The real world exists outside our metropoles

December 21, 2007

Social science theories are rooted in Europe and the US, ignoring
other cultures' social thought, says Raewyn Connell.


What do Milton Friedman, Talcott Parsons, Michel Foucault, Jurgen
Habermas, Claude Levi-Strauss, Max Weber, John Maynard Keynes, Karl Marx
and Herbert Spencer have in common?


They are all famous figures in social science, ten points. They are all
men, another ten points. They are all white, 15 bonus points. They all
come from the rich, highly capitalised countries of the global North, 50
points.


The default setting in social science says this does not matter. Theories
and methods are written in abstract universals, apply everywhere, and it
is irrelevant where they come from.


Usual practice of social science in countries outside the global North
accepts this logic. Students often work from textbooks written in the US
or the UK without realising it. When they have texts with local research
findings, these generally consist of concepts from the global North
applied to data from local sources. That is the shape of knowledge in most
research funded by mainstream granting bodies, whether in Africa or
Australia.


Australian universities want their staff to have "international"
reputations and publish papers in "international" journals, which doesn't
mean Taiwan or Rwanda - it means Europe and the US. On sabbatical, on
conference leave, we head for Paris, London, Boston, Berkeley. It is
common sense: that is where the ideas we work with are produced.


In another common sense, this could be seen as acute cultural dependence.
The Beninese philosopher Paulin Hountondji describes the situation of
science in the universities of the post-colonial world as "extraverted",
systematically oriented to the global centre. He is right.


This is a problem for the natural sciences; it is a disaster for the
social sciences, because of their object of knowledge. Social processes in
different regions of the world involve different relations to "global"
culture, profoundly different histories, differently shaped economies,
different relations to the land and space, different dynamics of social
change.


Trying to describe all social experiences in terms generated in the
metropole, hardly even noticing we are doing so, opens the analysis to
systematic distortion. We generate pictures of non-metropolitan social
order as seen from London, Paris and New York. Even worse, we generate
pictures of the rest of the world that reproduce the global North's
picture of itself. I have seen not one, but many, social-science accounts
of Australia that argue as if it were another Illinois, another
Middlesex.


Not everyone in the social sciences has gone along with this logic. Half a
century ago, the great Argentine economist Raul Prebisch criticised the
"false universalism" of both classical and Keynesian economics and
proposed an economics growing from the experience and the interests of the
global periphery. In the same generation, the West Indian psychiatrist
Frantz Fanon developed a powerful psychology of domination and resistance
out of the experience of colonialism.


Indeed, most of the world faces problems about intellectual dependence and
autonomy, and this has produced widespread debate - following different
contours in different regions. In Latin America, for instance, debate
centred for a generation on economic dependence and the causes of
underdevelopment. In sub-Saharan Africa, debate has raged about the
concept of indigenous knowledge and the meaning or even existence of
"African philosophy". In the Middle East, intellectuals for the past 150
years have addressed modernisation, colonialism and the role of Islam in
establishing cultural independence.


A few social scientists who have lived and worked outside the metropole
have become known internationally; one thinks of Prebisch, generally
acknowledged as a founder of development economics; Samir Amin, a
pioneering analyst of global capitalism; Fanon himself, a brilliant
psychologist, though most widely remembered as a romantic figure of Third
World revolution.


Nowadays we can point to figures of comparable stature such as Ashis
Nandy, also a fine psychologist, who is one of India's foremost public
intellectuals and increasingly known abroad; or Nestor Garcia Canclini in
Mexico, a superb ethnographer and media analyst (among other things).


There are more who should have such recognition: Ali Shariati from Iran,
the embattled author of a remarkable attempt to generate an Islamic
analysis of dependence, revolution and the role of intellectuals; Teresa
Valdes from Chile, whose politically grounded analyses of gender
inequality make a key piece of contemporary gender theorising; Veena Das
from India, whose exploration of the limits of social science is
unsurpassed; and many others.


There is already a body of social thought from the global periphery that
stands comparison with the output from the global metropole. The old way
of doing social science is no longer sustainable; a global revolution in
knowledge is already coming.


It won't be easy. There are practical difficulties about changing
curricula, publication systems and other professional routines to end
metropolitan hegemony. There are epistemological dilemmas in connecting
disparate bodies of knowledge. There are massive problems of translation
and circulation of texts. But the effort is worth making, if we value
social science and want it relevant to the real world we live in.


Raewyn Connell is university professor, University of Sydney, and author
of Southern Theory, published by Polity, £55.00 and £16.99.

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