Colonialism, modernity, and the canon: an interview with Gurminder K. Bhambra
Gurminder K Bhambra is Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies in the Department of International Relations in the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex.
Gurminder K Bhambra (GKB): Canons are always contested. There's a problematic way in which people think about the place of the canon within contemporary scholarship, as a matter of either/ or. It either becomes something that has to be fully got rid of, or kept the same as it's always been. What people don't seem to engage with is that the canon has changed over time. One of the ways in which people have thought about the canon and its changes is in terms of a conversation, and as the conversation progresses, different things come to the fore that are seen to be significant and other things become less significant. Those things drop away, and new things are added.
For my part, the issue is not straightforwardly about getting rid of the canon, and certainly that's not the argument that John Holmwood and I made in Colonialism and Modern Social Theory. What we wished to do with that book was to engage with the canon, and engage with it by situating authors within the context of their times. That context, for the most part, was a colonial context; a colonial context that was effectively erased in most subsequent discussions of those canonical figures.
What we wanted to do was to put those figures back in their time and then to rethink what it was that they said explicitly in relation to those times, and by doing so open up new questions. Hopefully, once people have read the book, they'll be confronted with new questions, new avenues to explore, new ways of thinking about the canon that actually transforms the canon without having to make an argument for who should be included or excluded.
I also think a canon provides the ground for us to have that conversation, and in that sense it's really important because it provides the possibility for us to agree, but also to disagree because it grounds our disagreements in something that we have to engage with each other about. It's not just talking past each other, but actually, how do we talk to each other around things that we might fundamentally disagree on. And how could we then transform the terrain by doing that?
AT: Then, in the context of how you're doing this, when we're taught the classical texts or we're teaching them, we are often referring to key concepts like, ‘we're talking about Tocqueville because we're talking about the idea of ‘the nation’, or we're talking about Weber because we're talking about the idea of ‘legitimate authority’. And so when we take on this historical view, are we then able to use the concepts in that same kind of “value free” way, or are the concepts just products of history?
GKB: Concepts are never value free, for a start. Concepts always embody values and are located within systems of values, and one of the things that we really want to challenge with the book was this idea that the concept somehow stands alone outside of its history. What we sought to demonstrate was the way in which the concepts that we use within the social sciences have emerged through a reflection on particular histories; whereas, if we were to look at broader histories, how would that change the shape of the concept that we're using, and the significance of that concept to how we might wish to use it in terms of thinking about society more generally.
So, you were mentioning ‘legitimate authority’. Weber’s idea, that is key to sociology, but also across the social sciences more broadly, that the state is that entity which has the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within a given territory – that basically forms the conceptual definition of the state as it's used within sociology, within political science, and within international relations. But if we go back to look at the way in which Weber articulated that concept, and what was going on at the time, one of the things that we see is that the state didn't simply exercise, or didn't simply have the monopoly on the exercise of, violence within a given ‘national’ territory. It also exercised violence beyond that territory, and upon populations that were not citizens of the state. Yet that violence is nowhere theorized within Weber or within the way in which sociologists have gone on to use the concept of the state that comes from Weber. They use it as a definition of the ‘national state’ without considering how the state became ‘national’ and what it was before it did so.
If we were to accept that colonialism was something that was central to the activities of the state when Weber was writing, and Weber's refusal to acknowledge violence beyond the national state as being meaningful for how we might conceptualize the state itself in its other than national activities and structures, then we would have to rethink what the concept of the state is - not only is it that entity which has the monopoly on the legitimate exercise of violence within a given territory, but it's also that entity that illegitimately uses violence upon others and against others.
How does legitimacy, then, operate? We see that there is a division, a legitimacy for us secured in values and domination of others secured by power and fact. So the state isn't simply about legitimacy, it's also about domination outside values through which consent is secured. And how does that change the way in which we then work with the concept?
AT: So then if you zoom in, with that in mind, I can see how that would apply to traditional authority, legal rational authority, or charismatic authority, but especially the first two because perhaps those are products of modernity and empire. Is that right?
