When postcolonial theory arrived on the academic scene nearly three decades ago it transformed the humanities. Anthropology was hit particularly hard by the injunction to examine how its structures of knowledge were implicated in the political and economic structures of colonialism.
Sociologists are, amongst the social science disciplines, the most attached to the idea of a canon. One of the reasons for this peculiar attachment is the diffuse and imprecise character of our presumed object of study—society. Whereas economists have ‘the market’, historians have ‘the past’, political science has ‘government’, and anthropology has the ‘other’, sociology has ‘society’—the ultimate abstraction. Furthermore, sociology has a proliferation of subfields that don’t even begin to approach unified coherence—culture, sports, history, gender, race, organizations, global (just to name a few) all boast their own sections under the broad disciplinary umbrella. We have neither a single unifying theory nor agreed upon method. The canon thus has a uniquely integrating function. Not in the sense that it provides a single theory or method, far from it. Rather, it provides a shared ritual. Every graduate and undergraduate student must take it, every working sociology professor (in the United States at least) has taken it and every department teaches it. And the departments all seem to teach the same core people (Marx, Weber, and Durkheim) although clearly not in the same way and, of course supplemented by a dizzying array of other scholars, depending upon how individuals and departments choose to define the canon. What is important here is that sociologists rely on a shared sense of their own history in order to create the type of unity and coherence that other disciplines seem to have.
When Connell deconstructed the canon, she made a point that is, although less amplified and controversial in the text’s reception, is no less important. Mainly, that after the disciplinary crisis that struck the discipline after WWI, when its core organizing principle of progress was evacuated of legitimacy, sociology centered itself not only on the abstraction ‘society’ but also in practical terms turned its attention to “difference and disorder within the metropole” (Connell 1997: 1535). A point that Connell does not make, but that I feel is central to understanding the deep implications of decolonizing sociology, is how central the issue of race was to the ‘difference and disorder’ in the metropole that Connell identifies as the practical (yet unacknowledged) ‘substance’ behind the abstraction ‘society’. For much of its history sociology “monopolized” empirical inquiry into the plight of African Americans (Stanfield 1985: 20). This empirical focus gave the discipline a distinct identity and legitimacy. Indeed, during the 1920s, the period that Connell identifies as having ushered in the focus on ‘difference and disorder’ in the metropole in practice and ‘society’ in theory exactly coincided with the period wherein sociology established itself as “the one among the social sciences most persistently committed to a social understanding of race in American life” (McKee 1993: 101).
Although sociology was committed to understanding racism in American life, it did not do so very successfully. James McKee noted that one of the more spectacular pieces of evidence of the discipline’s failure was its utter inability to foresee the massive social explosions of the 1960s. McKee attributes this failure, in no small part, to the standpoint of the people who stood (and oftentimes continue to stand) at the center of the discipline: people who are gendered as male, categorized as White, and who hail from the professional managerial class. Gurminder Bhambra summed up the essence of the problem well with her observation that:
Race was viewed as politically important except by those who benefitted from its contemporary organization and who, in the process of being professional sociologists and ignoring the reality of the political conditions of their time legitimated the existing social inequalities of class, race, and gender, within American society (2014: 478).
Crucially, therefore, the shift in focus to ‘difference and disorder in the metropole’ (and thus ‘race’ in a peculiarly American way) coincided with sociology’s deep suppression of the discipline’s roots in colonialism via the construction of the classical canon which bestowed sociology with a new ‘origin’ story. The fact that “the making of the canon deleted the discourse of imperialism from sociology” (Connell 1997: 1545) is deeply connected to the ways in which race is positioned epistemologically in sociology’s conceptual and interpretive architecture. Therefore, decolonizing the discipline will require a thorough reexamination and revision of sociology’s history, with particular attention being paid to how sociology dealt with the so-called ‘Negro Problem’. This historical reexamination also holds general implications for how we might lend concreteness to the very expansive and sometimes inchoate process we call disciplinary ‘decolonization’.
Counter-Histories and Connected Sociologies: Remembering the Past Differently
Why is it that attempts to decolonize the discipline are so readily misperceived as ‘trashing’ one group or another or trying to pull a ‘guilt trip’? One of the sources of the misunderstanding stems from a lack of understanding on the part of at least some sociologists that the ways in which sociology’s origin story was constructed has important conceptual implications. Connell notes that “none of the elected fathers actually motivates the empirical activities of post-1920 sociology at all well” (Connell 1997: 1545). This is precisely because of how even the discipline’s recognized founders are remembered. Take, for example, Auguste Comte. Although he is not well recognized for having done so, he did write quite a bit on slavery—a fact that has been written extensively about only in one journal, however, The Journal of Negro Education by a sociologist working at a historically Black college, Fisk University (Ireland 1951). The author of the three-volume definitive history of Comte’s life, Mary Pickering, also saw fit to write an article, “Auguste Comte and the Return to Primitivism” which described how Comte “repeatedly condemned missionaries in West and Central Africa for their disrespect of primitive populations” (1998: 65). Comte was not the only one of our recognized founders to take on issues of slavery and colonialism. The work of Andrew Zimmerman (2016) and Kevin Anderson (2016) demonstrates that Marx also wrote extensively about American slavery and European colonialism. Andrew Zimmerman (2006; 2010) and Lawrence Scaff (2011) have also written extensively on how Max Weber’s analysis of the ‘Polish Question’ in Germany and the ‘Negro Question’ in the United States and West Africa “fundamentally shaped his social scientific work” (Zimmerman 2006: 53). Likewise, Emile Durkheim not only relied heavily on ethnographic work on Native Americans and indigenous people in Australia to make his arguments on organic and mechanical solidarity on The Division of Labor in Society, he also wrote specifically about the relationship between ethnology and sociology, noting that “ethnography rendered great services to sociology when the latter was formed” (1907: 209).
