Book Discussion… Continued

Let me reproduce another comment (with footnotes and links, for Pete’s sake!) by Dangger as a follow-up to our previous discussion on Connell’s ideas. It is well worth a post of its own. And my comments in blue again.

And for the record I love the idea of sociology as pariah science!

“About scholarships and grants, a lot of them are just trying to reproduce existing domination relations. But there is a more subtle way of resistance here, at least in my experience. For example, students from Mexico will be granted a scholarship to study under certain methodology and specific topics (counter-terrorism, conflict prevention, sustainable development)* they will go and study it and hand in the expected document, they way the hosting country specified it. Nevertheless, this will only account for 1-5 years of the student’s career, but will provide him/her with special credentials to move more freely, to build social relations, and to understand some ways of conducting one’s research. More specifically, it can give the student the “proper” form to deliver a message that can vary its content in many different ways. Some will choose to continue with the expected and mainstream/dominant topics, others will have a better chance to be heard, such as Connell.”

I think this has been especially the case for economics. After all, transnational institutions such as the IMF or the World Bank are full of economists from the periphery. The problem is that they often come from the elites of their countries and have adopted, hook, line and sinker, the economic orthodoxy that prevails. They have done so either because they truly believe it (elite position usually comes with that self-serving aspect of things) or as price of entry into the global club.

“Maybe a was a bit too excited and not deep enough in Feyerabend’s arguments to prevent a gross caricaturization. I do not even think that there is such a unified West as it is perceived by some and I also agree that science has never been a monopoly. Perhaps the idea was that, and allow me to cite him directly:

“It is true that Western science now reigns supreme all over the globe; however, the reason was not insight in its “inherent rationality”, but power play (the colonizing nations impose their ways of living) […] First world science is one among many; by claiming to be more it ceases to be an instrument of research and turns into a (political) pressure group.”

This has been attacked by many, including Zizek in this specific conference***, because (I think) he sees the need to reinstate certainty (and pride?) in some parts of the social sciences. A lot has been lost, I think he is more or less right, to vague cries on how the West has destroyed so much and that maybe we should turn back to and rescue the past. But I also think that this idea of the “other destroyed” serves two purposes, one of them could be a support for the end of history, in the way many don’t look for an alternative future any more, and in the way it prevents perceiving the other as still alive and creating and thinks of it in terms of lost modes of thought.

But this is only a segment of his preface to the Chinese edition. I do see many weak points but he makes me doubt if this is because I have been extensively indoctrinated. Of course the easiest way to dismiss him, for one’s sanity, would be to call him naïve.”

OMG… you read Chinese?? Anyway, I will confess to my ignorance of Zizek, so, I’ll take your words for it.

When it comes to science and rationality, I think sociology of science (see Callon and Latour, as well as ethnomethodologist Michael Lynch) has done a great job unveiling the practices of “doing science”, that is, all the social (and sometimes not-so rational ) practices involved in the production of science AS science, be it institutional practices or the practices related to upholding disciplinary standards, the norms of behavior in academia, all the way down to the minute interactions in labs. This does not mean that the products of science should be thrown to the trash but that “doing science” is a social activity through and through.

“I also see sociology as extremely deviant. Actually, I think this is why a lot of people don’t like it, specially dominant agents. The pariah science, as seen from the state’s perspective, that Bourdieu described. The one that is always under suspicion and only produces ancillary knowledge. ****”

When the dominant agents start liking us, then it’s time to pack it in and do something else!





Book Discussion – Southern Theory

Dangger left a pretty interesting and thorough comment regarding some aspects of Southern Theory. So, I thought I’d just bump it into a post and address some of the concerns he raises. Also, if you read Spanish, be sure to check out his review of the book as well.

Anyhoo, here is Dangger’s comment (my responses in blue):

“I found Connell’s book very interesting and I almost feel ashamed I had to rediscover some Latin American theorists through her. Implementing theory from the North into the South has been extensively criticized in the periphery. Mainly because most theories, no matter how universal they appear, don’t work properly outside their context. This is not something new, although still very common.”

And the theory that Connell seems to think is the worst, most abstract and most generally forced down the Global South is neo-liberalism and we all know how well THAT turned out. If I remember correctly, even dependency theory was a response to the intellectual colonialism (roughly, modernization theory) that was imposed through international institutions but also USAID.

Connell’s point though is that it should be possible to have theories that can be generalized but not if they are generated exclusively from the metropole with no input from theorists from the South. Connell insists on generalization as the hallmark of science. The problem is that Northern theories have been treated as if they were universal rather than context-specific.

“The problem with the exclusion of southern sociology, or science in general, has also to do with not considering the others as equals (which she addresses). Along with the problem of land, which I think she included in an excellent manner, there is the problem of infrastructure and resources (university budgets, working conditions) for the construction of theory or technology, in many fields, not only sociology.”

During my trips to Zambia, the educational system is something I have paid attention to. Of course, Zambia is a very poor country, so the University of Zambia has only 2 campuses, one in Lusaka (the capital) and the other in the Copper Belt. Apart from that, the country is peppered with private vocation institutes of engineering, agriculture and other fields that are deemed economically relevant, often privately-funded.

