decolonizing classical theory: some appreciatively skeptical thoughts

Yesterday’s panel on teaching classical social theory was fantastic. Erin McDonnell did a great job organizing and facilitating, and the four panelists — Greta Krippner, Jose Itzigsohn, Zine Magubane, and Jocelyn Viterna — offered really thoughtful, measured, and inspiring ideas. The session was remarkably well-attended, particularly for summer: I think around 100 people showed up. Awesome!

I want to raise a few thoughts about what I hope will be ongoing discussions and reforms in this vein.

Classical theory isn’t classical, and it’s not (necessarily) even theory. This was a theme among many of the panelists. What we think of as “classical” sociological theory was itself the result of a series of intellectual-historical developments, each of them contingent upon theoretical projects. The argument by reference to tradition is therefore  particularly tenuous, since the tradition itself just isn’t that old! It’s not plausible to claim that it’s the classical canon that holds our discipline together, since the discipline has changed the canon many times.

Furthermore, in comparison with what many of us see as theoretical work now, much of the classical canon isn’t theoretical; that is, it doesn’t propose predictions or really afford empirical purchase. I am not sympathetic to this concern, as I think “theory” deserves a much broader catchment than that. But it’s true that what we’d want our students to do as theory doesn’t look a whole lot like CapitalElementary Forms, or Economy and Society.

“Who’s in? Who’s out?” are un-sociological questions. Dr. Magubane made a really important point in her presentation: that each of the theorists we teach wrote many different texts, and that these texts don’t form a single, seamless body of work. When we ask questions like “who’s in, who’s out?”, we perform a substitution, symbolically replacing the text we read with the person who wrote it. Nobody currently teaching has been in a room with Marx, Weber, or Durkheim; a few, perhaps, with du Bois; more with Goffman, Bourdieu, and Foucault. None of these, nor Cooper, Martineau, Wells, or Comte, is in any of our theory classes. If we take a cue from our colleagues in the humanities, we can and should understand these as texts, produced in a particular set of relations, and interpreted and consumed through additional sets of relations. And we can then ask: what role does/has each of these texts play(ed) in constraining and enabling interesting, important, accurate inquiry into the social world? This is a much more sociological way of understanding the texts as well, since as Dr. Krippner emphasized, perhaps the core principle of sociological theory is that the social is distinct, independent, and ontologically separate from the individual.

Modernity is fully imbricated with colonialism. The contemporary world is the result of generations of iterative developments, each partially dependent on the prior. Modernity as we know it–and as it spawned our discipline–is inextricable from colonialism, and the “good” elements of that fact are inseparable from the “bad.” One tragic effect of that fact is that there are no voices, ideas, or perspectives that are innocent to the reality of colonialism; a history without colonialism is unrecoverable, even fictional. Indeed, I believe the attempt to locate such voices (most common in discussions of the indigenous ) devolves into an indefensible, essentialist claim to timeless authenticity, and potentially into the racist trope of the noble savage.

Examining and revealing the dynamics of this fact is not only appropriate, it’s urgent, and I think that’s a crucial place to focus theoretical energy. But let’s not pretend we can ever fully disentangle the colonial from the modern; the racial from the enlightened.

The claims of European and decolonial “perspectives” are empirical claims to be demonstrated, not normative positions to be adopted. Dr. Itzigsohn’s discussion was founded on the historical fact that the canonical theorists were theorizing European modernity and extrapolated that theory to the entire world. (I’m not sure that’s actually true; certainly all of them sought to grasp non-European peoples, though very much through colonial and racialized lenses.)  His recommendations included providing theory from non-European “perspectives.” Can we talk for a moment about the metaphor of “perspective?” It’s a visual term referring to the idea that what one sees is based upon where one is seeing it from. In our context, using the term “perspective” implies an empirical claim: that theoretical insight is the product of the specific national-cultural environment from which the author of the theory emerged; and furthermore that such perspective limits the general utility of the theory. (This is my inference, not something stated in the session.)

That may be true, though I have strong suspicion that it’s not. Either way, though, it deserves empirical investigation, not normative adoption. Is it the case, for example, that texts written by du Bois cannot be successfully applied to 21st century Europe, or 20th century Latin America? Or that Weberian analysis of bureaucracy is of no relevance to the South African apartheid state’s operations? To me these seem like self-evidently false claims, yet they seem to me to derive directly from the claim of perspective constraint.

Another implication is that all theories are necessarily perspectival. But in my view the whole goal of theory is to transcend perspectives: to offer processes of abstraction and communication that allow us to compare, commensurate, and analyze new and different realities. Certainly some theories–e.g., those in physics or mathematics–are not perspectival; their claims can be evaluated by any investigator suitably equipped with the concepts and apparatus to do so. (And yes of course that equipment is unequally distributed in many dimensions.) Sociology will never develop such a fully abstract theory, nor, probably, should we. But let’s don’t retreat fully into radical perspectivalism at least without interrogating the empirical claims it entails.