A key aspect of decolonizing the sociological canon, therefore, involves reading the classics differently, with an eye to seeing how many of the concepts that are central to sociological thinking—the social organism, the social group and the processes that are central to our understanding like social cohesion, social disorganization—took the shape that they did because of the founders’ engagement with what Bhambra (2013) usefully terms “the colonial global” (295). Max Weber, for example, first developed the ideas that would one day be expressed in their fullest form in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism from his interest in forced labor in the American South. Schiff (2011) demonstrates convincingly that Weber’s contact with W.E.B. Du Bois and his travels through the American South were eventually abstracted from their immediate socio-political context, reworked, and made a key part of the conceptual apparatuses of his work on class, status, nationality, domination and authority.
Weber’s connection to Du Bois, explored by Schiff (2011), Zimmerman and (2010), and Morris (2016) all point to another key part of the decolonization effort—the restoration of intellectuals that were excluded. The period that Connell identifies as the period during which the canon was formed—the 1920s—was also the time when America was a thoroughly Jim Crow society. This dynamic worked its way into the writing of sociology’s new origin story in a particularly insidious way. Just as sociology determined that ‘difference and disorder in the metropole’ would be its substantive content, while the canon would provide a new disciplinary genealogy, sociology was also professionalizing as a ‘Jim Crow’ discipline. As Bhambra points out, “U.S sociology has been historically segregated in that, at least until the 1960s, there were two distinct institutionally organized traditions of sociological thought—one black and one white” (2014: 472). As a Jim Crow discipline, sociology did not include the thought or writings of African Americans, who were writing about difference and disorder in the metropole from an entirely different vantage point—one that recognized that their ‘difference’ was neither a function of their innate qualities, nor even a true social fact. The construction of African Americans as ‘different’ stemmed primarily from a racist social ontology. Likewise, what mainstream sociology defined as ‘disorder’ African American sociologists recognized as being quite functional for the American social system. Hence, Anna Julia Cooper observed that American social thought had yet to develop “intelligent and sympathetic comprehension of the interests and special needs of the Negro” (1886: 31).
There are many other names besides Cooper and Du Bois that can be added under the general heading ‘African-American founders’. Charles S. Johnson arrived at the University of Chicago in 1917 and wrote The Negro in Chicago, which was the first comprehensive social scientific analysis of American racism in the post WWI era. Johnson also wrote In the Shadow of the Plantation and Collapse of the Cotton Tenancy. The former was a descriptive study of African American farmers in Alabama. The latter was about agrarian reform in the plantation south. Monroe Nathan Work was the first African American to publish an article, “Crime Among the Negroes in Chicago,” in the American Journal of Sociology. In the article he refuted the idea that “Negro degeneracy” was the root cause of rising crime rates and instead proposed that “the economic stress under which he has labored appears to be the main factor” (223). Johnson, Work, DuBois, and Cooper did not seek to erase the history of colonialism, slavery, and racism. Nor were they afraid to make America’s participation in these systems of oppression a key component of their sociological analysis. Thus, a revision of the cannon would not only include them as so-called ‘different voices’ but would insist that ‘difference’ actually “make a difference to the original categories” (2007: 878, emphasis in original). Central to the decolonization effort as well will be to rigorously engage these scholars in ways that interrogate and emphasize their intellectual disagreements. It is long overdue that we treat these scholars as representative of particular strains of thought, each of which engaged not only modernity, but also the interpretive categories of sociology differently, rather than lump them under the homogenizing label of ‘African-American thought’.
Anderson, Kevin B. 2010. Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bhambra, Gurminder K. 2014. “A Sociological Dilemma: Race, Segregation, and US Sociology.” Current Sociology 62(4): 472-492.
-----. 2013. “The Possibilities Of, And For, Global Sociology: A Postcolonial Perspective.” Political Power and Social Theory 24: 295-314.
------. 2007. “Sociology and Postcolonialism: Another ‘Missing’ Revolution? Sociology 41 (5): 871-884.
Collins, Randall. 1998. “A Sociological Guilt Trip: Comment on Connell.” American Journal of Sociology 102 (6): 1558-1564.
Connell, R.W. 1997. “Why is Classical Theory Classical?” American Journal of Sociology 102 (6): 1511-1557.
Cooper, Anna Julia. 1988 . A Voice From the South. New York: Oxford.
Durkheim, Emile. 1982 . The Rules of Sociological Method and Selected Texts on Sociology and Its Method. New York: The Free Press.
Ireland, Ralph R. 1951. “Auguste Comte’s Views on Slavery.” The Journal of Negro Education. 20 (4): 558-561.
McKee, James B. 1993. Sociology and the Race Problem: The Failure of a Perspective. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Morris, Aldon. 2017. “The State of Sociology: The Case for Systemic Change.” Social Problems 64: 206-211.
-----. 2016. The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. DuBois and the Birth of American Sociology. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Pickering, Mary. 1998. “Auguste Comte and the Return to Primitivism.” Revue Internationale de Philosophie. 52 (203): 51-77.
Scaff, Lawrence A. 2011. Max Weber in America. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Stanfield, John. 1985. Philanthropy and Jim Crow in American Social Science. Westport: Greenwood.
Work, Monroe Nathan. 1900. “Crime Among the Negroes of Chicago.” American Journal of Sociology 6 (September): 204-223.
Zimmerman, Andrew. 2016. The Civil War in the United States: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. New York: International Publishers.
-----. 2010. Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire & Globalization of the New South. Princeton: Princeton University Press.