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!).

2 thoughts on “Book Discussion – Southern Theory

  1. Thanks a lot for the space and your feedback.

    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.

    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.

    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. ****





  2. Pingback: Book Discussion… Continued | The Global Sociology Blog

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