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Postcolonial Thought and Social Theory


Postcolonial Thought
and SocialTheory


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Preface and Acknowledgments ix

Introduction:Social Theory beyond Empire? 1

1. Waves of Postcolonial Thought 18
2. The Postcolonial Challenge 64
3. Reconnecting Relations 103
4. The Subaltern Standpoint 143
Conclusion:For a Third Wave 185




This book attempts to reconcile social theory and postcolonial thought.

The former originates within the metropolitan culture of modern
European imperialism; the latter originates within the anticolonial move-
ments that opposed imperialism. The former is institutionalized as social
science; the latter has been largely a humanistic project. So what can one
learn from the other? Because Iam a card-carrying sociologist (albeit with
strong historiographical and humanistic leanings), Iam more concerned
about one direction in this relation:how postcolonial thought might reori-
ent social theory. But Iam also concerned about how social science might
inform postcolonial thought. Some of the ways I think it does are scat-
tered throughout thisbook.
As with so many projects academics undertake, this book has its ori-
gins in those formative years we nostalgically call grad school. Back in
the 1990s, when I was still taking courses at the University of Chicago as
a PhD student in sociology, something called postcolonial studies was
in the air. Students were talking about it. Seminars were filled. Dipesh
Chakrabarty recently had been hired in South Asian Studies, and I had
the distinct pleasure of getting to know him through his graduate semi-
nar on Indian historiography. In that seminar, we students (an impres-
sive group that included my friends Neil Brenner and Manu Goswami,
among others) read about peasant resistance and subaltern studies. We
read Gayatri Spivaks path-breaking intervention into subaltern studies
and Chakrabartys own response, which took the form of a new project
he called provincializing Europe. We debated the promises and pitfalls
of representing the subaltern. And we pondered whether the abstrac-
tion of labor as discussed by Marx necessarily left behind a concrete
history that theory could never enclose (what Chakrabarty was calling
History 2). We also debated whether that abstraction was a real ab-
straction, a conceptual abstraction, or both at once. Meanwhile, Homi
Bhabha also had been hired by the English department. My friends in

that department were overjoyed, and the chatter at grad student parties
in Hyde Park had become all about subalternity, Orientalism, colonial
discourse, and colonial mimicry.
All of this piqued my interest in this exciting field of postcolonial stud-
ies and postcolonial theory. That body of writing and thought spoke to me.
It offered a way of thinking about knowledge and the world more broadly;
a way of thinking that resonated with me, but which Idid not yet know
how to articulate or express. And it offered a critique of Eurocentric modes
of thought that my discipline of sociology embodied and expressed but
had not yet named. Iwas dismayed at my disciplines ignorance of this ex-
citing realm of thought. But my dismay soon turned into hope. Ithought
that, maybe, sociology could learn from postcolonial theory. Accordingly,
Igave one of my advisors in sociology an article by Chakrabarty and asked
him what he thought of it (and of postcolonial theory more generally). He
responded dismissively but gently, its a little weird. Later, at a humani-
ties academic conference, I mustered up enough courage to approach a
scholar whose work in postcolonial studies Iadmired. Ispoke to him of
my interest in postcolonial theory and he replied, right interest, wrong
I gave up. It appeared to be a fruitless fancy. Instead, I explored my
other interests. These had to with the U.S.empire and colonialism, and
the result was a disciplinary-specific dissertation on U.S.colonial rule in
Puerto Rico and the Philippines. That work, and much of my work there-
after, was about applying conventional social science to better understand
colonialism. It was not about how an understanding of colonialism could
help us better understand social science.
These formative experiences at Chicago had led me to believe that
postcolonial thought and sociology are fundamentally opposed. Many
experiences since then reinforced that belief. Most sociologists, when
they know postcolonial theory at all, see their field and postcolonial
studies as irreconcilable, or at least do not know how to articulate them.
Other sociologists see postcolonial theory as little else than a trendy fad
lacking substance. At best, in their view, postcolonial theory dangerously
celebrates the cultural and particular at the expense of the material and
universal. Or it runs perilously close to identity politics and normative
humanism; hence away from objective social theory and real social
science. Alternatively, humanities scholars find social science to be
the problem. They see its Eurocentrism, and its claims to pure objectiv-
ity and total knowledge, as yet another manifestation of the culture of
empire that requires destruction. To them, sociology is part of the prob-
lem and so must be stopped short in its tracks.

[x] Preface and Acknowledgments


But I have also seen an aperture. Scholars like Syed Fared Alatas,
Gurminder Bhambra, R.W. Connell, Zine Magubane, and Sujata Patel form
a vanguard movement in sociology that is more open to the sorts of ideas
and critiques represented by postcolonial thought. This book is emboldened
by their seminal labors. At the same time, graduate students whom Ien-
counter express their dissatisfaction with conventional sociology in North
America, embittered or at least disappointed by its putative Eurocentric
parochialism, theoretical stagnation, and seeming irrelevance for our neo-
imperial present. This book is alive to theirpleas.
The possibilities of a postcolonial social science are slowly becoming
clear. This book is my humble attempt to contribute to the making of that
postcolonial social science, thereby fulfilling an initial fancy Ionce had,
over two decades ago, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago.
And yet, the ultimate goal of this book is not to offer the conclud-
ing statement on how social science can be transformed by postcolonial
thought. It is only to suggest that it shouldbe.
Countless colleagues, friends, interlocutors, and critics have shaped
this book. In various forums, from conference sessions and department
halls to e-mails and coffeehouses, I have especially learned from, received
encouragement from, or been generatively challenged by (in alphabeti-
cal order): Andrew Abbott, Julia Adams, Ron Aminzade, Tarak Barkawi,
Claudio Benzecry, Cedric de Leon, Muge Gocek, Michael Goldman, Manu
Goswami, Neil Gross, Jeff Guhin, Kevan Harris, Jos Itzigsohn, Monika
Krause, Sanjay Krishnan, George Lawson, Zine Magubane, Renisa
Mawani, Raka Ray, Isaac Reed, Meera Sabaratnam, Bill Sewell, George
Steinmetz, Jonathan Wyrtzen, and Andrew Zimmerman. Not all of them
will be able to pinpoint exactly how they have helped me, but they have.
Friends and colleagues in Sociology at Boston University, especially Nancy
Ammerman, Emily Barman, Cati Connell, Susan Eckstein, Ashley Mears,
and David Swartz, have helped make the BU Sociology Department an in-
tellectually invigorating and open space in which to pursue weird ideas.
Parts of this project have benefitted from lectures at the sociology de-
partments of Boston University, Northwestern University, the University
of Virginia, Rutgers University, the University of Connecticut, the
University of Tennessee, and the University of Lucerne-Switzerland; the
International Relations Workshop at the London School of Economics
(LSE); the Mellon Series on Postcolonial Studies at Brown University;
the University of South Florida (USF) Provosts Postdoctoral Scholars
Symposium; and the Comparative Historical Social Science Workshop at
Northwestern University. Iam indebted to the audiences for their help-
ful feedback and those wonderful folks who invited me to these forums,