But isn’t that also a form of Northern hegemony: “we” (the Northerners) can afford that nice liberal education (where most theorizing comes from) whereas people in the Global South are offered only the stuff to go and find jobs. “They” (people from the Global South) have no need (charity or foundations donors have decided) for “useless” education. This severely limits the capacity for theory to emerge as the institutional infrastructure, as you not, is just not there, or not solid enough to sustain it. It is all the more amazing that it happens anyway.

And of course, when private funding is awarded, it often comes from the metropole and geared towards projects that Northern foundations deem of value. It is another form of dispossession.

“A lot of people from the South are producing theory and are being neglected in the North, OK. Yet I am from the South and I do think that there is not enough theory being produced. At least in Mexico. Many theorists, as Connell puts it, do not want to suffer the cultural and professional consequences of trying to produce their own theory and resort to description (in a kind of raw material for northern theory) or in the modification of Northern theory in the South (as I mentioned before).”

And this goes back to the fragility of institutional infrastructures of intellectual production. When I look back at my sociological education in France, one would think that there was only European (actually, mostly French and British) and American sociology and nothing else. I remember we had a few exchange students from French-speaking African countries and they were way more Durkheimian than we were. Actually, the implicit contract that these students had with their government was to, basically, bring back Northern knowledge and apply it to their own countries. It is assumed that that’s where the knowledge is. It is probably seen as more “costly” than trying to generate local knowledge.

“In a way, her call goes to both sides of the spectrum, one side should look beyond the West, the other side should produce more and both should do it not only within them but beyond them. Always aware of their contexts and limits.”

Indeed, in her presentation at the ASA, she insisted that her work should not be interpreted as “Northern theory for the Global North, and Southern theory for the Global South”. Northern theory does have contributions to make to explaining societies of the Global South just like Southern theory should have relevance for societies of the Global North. Ultimately, as she states in the book, she looks forward to unification where generalization is possible because multiple voices have been heard and no concerns have been left off the table because one side avoided it.

The trick is how do you make it happen… which is why I suggested that maybe, academia may not be the right space for this, and online communities may be better equipped and less burdened with institutional mechanisms that prevent such unification, or even simple dialog.

“Lastly, and almost as a side note, I am reading Feyerabend’s Against Method and he does make some very strong points for the limits of rationalism as the only way in which science can be conducted. I do not think that religion can be the foundation for a new or even a good sociology, but I do see that the excessive use of rationalism in science and the excessive western-centric tones in some sociology works are part of a systematic extermination of “deviant” modes of thought.”

See, that’s where I have a problem. Where do you draw the line between the “rationalism that works” and the one that does not? Where is the line that separates “ok” from “excessive”? I think it is a bit condescending to consider the scientific attitudes and methods as “Western”… science has never been a monopoly of the metropole.

Actually, I think sociology’s strength is the fact that it uses a variety of methods and not just stats (the ultimate objective tool!!) to account for the phenomena it studies. We already use all sorts of materials, which is what makes the discipline so interesting… and gets it labeled as less scientific than economics or psychology (unfairly, to be sure). In many ways, we already use “deviant modes of thoughts” (which, in itself, sounds totally cool!).

Book Review – Society Without God

Phil Zuckerman‘s Society Without God: What The Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment will not surprise any European reader. But I suspect we are not the audience for this book. This book is clearly geared towards an American audience. It is highly readable and would be appropriate for undergraduate students and provides a nice demonstration of debunking of the idea that societies need religion in order for morality to prevail against chaos (something that US students, knee-deep in American culture, are prone to be thinking).

And while being a short and easy read, the book does provide homeopathic doses of theories as well as a methodological appendix. In addition, Zuckerman peppers the text with personal narrative and impressions that lighten the read and add a human element. I found that distracting and useless but I can see why he did it. In other words, it is not a book for an academic for other academics. It is for a general audience.

As a caveat before I go any further into the review, I have to confess (pun intended) that sociology of religion is not my field of expertise and that I have close to zero interest in the subject (in that sense, I am close to many of Zuckerman’s subject). But, as a European living and working in the United States, I found the topic intriguing.

The core of the book revolves around the year (or so) that Zuckerman spent in Denmark where he was surprised by the general lack of religiosity (Denmark has a national church subsidized by the state and people can opt out of the taxes that go to subsidize the church if they so choose). National statistics supports this impression. Scandinavian countries are the least religious in the world. In general, Western European countries all more or less combine low religiosity with high quality of life in a world awash in religion and violence.

As a good American, Zuckerman wonders how it is possible to have low religiosity combined with very high quality of life and morality. This, to me, a faulty premise. Scandinavian countries are not unusual in Europe. They are at the top of the distribution on quality of life and at the bottom of the distribution on religiosity. It is the United States that is the outlier here, the oddity: rich country, unequal quality of life and high religiosity. So, the “how weird is that?” attitude that pervades the book regarding Scandinavian secularism is a bit ethnocentric. But that is the starting point of Zuckerman’s study: a series of interviews with a variety of Danes, from all walks of life regarding religion or lack thereof and related matter. The shaping of the questions also reflect an American attitude: if you are not religious or don’t believe in God, then what is the meaning of life? Or are you afraid of death?