GKB: Well, it would be right to also question the distinction between modernity and empire. We have this sense that our discipline is about the modern, and what is “traditional” is left to the discipline of anthropology. Sociology, politics, and economics all look at “modern” societies. The social sciences are organized around this distinction between the modern and the traditional. But what that doesn't take into account itself is the way in which that very divide has been produced through colonial activities.
What would it be to call a society “modern” or “traditional” except to think about the colonial processes that have produced what we now understand as “the modern.” There are many layers or levels to this conceptual unpacking.
AT: In the introduction to Colonialism and Modern Social Theory, you focus specifically on European social theory, and say that you consider America to be a European empire. Can you explain this argument to our readers?
GKB: Yes, to clarify: when we say America, we are thinking of the Americas as a whole as settler-colonial nations to the extent that the shape of the Americas and the various countries that constitute the Americas, both in the North and the South, have been configured predominantly by European settlers who have gone in, dispossessed indigenous populations, established new states on top of old societies, and created settler colonies.
There's this sense that the U.S. is a post-colonial nation because of the American Revolution. But from my perspective the American Revolution was less a revolution and more a civil war, because who was doing the fighting? It was British people from Britain (and their mercenaries) and British people in what we now call America, and those British people who won the fight against the British people from Britain then went on to colonize the rest of that continent in the north. So, for me it's not a post-colonial nation, it's a settler-colonial nation with everything that that implies. It is an offshoot of European colonialism that developed colonialism upon that continent and upon the populations that had previously, and continue to reside, there.
AT: That makes a lot of sense. And building on that, as I was reading your book, I tried to tease apart the different histories and projects of settler colonialism from the general category of European, and I thought, ‘well, okay, United States does have its own unique history’ in the sense of its different variables, so to speak. Is it helpful to zoom in like that? Would you agree that American social theory has its own unique colonial histories to deal with that affect the concepts and categories that we use today?
GKB: I would say that it's not a unique project or a unique history. I would say it's distinct. And so, being distinct, it has particular issues that require to be dealt with that perhaps are not prevalent in the same way as they are in other places. If we think about the fact that the U.S constituted itself, almost from the beginning, as a slave society explicitly, then whilst that society was facilitated by European colonialism, it developed a very particular form of its own that also needs to be taken account of.
I don't think it's unique, because you can see similar sorts of societies also within Brazil, Argentina, across the Caribbean. We can also see relations and continuities with other places. Think about the way in which Europeans dealt with Aboriginal peoples in Australia or within South Africa, and the production of Apartheid. Apartheid is not that dissimilar, I would suggest, from the forms of slave society that existed in the U.S. And so we can think about these things within a common frame, and it's important to think about the continuities rather than to seek uniqueness, because that abstracts out from relations and my concern is always to locate events, processes, societies within their relations.
AT: Definitely. I appreciate that clarity on the word choice and how that changes the theoretical approach. I’m really interested, then, in how W.E.B Du Bois connects into this as an example of an American scholar, situated within the larger European colonial context we are discussing, who was historically left out of the canon, who was then added into the canon, and more and more now teaching of his work goes beyond just The Souls of Black Folk. Will you tell our readers about the argument that you make in the book about Du Bois' case?
GKB: Du Bois is an incredibly interesting sociologist. Across his life, which was a very long life, he articulated many different positions, and engaged with a huge host of events, as well as trying to think through how to transform the society within which he was living. Through his scholarship, through politics, through journalism, through wider collaborative activities, his key concern was always to transform the particular structure of the U.S. and it was something in which he failed, and I think he recognized that failure. But he never gave up trying to transform those conditions.
We can see within Du Bois’ work an interesting process of learning that's also visible in his writings. You can see with The Souls of Black Folk that his focus is on the particularities of race within the US, or race relations within the US. You know the classic line, “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” Over time, and in part as a consequence of his activism as well as his thinking in relation to broader issues, he comes to see the defining issue for humanity as the address of colonial histories, and of the colonial present, because it still was present at the time that he's thinking about these issues. I find it quite interesting to think about that trajectory from race relations in the U.S. to an understanding of the colonization that has configured the world in a broader sense, and then the ways in which he connects these processes together. There's a huge amount that one could say about Du Bois, and for me this is perhaps one of the most significant aspects of his work.