Preface and Acknowledgments [xi]

including Martin Petzke at Lucerne, Phadra Daipha and Jzsef Brcz

at Rutgers, Krishan Kumar and Jeff Olick at Virginia, Paul Gellert and
Harry Dahms at Tennessee, George Lawson and Kirsten Ainley at the LSE,
the political science and sociology graduate students at Brown, Claudio
Benzecry at Connecticut, Kiri Gurd at USF, and James Mahoney and
Ann Orloff at Northwestern. The College of Arts & Sciences at Boston
University provided crucial resources for this work. The International
Relations Department at the London School of Economics provided a
home away from Boston to do some of the writing.
I thank the invaluable insights of two anonymous readers for Oxford
University Press, and the wonderful help, guidance, and support of my
editor at OUP, James Cook. James has been an ardent proponent of this
project throughout. I owe him one. I also thank the PhD students at
Boston University and elsewhere who have repeatedly pushed me to go
further in my explorations and who have encouraged or challenged me
throughout (especially Ricarda Hammer and Michael Rodriguez at Brown,
and Zophia Edwards, Trish Ward, Jake Watson, and Alexandre White at
BU). Thanks, too, to my spouse, Emily Barman, for not only supporting
my efforts throughout but also for telling me when my ideas are just bad.
Finally, Imust thank my son, Oliver. Because of the time it took to write
this book Ihave not been able to spend as much time with him as he de-
served; or as much as Iwould have liked. Ican only dedicate this book to
him as a small offering and hope that, by the time he is old enough to read
social theory, this sort of book will no longer be necessary.

[xii] Preface and Acknowledgments


Postcolonial Thought and SocialTheory


Social Theory beyond Empire?

S ocial theory and postcolonial thought are two different modes of

thought with respectively different histories and lineages. On the one
hand, social theory is the abstract form of social science research. It sche-
matizes the forms and dynamics of relations between people. It concep-
tualizes social relations, social hierarchy, and social change, and explains
them. It also explains various other phenomenafrom the biological to
the politicalby reference to the social. And like all modes of thought,
it has a history and a social context of birth. That history, that social con-
text, is empire:the global political formation that dominated the worlds
landscape until the late twentieth century. Social theory was born in, of
and, to some extent, for modern empire.1
Postcolonial thought has a different history. Although this history also
has to do with empire, it has been spirited by opposition to it. Postcolonial
thought is primarily an anti-imperial discourse that critiques empire and its
persistent legacies. If social theory was born from and for empire, postcolonial
thought was born against it. Therefore, not only do social theory and postcolo-
nial thought have different and divergent histories, they also embed opposed
viewpoints and ways of thinking about the modern world in which welive.
These differences between social theory and postcolonial thought raise
the question that animates this book. Can social theory and postcolonial
thought be reconciled? The task is to consider the possibilities of articulat-
ing social theory and postcolonial thought, to see how they might fruit-
fully engage. One part of the task is to explore how postcolonial thought
might benefit from a direct engagement with social theory. Can it learn

anything at all from it? The other part of the task is to see how social
theory might be enlightened by postcolonial thought. How might social
theory, and indeed the social sciences more broadly, be reconstructed and
reworked in order to better suit the intellectual challenge that postcolo-
nial thought poses to it? This question is especially vexing for, as we will
see in chapters to come, the intellectual challenge to social theory posed
by postcolonial thought is potentially insurrectionary. What anticolonial
revolutions were to empires, postcolonial thought is to social science.
Postcolonial thought is the intellectual equivalent of the anticolonial
movements of the twentieth century that birthedit.
Hence the question:How might social theory survive the invasion?


Let us first revisit the origins of social theory and its manifestation as
disciplinary sociology. In what sense are those origins imperial? Chapter
Two will explore this matter in more detail, but here note the timing and
initial function of the concept of the social. Sociology as a disciplin-
ary formation, housed in universities in the United States and Europe,
first emerged in the late nineteenth century, but the social concept
had emerged earlier. And its emergence was not purely an intellectual
matter. Auguste Comte first used the term sociology in 1839, theorizing
the social as a space distinct from the political, religious, and natural
realms. But a key part of his larger project was to create an elite group of
technical experts, armed with knowledge of the social realm, whose ideas
could help manage and control society. Sociology was to be the science
of the social, and it was to serve the powers that be.2 Subsequently, the
privileged classes increasingly deployed the social concept to make sense
of and manage threats to social order from below their ranks (Calhoun
2007:45). In the United States, we find something similar. One of the
first books with the word sociology in the title was published in 1854.
Written by George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free
Society mobilized the social concept to vindicate the slave system in the
American South and expand it to include poor whites (Fitzhugh 1854;
Hund 2014: 3640). Meanwhile, in Europe, intellectuals and political
elites in the wake of the French revolution fretted about future revolts
and disorder, and so deployed the social concept as part of their politi-
cal projects. Social theories resonated in this context as explanations of,
and remedies for the increasingly violent demands of labour, natives and
women (Owens 2015:1819).