How I’ll adapt my teaching

I won’t be teaching theory (undergrad or grad) in the near future, so I am fortunate to have some time to continue to listen, read, think, and reflect upon these questions. My syllabi have changed a lot in the 19 years since I began teaching theory, and I plan to approach the next time ready to change them again. At UNC we have only one semester of theory (both for undergraduate and graduate students), so there is no classical theory course per se. In teaching the classical portion of my graduate seminar, I see the educational goals as:

  1. Decentering students’ view of the world and history: the sheer idea that there are multiple coherent, plausible, and foundational ways of understanding society is crucial, particularly given that most UNC students will spend most of their graduate careers doing relatively presentist, methodologically individualist empirical work.
  2. Introducing and defending the ontological reality of the social: as I put it in my intro class, interrogating the proposition that the fundamental unit of human behavior is the group.
  3. Grasping the foundational role of inequalities in social order, social change, and social reproduction.
  4. and yes… Providing a touchpoint on texts that very many of their future colleagues will also have read.

Thank you very much to the four panelists and to Dr. McDonnell for the session, and for the ongoing great conversations.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

8 thoughts on “decolonizing classical theory: some appreciatively skeptical thoughts”

  1. As usual, your thoughts are insightful here. But two parts struck me as strawmen. Perhaps there are people making these claims, but I don’t think they are the best (or the majority) versions of the arguments.

    The first is that “decolonize” means “remove all traces of and stop talking about” colonialism (my harsh paraphrasing). Empirically, authors claiming to do decolonial work talk *extensively* about colonialism as both historical and ongoing condition, and they have no desire to stop those conversations.

    The second is that scholars point out “perspectives” in order to advance a sort of “radical perspectivalism.” Again, my sense is that the work talking about perspectives is interested in why for example Du Bois or Fanon saw different things about the social world than their white colleagues, or why they saw the same things in different ways. If social position influences the kinds of questions and answers a knower considers, then we move toward “more complete” knowledge by bringing in diversely positioned scholars and avoiding homogeneous syllabi. To take Jason Owen-Smith’s very helpful words out of context, we should “maximize our variance” when seeking insights. So it’s not that an insight from Weber can never apply to other social contexts, but rather that we won’t have the fullest picture of those contexts without the insights of multiple people, differently positioned. This is at the heart of even arguments that some perspectives are/should be “privleged” as more informed, such as Patricia Hill Collins’ argument that because Black women need to be competent in both their own marginalized social worlds and dominant/majority worlds, their insider/outsider or outsider-within standpoint gives them greater insight than people who haven’t experienced/learned an alternative.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m going to address the perspective questions in a separate comment below. But as for the “decolonize” question: there was a discussion on the call about how to get beyond voices that respond to colonialism in the hope of rescuing voices that are authentically indigenous, which I took to mean untouched by colonialism. I could certainly be misunderstanding that idea, but I think it’s part of the “decolonize” strain, from classics like Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Decolonizing the Mind to the recent, wonderful Hungry Listening by Dylan Robinson. Reading culture and society (sychronically and diachronically) in terms of the many differing experiences of colonialism strikes me as precisely the “maximizing variation” principle, and totally right. But seeking to recover a noncolonial authentic voice seems as impossible on the social level as trying to identify an authentic presocial self on the individual level.


  2. This is nice. I like the idea that perspectivalism is an empirical claim. Also, this: “the sheer idea that there are multiple coherent, plausible, and foundational ways of understanding society.” Would that we could teach that. But this is cancellable: “the whole goal of theory is to transcend perspectives”


  3. Thank you Andrew for your insights. I especially like the hypothesis that perspectivism is an empirical claim, because I agree. However, I also think that it has been quite established. It may depend upon what you and Jose mean by pespectivism, but in my view, it’s akin to the debate on scientific perspectivalism and there is great work already in the philosophy of science and STS on this. Scientific perspectivalists have done fantastic empirical work showing that all knowledge is perspectival, even in the most ‘hard’ sciences, and that there is no ‘view from nowhere’. That work is empirical, mind you, it studies how scientific knowledge is actually produced (hence this work overlaps with STS). I’d call this “perspectival realism,” and I think it also applies to social theory. I’ve written about this in my book on Postcolonial Thought and Social Theory, and in various other settings (including in my recent Coser lecture published in Sociological Theory and an article in the Italian journal Sociologica), so I don’t want to get into all the details here, but those interested in this debate over whether a fully non-perspectival theory is possible, and whether there are empirical studies to back perspectivism, might want to see that literature (look at my references in those works I mentioned). Point is: I think there is some good literature not only by Dubois etc but also by philosophers of science and STS on this issue of perspectivism, and we’d do well to look at it (I’ve also some ’empirical’ research into the history of US sociology showing empirically how much of it is perspectival, though the perspectival realism epistemology and philosophy is more implicit in that work). Also, feminist theory has of course covered this issue as well, esp. Sandra Harding. So there’s lots more there to think with too. In any case, thanks for the provocations.


