How Can We Weave a World Sociology?

by Raewyn Connell, University of Sydney

Ulrich Beck is an imaginative and original sociologist, and we are all in his debt for his splendid rethinking of European social dynamics in Risk Society.  In the 1990s he, like a number of colleagues, discovered ‘globalization’ and so gave us World Risk Society and What is Globalization?  He now offers this as an agenda for sociologists at large, under the title of ‘cosmopolitan’ sociology.

It is pleasing that Beck is trying to think about sociology on a world scale.  But does he have the right pattern for weaving it?  Beck notes with regret that the discussion on cosmopolitanism has been overwhelmingly Euro-American, but doesn’t stop to discuss why.

The key problem Beck diagnoses in earlier sociology is ‘methodological nationalism’, i.e. methods and theories that assume the nation-state is the container of social reality.  It’s not easy to see methodological nationalism in Street Corner Society, or The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, or Ideology and Utopia, but let that pass.  More importantly, Beck’s history omits the formative first two generations of European-North American sociology, from Comte and Spencer to Engels and Tönnies to Durkheim, Ward, Weber and Sumner.

Nineteenth-century sociology was already globalized.  It did not take the nation-state as its point of reference, but the whole of human history.  It drew a great deal of its data from the colonized world, and its concept of societal ‘progress’ offered a way of understanding global imperialism – then at its height.

Imperialism and colonialism are words that Beck does not utter. Like most globalization theorists, he takes his distance from such crudities as ‘world system and dependency theories’.  He prefers the idea of a boundless interconnectivity, a kind of inkblot of modernity seeping across the world.  An example of banal cosmopolitanization he gives – a common rhetorical move in texts about globalization – is being able to go to a restaurant and eat many cuisines: ‘It is possible with enough money to “eat the world”.’

But let us ask a sociological question about Beck’s example. For what social groups is ‘eating the world’ not possible?  They would include the billion people currently living in absolute poverty.  They would include all rural people; half the world’s population still live outside cities.  Also those women who cannot leave home to go to a restaurant, whether forbidden by patriarchal custom or tied to care of the old or the young.  Also those men and women who are too tired from relentless industrial labour to go skipping between cuisines.  Also those disabled or infected, or members of stigmatised castes or races, who would not be allowed into the restaurant.

In short, this vision of second modernity reflects the experience of a privileged minority, and treats that as the new reality of the world.

Globalization theory, of which Beck’s ‘cosmopolitan’ model is a development, has always worked by taking a model of social analysis developed in Europe and North America, and projecting it onto a world scale.  These ideas derive from intellectuals of the global North, and grow out of Northern experience, indeed out of the experience of privileged groups in the global North.  The decline of nation-states, reflexivity, diversity, interconnectivity, global terrorism, ‘the global other here in our midst’ – can we not hear the Northern narrative in these concepts?

I am writing this comment in Australia, where I live as the great-granddaughter of British colonists.  ‘The global other’ has been ‘here in our midst’, from an Aboriginal point of view, for two hundred years.  The British began the conquest of the territories they later called Australia in 1788, about the time Immanuel Kant was dreaming of perpetual peace and cosmopolitan law in Königsberg.  The Global Other brought fire and sword to the territories later called Latin America more than two hundred years before that.  And the Global Other completed the conquest and exploitation of Africa, an extraordinarily violent process in regions like the Congo, one hundred years later.

In Beck’s analysis, however, the social history of most of the world is not relevant, because ‘there are no permanent systematic hierarchies’ in Second Modernity.  Everyone is structurally enmeshed in reflexive cosmopolitanization, evidently on much the same terms and in the same degree, around the globe.  If only it were true!

The way to break out of the frame of Eurocentric thought is, surely, to study non-Eurocentric frames of thought.  And this is the real problem in contemporary sociological thought, a problem that goes far beyond Beck’s case: the leading practitioners do not study the social thought of the majority world.

In their British Journal of Sociology paper Beck and Grande list ‘the dominant theories in contemporary sociology’ – Bourdieu, Coleman, Foucault, Giddens, Goffman, Habermas, Luhmann, Meyer, Parsons, and even Beck – and note it is a problem when ideas from one society are implicitly applied to society in general.  Correct.  What they don’t say is that Bourdieu, Coleman etc. come not from any random ‘society’, they come specifically from the global metropole, and that is why their theories are dominant.  There is a systematic global hierarchy, and here is its trace.  We don’t find in Beck’s footnotes, nor in the reading lists of most sociological theory courses, Nandy, Hountondji, García Canclini, dos Santos, Quijano, Das, el Sadaawi, Montecino, Shariati, or even Spivak.  These are collectively as brilliant and insightful a group of social thinkers as the first ten – but lack the solid institutional centrality delivered by US and European origin, and are mostly writing about the periphery.

We need a sense of the global sociology of knowledge.  The best account of this comes from the Beninese philosopher Paulin Hountondji and his colleagues.  Colonialism installed a global division of labour in science, which has continued in the postcolonial era. The periphery served mainly as a mine of data, and the moment of theory was located in the metropole.  After the production of theory, knowledge is re-exported to the periphery as applied science, or as a packaged version of science for students to study.  Hountondji describes the characteristic stance of intellectuals in the periphery as one of ‘extroversion’, i.e. being oriented to an external source of authority.  One reads texts from the metropole, learns methods from the metropole, travels to the metropole for advanced training, tries to publish in metropolitan journals and join ‘invisible colleges’ centred in the metropole.  Can readers see any resemblance to sociology?

For the social sciences, some of the most powerful alternatives to metropolitan thought are those that arose not before colonialism, but in response to colonialism and its evolution.  This chapter in the history of social thought concerns figures like Jamal ud-Din al-Afghani, Sun Yatsen, Sol Plaaje, and a later generation such as Frantz Fanon and Ali Shariati.  These are familiar figures in political history, but are not on our lists of ‘classical theorists’ – where perhaps they ought to be, as they began the critical analysis of massive social transformations.

There is a growing movement in sociology to change the reading lists – to recover, value and link the many perspectives in social thought that arise from the colonized and postcolonial world.  Three publications of 2010 mark this moment, called respectively Facing an Unequal World: Challenges for a Global Sociology; The ISA Handbook of Diverse Sociological Traditions; and Decolonizing European Sociology.  In these texts, with others from the periphery published in recent years, there is a wealth of ideas and materials for weaving a truly world sociology.

Australia, Volume 1, Issue 2

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