In the late nineteenth century, social theory took on an institutional

form as disciplinary sociology, nestling within the emerging social sci-
ences in the metropoles of the United States and Europe. It is here where
sociology as we know it today was hatched, and it is here where the imperial
origins of social theory become clearer. For it is precisely at this moment
that Anglo-European imperialism began to reach its pinnacle. This was
the moment of the new imperialism or high imperialism (as it would
later be called)the unleashing of violent power as nations like England,
France, Germany, the United States, Belgium, Italy, and others mounted
new territorial assaults upon Africa and Asia. By 1900, the new empires
were ruling 90percent of Africa, 56percent of Asia, and 99percent of the
Pacific. By the First World War, imperial powers occupied 90percent of the
entire surface area of the globe (Andersson 2013; Young 2001:2).
Sociology was institutionalized through and within this imperial
moment (Connell 1997; Go 2013d; Mantena 2012). In 1893, the first
Department of Sociology was established at the University of Chicago
and the first doctorate in sociology in the United States was awarded at
Cornell. But just as this was occurring, the French were colonizing the
Ivory Coast, Laos, and Guinea; the British South Africa Company was in-
vading Matabeleland in current-day Zimbabwe; and Queen Liliuokalani
was surrendering her Hawaiian kingdom to the United States. Ayear later,
the same year that Franklin Giddings was appointed chair and professor
of sociology at Columbia (marking the first full professorship in sociol-
ogy in the United States), England took Uganda as a protectorate, France
seized Madagascar, and the Sino-Japanese War erupted. In 1895, as the
American Journal of Sociology published its very first issue, Japan seized
Taiwan, Britain turned Bechuanaland into a protectorate and raided the
Transvaal Republic against the Boers, and the Cuban rebellion against
Spain was unleashed. In 1901, the year that the Sociology Department at
the University of Minnesota was established, England was adding Tonga
and Nigeria to its empire, and the U.S.government was violently suppress-
ing an anticolonial insurgency in the Philippines, occupying Cuba, and so-
lidifying its colonial regimes in Samoa and Puerto Rico (Go 2013d).
The early sociologists own words and concepts bespeak this imperial
context of sociologys institutionalization. Franklin Giddings, who later
served as President of the American Sociological Society and was the
first full professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at Columbia
University, declared in 1911 that among the pressing questions of im-
portance to sociologists were the questions of territorial expansion and
of rule over alien peoples (Giddings 1911: 58081). Meanwhile, many
of these leading sociologists often affirmed imperialism, heralding it

In t roduc t ion [3]

as the necessary and desirable outcome of the race struggle and social
evolution. Charles Cooley wrote in his journal in 1898 that the U.S.war
with Spain, resulting in the acquisition of the Philippines, Puerto Rico,
and Guam made him proud of the race and the American stock (Ross
Even when they did not overtly praise imperialism, the data the early
sociologists used to formulate their problems and construct their theories
was dependent upon overseas imperialism. What was the topic of the very
first dissertation in sociology in the United States? It was The Making of
Hawaii:AStudy in Social Evolution, awarded by Cornell to W.F. Blackman
in 1893, the same year that the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown
by the United States after years of American meddling in the islands
(Morgan 1982: 51). And over in Europe, the work of Max Weber, Emile
Durkheim, and many other founding fathers, along with W.I. Thomas
in the United States, deployed data on colonized peoples that was being
accrued for the purposes of colonial administration. In their research and
theory, early sociologists thus reproduced the imperial gaze by which
empires operated (Connell 1997). And, leaning upon evolutionary theory
emerging initially from Darwin and then through Herbert Spencer, they
theorized the world in racial terms; typically as a race struggle (Connell
1997; Go 2013e; Hund 2014; Morris 2015). Their theories and research ren-
dered empire and racial domination intelligible, providing an intellectual
framework and rationale for the new imperial world order in the making.
The inhabitants of southern, central, and western Europe, call them
Aryan, Indo-Germanic, or anything you please, wrote Lester Ward, first
President of the American Sociological Society, in 1903, has become the
dominant race of the globe. As such it has undertaken the work of extend-
ing its dominion over other parts of the earth. It has already spread over
the whole of South and North America, over Australia, and over Southern
Africa. It has gained a firm foothold on Northern Africa, Southern and
Eastern Asia, and most of the larger islands and archipelagos of the sea
(Ward 1903:23839).
As the social concept had been used in the earlier part of the nine-
teenth century to make sense of and quell social disorder and revolt, so
too was the new discipline of sociology connected with imperial power.
All the social sciences were, in fact.3 Sociology in this sense has impe-
rial origins:not necessarily because it was in the direct service of empire
(though in some cases it was), but because it was formed in the heartland
of empire, crafted in its milieu, and was thus embedded in its culture. It
was part and parcel of the imperial episteme. It was dependent upon and
shared empires way of looking and thinking about the world, even when


it did not directly contribute to it.4 Sociologists have been among the first
to assert that ideas are shaped by the social environments in which those
ideas are generated (Camic, Gross, and Lamont 2011). If they believe their
own theories, it should not be too difficult to acknowledge the context
of empire within which their discipline was founded and their founding
ideas forged.
One goal of this book is to explore how this imperial context more
precisely shaped the content of sociology and social theory a nd
whether it still does today. Does social theory bear the imprint of its
imperial origins? Has social theory extricated itself from this earlier
imperial entanglement? How are sociological concerns, categories,
frameworks, and research shaped by empire? Surely, the explicit racist
claims of the early sociologists are not to be found in contemporary
theory and research. And few sociologists would praise imperialism as
a social good. But as we will see, the legacies of sociologys early impe-
rial origins persist in subtle yet powerful waysjust as the legacies of
empire in our world persist. There are important differences between
social science today and social science in the era of high imperialism.
But there are also continuities. In chapters to come, we will see how
social science still works within an imperial episteme whose pervasive
power we have underestimated.


