What is decolonisation?

Dr Ali Meghji University of Cambridge

Decolonising sociology involves a recognition of exploitative and excluded sociological knowledges, a reassessment of who and what counts as canonical within sociology, and a re-imagining for what constitutes sociological thought in the first place.

The first step for decolonising sociology is recognising that much sociological knowledge asserts the superiority of ‘the West’ over ‘the Rest’, consequently reproducing exploitative relations. The ‘first’ sociologists in the 19th century – including the British Herbert Spencer – were connected by their desire to show how a European race were morally and scientifically superior to other racial groups. More than a century later, and the way that sociology is taught still centres around straight, white, male theorists hailing from Europe and the United States. Decolonising sociology will thus de-centre ‘the West’ as the beacon of all knowledge. This act of decolonisation will require us to look to those theorists and systems of knowledge which have been excluded from the sociological canon.

The second step for decolonising sociology involves a reassessment of who and what is valued as canonical in sociological thought. Presently, the sociological canon is described in terms of the Holy Trinity of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim – three critics of European societies who either deliberately or naively overlooked the importance of colonialism, Empire, and slavery in forming European modernity. By looking to theorists and systems of knowledge which have been excluded from the sociological canon, we will be able to reassess the sociological canon such that it reflects the wide variety of social processes that have been, and need to be studied. As Earl Wright II has mentioned, the 20th century saw the existence of a ‘Jim Crow sociology’, whereby black thinkers across the globe were denied their place in sociological canons. While scholars such as Du Bois and Franklin Frazier were drivers behind the pragmatist movement, neither are given such recognition. Indeed, most people tend to be oblivious to the fact that Max Weber and Du Bois were in regular correspondence with one another. Skipping forward, while Sartre is seen as the pioneer of existentialism, Fanon is forgotten; Foucault is recognised as a leading thinker on power, but it is not known that his ideas came from conversations with Angela Davis and the Blank Panthers; indeed, it is thanks to the Black Panther Party in the US, and other black thinkers including C.L.R. James, Cedric Robinson, and Claudia Jones that Marxism actually kept alive for much of the 20th century. We need to dismantle this ‘Jim Crow sociology’ to give much more value to sociologists and sociological systems around the world, which are critical towards dominant structures of powers.

Lastly, decolonising sociology involves a re-imagining of what constitutes sociology in the first place. The idea of sociology as a purely ‘critical’ social-science simply isn’t feasible when we look at how it has historically (and presently) reproduced unequal social relations. We have to be open to the idea of multiple sociologies, and to the idea that sociology has developed differently across different geographical regions. This would allow us to realise there is a great variety of people across the world who we could qualify as sociologists, were it not for the rigid view that sociologists must be based in Europe or the United States.

Decolonisation also changes the way we think about the university. Universities are typically spaces where social relations and unequal flows of knowledge are reproduced. Through the practice of decolonisation, we aim to make the university a critical institution which seeks to contest, rather than reproduce, inequalities. If the university is to be a critical institution, we therefore need to rethink what a ‘scholar’ looks like. Presently, black women constitute less than 2% of professors in the United Kingdom; decolonisation addresses this by challenging the idea that the white, middle-class man is the embodiment of academia. Furthermore, the historic elitism imbued in universities means that the teacher is often seen as the gatekeeper of knowledge, with the student being necessarily inferior. Decolonisation debunks this constructed superiority of the teacher by highlighting the collaborative nature of knowledge production. Without decolonisation, the university is merely a cocktail of colonial nostalgia mixed with white supremacy; it is time for this cocktail to be shaken up.

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