on decolonizing sociological theory – a reply to perrin

This is a guest post by Jose Itzigsohn, written in response to my prior post .

Erin McDonnell organized a wonderful panel on Rethinking Sociological Theory and Andrew Perrin published in Scatterplot a thoughtful response to the panel that included a critique of my arguments. I asked Prof. Perrin whether Scatterplot would publish my response and he readily agreed. I thank him and welcome the opportunity to elaborate on the call to decolonize sociological theory.

In my presentation I argued that:

  • Theory is important because it confronts us with our assumptions about social
    structures, history, and individuals in society. Different theoretical approaches provide different perspectives on society and promote different empirical research programs. They tell us what questions and what methodologies of inquiry are legitimate.
  • Although there are many differences between the European male thinkers that
    Sociology has canonized as founders (even though everyone knows that this is a fiction), they all shared a Eurocentric perspective. This does not mean that they didn’t see racialized and colonized people, or the existence of empires: Marx saw the brutality of British colonialism in India, still he considered it historically necessary; Durkheim knew about Australia’s indigenous people. But he saw them as primitive and was not concerned with the genocide that settler colonialism produced. Weber was an apologist of German imperialism. For all their many differences, these three thinkers saw European modernity and history as universal and put non-European peoples and societies in “the waiting room of history.”
  • I further argued that in order to decolonize sociological theory (and the discipline) it is necessary to:
    1. Provincialize European social theory. We need to see it as rooted in a time and a place and understand the assumptions and limits that that rootedness produced.
    2. Teach alternative perspectives that look at the world from the standpoint of
      different histories and experiences.
  • A decolonial perspective, I argued in my presentation, offers a very different vision of modernity and the discipline (than mainstream sociology):
    • a. Sees modernity as global and tied to racism and colonialism,
    • b. Brings racism and heteropatriarchy to the center of all fields of sociology,
    • c. Is deeply rooted in the historical understanding of the present,
    • d. Emphasizes theorizing from experience and particular standpoints.

If I read it correctly, Prof. Perrin’s critique focuses on the following points:

  1. That there are no “essential” standpoints not imbricated with colonialism.
  2. That the claim that there are European and alternative perspectives need to be
    demonstrated, not assumed.
  3. That embracing perspectivism questions the general utility of theory
  4. That theory can and should transcend perspectives

I agree with Prof. Perrin that there are no essential perspectives that exist outside of history. The argument for perspectivism, however, is not an argument for essentialism. The argument is that our historical experiences and positionalities affect what we see and how we see it. As Karida Brown and I argue in The Sociology of W. E. B. Du Bois, this is what is at the heart of the theory of double consciousness: People who live behind the veil can see the white world because they need to confront it all the time. While for whites it is difficult to see the other side of the veil because they have the power to define the situation and they don’t need to engage with the gaze of the racialized.

This argument is congruent with a pragmatist view on the formation of knowledge: knowledge is the product of individuals and societies confronting the practical problems they face. And Du Bois’s theory of double consciousness was indeed influenced by the pragmatism of William James, of whom Du Bois was a student. But Du Bois was able to see what James and other pragmatists like Mead were not able to see: the effects of the color line on self and knowledge. He was able to see this because the color line was a problem that he confronted every day of his life — as he compellingly put it: how does it feel to be a problem? — while it was not a problem for James and Mead. In Dusk of Dawn Du Bois indeed says that were it not for the fact of race, he would have been an apologist of the American system.

The experiences and practical problems we confront in everyday life—experiences and
problems shaped by historical structures—affect what we see and how we see it. This does not mean that all the people who share similar historical experiences have the same perspective. Du Bois is clear that this is not the case (see for example his essay on Booker T. Washington in Souls). Du Bois also had bitter polemics with Washington on the  one hand and Marcus Garvey on the other. The three had very different responses to the color line. Yet, what the three had in common is that they had to address the color line. When I teach Anna Julia Cooper and Du Bois in my classical theory seminar, I don’t teach an essential Black perspective but two perspectives that have in common that they are constructed based on experiences of encounters with racism (in the same way that Marx and Weber present very different perspectives on capitalism, yet both share a Eurocentric vision).

Similarly, the call for the inclusion of indigenous perspectives is not a call for essential perspectives rooted in ethnic or national cultures. Rather, it is a call to bring into  sociology perspectives on modernity rooted in the histories of indigenous peoples. It is a call to address the core elements of the indigenous historical experience: settler colonialism, displacement, genocide, and the struggle for land and cultural survival. Certainly, none of the classical thinkers had anything to say about this, nor any of the theorists we usually teach in contemporary sociology courses. The call for including indigenous voices is then a call to analyze modernity from the perspective of indigenous histories and experiences. See for example Coulthard’s engagement with Fanon in Red Skin, White Masks that shows how an emancipatory project looks different from the perspective of the parallel struggles against colonialism and settler

The historical structural facts of racism, settler colonialism, and heteropatriarchy, affect people differently, creating different experiences and positionalities. As a result, for some people it is easier to see and theorize those structural historical elements as fundamental problems, and others, usually members of dominant group, have a more difficult time understanding the experiences of the subaltern and the theories that emerge from those experiences. Does this mean that White people can’t see or understand the realities of racism or colonialism? Du Bois argues against this view. In his biography of John Brown, Du Bois shows how John Brown was able to see the reality of enslavement and dedicate his life to abolishing it. But most White people were indifferent to the question of the enslavement of human beings and even more to the question of the equality of Black people.

Similarly, there is a number of White sociologists that have been able to theorize and analyze the centrality of racism to America and to modernity. The names of Herbert Blumer, Robert Blauner, Stephen Steinberg, Joe Feagin, and Howard Winant come to mind, and there are of course others. Whatever circumstances of their lives led them to see racism as a problem they needed to confront. But the mainstream of the discipline has been able to conduct its work and build entire fields ignoring the centrality of racism and colonialism to every aspect of life. The same is true for heteropatriarchy.

Does this claim still need empirical testing? I don’t think so. There is compelling historical evidence to support it. Demands for the inclusion of gender perspectives in  sociology come not surprisingly from women scholars. Intersectionality as a perspective  emerged from Black feminists. The demand that we expand the teaching of theory comes mostly from scholars and students of color. And resistance to all these has usually been the province of White faculty (there is no reason to assume that Blumer’s argument about sense of group position does not apply to academics). Of course, these demands did not come from all minority faculty and students or from all women and there were always white and male allies that supported the inclusion of critical race or gender perspectives. But the broad trend is that those who brought critical perspectives into sociology are those that experienced racism, colonialism and heteropatriarchy as problems in their lifeworld.

What about the generality of theory then? What about its abstract and detached character? From this perspective, social science theory is always situated and historicized. The goal is not to create abstract and general theory, detached from time and place, but to create theory rooted in experience and history. And this is, I believe, the crux of the disagreement between Prof. Perrin’s views on theory and mine: If we accept the perspectival position, then we accept that in the social sciences there is no abstract detached position to look at the world. Sociology has been built on that presupposition, but perspectivism asserts that an abstract detached position does not exist. Every social science theory is situated in a standpoint and in history. Social scientists need to be reflective about their standpoints and the roots of their theories.

The call to decolonize sociology, however, is not a call for radical relativism: perspectives are not incommensurable. They each promote empirical research programs and methodologies that can be contrasted. Furthermore, encountering a new perspective is an experience that can change people’s definition of the situation, provided that they are willing to try to see the world from a perspective different than theirs. My call is to open the discipline to a variety of perspectives from multiple standpoints, and to encourage a vigorous theoretical and methodological debate about the times in which we live and the discipline we want.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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