A reflection on Decolonizing Sociology

The past few months in Britain have seen a growing ridiculing of calls to decolonize the curriculum. However, these criticisms have failed to understand what decolonizing the curriculum is really about, writes Ali Meghji.

From the prime minister claiming that Britain needed to move on from the ‘cringing embarrassment’ it has towards its previous empire, and needing to stop ‘this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness’, through to the Culture Minister Oliver Dowden’s summit with British heritage bodies in a bid to ‘defend our history’ against activists who ‘do Britain down’, and the Universities Minister Michelle Donelan’s claims that decolonizing the curriculum involves ‘censoring’ and ‘taking bits out’ of our history, there is a general consensus that decolonizing the curriculum involves a misrepresentation of British history which paints a false picture of the past. This understanding of decolonizing curricula could not be further off the mark; decolonizing is a fundamentally an additive process which makes our knowledge of the world more complete and accurate. This is as true for sociology as it is for all disciplines.

The foundation stone of decolonizing the curriculum is a desire to emphasise how colonialism and enslavement were central processes in creating the modern world. Decolonizing sociology, therefore, precisely follows this logic of how the world of empires fundamentally shaped the logic and practices of the discipline. Sociology was institutionalized as a discipline – in the late 19th century – at a time where around 95% of the world was under colonial occupation (or was an empire itself). Sociologists in the metropoles thus came to reproduce key components of colonial mythologies: from supporting the idea that colonialism itself was a democratic process bringing development to the world (as offered by Karl Marx, Robert Park, and Franklin Giddings for instance), through to reproducing ideas that colonized people were civilizationally backwards compared to those in the metropoles (as we see, for instance, in Durkheim, W.I. Thomas’ and Weber’s sociologies), and reproducing scientific theories of the supremacy of the white race (as you see, for instance, in Herbert Spencer, Francis Galton, and the neo-Darwinite sociologists’ works). At a foundational level, therefore, decolonizing sociology is simply about understanding the very history of the discipline itself.

Of course, decolonizing sociology goes further than this; it also invites us to also think about how the colonial logic it internalized in its original development is still reproduced in the present. Bringing light to this continuity allows us to appreciate both erased histories and accounts in sociology’s scope, while also opening up new knowledge of the creation of the ‘modern’ world. Take, for instance, some of the classic sociological accounts of Western modernization and capitalist development. Canonical figures – such as Marx and Weber – both offered us ideas of industrialization which were largely internalist: they explained Western industrialization through characteristics they saw as being internal to the West (for instance, the ‘Protestant Ethic’ or the class-system’s specialization of labour), and explained why it didn’t occur elsewhere due to conditions internal to those regions (e.g. Marx talking about a stagnant ‘Asiatic mode of production’, or Weber talking about the religions of Islam, Hinduism, and Confucianism). These accounts are guilty of both a bifurcation – which separates the ‘West and the rest’ without thinking about their necessary linkages – and an Orientalism which fixes the ‘rest’ as being civilizationally pre-modern and backwards in comparison to the West. Through such accounts you lose sight of the fact that, for instance, India did not economically ‘develop’ at the same rate as Britain not because of Hinduism, but because Britain extracted over nine-billions worth of capital from this region during their colonial rule. But these practices of bifurcation and Orientalism are not simply relics of 19th century sociology. It is the same logic that allows for scholars like Anthony Giddens to talk about globalization but simply from the standpoint of the West, or that allows Michael Mann to talk about a history of power in the ‘modern world’ that does not account for colonial relations.

At the heart of decolonizing sociology, therefore, is both a critique of sociology but also an attempt to reconfigure it towards new possibilities of knowledge production. A sociology that avoids bifurcation may, for instance, question how the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and anticolonial insurgency connected to the making of the modern world; it may question the links that exist(ed) between colonialism and European fascism; it can tease out the relations between capitalism, environmental crises, and Western humanisms; it can unearth the binding connections between police brutality in the United States with settler colonialism in New Zealand. Indeed, in this act of reconstituting knowledge practices, a ‘decolonized’ perspective can even foster different, more connected and analytical visions of the traditional sociological canon. We can think about authors such as Marx not through just their Eurocentrism but through their epistemic links to anticolonial thought and practice; we can think about how many figures criticised as being ‘Eurocentric’ developed their thought in the context of anti-colonial/imperial struggles (such as Bourdieu and Foucault); we can think about the links and flows of knowledge between different epistemic traditions (such as Bourdieu and Fanon’s engagements with one another, or Shari’ati and Foucault’s, and indeed Fanon and Shari’ati’s).

What you get from decolonizing the curriculum, and sociology, is actually an opposite picture to how reactionaries tend to frame this same process. Decolonizing the curriculum is a necessary endeavour that our educational institutions need to undertake. It does not involve an erasure of history, or the burning of any books. It is instead fundamentally an additive process, layered in the call for epistemic justice

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