Our exploration of empires imprint upon social theory leads us to another

body of thought:postcolonial thought, the origins of which lie not in empire
but in anti-imperialism. We must remember the history. In the early twen-
tieth century, the period of high imperialism gave way to a new period
of anticolonial protest and resistance from subjugated peoples. Anti-
imperial struggles had already surfaced in the late nineteenth century,
and after the First World War they multiplied. In the 1920s, anticolonial
populism erupted in colonies like India, and educated colonial elites joined
the chorus. In 1927, for example, a group known as the League Against
Imperialism met in Brussels. It brought together two hundred delegates
from thirty-seven states or colonized regions representing one hundred
and thirty-four organizations, who discussed issues ranging from the
tragedy of the Indian countryside to that of Jim Crow racism in the United
States, from the growth of Italian fascism to the danger of Japanese in-
tervention in Korea. Their name, the League against Imperialism, was
meant as a direct affront to the League of Nations mandate system that

In t roduc t ion [5]

had reinstituted imperialism rather than throwing it aside after World

War I(Prashad 2008:1920).
Anticolonial sentiment continued to spread through the 1930s. It sur-
faced in small pockets within the imperial metropoles, to be sure, but it
also reached farther than before, as the Depression also laid the socio-
economic conditions for protests across Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.5
World War II hastened the trend. It weakened colonial structures, armed
colonized peoples, and raised questions about the strength of European
empires and their future viability (Furedi 1994: 1027). After the war, an-
ticolonial nationalism proliferated even more. At the Bandung Conference
in 1955, Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ho Chi Minh, Kwame
Nkrumah, and many other leaders of newly independent countries in
Africa and Asia met with other dignitaries and writers such as Richard
Wright. This helped further embolden anticolonial positions while of-
fering a rallying point for the seemingly unstoppable spread of anticolo-
nial nationalism around the world (Ballantyne and Burton 2014: 14781;
Parker 2006).
Throughout the period, many colonies were finally granted inde-
pendence. Among those that were not, some erupted into bloody war,
from Algeria to Vietnam. Later, the 1966 Tricontinental Conference in
Havanaotherwise known as the first Conference of the Organization of
the Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin Americawas a cul-
mination of sorts. It brought together activists and leaders from all three
continents of the Global South to push for the end of the last remnants
of formal colonialism, and to bear witness to new forms of imperialism
and exploitation emerging in the wake of empires seeming demise. Then,
in the early 1970s, the end of Portuguese colonialism in Africa marked a
historic passage. The Portuguese empire had been among the last hold-
outs on the continent, and its demise was the finale of decolonization.
Those empires that had expanded in the beginning of the century were
dismantled once and for all, and a multitude of independent nation-states
appeared:new postcolonial states hoping to throw off the legacy of their
colonial past and embark upon promising developmental paths. The colo-
nial empires passed away. And for millions upon millions of postcolonial
peoples, hope was in theair.
Social theory was born of empire within the metropoles of power, but
postcolonial thought (or postcolonial theory, also known as postcolonial
studies) emerged in this context of anti-imperialism. It emerged from the
margins if not the underbelly of empire, flourishing amidst anti-imperial
protest and resistance from subjugated peoples around the world. Today,
when academics utter postcolonial theory, they most likely think of the


academic trend of postcolonial studies that flourished in Departments of

English and Literature beginning in the 1980s. They think of scholars such
as Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha (just to name a few early
proponents) who were leading advocates of postcolonial studies. Or they
think of the historians associated with subaltern studies, such as Ranajit
Guha or Dipesh Chakrabarty. Surely these figures represent postcolonial
theory, but this was merely a second wave of postcolonial thought. The
earlier first wave of postcolonial thought included writers and activists
such as Frantz Fanon (19251961), Aim Csaire (19132008), Amilcar
Cabral (19241973), W. E. B. Du Bois (18681963), and C. L. R. James
(19011989) among many others. These are the same thinkers in whom
the second wave found inspiration. And they wrote amidst the throes of
anticolonialism and decolonization in the mid-t wentieth century.
To be sure, just as the founders of sociology in the United States were
alive to the new imperialism around them, the founding postcolonial
thinkers were spirited by the anticolonial struggles that enveloped them.
Fanon, for instance, had been an active participant in anticolonial strug-
gles. Hailing originally from Martinique and trained as a psychiatrist in
France, Fanon joined the Algerian Front de Libration Nationale (FLN) in
1956 that raised arms against French colonialism. Expelled from Algeria,
he moved to Tunis and became one of the editors of the FLN newspaper
El Moudjahid and the FLNs ambassador to Ghana and Mali (to organize
support for the anticolonial movement in the Maghreb). Even after his
death in 1961, his guiding spirit remained. The Tricontinental conference
in 1966 culminated in a journal, Tricontinental, the first issue of which
included essays by Stokely Carmichael and Kim II Sung along with a post-
humous piece by Fanon (Barcia 2009). Another first-wave postcolonial
thinker, Amilcar Cabral, also had been a leading anticolonial activist. In
the 1960s, he was a prominent member of the independence movements
in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde before being assassinated in 1973. His
major contributions to postcolonial thought came from speeches given at
arenas such as the 1966 Tricontinental Conference (Young 2001:285).
Not all of the first-wave thinkers actually took up arms as did Cabral.
Du Bois was a public intellectual and scholaractivist, occupying univer-
sity positions while traveling to activist meetings and writing journalis-
tic pieces. Besides helping to establish the National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the United States, he par-
ticipated in the major anticolonial conferences of his day, such as the
First Pan-A frican Conference in London (1900), the First Universal Races
Congress (1911), and the First Pan-A frican Congress (1918) (where he was
followed closely by U.S. agents hoping to try him for treason) and the