The bottom line is that lack of religion is no hindrance to prosperity, democracy and general quality of life.  For Zuckerman, this also debunks the idea of religion as basic human need, maybe encoded in our genes, something that the sociologists of religion that Zuckerman mentions take for granted with their own version of argument by popularity: if most people are religious, then, that means that religion is part of human nature and fulfills some basic need (and then, they all use that as accepted starting point rather than social fact to be explained). Scandinavia stands as major counterexample to this.

Overall, based on Zuckerman’s interviews, it appears that that the Danes do not concern themselves much with religion and death and exhibit low levels of death anxiety. Zuckerman seems to find this suprising. I do not. I would argue that religion creates death anxiety by turning it into judgment time and potential nasty punishment. As Zuckerman’s interviews show, it is the Christians in Denmark who are afraid of dying, not the non-religious. Similarly, they do not concern themselves with abstract notions of the meaning of life. At the same time, international surveys show that Scandinavians rank among the highest on happiness and satisfaction, combined with strong social engagement. Strong social welfare, equality and security will do that for you. Why should anyone be surprised?

“The notion that religious belief is somehow childish, that earnest prayer is something that only children engage in, and that faith in God is just something that one dabbles with in childhood, but eventually grows out of  as one becomes a mature adult, would strike most Americans as offensive. But for millions of Scandinavians, that’s just the way it is.” (94)

And yet, such immaturity is omnipresent in American society, visible not just through childish religiosity but also through emotional displays that makes Americans recognizable everywhere in the world. Extreme religiosity maintains individuals in a state of permanent immaturity in many respects.

But what interests Zuckerman is what it means to be secular. After all, he argues that secularists are the most understudied of categories. Zuckerman’s research shows that being secular in Scandinavia involves three attitudes towards religious matters:

  • Reluctance / reticence
  • Benign indifference
  • Utter obliviousness

All three attitudes, with different degrees reflect simply a lack of interest in religion and talking about it. In the interviews, subjects are not much interested in religion as a topic. They are either uninterested, have not much to say, or are just plain bored by it.

So why are Scandinavian societies so secular? Zuckerman identifies several potential explanations:

  • Lazy monopolies: state religions do not have to struggle for, or advertise to, potential “customers” since there is no competition.
  • Secure societies: due to the high quality of life in Scandinavian societies, there is no need for religious comfort (or opium for the people)
  • Working women: women used to be the pillars of religious communities, dragging their husbands and children with them (not to mention free labor for the churches). Once invested with the paid workforce, women lose their religious focus and so do their families.
  • Lack of need for cultural defense: Scandinavian countries are secure and homogeneous.
  • Education: Scandinavian societies have a highly educated populace. High education tends to correlate with lower religiosity.
  • Social democracy: social democratic system reflect the values of the population, especially equality and undermine religious tenets and eliminate religion from public life.

(Consider all the opposites to these propositions and you have, according to Zuckerman, a depiction of religion in the United States… although that might explain high American religiosity but not the presence and growth of religious fundamentalism)

Even though they are mostly secular, Zuckerman’s subjects do not reject their Lutheran cultural heritage. But that is just it, Scandinavian societies are more oriented towards cultural religion where religious rituals are perceived as traditions inherited from the past, but devoid of supernatural content but they do see it as part of their history and identity.

Social Reproduction of The Elites

American meritocracy = myth:

Having the right name opens doors and gives access irrespective (and sometimes in spite of) merit and qualification. This is not exactly something new. It is classical social reproduction of class position and privileges. But, as I have mentioned before, the American society does not have a discourse of class except to reject the very notion in the name of a mythological meritocracy. Anyone who dares to bring up the issue is quickly accused of fomenting class warfare from the privileged (whoc have a clear interest in keeping the illusion of classlessness alive and kicking).

But as Chris Floyd demonstrates, lack of class analysis and awareness is something found on the liberal and progressive side of the spectrum as well, using an article from Walter Benn Michaels as support for his argument. Says WBM:

In other words, the switch from class analysis to identity politics as basis for progressive policy reveals something equally well-known: the New Left was never left at all. It was always the nice and cool side of neo-liberalism. Greater tolerance (and some legal rights) may give the illusion of greater social justice while discreetly (or not so discreetly) eating away at class conditions. It is a distraction from economic hegemony. Indeed, WBM uses the arrest of Henry Louis Gates as an example of how class analysis is absent in the accounts of the incident. Race is the almost exclusive focus of any narrative.

And in case one still does not think class matters, guess who is not really been hurt by the massive recession? The Transnational Capitalist Class and the representative of the Transnational State.

Actually, it has given them more vacation time.

Book Review – Southern Theory – Part 2

Part 1 here.

After reading through most of Southern Theory, I was afraid the final section would be a version of “let’s dump everything Northern and embrace everything Southern as infused with golden wisdom.” But, of course, Connell is much too smart a sociologist to endorse such a simplistic position. See the short and sweet and yet devastating take-down Vandana Shiva for a sample of that.

In truth, the last part of Southern Theory is a powerful piece of writing that made me go “wow!” several time for the sheer cleverness of the arguments put forth and the brilliance of the writing.