  4. Thanks to everyone, particularly Jose and Julian, for great ideas. A lot of the discussion has been about perspectivalism, and I think there’s some straw-man thinking going on both sides of this debate (emphatically including “mine”!) so let me do some rethinking here after reading these thoughts.

    I accept the principle that all knowledge is in some way partial, both in the scientific and in the positionality sense. In the scientific sense, I’d argue that that partiality is actually the necessary condition of knowledge, as completeness of evidence actually hinders understanding (as the socio-genetic literature is so painfully showing). So I will certainly not defend the idea that there is a “view from nowhere” or otherwise universal or complete knowledges. But perspective means different things in different contexts. Perspective in the arts, for example, is often about agentic choice. In science, too, scholars seek to achieve specific perspective through determined activity. Yet in social theory perspective is treated as largely fixed (“product of one’s culture”) and limiting.

    But the question, then, is what is the role of what kind of perspective in developing what kind of knowledge. Jose insists that these are not “incommensurable.” Why not? What epistemology can, on the one hand, insist that canonical thinkers were irretrievably hamstrung by their cultural position and can only be rescued through competing subaltern perspectives, but on the other hand be prepared to commensurate these perspectives? What would be the terrain for their commensuration? We know from the literature on commensuration that it is a meaning-making activity in itself; commensuration creates the terrain on which it is carried out.

    So, I think, we are left with sort of a middle ground: perspective matters, but is not absolute. The terrain of commensuration — of negotiating among theoretical innovations — is the work of theory. But in order to be able to do that work, the theory can neither be fully bound by, nor thoroughly exhausted by, its authors’ perspectives. That’s where my interest in the generalizing power of theory comes in. Theory is unacceptably impoverished by reducing its ambition to the expression of differing perspectives; it comes alive when experiences and observations (and, yes, perspectives) are theorized. When they are explored thematically to become tools for comparison, contrast, and commensuration. (One great example of this is the “second sight”/”double consciousness” point Jose discusses: stated thematically, that people marginalized through power gain unique insight into not only their own culture but also the culture of their oppressors.)

    Being in this middle ground is why I think this is an important empirical question. How much of people’s knowledge, ideas, and discursive capacity is bound by their perspectives? Which elements of their perspectives (race, gender, class, sexuality, national origin, historical epoch, religion, etc.) are relatively binding and which relatively less so? What practices of commensuration allow for generalization of perspectives and which do not? These seem to be investigable questions and ones that will help grasp the analytic value of decolonializing theory.


    1. Thanks for your clarification, Andy. I see what you mean when you say that the question about the limits/perspectives of people’s knowledge is an empirical one. I do think one final distinction is worth clarifying, though, because so many people when they discuss perspectivism or standpoints err here: that is between the perspective (and hence biases/limits) of individuals’ knowledge vs. groups’ knowledge vs. theory/concepts. In my view, the question of the canon and decolonial theory is not one of individuals’ knowledge. It is partly about groups’ knowledge but it is mainly about the knowledge generated through theories/concepts: at stake is the biases/limits/partiality of theories/concepts rather than the perspective (and hence cognitive biases) or individuals or groups. Of course, those theories/concepts are generated by individuals and groups, and the latter influences theory and concept development. But the individuals/groups’ perspectives are not the same as the perspective offered in the theory/concepts: I, as an individual, could fully have knowledge that reflects a variety of different perspectives but the theory/concepts I generate will necessarily be selective and partial nonetheless – hence it will represent only one or at least a limited range of perspectives no matter how multi-perspectival my knowledge as an individual may be. So while I think individuals and even groups can overcome their narrow perspectives, and while I agree the range of that overcoming is an empirical question, theory/concepts cannot be overcome their perspectives, because they are necessarily selective and hence partial (every “map” is perspectival and hence partial). This is why I think that a “universal” theory is impossible (and by the impossibility of universal theory, I do not mean the impossibility of generalization – those are different too). Thanks again for the stimulating convo. Best, Julian


  5. Just a quick clarification. My argument is not about culture or cultural essentialism. Not in the case of indigenous perspectives nor in the case of European perspectives (I don’t argue that “canonical thinkers were irretrievably hamstrung by their cultural position”). My argument is about how power and privilege: how a global history of racism and colonialism produced different social positions and experiences that shaped how people saw and still see the world. And how some social positions have had the power to define social reality, including defining the racial and colonial as non-human and erasing their histories and experiences from our knowledge production. And, yes, about how sociology has been and still is complicit with that.


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