In terms of his place within U.S. sociology or sociology more generally, I'll give one example, and this is something that I wrote about a number of years ago in a piece on Du Bois and this idea of segregated sociologies. There was a volume that was published on the 100th anniversary of the American Sociological Association. It was a huge volume and within it only three chapters explicitly addressed Du Bois, and two of those chapters were written by African American colleagues. None of the other authors even mentioned Du Bois in their accounts of the institutional history of U.S. sociology. And yet, some of them had written articles, individually and separately, talking about Du Bois as a sociologist. I found it really odd that scholars could write about Du Bois as a sociologist and write about his sociology, and yet, when it came to writing the institutional history of sociology in the U.S., not include him. In that sense, that notion of a segregated sociology, I think, runs very deep, and very possibly continues through into the present to the extent that Du Bois is understood as exceptional and not as sociological. Du Bois just did the work, and he's shown us the enormity of the tasks that need to be addressed and the ongoing need to address them.
AT: On the idea of Du Bois as exceptional, in the social theory classes I’ve both taken and taught, Franz Fanon has been on the syllabus as a non-American example of a theorist who is also speaking to issues of race, and from the American perspective this is often framed as exceptional for the colonial context in which he writes, as if America is not a colonial context. And it strikes me that we make these additions to the canon because of their seeming exceptionality, for the seeming uniqueness of what they speak to. I've just been introduced to a theorist named Edward Glissant, and his book The Poetics of Relation has never been included in the theory courses I’ve been involved in sociology, but his work is very similar to Fanon in terms of his educational history and the contexts and topics he writes about. What can we learn from these sorts of selections and omissions as we seek to decolonize and expand the canon?
GKB: There are so many people who could be in the canon. There are many ways to do the sort of work that we're interested in, and for me, alongside Colonialism and Modern Social Theory, one thing that I've done over the last few years is this website called Global Social Theory. That partly came out of teaching social theory and trying to find ways of extending the range of people that we taught as social theorists, and always finding pushback - not necessarily people being hostile to the idea, but it was often framed in terms of ‘I don't have the time. How am I supposed to find out about these people?’ And I thought, ‘okay, fine. I accept that. We're all pressed for time.’ Also, how do you find people if you've never been introduced to anyone outside of the standard canon before? So, I thought I'd set up a website that presents short, introductory sketches about different theorists. It's all collaboratively sourced; people would often contact me on social media and say, ‘Why, don't you have an entry on this person?’ And I'd be like, ‘Great! Write it! I’ll put it up.’ So lots of people have contributed!
People think - they're just not always recognized as thinkers. One of the things that hopefully through Colonialism and Modern Social Theory we've also been able to do is, by engaging with the canon and specifically locating it in those colonial histories, we've opened up the space to also think about who else could be brought in as thinkers of these events. Obviously, the people who were subject to colonialism thought about what it was because they were subject to it; but we rarely find their thought presented in standard accounts of social theory.
Beyond Fanon and Glissant and Cesare, there are two people who I’ll mention briefly: Anna Julia Cooper is the first African American woman to get a PhD, and she gets it from the Sorbonne at the age of 67. She's worked her entire life as a teacher and activist. Her thesis is on comparing the Haitian and French Revolutions, which she wrote a number of years before C.L.R. James publishes The Black Jacobins. I think she's making a much more radical critique of the relationship between those revolutions than C.L.R James who, in a sense, devolves the Haitian Revolution to a form of the French by calling it Black Jacobins from the outset. Yet very few people, except those who are really interested in the Haitian Revolution, know of her work. But she's also written explicitly on the issues of being an African American woman in the South in the U.S. There are other works of hers that could also be brought in.
Then, from the context of the British colonization of India, there's somebody called Dadabhai Naoroji. He's one of the first to make an argument about ‘colonial drain’; that is, the extent of the wealth and resources that the British took from the Indian subcontinent and brought to Britain. He wrote a book called Poverty and Un-British Rule. It's written in English, and it's published in London. I'd never heard of him until I was researching some of these things specifically, and then I found out also that he had actually been elected as an MP to the British Parliament. This isn't an insignificant figure, and yet he's been written out of most histories of that relationship, or at least from the British side. In India he's known much more, but certainly in my education I never came across him or knew who he was. Yet this idea of “colonial drain” is an extraordinarily powerful concept to think about the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, and it's something that I think we really need to think about much more.
