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Travelling theory

Around social thinkers from the South, who have not made it into the conventional sociological tradition, Connell proposes to build an alternative social science.           

Michael Burawoy
21 March 2015
open Movements

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

Pierre Bourdieu, painted portrait.

Pierre Bourdieu, painted portrait. Flickr/ thierry ehrmann. Some rights reserved.

In her Southern Theory Raewyn Connell problematizes the canonical works of metropolitan theory – from the so-called classics of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim to the contemporary theories of James Coleman, Anthony Giddens, and Pierre Bourdieu.

Their silence on the Global South, Connell argues, portends a distinctively Northern perspective albeit disguised as universalism. Instead Connell presents us with a “counter-hegemonic” project that foregrounds social thinkers from the South who have not made it into the conventional sociological tradition – from the Middle East, three Iranian thinkers al-Afghani, Al-e Ahmad, and the more contemporary Ali Shariati, from Latin America the Argentinian economist Raúl Prebisch, the Brazilian sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the Mexican anthropologist García Canclini, from South Asia subaltern thinker, Ranajit Guha, anthropologist Veena Das, and public intellectual Ashis Nandy. From Africa she chooses the Dahomeyan philosopher Paulin Hountontdji, and the South African writer, politician, historian, and newspaper editor, Sol Plaatje. Around such forgotten or overlooked thinkers Connell proposes to build an alternative social science.          

There is no doubt about the importance of her intervention--the latest in a long history of challenges to the hegemony of Northern sociology. Connell perhaps goes further than others in combining an assault on “classical theory” with a global search for alternatives to Western and Northern social theory. She, thereby, underlines just how narrow are the geographical origins of “recognized” or “legitimate” sociological theory, both in their canonical and contemporary incarnations. Theory building appears to be the monopoly of the few, situated in elite universities of the Global North.

Important though her critique of the canon is, her sketch of “Southern theory” is not without problems of its own. How feasible is an alternative Southern theory in the face of the unevenness of the distribution of resources--the concentration of the most lavishly funded universities and research establishments in the North where working conditions are incomparably superior to anywhere else?

As the more privileged nations in the South seek to develop their own “world class” universities, they reinforce existing prestige hierarchies, channeling faculty publications into “world class” journals that are also generally located in the North and that publish in English, and thereby exacerbate the divide between center and metropolis, both globally but, no less importantly, within countries.

And, paradoxically, these world hierarchies of knowledge production not only divide but also cement connections, albeit asymmetrically, between North and South, frequently at the expense of polarizations within the South. Poorer nations are increasingly dispensing with their own universities, instead sponsoring the training of their own experts abroad (i.e. usually in the North, or simply importing them from the North). Can theory run ahead of the material conditions that it expresses? However tempting it may be, to opt out of this unequal world order is to risk invisibility, poverty and isolation, and reproducing rather than challenging the selfsame hegemony. 

To transcend the dominance of the North is a Sisyphean task, so we must avoid illusory solutions, the substitution of dream for reality. There is no easy escape from domination--that is the meaning of hegemony. So, even Connell’s chosen Southern theorists, if they were not trained in the North, spent a lot of time there.

As postcolonial theory has insisted, between Global North and Global South, just as between metropolis and colony there has always been a circulation of social theory. Bourdieu’s social theory is inspired by his experiences in Algeria and by his collaborations with Algerian intellectuals just as many of the Indian subalternists got their degrees in the North, and, later, even settled into academic positions in the North, especially as their thinking became fashionable the world over.

Furthermore, the distinction between North and South, or West and East, overlooks the underdeveloped regions within Northern academia just as it overlooks the divide between center and periphery within the South, both between and within countries. Drawing elite sectors of higher education into global conversations tends to divorce the Southern university from the population at large.   

Moreover, divisions within regions and countries refer not just to status and resources, but also to the content of social theory itself, so that we can say that Northern theory contains multiple strands, many of which contest dominant tropes--Connell herself has made major contributions to feminist theory that challenge mainstream orthodoxy and she has herself circulated between the United States and Australia. Pierre Bourdieu was very much the critical sociologist, attacking pillars of hegemonic thinking in France and elsewhere. In placing all Northern sociology in the same trash can, doesn’t Connell risk committing the very error of which she accuses Northern sociology, namely false generalization? Equally, in the South the field of sociology, like other academic fields, is a terrain of conflict, reflecting serious divisions within nations and within regions--terrains that Connell ignores as she plucks her chosen theorists out of their historical and political context.   

While resurrecting Southern theorists demonstrates that the soil of Southern theory is not barren, Connell’s focus on individuals leads her to overlook the truly distinctive bodies of social theory that have developed deep roots in the South, social theory that grounds the work of an institute like the Society, Work, and Development Institute (SWOP) at the University of Witwatersrand (see, for instance, my article “Southern Windmill: The Life and Work of Edward Webster”, and Kiem’s one on the “Counterhegemonic Currents and Internationalization of Sociology”). Indeed, the distinctiveness of SWOP lies in the way it appropriated Northern theory--even the more conservative social theory associated with the functions of conflict--in order to deploy it against the apartheid state.

Edward Webster, for example, spent a lifetime arguing that violence can only be constrained if institutions, such as trade unions, are created to channel grievances. Thus, an apparently innocuous Northern theory about the institutionalization of conflict became, in the hands of South African sociologists, a radical challenge to apartheid South Africa. In fact, the defense of such theories proved so subversive that the state would place Webster on trial. Others, such as Rick Turner, were assassinated for their adoption and dissemination of critical western theories.

When theories travel, as Edward Said noted long ago, their meaning can be transformed in a radical or conservative direction, depending not only on the theory but also on the context of reception. Indeed, when Southern theories travel north they often lose their radical edge, becoming domesticated in the jaws of the metropolitan university.

This suggests that the real battle is not against reigning hegemonies but on the terrain of those hegemonies, appropriating, reordering and reconstructing them in new contexts. The problem is not so much with Northern theory but with what we do with it once it arrives in the South.    

How to cite:
Burawoy M. (2015) «Travelling theory», Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 21 March. https://opendemocracy.net/michael-burawoy/travelling-theory

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