In t roduc t ion [7]

subsequent Second Pan-A frican Congress in 1921. In 1945, he attended

the conference in San Francisco that established the United Nations.
There, he and the rest of the NAACP delegation drafted a proposal for the
United Nations to call an end to colonialism everywhere. Aim Csaire,
for his part, was a writer, politician, and poet. Before penning his influen-
tial work Discourse on Colonialism (first published in 1950), he had traveled
from his home of Martinique to Paris to study at the cole normal suprieure
where he created the literary review Ltudiant Noir (The Black Student)
with Lopold Sdar Senghor and Lon Damas. He returned to Martinique
to write poetry and teach (teaching Frantz Fanon, for instance). He later
became mayor of Fort-de-France and then deputy to the French National
Assembly for Martinique.
W. E. B. Du Bois, Aime Csaire, Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral: They
were all part of the global landscape of anticolonialism onto which their
names are indelibly imprinted. And animating all of them was a critique
of empire and its multifarious operations. They highlighted the violence
wrought by the Anglo-European empires. They emphasized colonial ex-
ploitation and the racist and racialized foundations of imperialism. They
highlighted the costly psychological impact of colonialism upon colonized
and colonizer. They illuminated how colonial exploitation facilitated the
wealth of Anglo-European societies. And their critiques targeted more
than just political domination or economic exploitation. The postcolo-
nial thought they spawned was a critical engagement with empires very
cultureits modes of seeing, being, and knowing. As we will see in Chapter
One, this is a crucial dimension of postcolonial thought:an opposition to
the episteme of empire. Postcolonial thought recognizes that empire is
everywhere, a silent shaper of our ways of seeing and knowing theworld.
Besides critique, these thinkers were also spirited by a will to imag-
ine worlds beyond empire. Du Bois, Fanon, and Cabral pushed for the
national independence of colonized peoples and formal political equal-
ity, but they also strove for much more. They envisioned, for instance, a
future of global racial equality and redistributive socioeconomic systems;
a world beyond the enslavement and exploitation wrought by the colonial
empires. Csaire, Senghor, and others envisioned new postimperial forms
and modes of self-actualization, in which racial and cultural differences
would flourish rather than be denigrated, erased, and replaced by Europes
so-called civilization. And rather than praising the particular against the
universal, they sought ways of transcending the very opposition between
them (Grosfoguel 2012; Wilder 2015).
Postcolonial thought, then, was born not only of anticolonial move-
ments seeking national independence and political equality but also of


attempts to chart entirely new ways of being and human belonging. This is
why their writingsand the scholarly enterprise they helped to spawn
is rightfully referred to as post-colonial thought. The word postcolonial
does not connote that the legacies of colonialism are actually over. It does
not designate a historical reality after colonialism. In the early 1970s,
some scholars had, indeed, used the term postcolonial to refer to the
historical phase or period after decolonization (Alavi 1972). To describe
a literary work or a writer as postcolonial, notes Neil Lazarus (2011:11),
was to name a period, a discrete historical moment, not a project or a
politics.6 The meaning of postcolonial in phrases such as postcolonial
thought, postcolonial theory, or postcolonial studies is different. It refers to
a loose body of writing and thought that seeks to transcend the legacies
of modern colonialism and overcome its epistemic confines. It refers to a
relational position against and beyond colonialism, including colonialisms
very culture. As Gandhi (1998:4)notes, postcolonial studies is devoted to
the academic task of revising, remembering and, crucially, interrogating
the colonial past, but it only does so in order to overcome the legacies of
that past. Postcolonial thought critiques the culture of empire in order to
cultivate new knowledges, ways of representing the world, and histories
that circumvent or transcend rather than authorize or sustain imperialis-
tic ways of knowing.
Postcolonial thought thus sketches a world beyond the epistemic limits
of the present. It is only post in this sense of seeking transcendence; some-
thing beyond or after colonial epistemes. The signifier post in the term
postcolonial thought refers to an intellectual stance that recognizes co-
lonialisms legacies, critiques them, and tries to reach beyond them. It is
also post, therefore, in the sense that it seeks to overcome the imperial sup-
pression of the thought, experiences, and agency of the colonized and ex-
colonized peoples. If colonial history was the history of the imperial
appropriation of the world, writes Robert Young (2001:4), a prominent in-
terpreter of postcolonial theory, the history of the twentieth century has
witnessed the peoples of the world taking power and control back for them-
selves. Postcolonial theory is itself a product of that dialectical process.7
We have before us, then, two bodies of thought:social theory and post-
colonial thought. They were born within respectively different contexts
and served functions that stand in tension with, if not in opposition to,
each other. Social theory embeds the culture of imperialism; postcolo-
nial thought manifests critiques of empire. One comes from the center of
modern empire; the other from its margins. One was part of the imperial
episteme, the other critiqued imperial formations and envisioned postim-
perial futures. Are these two modes of thought reconcilable?

In t roduc t ion [9]

The main goal of this book is to ponder the precise parallels and points
of convergence between social theory and postcolonial thought as well
as their many differences; to see what productive tensions they yield and
how, if at all, they might be reconciled. The ultimate task is to consider
how the formersocial theorymight benefit from the latter, to see how
postcolonial thought might help us overcome the limiting legacies of social
theorys founding context of empire. How might we cultivate a social sci-
ence that goes beyond its existing analytic confines? If social theory can
be challenged for its persistent imperial gaze and its embedded-ness in
the episteme of empire, how can we reconstruct it, making it more at-
tuned to the global challenges of our ostensibly postcolonial present? This
book explores modes of possible remediation by putting social science into
critical conversation with postcolonial thought. Put simply, this book ex-
plores the possibility of a postcolonial social theoryin short, a postco-
lonial sociology.