AT: I really appreciate that. I know that I'm probably not alone in having had experiences where I'm teaching social theory and students will ask, “why aren’t we reading X person?” Even as a graduate student, when I don't really have much control over the syllabus, students will still come to me and say, “why aren't we reading more work on Black Feminism or work by Indigenous scholars?” It's always a lesson, every time, on how to talk about the canon.
Vasfiye Betul Toprak (VBT): I find this striking. It seems to me like your project overall is not to say, ‘this canon is all wrong, here are the people that should be considered as canonical, and we should include this other person and then this person that has been unrecognized,’ but is rather to interrogate and expose the dynamics of power and domination that have led both to the exclusion of the figures that you've mentioned, for example, and to the taking of Marx, Weber, Durkheim as the canon without questioning. That seems to be your purpose.
GKB: Absolutely. I'm interested in thinking about how knowledge is produced, and I don't think that individuals produce knowledge. So, whether we read Marx, Weber, or Durkheim doesn't really matter. We could get rid of them, but if we got rid of them and still used the categories of capitalism or the state or society as they articulated them, we would be reproducing the very same problems. We need to rethink the adequacy of the concepts and the categories that we use on the basis of the failure of those who configured them to explicitly recognize the colonial histories that are central to them but elided from their configuration. That isn't something that can be done by saying, ‘oh, get rid of Marx, Weber, Durkheim. Let’s just read these other people,’ because everything exists in relation. You're never going to find someone who hasn't engaged with others. Knowledge is a social endeavor.
AT: As an example of that, Tocqueville seems like a really good example of what we are talking about here. We often teach Democracy in America and maybe just one chapter from the book, likely the chapter we read in our graduate seminar, without knowing about his other writings, like those on Algeria. Can you talk about the balance of teaching the historical concepts we've learned from a classic like Democracy in America while at the same time problematizing his views on Algeria?
GKB: When Democracy in America is taught, it's often made available in abridged form. The longest chapter within it, which is the chapter concerning the relations between “The Three Races,” is often excised from the abridged versions. In a much earlier project that I was doing with a colleague of mine, Vicky Margree, we were looking at the work of Tocqueville and Beaumont together; when Tocqueville came to America, he came with his friend and collaborator, Gustave de Beaumont, and in their correspondence Tocqueville has said, ‘no one can understand what I’m arguing in Democracy in America if they don't read the chapter on “The Three Races” because everything that I have to say otherwise is, in a sense, negated by that chapter. What that chapter does is point to the impossibility of democracy for those he identifies as African-Americans and as Indigenous peoples, and that democracy is something that's only possible for Europeans. In his own reflection of the impossibility of democracy for, if you like, a multicultural polity, that chapter in itself should call us to question what is treated elsewhere in the book - but not if it's not included in the book, or if it's not taught when Democracy in America is taught.
In addition to that, when Beaumont and Tocqueville were traveling, they both wanted to write on America, and they decided that Tocqueville would work on issues of democracy and government and Beaumont would address the issues of slavery. But they envisaged that both books should be read together because they thought that you couldn't understand one without the other. Now Beaumont's book on slavery, he ends up writing it as a novel and I think that's interesting as well, because, in a sense, the situation was so confronting that it wasn't clear to him how he should write it as a sociological or political science treatise. It's not translated into English until around 100 years after Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, so very few people who didn't read French would have been aware of it. There's been a separation of these two books which for the authors were supposed to be read together. So again, if you read the main part of Democracy in America in relation to that chapter, and in relation to Beaumont's book, and then think about his writings on Algeria, you would have a whole other sense of who Tocqueville was and the argument that he was making.
One of the things that I think his writings on Algeria highlight, is the extent to which Tocqueville is an advocate of European colonialism. You see that most clearly in his writings on Algeria because there, what you’ve got, is French colonization of lands that he thinks is right and appropriate, and while he’s sort of sympathetic and concerned about the treatment of Indigenous peoples in the Americas, he's not at all in the context of what France is doing in Algeria. And that, for some people, has been presented as a paradox while for others it’s not; Doug Stokes, for instance, has written a piece saying that it's not a paradox if you frame his engagements with both places in terms of his understandings of race more explicitly, because then you see that what he's invested in is the maintenance of European supremacy.