In the first part of this last section, Connell reintroduces space (or land, as she puts it) against both Coleman’s “blank dance floor” but also against theorization of globalization as spacelessness and deterritorialization. To bring back “the land” is also to bring back the history of dispossession and loss that so many Northern theories elided and avoided. It is, abstractly, a call to bring back the context out of which theories emerged but it is also very concretely a call to study the persistence of space-ness (as Connell puts it) whether through indigenous peoples’ struggles for their land (and the far- and deep-reaching implications for human rights, democracy and economic order), or through Saskia Sassen’s studies of the global city. In either cases, sociology and social theory need to get back down on the ground. Space and land still matter and embodies all sorts of social relations of domination and resistance that sociology and social sciences need to address.

“The general idea of dispossession – one of the most important and under-theorised concepts in social science – needs to sink roots in the mud of particular landscapes.

Taking the land seriously has implication for social science knowledge. (…)

This applies to theorists as well as to fact-grubbing empirical researchers. I want to suggest a new meaning for the term ‘grounded theory’: linking theory to the ground on which the theorist’s boots are planted. To think in this way is to reject the deeply entrenched habit of mind, mentioned at the start of this chapter, by which theory in the social sciences is admired exactly in the degree to which it escapes specific settings and speaks in abstract universals.” (206)

This does not mean that Connell advocates the rejection of generalizations in social theory. Quite the opposite.

“The power of social science generalisations is multiplied if they can be linked to the characteristics of the context within which they apply.

This suggest an argument against pure theory, in favour of what we might call dirty theory  – that is, theorising that is mixed up with specific situations. The goal of dirty theory is not to subsume, but to clarify; not to classify from the outside, but to illuminate a situation in its concreteness. And for that purpose – to change the metaphor – all is grist to the mill. Our interest as researchers is to maximise the wealth of materials that are drawn into the analysis and explanation. It is also our interest to multiply, rather than slim down, the theoretical ideas that we have to work with. That includes multiplying the local sources of our thinking.” (207)

This move is almost the exact opposite of the neoliberal takeover as the “theory of everything” and the one-size-fit-all that all society should embrace and that makes all other theorizing irrelevant. Neo-liberalism is the spaceless, deterritorialized theory par excellence; the theory that eliminates the very material nature of commodification processes and global economic integration, be it – I might add – in terms of grabbing more land in Africa for the metropole’s resources as neo-colonial dispossession. Contra that, more studies are needed to study the urban ecology of global cities that are more and more designed and built to keep the poor available as cheap labor but out of sight and segregated otherwise. Indeed, many studies have already shown how the transnational capitalist class actually is able to reconfigure space to its own needs and comfort, buffeted against the nasty side effects of neo-liberal policies and the workings of the transnational state, to use William Robinson’s construct.

As Connell puts it much better than I can,

“The land, therefore, is not irrelevant, even in the citadels of globalisation. We have to understand its social significance in a complex dialectic of place and power, of which the history of colonisation and the consequent land rights struggles of indigenous people are key parts. These struggles, the experiences that underlie them and the arguments advanced in them are now strategic matters of social justice globally. Taking them seriously, and learning from them, is necessary for regenerating social science on a world scale.” (209)

“Social science on a world scale” is then the final and culminating topic of Southern Theory. This last chapter contains several recommendations, almost guidelines, as to what a non-hegemonic social science should guard itself against. So, what should a social science on the world scale pay attention to?

  • It should recognize the pattern of exploitation and inequalities in power, wealth and cultural influence between the metropole and the periphery (this was the core of the critique of Northern theories).

  • It should recognize that the periphery is neither homogeneous nor fixed, but dynamic. A variety of social movements (women, indigenous peoples, peasants, etc.) have emerged to challenge exploitative arrangements.

  • It should not erase the experiences of the periphery. Instead, it should recognize peoples of the Global South as subjects with intentionality and agency and, sometimes, experiences that are unknown to the Global North and its theorists, such as colonialism.

  • It should recognize the centrality of the colonial experience and the enormous influence of past and persisting colonizing structures on peripheral societies and collective experiences.

  • Similarly, it should recognize other non-Northern experiences such as – in addition to colonial dispossession – military dictatorships and neo-liberal restructuring (through structural adjustment programs, for instance) and the multiple sites of “subaltern” resistance to these experiences. Its hob is to analyze all those, not erase them under the guise of universal theoretical claims.

  • It should also recognize and analyze the metropole-capacity or apparatus (that is, the social processes and institutions) that allow the metropole to function qua metropole. This capacity or apparatus is often hidden behind colonial structure and not recognizing it or shining a spotlight on it contributes to its power.

And Connell never forgets the “science” part in social science, that is, the attention to the type of knowledge social science produces.

  • This involves investigations.

  • This involves what Connell calls the “permanent revolution of corrigibility.” Science is a collective endeavor and a series of collective practices. However, what is needed is to bring in the voices of the periphery not as data or fields of applications but as potential correctives and theoretical clarifications.

  • This involves, again, a capacity for generalization, for patterns that bring the data together.

  • This involves a concern for truthfulness that cannot be attained if the periphery is absent or treated as data or object.