As of yet, a postcolonial sociology is unrealized.8 Just as social theory

and postcolonial thought represent two different histories and global
processesempire on the one hand and anticolonial resistance on the
otherso, too, have they diverged in disciplinary resonance and orien-
tation. Social theory is mainly a project of disciplinary social science.
Alternatively, postcolonial thought has been sequestered to the academic
Consider how postcolonial thought has been received in the North
American academy.9 In 1978, the book Orientalism, by the Middle East
specialist and literary scholar Edward Said, became widely acclaimed in
literary circles. The work embodied the spirit of anti-imperial critique
articulated earlier by the likes of Csaire and Fanon. It excavated the
ways in which an imperial episteme, embedded in the academy and the
arts under the name Orientalism, enabled and facilitated imperialism.
Orientalism also raised the possibility of going beyond that episteme,
of crafting a post-Orientalist way of thinking (Said 1979). Saids later
work, Culture and Imperialism (1993), continued to explore and critique
imperial cultures; and along the way, other scholars joined in. Gayatri
Spivak (who had been known for helping to bring the thought of the
French philosopher Jacques Derrida to the American academy) produced
a spate of articles and books about imperialism, colonialism, and culture.
Homi Bhahba, the literary theorist who had started his academic career


in England but then moved to the United States, added to this fledgling
body of work in literary studies, exploring themes such as colonial hy-
bridity and resistance. In history, the subaltern studies school strove
to recover the agency of colonized peoples and then, with the work of
Dipesh Chakrabarty in particular, pondered ways of incorporating post-
colonial thought into historical narratives.
This amounted to the second wave of postcolonial thought, picking up
the mantle of critiquing empire, imperial cultures and knowledge from
thinkers like Du Bois, Fanon, Csaire, and Cabral. And it was born in
and largely for humanities departments. It offered a critique of certain
trends within the humanities, forming an oppositional stance against
the traditional humanities that challenged intellectual conventions in
literary studies. It took the spirit and content of anticolonial critique to
the academy, picking apart the humanities and showing how it embod-
ied the imperial episteme (Gandhi 1998: 42). And even though it began
as heterodoxy within the North American humanities faculties, by the
1990s postcolonial studies had become an identifiable and widely
popular trend within those same faculties (Brennan 2014: 89). In 1995,
Russell Jacoby wrote that the term postcolonial had become the
latest catchall term to dazzle the academic mind (Jacoby 1995). By the
end of the decade, Gandhi (1998: viii) noticed that postcolonial thought
had taken its place with theories such as poststructuralism, psycho-
analysis and feminism as a major critical discourse in the humanities.
Indeed, since then, postcolonial thought has spread to various parts of
the humanities, converging with and animating trends like decolonial
thinking in philosophy and facilitating critiques of Eurocentric history
(Dussel 2008; Mignolo 2000; Mignolo 2009; Santos 2014). Its presence
can be found in fields all over the humanities, from cultural studies to
linguistics and rhetoric, and even science studies, legal studies, history,
and education (Andreotti 2011; Darian-Smith and Fitzpatrick 1999;
Harding 1992; Harding 1998; Loomba et al. 2006).
But what about social science and sociology in particular? On the one
hand, it is the case that postcolonial thought has recently exerted some
influence on sociology in Europe and elsewhere in the world (Bhambra
2007a, 2010; Gutirrez Rodrguez, Boatc, and Costa 2010; Kempel and
Mawani 2009).10 And surely, certain postcolonial themes can be said to
have emerged in disciplinary sociology. As we will see, for instance, world-
systems theory within sociology can be said to be sociologys best answer to
postcolonial thought. Critical race theory in sociology, too, shares ground
with postcolonial thought (Weiner 2012; Winant 2004). Furthermore, we
must not forget that one of the thinkers of the first wave of postcolonial

In t roduc t ion [11]

thought, W.E. B.Du Bois, was a sociologist by name, methods, and insti-
tutional affiliation.
Still, these exceptions are just that:exceptions. For the most part, soci-
ology and especially sociology in North America has yet to directly engage
the sort of postcolonial thought that has had such a profound influence in
the humanities. The NewYork Times was not incorrect when observing, in
2000:Surprisingly, the primary home for postcolonial studies [has not
been] political science, but literature (Hedges 2000). Postcolonial think-
ers are not cited as highly in mainstream social science journals as they
are in humanities journalswhen they are cited at all. There are few if
any panels at major sociology conferences on postcolonial theory; few if
any courses in postcolonial studies and no job lines (Go 2013b). There is
a sense in which even popular culture has paid attention to postcolonial
thought more than conventional social science: The NewYork Times has
referred to Homi Bhabha more times than the American Sociological Review
(Go 2013b:2627). And although some admit that Du Bois belongs in the
sociological canon, few, if any, sociologists put Fanon, Csaire, Cabral, or
C.L .R. James into the canon; nor do social theory textbooks. The sociolo-
gist Steven Seidman noted in the 1990s that [Edward] Said has had, sad
to say, little influence in sociology (1996:315). This is true today, and it is
more general than just the occlusion of EdwardSaid.
The case of W.E. B.Du Bois both complicates and yet affirms our story.
As we will see in later chapters, Du Bois was among the vanguard of the
first wave of postcolonial thinkers. His work shared and in some cases pre-
figured the themes of the other postcolonial writers, emphasizing empire
and colonialism as foundational for modernity and theorizing imperial
racism and knowledge. And like the other first-wavers, he was an active
anticolonialist, as noted above. Yet Du Bois was also a card-carrying soci-
ologist. He was a professor of sociology, history, and economics at Atlanta
University. And the American Sociological Association has named a schol-
arly award after him. Should he be taken as evidence that sociology has
been open to postcolonial thought?
The problem is that Du Bois is the exception that proves the rule. His
standing within mainstream sociology attests to his exceptionality. Du
Bois may be known by sociologists, but his historic role in sociology and
his thinking has been largely marginalized. He had been a member of the
prominent sociology department at the University of Pennsylvania, but
for most of the twentieth century he was not mentioned in its histories
(Katznelson 1999: 465). The American Sociological Association finally
came to recognize him as a founder of American sociology, but this rec-
ognition has come only recently, after nearly a century of neglect. To this


day, Du Boiss formative role in sociology has been forgotten if not erased.
Most conventional histories of sociology still elide the fact that it was not
the Chicago School that initiated scientific sociology but Du Boiss Atlanta
University, which in 1895 formed the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory,
long before the ostensibly pioneering urban research of Robert Park and
Ernest Burgess (Morris 2007). The same goes for his actual scholarly
labor:At most, mainstream social theorists pick out Du Boiss concepts
of double consciousness or the veil. But less attention, if any, is paid to
his critique of conventional sociology, his analysis of racialized systems
as constitutive of modern society and of knowledge (analyses that chal-
lenged the dominant racial thinking of sociologists like Robert E.Park),
or his writings on slavery and colonialisma ll of which offered rich and
very different approaches to the social than mainstream social theory. As
scholars note, attempts to bring Du Bois under the mainstream umbrella
of sociology have been gestures of tokenisman emblem of diversity as
Katznelson (1999:468)puts it. They have not impacted the main tenets or
concepts of sociology itself. Du Bois, as Aldon Morris (2015) puts it aptly,
is the scholar denied.11
This leads us to the other measure of sociologys comparable indiffer-
ence to postcolonial thought. We will see in Chapter One that a key aspect
of postcolonial thought is the recognition that empireand related pro-
cesses of colonialism or racismhas been foundational for metropoli-
tan societies as well as colonized societies, that it has been crucial for
the making and remaking of modernity. In this sense, it parallels gender
theory or Marxist theory in social science. Whereas gender theory treats
gender relations as foundational, and Marxist theory treats capitalism
as foundational, postcolonial theory treats empire and colonialism as
But here again we can see a difference between the humanities and so-
ciologys reception to postcolonial ideas. Whereas the humanities have ab-
sorbed postcolonial theorys emphasis upon the imperial foundations of
modernity, sociology has not. Although sociology has long directed its at-
tention towards capitalism, and while it recently has agreed that gender is
foundational, it has been less engaged with matters of empire. Economic
inequalities within nations remain on the sociology agenda, but the impe-
rial hierarchies that helped create them on a global scale do not. Analytic
categories like the division of labor pervade our sociological texts, but
not the colonial division of labor, colonialism, or postcoloniality. Later
we will see that some sociologistsextending from Marx and Weber up
through the presentreferred to empire and colonialism in their writ-
ings. And it is true that certain lines of social science, such as dependency

In t roduc t ion [13]

theory and world-systems analysis, take empire and colonialism seriously

(Grosfoguel 2008). But if we ask whether empire and postcolonialism has
been a target of sustained theorization and critique as much as capitalism
or gender, the answer is no. And we will see that although dependency
theory and world-systems analysis have some parallels and convergen-
ces with postcolonial theory, this does not exhaust postcolonial theorys
wider project, which not only deals with the economic legacies of empire
and colonialism but also their epistemic and cultural vectors. Apostcolo-
nial sociology remains on the horizon at best.12


For some, this indifference of social science to postcolonial thought is a

happy outcome. For them, postcolonial thought is a humanistic enterprise
best left alone, with no relevance for social science. Others read variants
of postcolonial thought to dismiss it as wrong-headed and simply useless.
Postcolonial thought is misleading. It obscures social processes rather
than illuminates them (Chibber 2013:293). Why should social theorists
engage with such a pointless enterprise?
Other social scientists who consider postcolonial thought might also
discard it, but for different reasons. For these social scientists, postco-
lonial studies amount to little else than a politically motivated charge
of complicity. All postcolonial thought has to offer is a critique of social
science for being a handmaiden of imperialism. According to this view,
the way to assess the relevance of postcolonial theory is to turn to the
data:find examples to show that sociologists have not been complicit with
imperialism or that they have not been as pro-imperialistic or racist as
a postcolonial critique would assume. Once examples are found, postco-
lonial thought is proven to be wrong, and hence irrelevant to sociology
(Lewis 2014; McLennan2003).
Other skeptics might maintain that social science and postcolonial
thought are intrinsically incompatible. For example, there are some pro-
ponents of postcolonial theory in the humanities who would find social
science dangerous. For them, postcolonial thought offers a devastating
critique of social sciences entire enterprise, one from which social science
cannot recover. This is the charge that social sciences very intellectual
frame is interminably imperialistic, that sociology is unable to shake off
its imperial inheritance. In this view, postcolonial theory stands as soci-
ologys more non-sociological, even stridently post-sociological, others.
It would follow that any attempt to craft a postcolonial sociology is a