Even in Democracy in America, he doesn't think it's possible for African Americans, Indigenous peoples and Europeans to live together. His predictions are effectively that Europeans will reach the Western seaboard, and when they do that Indigenous peoples will have been annihilated and the best that could be hoped for African Americans would either be that they would be repatriated to Africa, or that they would be given some land and have an autonomous state, but he couldn't see a future for the U.S that involved a democracy of all races.
So, in terms of thinking about who we included within our book, having Tocqueville at the start, and Du Bois at the end was important in part because Du Bois had to live the future that Tocqueville couldn't even imagine, and he lived it being at the effect of it, and Du Bois’ theory comes from that.
AT: That's really powerful, and I think that's also a really useful framing, too, to take as a lesson from this conversation - like changing up a syllabus structure, and putting Tocqueville at the beginning and putting Du Bois at the end, not to privilege or lessen one or the other, but to actually frame that narrative.
VBT: Reading your book Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination, I was really fascinated by your development of the idea of European significance and specialness. You contest accounts of modernity and modernization by revealing their inherent assumption of European significance and you demonstrate this through three myths – the Renaissance and the myth of European integrity, the myth of the modern nation-state, and industrial capitalism. I'm curious to hear how you arrived at this concept of significance as the underlying central tenet in your theory.
GKB: When I was doing the research that eventually became Rethinking Modernity, I was struck by the fact that you had scholars who talked about the European miracle, or talked about events within Europe which should be interpreted as the European miracle. So that's obviously an evaluative assessment that regards the events as being of great significance, not just for Europe, but for the world – particularly given this term, ‘miracle’. Then there was a push back against that, and you had scholars who would argue that it shouldn't be understood as a miracle, but nonetheless the events were significant. And then you had people who critiqued that, who said, even if Europe had these events, other places had similar events or the same events. They had them before Europe did, and so on. There was this sense that the disagreements that everybody was having was either about the significance of these events, or the fact that other places had done it before Europe, or at least on their own separate from Europe.
My sense of it was that, actually, did these events happen in Europe? Are they European events? Because the events that are being talked about are not events that could have happened endogenously in Europe. If we think about the Industrial Revolution, for example, whenever I've done various talks on this around the world, and wherever I asked the question, “Where did the Industrial Revolution begin?” Everybody says, “from Europe”. “More specific?” “Britain.” “Be more specific.” “Manchester and Lancaster.” The industrial revolution begins in Manchester and Lancaster. Why? Because of cotton. Anywhere you go – that's the story. Well, let's take cotton. Where does cotton come from? It doesn't grow in England. It doesn't come from England. It doesn't grow in Europe. It comes from India, as does the technology of how to dye and weave it. It's grown in the Southern States of the US, by Africans, who are taken there as part of the European trade in human beings. The raw material is brought to Manchester, where it's turned into cloth, and that cloth is then sold around the world usually at the point of a gun, because it's of such inferior quality to cotton produced in other places.
The idea that the Industrial Revolution began in Manchester when cotton is something that doesn't even grow there is an impossible story. It can only be a global story, not a European story. I'm not contesting the fact of the Industrial Revolution. I'm contesting the history that we attribute to the fact and arguing that actually it's a global history, already. It's not that the Industrial Revolution creates globalization, but globalization, that is colonization, is what creates the Industrial Revolution. It enables it in its own terms.
Within Rethinking Modernity, what I also did with the French Revolution and the Renaissance is to locate these events that are understood as European within their broader colonial histories, to demonstrate that without the circulation of texts within the Islamic world, there wouldn't have been the possibility for what's understood as the Renaissance, in the European context. And yet, the writing out of those contributions is what makes the Renaissance distinctive – or its claimed distinction – whereas that again, is an impossibility without these recoveries. I'm not interested in who did it first. Is it this? Is it that? I'm interested in the connections that actually enable these things to emerge in the first place.
VBT: You use the words significance and myth together in this book. The scholarship on political myth in political philosophy also theorizes that myth has something to do with significance – our own notions of how and why we matter in this world – in making certain kinds of political action possible. It seems very in line with what you are saying, that we have this notion of European significance, and in some way, that actually might have made possible the kinds of things that have been done with European colonialism. Have you engaged with this scholarship in any way?