Finally, a social science on the world scale should serve to promote democracy. According to Connell, this can be accomplished through four main ways. Here, let me quote Connell herself, in order to do her justice,


“The first is through the growth of compassion (…) a solidarity with,, the despised and rejected. A multi-centred social science has a great capacity to circulate knowledge of social experiences other than those of the global elites, and thus enable mutual learning. ” (230-1)


“The second is social science’s function of critique. When researchers investigate topics that are sensitive for neoliberalism, they find themselves contesting a torrent of lies and distortions from governments and corporate-funded think-tanks. A major example is research on poverty (Saunders 2005). Given the restructuring of the world economy and the growth of the global-private, issues of social justice unavoidably have an international dimension.” (231)


“Finally, world social science is relevant to democracy because it is itself a field of democratic action. To contest a privileged minority’s control over a field of knowledge is a democratic cause, whether on a local or a world scale. The learning process based on recognition and discussion among many voices – the picture of social-scientific knowledge which the arguments of this book imply – is inherently a democratic process.” (231)

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this book, even I found a couple of examples unconvincing in the mobilization of Southern theories. If taken seriously, it should completely question the way we teach sociology, starting at the undergraduate level and how such teaching reproduces hegemonic practices. I am not yet sure though how the way the curriculum is shaped and delivered in the institutional context of the American university (especially) but also in Europe in a different way can be changed and opened. American undergraduate education is more and more utilitarian (designed to train people faster and faster for the job market) and the French system, for instance, well, good luck making that one budge from its hegemonic position.

However, there is a space where Connell’s recommendations can be implemented: the open virtual spaces of public sociology outside of academia: blogs, sociology online communities, and yes, even social media such as Twitter or Facebook. After all, there is more democratic potential there than within academia… Of course, this raises issues of digital divide and this is where the privileged (those of us who have access to these spaces) should work towards finding ways of reaching out to the periphery and open these spaces for them as well… who’s with me?

Book Review – Southern Theory – Part 1

In Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science, Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell sets herself the ambitious task of extirpating the imperialist roots of Western social science (sociology in particular) and bring to the fore the social science projects of the periphery through the exploration of a variety of sociologists from the Global South. In the context of globalization, such a project is long overdue.

The book is roughly divided into three parts. In the first part, Connell provides a critique of Northern theory, and in particular, the work of James Coleman, Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu for a common theoretical attitude in the metropole: taking the Global South either as source of data to be theorized about in the metropole, or as subjects of application of Northern theory assumed to be of universal validity. That is, theories devised in the metropolitan universities based on work in societies of the Global North are taken to have automatic valid application to the societies of the Global South. That move, in itself, makes sociology an imperialist discipline and that is this unexamined imperialist core that Connell sets out to extirpate. As she puts it,

“Sociology was formed within the culture of imperialism, and embodied an intellectual response to the colonised world. This fact is crucial in understanding the content and method of sociology, as well as the discipline’s wider cultural significance.” (9)

For instance, the evolutionary nature of early sociology provided a neat justification to colonialism and imperialism under the guise of scientific objectivity.

The hegemonic universalizing tendency of sociological theorizing is especially visible in James Coleman’s work:

“Coleman’s theoretical ambition is announced in his first sentence: ‘A central problem in social science is that of accounting for the functioning of some kind of social system.’ A social system is defined as a set of individuals linked by transactions in which they must engage to satisfy their own  interests because the other individuals have some control over the resources they need. The interplay between individual and system, the micro-macro link becomes a formative problem in Coleman’s theorising, and is generally a central problem in modern positivism.

Less readily noticed, because it is so common in sociological theorising, is Coleman’s assumption that this language of individual and system, interest, control and resource, micro and macro, is of universal relevance. The concepts can be applied in any time and place.” (29)

Not to mention that such a system is unable to account for colonial and imperial social relationships, or even slavery or any other type of power relations for that matter. And of course, this theorizing is ahistorical:

“Coleman’s actors move in an energetic dance, calculating, bargaining and exchanging on a featureless dance floor, It is not entirely accidental that his visual models of action systems resemble teaching diagrams for the foxtrot or the jazz waltz. The featurelessness of the dance floor follows from the ahistorical method. In each derivation, the same limited set of elements and possible relations is set in motion, The theoretical logic will not work, any more than one can dance a foxtrot, if the dance floor is lumpy with footprints from previous dances of with the bodies of previous dancers.” (31)

So, what of Giddens and structuration theory? After all, Giddens borrows from a variety of traditions (all the way to ethnomethodology and conversation analysis) to transcend the traditional dichotomies of sociology (e.g. micro – macro or structure – agency). The problem, for Connell, is that Giddens does not escape his own version of “stages of human societies” in which the Global North is more advanced than the Global South. Here again, colonialism and imperalism are evacuated.

“Giddens implies that the West is dominant not because it conquered the rest of the world, but because of its ‘temporal precedence’. the West industrialised and modernised first. Other social orders are passing away not because Europeans with guns came and shattered them, but because modernity is irresistible.” (38)

One can already discern the similarities with modernization theory and common approaches to globalization (including Giddens’s own).

And for Connell, Bourdieu can be credited for crafting a powerful toolkit for sociological research (the concepts are familiar: structure, field, habitus, symbolic violence, social reproduction, etc.) deemed to be universally applicable even though Bourdieu’s own analysis of Algeria are devoid of references to colonialism.

