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?