GKB: I haven't engaged with that scholarship. I was using the term in a way almost more prosaically, in its common sense understanding. But I absolutely acknowledge the power that you're setting out, that those terms also have. For me the idea of myth, or a myth, has power, because it's believed to be true. There's this sense that the communication of social scientific knowledge isn't just about concepts and facts, but it's also got a rhetorical dimension that's constructed through narrative. The way in which that narrative is organized and reproduced is really powerful. Like I was saying, where does the Industrial Revolution begin? Everybody says Manchester and cotton. That isn't because they've studied it, and they know it. It's just because that's the myth that circulates.
Somebody who is very good at this and from whom I probably derive some of this thinking is Michel-Rolph Trouillot and his book, Silencing the Past. He talks about the fact that as a historian, he would go into class and teach history from sources and so on. But students would come back with their understandings of that history which were all developed from TV programs, or films, or novels that they had read. Because it's not just historians who write history – novelists do it, filmmakers do it. They're usually much more effective at disseminating their understanding than we are as academics. What we're having to engage with in the classroom is the wealth and power of the circulation of narratives that exist in the world outside the university, and then trying to get students to think critically about the production of those myths and to think about the ways that we might need to do this differently or think about this differently. The idea of myth was trying to capture that idea of the narrative that gives substance to facts and concepts.
VBT: What is your overall approach to the concept of modernity? Can there be an account of modernity without Europe? What would your suggestions be for someone studying modernization in non-Western contexts? How can they go beyond this inherent, implicit assumption of European significance?
GKB: My understanding of modernity is colonial modernity, and that's not a form of alternative modernity. It’s not like there's European modernity and then there is colonial modernity. What I'm arguing for is modernity to be understood as colonial modernity. Thus far, we've understood modernity as European modernity, whether we add the label European to it or not. Modernity cannot be understood outside the colonial processes that have produced it. Anything that we might wish to understand as modern, we have to understand in its colonial context. In that sense, even in framing the question of wishing to study non-western modernization, well, why assume you know what modernization is, or what the non-West is? Why give up modernity to Europe? There were modernizing processes, however we might want to think about them, within all contexts. If we think that Europe is already the place that does it first, then any innovation elsewhere can only occur subsequently to Europe.
For instance, freedom in its originary moment emerges in the struggles against colonial modernity, against the imposition of colonization by Europeans. I think that if we understood modernity as colonial modernity, then we would understand, again, that what is claimed to be freedom in Europe is only brought through the practice of unfreedom that's imposed elsewhere. In that context when those places become free, they're the ones who are actually instantiating freedom. Their response to being enslaved, or subjugated, or dominated is, for the most part, to argue for freedom for everybody. There's a difference between the rhetoric that European intellectuals have of the emergence of freedom within Europe and the reality of freedom emerging in the contestation of European colonization. And we need to do the work of rescuing those narratives from the condescension of European enlightenment traditions and giving them their place within scholarship and politics.
AT: Can you speak to us a little bit about your project Connected Sociologies? How is that distinct from Global Social Theory, the project you mentioned previously?
GKB: I set up Global Social Theory in 2015 and that was an attempt to collect together short accounts of different theorists from around the world who've engaged in thinking about the conditions that they've been living through. It includes a short introduction to them and their work, a few open access readings that people could follow up on, and then some questions that people could use to structure their thinking. So it was organized almost like an insert for a syllabus, and it's open access, so if you wanted to diversify your reading list, you could go to that. Or if you don't want to do that but you want to tell your students, ‘look, our syllabus is what it is but here's this website which is organized like a syllabus. Feel free to go and explore the different thinkers who are there, and so on.’ The website continues to grow and I'm still adding new figures to it whenever anybody suggests any, and I'm always happy to hear from people who want new figures added.