The bottom line is that Northern theory is guilty of four traits:

  • Claim of universality
  • Reading from the center
  • Gestures of exclusion (there are apparently no theorists in the Global South)
  • Grand erasure (the experiences of the people of the Global South is erased to make room for projections of Northern theorizing about them)

Connell finds similar problems with contemporary theorists of globalization. For many theorists, globalization is the next state beyond modern society dismantling its main tenets, such as the nation-state structures. In many cases, globalization is capitalism’s next stage and we are all in it, all in the same boat in a decaying environment for which global solutions have to be found. But here again, Northern theorizations (“world risk society”, “liquid modernity”, “individualization”, “global scapes” and so on) are taken to be universally valid. It is again a view from the North upon the rest of the world and non-metropolitan thinkers are absent.

“Perhaps the most remarkable example is on Beck’s What is Globalization?, which end with a short essay on ‘The Brazilianization of Europe’ (Beck 2000: 161-3). This does not discuss Brazil at all, but uses the name to evoke a horror scene of social fragmentation, violence and selfishness which the European readers surely do not want. The remarkable social educational reconstruction efforts undertaken by the Brazilians, in the aftermath of a violent military dictatorship and in the teeth of corporate power, does not enter Beck’s argument.” (65)

Actually, since we are talking about Brazil, see this, this and this for what is going on in Brazil… and yes, it is more Northern perspective. Still very interesting, though.

When the Global South is considered, it is through Development Studies or Area Studies or International Relations. Connell is more merciful with World-system analysis which is historical, was always global in its analysis of the capitalist world system, and never evaded analysis of imperialism. The missing pieces are gender and race in this context though. As I have quoted before,

“The underlying problem of the social-scientific approaches considered in this chapter [Ed: everything I read: Bourdieu, Beck, Bauman, Robinson…] is their geopolitical logic. They rely exclusively on the metropole for their intellectual tools and assumptions, and therefore treat the majority world as object. This closes off the possibility of social science working as a shared learning process, a dialogue, at the level of theory.

Inhabitants of the majority world are not just the objects of theory, the data mine for social science. They are also subjects – the producers of theory about the social world and their place in it. (…)

Every colonised [sic] culture produces interpretations of imperialism. Intellectuals in the majority world have been studying empire, colonisation and globalisation processes as long as intellectuals in the metropole have. This represents a huge resource for learning, which metropolitan social science currntly discards. Because of the metropole’s hegemonic position in the global organisation of social science (as Sonntag (1999) shows for sociology), this waste is difficult contest.” (68)

This concludes the first part of the book and it is extremely compelling and should make any sociologist think twice about the way we teach sociology and social theory. In the second big part of the book, after reviewing the sociological landscape in Australia, Connell dives into Southern theory per se. I have to say that even though it makes for an interesting read, this was the weakest part of the book, ironically and I will get to it in a moment, but first, this important issue, that Connell mentions regarding Africa but which is, I think, relevant for the rest of the Global South intellectuals as well:

“Intellectuals had mostly supported nation-building in the 1950s and the 1960s, but repressive regimes closed the spaces for debate and often demanded ideological conformity. African social scientists in particular were cut off from policy-making. When neoliberalism and Structural Adjustment Programs arrived in the 1980s and 1990s, the alienation was renewed. Governments turned to foreign advisers, while NGOs wanted only consultancies, not basic research programs, assuming that ‘poor research was good enough for the poor’.” (109)

This is almost the statement that was made to me by Professor Mutumba Bull, Director the Institute of Economic and Social Research of the University of Zambia and former Minister in the first independent governments of Zambia under Kenneth Kaunda. This is a statement of neo-colonialism and persistence of imperialism that also explains the precarious position of intellectuals and theorists in the Global South.

That being said, I especially had problems with the chapter on Islam and Western Dominance. While Connell presents interesting work by Al-e Ahmad and the important and powerful concept of Westoxication, I had problems with the idea of building social theory from Islam. As much as I understand using Islam as a tool of political action against Westoxication, Islam, per se, cannot be legitimately be seen as sound theoretical basis. Political Islam is a topic of analysis (see Olivier Roy on this) but not a theoretical position. After all, would we take seriously a sociologist basing his theory on Christianity (especially of the revival kind) or any other religion? I personally would not. Liberation Theology has demonstrated that Christianity can be used as a political basis for liberationist projects. That does not make a proper theoretical foundation. This may have sounded interesting to Connell, but religion is not basis for good sociology.

Ironically, as I was reading Southern Theory, I was also reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe of Nigeria. It is a very interesting novel whose plot takes place as an indigenous culture gets its first taste of colonial oppression and its socially dislocating effects. Certainly, the sociologist in me was fascinated by that aspect of things but, here again, a novel is not a social theory.

Similarly, and this is, I think, another difficulty with Connell’s book, any political project that seeks emancipation requires some analysis / diagnosis of society and power. Again, this is not automatically sociology. Interestingly, though, the one African theorist that comes to mind, Franz Fanon, is mentioned but not examined at all. I don’t know if this is because Connell assumed her readers would already be familiar with him, but I thought it might have been interesting to have more on him.

