review: “postcolonial thought and social theory” by julian go

Last week, my graduate theory students read Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America. Next week, we’re reading The Souls of Black Folk. When I took graduate social theory (twice!), I didn’t read Du Bois. I didn’t even know I wasn’t reading him; that is, his absence from the syllabus went unremarked. Fast forward a decade or so and, thanks especially to the efforts of Aldon Morris, Du Bois is increasingly treated as a central social theorist, worthy of inclusion on equal terms with the old big three (Marx, Weber, and Durkheim). Reading Julian Go’s new book Postcolonial Thought and Social Theory in the middle of our Du Bois unit proved to be both useful and provocative. If you or someone you know is pondering how to broaden the canon in your theory class – to include Du Bois and then to go beyond his work – Go’s book makes for an interesting call to arms.

Postcolonial Thought tries to reconcile the seemingly incompatible: postcolonial theory, represented in the work of humanists like Said, Spivak, and Chakrabarty, with mainstream sociology and its theoretical tradition and predilections. Go situates Du Bois – along with Fanon and Césaire – as part of the first wave of postcolonial thought. These thinkers laid the groundwork for the movement that becomes postcolonial theory in the 1970s and 1980s. These authors made three fundamental, and connected, moves that Go identifies as central to the postcolonial project: foregrounding empire as an influential structuring force and category of analysis, rejecting analytical bifurcation (the tendency to binarize and treat as isolated “the west” vs. “the rest”, “the North” vs. “the South”, the “developed” and the “developing”, and so on), and emphasizing the agency of the colonized. Black Reconstruction showcases especially the last of these three moves brilliantly. For example, Du Bois demonstrates the centrality of slave revolts and freed slaves’ labor and military service to the Union’s victory in the Civil War.

Sociology, in Go’s account, largely succumbs to these theoretical errors, ignoring or downplaying the centrality of empire to the histories of both metropole and colony, treating the two worlds as separate and of distinct kinds, and downplaying the agency of the colonized. Together, these claims constitute “the postcolonial challenge.” But how is sociology to respond?

Go argues that social theory has already at its disposal the tools needed to learn from, and even improve upon, postcolonial theory. In particular, Go identifies three moves sociology must make, and the resources available to begin making them: embracing relationism, adopting a perspectival realism, and rejecting metrocentrism. By relationism, Go has in mind an ontological perspective that deemphasizes substances or essences and foregrounds relations, what’s usually called “relational sociology.” Go offers two wonderful examples of relational approaches: a Bourdieuian analysis of how Haiti’s revolution influenced France’s, and an actor-network theoretic account of the role of Indian textiles in the British industrial revolution. Bourdieu and Latour are not precisely postcolonial theorists, but their work offers tools well-suited to meet the postcolonial challenge.

Similarly, Go points to feminist standpoint theory as developed by Hartsock, Haraway, Collins and others as a way to embrace a perspectival realism that threads the dangerous pass between imperialist universalism and naive particularism. Go argues that we can be realists (believing in a world out there, beyond discourse) without being universalist. Standpoint theorists make just such a move when they argue that social reality looks different for individuals situated differently with regard to major axes of power (first class and later especially gender). Go argues for a subaltern standpoint theory which would foreground the perspectives of those in subaltern positions without rejecting the possibility of making generalizable knowledge. For example, Go notes how Du Bois’s concept of “the veil” might travel to other colonial settings – a realist claim involving generalization – but that we can’t know for sure until we go and look from the perspective of the colonized in that setting.

Embracing relationism and perspectival realism will allow sociology to meet the postcolonial challenge – if we choose to. That is, we still must turn those tools away from “metrocentrism.” Go points to traditions like world-systems analysis for (partial) successes in decentering the metropole, and suggest sociology has more work to do. The victory of the book, I think, is in showing that sociology can do this work by building on strands already present. After all, Weber already showed us the value of interpretive understanding from the perspective of historically and politically situated actors, even if Weber himself failed to explore the subaltern standpoint. As Go writes:

“This elision of the subaltern standpoint by Weber is, of course, ironic: was it not Weber who insisted that social science should investigate the subjectivity of actors to meet the task of explanation? It was. But evidently he only meant it for Calvinists. Meaning is for metropolitans. A subaltern standpoint approach, alternatively, recovers meanings for all.” (Go 2016: 177)

The book is probably ideal for readers with a little background in postcolonial thought who are trying to figure out how to connect up those ideas to more mainstream sociological inquiry. The long summary chapter on postcolonial theory is fantastically useful, but very dense, and without at least a little prior background a reader might get lost. The later chapters, and especially the examples of postcolonial-compatible moves in more mainstream theory drawn from diverse theorists and traditions, are very clarifying. In a two-semester graduate theory course, I could imagine assigning Go’s book (whole or in parts) late in the second term, after a week spent grappling with postcolonial theory itself (and hopefully having already read a fair bit of Du Bois in the first term, and ideally a little Foucault, Bourdieu, and Latour in-between as Go connects a lot of these dots in the text).

Beyond teaching, it will be interesting to see how Go’s book – and postcolonial theory more generally – influence research over the coming years. The implications for comparative historical scholarship are reasonably clear (and the examples showcase the strength of the approach). But how should we change other modes of inquiry? How should we change our basic questions? What does it mean to make empire as central as race, class, and gender to our understanding of the present and its past?

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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