Connected Sociologies is an attempt to do the same, but for the teaching of sociology more broadly, and for that we got funding from The Sociological Review Foundation here in Britain to do this project. What we've done here is produce open access lectures, readings and questions, and sought to construct a syllabus that engages with the key themes of sociology but from a perspective that's taking colonialism seriously. Our first module was on the making of the modern world in which we addressed issues of enslavement, appropriation, indenture, extraction, we talked about post-colonial feminism, and so on. We now have about 8 modules. Our other modules are on colonial global economy, the environment and extraction, on police and violence - a range of topics. And it's just about providing resources to people both for those of us who teach and those of us who are students to open up and expand the curriculum in the ways in which it's important for it to be expanded. It’s available as a resource for people.
AT: That’s great to hear. What a helpful resource. One of the things that we've been really interested in highlighting as editors is public theory and the question of how we can make our theory do something in the world. And so, taking this project of Connected Sociologies as a resource that does something, can you speak about any wins and challenges in the process of creating this resource for those who might want to create something similar? And also, institutionally speaking, how has Connected Sociologies been received by the British Sociological Association?
GKB: One of the responses that we got to the Connected Sociologies program was from a few retired colleagues who were watching the videos and engaging with the material, and they wrote to us and said, ‘oh, it's great, you know. I'm no longer teaching, I'm retired. But this is such a nice way to keep connected with developments that are happening within sociology.’ And that was quite surprising because that wasn't the demographic that we were aiming at, but it was great to see that people were engaging with these resources.
Also, Amit Singh, who is the project manager for the project and has been organizing it - he started out as a PhD student and he's now a lecturer - he has been taking the videos and the material to sixth form classes, to 16 to 18 year olds, in London. The students would watch the videos, and then he would organize the discussion of the themes. So with Connected Sociologies, then, you don’t need to have expertise across this whole range of topics to engage young people. That's been fantastic.
Last year, for the first time since COVID, we were able to hold an in-person, free summer school that was open to anybody who wished to come. It was put on Eventbrite, and we held it at one of the schools that Amit worked with which created a different space for these conversations. We had a lot of students attend, some sixth form students, undergrad students, PhD students. We had a few academics who were interested in themes. But we also had members of the general public who had seen the event on Eventbrite - they had been looking at what to do this weekend in their local area, and our event came up - and they came along to it. It was one of the most diverse spaces that I'd been in, and it just facilitated a huge number of conversations. And so that's been really great.
In terms of challenges - well, for understandable reasons, it was almost easier to get the videos up during the period of lockdown. It's become a little bit more difficult now. For next year our plan is to organize more in-person events where we can bring people together around these topics and have the online material as the resource that can be used at any time.
The British Sociological Association is - well, I'm President of it at the moment, so it sort of has to take these issues seriously. (laughter) I'm doing the Presidential Address next year, and plan to speak on that sense that we need to do sociology differently. But separately from anything that I did and before I took on this role, the BSA has been organizing a review of the teaching of race within the curriculum across the UK and will be releasing some resources on that at the time of the next conference. There's lots of different initiatives that people are doing that hopefully, when you have these little things that can sometimes seem small and isolated, but as they build, they ricochet off each other, amplify each other, and before you know it, you've got some degree of change.
AT: Yeah! Absolutely. That’s the goal! You had mentioned two scholars earlier that you wanted other theorists to know about. Are there any other theorists you’d say should be added to every theory syllabus?
GKB: I would also like to put forward the work of Utsa Patnaik who's done a huge amount of work rethinking political economy, and I just think she's extraordinary. She's completely changed the way in which I think about issues of political economy and has raised issues that I hadn't previously been aware of.
AT: To wrap up, what are you working on now? Are you excited about any endeavors or conceptual challenges that you're working through?
GKB: I’ve just got funding for a research project on varieties of empire and varieties of colonialism. What I am seeking to do through this project is to look at issues of colonial taxation and national welfare across European empires, but also empires in Europe and other empires. What I want to focus on are questions of solidarity and legitimacy, and how those change, or how our understandings of those change, once we take colonial histories seriously. It's an attempt to shift from taking the nation as the methodological unit of analysis within the social sciences to having empire be that foundational block, and then how would that change the social science that we do if we were to start from empire rather than nation.
The co-editors of Perspectives are deeply grateful for the insights Gurminder K Bhambra shared with us in this interview. Please check out the resources mentioned at https://globalsocialtheory.org and https://connectedsociologies.org