Things got more interesting, for me, when Connell gets to dependency theorists, because these guys are more up my alley than religious activists. I also think that dependency theory is not just economic theory but also good social theory of the relationships of exploitation and domination between metropole and periphery:

“The core of Cardoso and Faletto’s dialectical sociology is the interplay between global structures and local political dynamics – the formation of the local state and the struggles to control and reshape it. (…)

Their strength, therefore, is not in a subtle analysis of the structure of Latin American society. It is rather in their subtle analyses of the historically changing relationships between systems of domination within Latin America and the structures of the international economy. In this regard, Dependency and Development has implications far beyond Latin America and is still, I think, an intellectually important text. It offers a carefully thought out method for the analysis of transnational social processes that is far more sophisticated than most of the metropolitan literature on ‘globalisation’ that appeared 25 years later.” (148)

Hear hear. And Connell’s summary of the insights in How to Read Donald Duck by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart is just plain fun to read in addition to making important points. These insights on the cultural reproduction of colonial attitudes and prejudice along with a pro-capitalist position is familiar for anyone who has also been raised with Tintin comics or watched the Tijuana Toads as a child, as I did… I mean, seriously…

It is so bad it is painful to watch.

Connell’s developments on the contemporary Latin American’s women’s movement is also important as she shows how gender was a major blind spot  for the Southern theorists she reviews in previous chapters.

Finally, Connell turns to India to examine the theory under the label of subaltern politics, as illustrated by the journal Subaltern Studies in which articles explore local forms of resistance to oppressive power by peasants or working class movements into coherent theory, as Connell demonstrates with her analysis of Partha Chatterjee’s ‘modes of power’:

“He defines three basic forms: communal where entitlements are allocated on the authority of a whole social collectivity; feudal, where entitlements derive basically from physical force (i.e. a situation of direct domination); and bourgeois, where property rights are guaranteed by generalised law, and indirect domination is achieved through the institutions of representative government. (…)

The most interesting part of Chatterjee’s argument concerns the interplay between these modes. Feudal society was not established as a homogeneous system; rather, it involved the intrusion of the feudal mode of power into the communal realm. The result was constant resistance to feudal lords, with unstable outcomes. (…) Expanding capitalism does [not] simply obliterate feudalism. Indeed, it can incorporate feudal structures of domination. What capitalism does tend towards is the extinction of the communal mode of power. (…)

It is the complex combinations of modes of power around postcolonial states that are characteristic, opening up ‘an entirely new range of possibilities for the ruling classes to exercise their domination.” (171-2)

And these variegated forms of resistance are the subject of Subaltern Studies. It is clear that such a framework as Chatterjee’s modes of power can be applied beyond India. Reading through these sections, I was, of course, reminded of the Zapatistas’s struggle in the Chiapas where one can clearly see the interplay of all three modes within the specific Mexican context.

It is also in this chapter, and especially in the section titled ‘Intimate Oppositions’ that I felt the most Fanon’s relative absence especially as he is presented as the counterpoint to Ashis Nandy’s insights on the colonized self:

“In his 1978 essay ‘Towards a Third World Utopia’, he criticises Fanon’s idea of cleansing violence as being insensitive to the cultural resistance of oppressed (Nandy 1987: 33). He considers this strategy of opposition to be contained within the logic of colonialism, reproducing its hypermasculinity, cult of violence, loss of emotional connection and dehumanisation of enemies.” (188)

It is indeed central to reintroduce questions of masculinity into discussions of colonial oppression and that seems to have been something that most theorists, Northern and Southern missed (apart, of course, from the feminists).

So, having laid out some more or less convincing examples of Southern Theory and thrown some pretty devastating criticisms at Northern Theory, what is left for Connell to do if not lay out clearly the foundations of a non-imperialist sociology. She does so in the last section of the book and I will pick that up more in details in part 2 of the review.

It REALLY Is a Small World… For the Corporate Elite

Wonderful graphics by Baptiste Coulmont on the networks composed of individuals (red dots) sitting on administrative councils of companies (blue lozenges) listed in the CAC40 stock index (the French equivalent of the Dow Jones, if you will).

And a close-up:

Most of the names on the graphs will be familiar for people who follow French corporate barons and their companies.

Coulmont is looking for more recent data and thinks he has caught the “reticular flu”… a predicament where the victim feels compelled to turn everything into networks with neat graphs.

Are Townhall Protests The Effective Kind of Protest?

When I saved this post by Brayden, at Orgtheory, on protests, I knew it would come handy some day. I was right, especially in light of the current right-wing townhall protests taking place all over the country. The immediate goal of these protests is the potential health care reform being manufactured in the US Congress, but more generally, these are broad protests against the current government and all sorts of unfolding changes that right-wing extremists do not like.

Indeed, it seems that on the two points that Brayden outlines, the town hall protests have been largely successful. There is no simpler message than posters of President Obama with a Hitler moustache and invocations of socialism (a term that resonates in a specific way with American audiences). And the protests were equally successful in getting media attention and reporting of their message in a relatively unchallenged positive way (angry citizens with legitimate claims). Evidence surfaced in polls of the penetration of some of their claims to the larger audience.

