow those ideas to exist and be propagated within the discipline.

Speaking from my perspective as a scholar of African descent (African American in particular) decolonizing sociology has large implications for a continent and people who has largely been almost completely dependent on European perspectives and approaches to understand our own societies whether on the continent or in the diaspora. Because of imperialism we like most of the Global South and many parts of the North (Eastern Europe, Ireland, Southern Europe) were not allowed to develop our sciences much beyond what we achieved before colonization. The result of this is us using tools and assumptions developed in another society to try and understand our own which has a very different history. For Africans and other colonized people, attention ought to be given to whether we can conceptualize sociology from our own perspectives. By doing this we can both upend the intellectual and institutional power of western sociology and assert our agency as producers of theory, epistemology, and knowledge and not just objects to be studied by Americans and Europeans.

What would an Africana Sociology look like however? Answering this question for a continent as diverse as Africa is hard. Much of what I can offer is simply educated speculation, the bulk of the development of an Africana perspective will happen through collective work and debate among practitioners of Africana Sociology. A good place to start is thinking about the underlying assumptions we have about what society is and how it works. Mainstream sociology takes a number of (unscientific I might add) things as assumptions of society that serves as an undercurrent for ALL mainstream sociological work (although some of these concepts have been challenged in various ways). Some of these are:

  1. Modernity= America/Europe’s industrial/liberal/capitalist development trajectory or some derivative of the European style development of modernity
  2. The existence of an objective “Truth” in scientific research and emphasis on disinterested research that isn’t inherently attached to sociopolitical interests
  3. Materialism, the idea that all things of scientific relevance are largely material in nature

Each of these assumptions are born out of the culture and politics of European society not any scientific inquiry. All science in my opinion is basically a systematic way for a society and the people within it to understand themselves and the world around them. All sciences, even the physical sciences start or use some assumptions that aren’t scientific but socially constructed. Africana Sociology in the same way would utilize the assumptions about the world that are indigenous to Africans people in an effort to develop a science that can better make sense of African societies as well as provide fresh eyes for understanding the world outside of Africa. If I had to propose some key assumptions and perspectives of society that would likely be included in Africana Sociology it would be two major things, African conception of time and the dialectic nature of society.

In John Mbiti’s seminal work African Religions and Philosophy, he discusses major themes present in African systems of knowledge, both philosophical/social and religious. One of the first themes he tackles is time. In western society time is seen as something that moves forward and we as individuals also move forward with it. In contrast Africans tend (there are deviations of course) to think of time as moving backwards. The future that can’t be predicted with certainty is not considered real time and this the present and past take precedence in African social life. As time moves to the past, so do people. People are seen as windows into the time they were born into or grew up in. When people die they move onward into the infinite past where God and spirits lie. The importance here is that for African societies oral history and accounts of elders are important to understand past social orders and to understand the effects of the past on the present. An Africana Sociology approach would place large emphasis on oral history as a way to social dynamics of the past and also how age distribution of ideas and perspective affect how society functions currently.

Related to African conceptions of time is the idea of society being fundamentally dialectic in nature. Many civilizations in African developed an dialectic conception of the universe and society. In Egypt for instance all of creation is linked and understandings of their social order were not divorced from understandings of the natural order. Similarly many African civilizations acknowledge both the material and immaterial reality as crucial to understand their social world. As an example of this duality personhood doesn’t end at death for many African communities. When one dies, their spirit, ideas, and influence are still treated as being present in the world as if they were still alive. Many communities have statuses, ceremonies, and procedures that start from the assumption that as long as an ancestor can be remembered by name they are still alive even if their body is gone. The implication here is that for an Africana sociological approach is that any study of a community must regard the remembered deceased and their status, ideas, identity, and influence just as we do the living within that community. Without doing that we can completely misunderstand many social processes and the transmission of power and ideas through a community.

An Africana Sociology along with other indigenous/nascent sociologies has the ability to develop an unique perspective that can contribute much to the decolonization struggle in sociology. My suggestion however is that these spaces of indigenous sociology production need to concentrate on developing themselves as rigorous and expansive systems of knowledge before engaging fully with the global community lest they fall into a position of being marginalized perspectives within a “Global Sociology.” The work of deconstruction the problematic structures and perspectives of mainstream sociology ought to be left to the more meta-analyses of postcolonial sociology and its practitioners. The reason for this is that new intellectual formations need not to be obligated to develop new ways of thinking anchored as critiques of the mainstream. Doing so could limit the scope that these space can cover and bring them into direct conflict with the mainstream, inviting repression and cooptation.

In conclusion, the prospects for a truly Global Sociology can not be hinged in a cosmopolitan ideology that allows western sociology to legitimize itself using southern/colonized epistemological contributions while also continuing to hold institution power over who voices can be heard. It instead must be build from the base of postcolonial sociology and other decolonized perspectives which can then link through mutual interest in understand global society sociologies that are independent of the colonial influence. The intellectual and political work needed to achieve this is quite heavy but is necessary for the continued relevance of sociology now and into the future. My recommendation for both decolonization scholars and indigenous scholars is to organize institutional support independent of the mainstream for their work. Only by organizing scholars, journals, conferences, and policy tailored to these perspectives can we hope to develop the academic and organizational rigor to challenge eurocentricism in our departments, graduate programs, within journals, and at conferences.

Please feel free to give me any constructive feedback that you may have on this topic. I am especially interested in any work from colonized/”southern” peoples or scholars who are developing new sociologies and approaches to social research.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *