“Postcolonial thought,” as Go (2016:9) tells us, “critiques the culture of empire in order to cultivate new knowledges, ways of represent-ting the world, and histories that circumvent or transcend rather than authorize or sustain imperialistic ways of knowing.” It thus goes beyond describing the historical realities after colonialism, instead seeking to challenge how knowledge is currently produced and the theoretical categories within which we think. It troubles ideas and questions that originate with the
The workshop took the form of a rigorous one-and-a-half-day series of intensive discussions on junior scholars’ working papers, led by senior scholars, including David Embrick (University of Connecticut), Julian Go (Boston University), Neil Gross (Colby College), José Itzigsohn (Brown University), Zine Magubane (Boston College), and Jonathan Wyrtzen (Yale University). The presentations drew from postcolonial thought—with its unique perspec-tives on the operation of empire and the reproduction of racial domination, its recovery of colonial agency, and its focus on knowledge creation—to produce novel empirical sociolo-gical research and/or theoretical frameworks. Together, the workshop papers explored how empire has shaped sociological approaches and continues to operate through the dominant epistemologies of western thought, while offering examples of new research that go beyond the limits of postcolonial theory. In what follows, we outline a few emerging themes in this line of scholarship, which may inspire both a series of sociological subfields and the postcolonial project at large.
Postcolonial thought argues that sociology has long overlooked the constitutive nature of race and colonial relations to modernity and discounted the web of connections linking the imperial past to the post-colonial present. Sociology has repressed the standpoints, experiences, and perspectives of subaltern groups. Postcolonial sociology in turn aims to recuperate voices which may have been silenced in the historical archive, as well as ways of seeing the world that may point us to different research foci and distinct theoretical categories; to make visible how imperial forms of rule have persisted and get reproduced on a daily basis; and to produce sociological know-ledge categories that start from the concerns of the oppressed. At the center of our thinking for this conference was the attempt to draw a lineage between “the past” and “the present,” seeking to understand how the imperial past is not a bounded analytical container but instead reemerges in our post-colonial age. At the same time, we noted that scholarship in postcolonial theory often fails to capture the empirical rigor of sociology and, so far, has not described the mechanisms through which empire operates. Bringing these two bodies of literature into productive tension, the workshop papers sought to address sociology’s blind spots while expanding postcolonial thought.
Several papers rethought the traditional bifurcations between the “here” and “there,” “the modern” and “the colonial,” “the local” and “the global,” and “the domestic” and “the international.” Julia Bates (Boston College), in exploring the United States’ exportation of “American Negro” education models to its West African colonies, brought insights on colonial population management and technologies of rule to traditional understandings of race in the metropolitan United States. Likewise, Zophia Edwards (Providence College) examined the proliferation of Industrial Dispute Tribunals across the British Empire, demonstrating how the diffusion of norms, ideas, and practices are not always unidirectional and can emanate from sites in the periphery to the core. Race and the techniques of racism also formed a critical element of several papers. Marcelo Bohrt (Brown University) examined how institutional and bureaucratic legacies structure racialized forms of hiring and management in the Bolivian Foreign Ministry, describing the daily struggles of what it means to “decolonize” the state apparatus. Miguel Montalva (Northeastern University) turned a similar gaze upon the field of urban sociology by tracing legacies of racialized knowledge production in the Chicago school.
Patricia Ward’s (Boston University) examination of the legacies of Ottoman border controls at work in present day Jordanian migration management spoke directly to the questions surrounding the after-effects and reproductive systems of empire. Likewise, Denise Lim explored the multiple temporalities existent within post-apartheid spaces in Johannesburg and questioned the possibilities of rethinking the role of time and space in sociological thought. Michael Murphy’s paper examined the possibilities for theorizing the formative nature of settler colonialism on persistent legacies of the racialized relation-ship between humans and the environment in the United States. Ricarda Hammer (Brown University), Alexandre White (Boston University), Huseyin Rasit (Yale University) and Olivia Mena’s (University of Texas) papers all drew on postcolonial thinkers to contest our understandings of key sociological concepts. Hammer and White’s paper rethought the concept of revolution through an examination of revolutionary and anti-colonial uprising in Haiti and Liberia, thereby questioning the universality of the French and American revolutions as model forms. Rasit similarly engaged with scholarship on revolution to reconceive the possibilities for radical politics in moments of revolt in the Middle East. Mena’s work, in providing a rigorous archaeology of bordering, challenged theorizing on border walls and the materiality of bordering more broadly. Kristin Plys (University of Toronto) explored the application of Frantz Fanon’s understanding of political uprising to the case of anti-fascist actions during the Emergency (1975-1977) in India.
Rather than rejecting sociology as an imperial form, this workshop sought to channel the promise of postcolonial theory for our discipline. Through an engagement with the imperial legacies of sociology, these papers found a productive way of developing novel sociological routes of inquiry and research trajectories. It is also important to note that, while postcolonial theory has inspired new questions and research areas, this workshop showed that sociological attention to proces-ses, mechanisms, and empirical explanation can contribute to and revive the postcolonial project itself. For example, following Said, postcolonial thought assumes a fairly tight linkage between power and know-ledge whereby knowledge always operates in the benefit of power. Sociology studies these thematics empirically, and allows us to trace the precise relationship between institutions and knowledge, thereby giving us a better understanding not only of how power may coopt knowledge, but also insights into cases where knowledge may act in the service of resistance. Moreover, postcolonial thought draws our attention to the continuing legacy of empire and argues that imperial forms of ruling, knowing, and seeing continue to inform the present. Yet, rather than assuming the persistence of an “imperial unconscious,” sociological process-tracing sets out to show precisely how empire reproduces itself via institutional memory, schemas, practices, and categories.
Most of all, we found that postcolonial sociology allows us to remember the past differently, and thereby urges us to bring to the foreground new ways of understanding the present. An engagement with our imperial past makes visible social processes, forms of rule, and forms of subaltern knowledge that we may have overlooked before. Addressing these imperial entanglements, the workshop showed that the possibilities of a sociological engagement with postcolonial theory are vast, and promises novel sociological analyses that may inspire us to imagine alternative futures.
Go, Julian. 2016. Postcolonial Thought and Social Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.
 The workshop was funded in part by Boston University’s Department of Sociology, the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, and the Associate Dean's Office of Boston University College of Arts and Sciences.