Comparing these current protests to the anti-Civil Rights, anti-desegregation protests of the 1960s, Jay Livingstone makes an additional point:

I do not disagree with this but I don’t think this is the whole story either. I do think that the anti-desegregation protestors really did think that having black kids in school with their children would have negative effects (in addition to the symbolic defeat).  I also think that the town hall protesters have been fed a steady diet of Fox News and right-wing talk radio at the exclusion of any other source of “information” so that they really do believe things like death panels and other absurdities. The persistence of a segment of the population that believes the most absurd conspiracy theories about the US government is not just a matter of symbolism (although it is that, to be sure).

One has to admit that this segment of the population, which lives in its own reality and probably overlaps with abortion doctors killers, religious fundamentalists and paramilitary groups, is seditious.

Society of Sociopaths

The whole health care fiasco has certainly revealed the nastiness of a segment of the American society. And yes, they may be bought and bussed to town hall meetings by big industry groups, but that does not change the fact of the existence of infantile Randoids and just plain ignoramuses who think they own nothing to the government and should not pay taxes. Basically, these are people who do not see a need for the social contract and do not have a sense of being part of society. The only community these people seem to recognize is their family or religious / political in-group. As much as they bandy copies of the Constitution around, they lack a sense of collectivity and keep themselves busy defining themselves narrowly as the only “real” Americans and everyone else as anti-American.

It also seems that most of the behavior seen on TV (I know, I know) is (pardon me the pop Freud) id-driven: rage that can hardly contain itself, absent logic and contradictory stances, mob behavior.

What I see in this is the absolute triumph of neo-liberal philosophy boiled down to infantile elements (and I would argue that the extreme religiosity of the American society fosters such infantilism of thinking in black and white) to be shouted out at public events. Politicians on that side of the political spectrum have played on, when not actively promoted, such mob behavior. It has all come at the expense of knowledge of political ideas (be they conservative or liberal or else) and have filled that void with a combination of extreme individualism (slightly extended to family) and religious fundamentalism which leads to a form of sociopathy that is toxic to civil society.

When these two elements are combined, they replace political ideas with a moralizing and punitive outlook on policy: public policy should sanction and punish deviant behavior: don’t let the sluts get away with their sluttitude through contraception or abortion, don’t let the gays be gay, no health care for fatties and other people with disgusting behavior and so on and so forth. No government assistance for all these freaks, only for the “good” people, and even them can be taken care of by their neighbors or Christian charity.

The reference to charity has the neat benefit of not only pretending to be kind but hides the fact that in a charitable relationship, the donor can set criteria as to whom to help and make demands on recipients (stop smoking, give up your child for adoption, etc). In this view then, truth does not matter. Reality does not matter. What replaces it is a thoroughly moralized view of the world where everything and anything is assessed based on its acceptability to the moral standards based on a nonexistent substance and simple binary oppositions and a catastrophic view of the world (not surprising from people who believe in the Rapture and anxiously await it).

No one should be surprised by this in a society awash in childish religiosity (has anyone forgotten such TV gems as Touched By an Angel and pretty much everything made-for-TV movie on the Hallmarks channel?), refusal of the most basic scientific tenets. If you don’t believe in evolution but believe in black helicopters, it is not a big leap to believe in death panels. Childish religiosity fosters not just ignorance of internal matters but also of other realities of the world, such as the well-functioning health care systems that other developed nations enjoy and how social democracy produces healthy societies without fear of God.

In combination with extreme individualism, this produces a very structurally violent society leading to high levels of interpersonal violence and punitive policies targeted as undesirable categories. Indeed, what is often deplored by such mobs is the fact that some people are NO LONGER being punished for their deviance, or at least less stigmatized (such as single mothers and LGBTs). The laments of political correctness simply mean the frustration of no longer being able to stigmatize perceived deviants through discourse and action.

The aforementioned ignorance is also on display by the lack of awareness of what the government does, exactly. Anyone stating that the government does nothing because they are self-sufficient should be told that they can no longer do the following:

  • Turn on the tap to get water… buy all your water (drinking, washing, showering) in plastic bottles
  • Flush… find another “individual” mechanism to get rid of your waste
  • Flick the switch to get electricity… buy your own private generator
  • Use the roads
  • Use the US dollar… use IOUs with merchants, see how that works out
  • Enjoy public parks
  • Use only private systems for education and health care (and even those should get their own water, power, etc…)

Better yet, get to a state and secede as Governor Perry suggested a while back, as a remedy against the evils of federal monies. Once you’ve seceded, then the US government should do the following:

  • Cut that state off the power grid
  • Cut that state off the water mains
  • Destroy of the interstate highways that criss-cross the state along with rail tracks
  • Destroy all other infrastructure such as bridges, power plants, water sanitation plants, etc.
  • Impose taxes and tariffs on trade with the state, if that state wishes to acquire foreign currencies (such as the US $$) and see if any non-state company will do business with the state
  • Require visas from state denizens if they wish to come to the US and make sure these bastards don’t come illegally
  • Remove all public schools, colleges and universities and public health care facilities
  • Close all government offices

And when the state’s population is plagued by dysentery and lives in the dark  and the cold with no Internet access or cable or satellite (but guns!), they can smoke signal the UN to receive humanitarian aid, to which the UN should reply “F!@#$ you!”.