fools errand, one that must strain credulity or must rely on a certain
suspension of disbelief as the political scientist Manu Goswami
The gamble of this book is different: There are very good reasons to
think that social science in general and sociology in particular should take
postcolonial thought seriously. It is not uncommon for sociology to engage
with other disciplines:think economics or psychology. Why not postco-
lonial thought in the humanities? Apparently, it is perfectly acceptable
for proponents of rational choice theory in sociology to ape neoclassical
economics, but it is somehow problematic to consider what postcolonial
theory might have to offer? Besides, postcolonial thought addresses im-
portant substantive themes that should be of interest to sociologists. One
of the major claims of postcolonial thought is that empire and colonial-
ism have been foundational for modernity. As Chapter One will discuss in
further detail, postcolonial thought shows that empire is the dark side of
modernity; endemic to it. Sociology has been interested in modernity, too
(Bhambra 2007a). Today, as Adams, Clemens, and Orloff (2005:3)remind
us, one of the questions driving social theory and its manifestation in so-
ciology is:How did societies come to be recognizably modern? As we
will see in Chapter Two, much of social theory addresses these and other
questions of modernity from the standpoint of metropoles, while postco-
lonial thought addresses them from the standpoint of the colonized and
formerly colonized world. But they both address modernity. Might they
not fruitfully engage?
There is also a strong sense in which social theory needs postcolonial
thought. In recent years, a number of leading social theorists have la-
mented sociologys parochial orientation. Immanuel Wallerstein (1997,
2001) registered warnings to the North American audience early on.
More recently, Ulrich Beck (2012), former President of the American
Sociological Association Michael Burawoy (2008), and Sujata Patel (2010a;
2010b; 2014) are among those who have called for sociology to global-
ize:to untether itself from its initial European moorings and surmount
its tendency to focus only upon the concerns and dilemmas of Anglo-
European modernity. These efforts at globalizing sociology are laudable,
but their implementation requires further exploration and critical reflec-
tion, lest the attempt to globalize social theory and research winds up
reinserting Eurocentrism masquerading as globality. As Bhambra (2013)
suggests, postcolonial thought might offer a way to advance global social
theory without succumbing to the danger.
One might even say that social science is obliged to engage with post-
colonial theory. The sociologist-turned-anthropologist Ernest Gellner,

In t roduc t ion [15]

ruminating upon the location of postcolonial thought within the academic

humanities, suggests that the issues taken up by postcolonial thought are
too big and important to be left to literary critics alone (Gellner 1993). The
gamble of this book is that Gellner is on to something here; that a serious
dialogue between postcolonial thought and social theory is worthwhile. It
might help us wrestle social science and social theory out of their impe-
rial moorings and propel them into a more global and indeed post-colonial
orientation. If social theory was born of the culture of empire, can we not
redirect it in a way that makes it more relevant to a postimperial world?
Might it be recrafted to help realize the sort of worlds imagined by those
anticolonial activists of the twentieth century who dared to imagine?
Acritical dialogue between social theory and postcolonial thought might
lead us in new directions.
If the attempt of this book to import postcolonial thought evinces a sit-
uation of theoretical scarcity in the social sciences, others would seem to
agree. Around the world, sociologists already have begun to turn to post-
colonial thought in their work. Signs of a nascent trade in postcolonial
themes, at least in certain quarters of the sociological academy, can be de-
tected (Go 2006; Go 2009; Kempel and Mawani 2009; Steinmetz 2013a).
Not all of these efforts have gone under the title postcolonial theory.
But they are there. These include seminal attempts in the United Kingdom
and Europe to incorporate postcolonial insights into sociology (Bhambra
2007a; Gutirrez Rodrguez, Boatc, and Costa 2010). They also include
the movements to indigenize sociology, cultivate Southern theory,
and critique Eurocentrism in social theory, as well as the efforts in Latin
America and throughout the world to decolonize thought.14 Even while
many sociologists in North America continue to be recalcitrant to post-
colonial theory, these are promising signs. This book will explore these
attempts, too, building upon their potential while pushing them further.
This book, then, is an effort in interdisciplinary and intradisciplinary
critique, synthesis, and elaboration. It puts postcolonial thought in the
humanities into sustained analytic interaction with social theory, prob-
ing their mutual ground and fertile disagreements. It also builds upon ex-
isting attempts within sociology to craft knowledges beyond Eurocentric
social science. By the end of this exploration, we will see that postcolo-
nial thought does have important lessons. Foremost, it can help us better
apprehend sociologys imperial episteme noted earlier in this chapter. As
we will see in Chapter Two, postcolonial thought facilitates a recognition
and critique of certain limiting lenses and tendencies inherited from the
imperial age:its long-standing Orientalism, its occlusion of colonialism
from its theoretical categories and narratives, its repression of colonized


agency, its analytic bifurcations, its persistent yet not often detected im-
perial standpoint, and its provinciality that reigns under the guise of uni-
versality. These are all problems that social theory and sociology need to
confront. Those of us interested in social science ignore them at our own
peril, and to the detriment of our enterprise.
Yet, it also works in the reverse direction:Social science has important
lessons for postcolonial theory. Although there are some who would insist
that sociologys problems are insurmountable, that they are endemic or
inescapable, this book will show otherwise. It argues that the limiting
lenses and epistemic habits detected by postcolonial thought in sociol-
ogy are not inherent to the sociological enterprise. We will see in Chapter
Three, for example, that sociological thinking, rather than doomed to re-
produce imperial tendencies and frames, is the hidden scaffolding upon
which postcolonial thought itself is stagedthat postcolonial theory de-
pends upon sociological thought even as it offers a substantial critique of
certain aspects of sociological thought. It follows that social science, in
the face of the postcolonial challenge, need not dissolve in despair and
simply concede to the humanities. To the contrary, it just needs to reflect
and reorient. And as we will see, the larger argument of this book is that
social science already has certain analytic tools immanent to it to meet
the postcolonial challenge.
All of this is to say, in sum, that a postcolonial sociology is indeed pos-
sible; and that a third wave of postcolonial thought, centered in the social
sciences, might already be in the making. Chapters Three and Four thereby
sketch and explore some of the ways in which such a third wave be ad-
vanced to meet the challenges of our postimperial (or otherwise neoim-
perial) present. For, if anything, postcolonial theory is an invitation to
imagineto imagine different types of knowledge, new ways of seeing
and perceiving, and alternative conceptual forms and tools for better un-
derstanding the world around us. What if we, who aim to think hard and
critically about the social world, accept?

In t roduc t ion [17]


Waves ofPostcolonial Thought

I n the late 1980s and through the early 1990s, something called post-
colonial theory hit North American campuses. Sometimes referred to
as postcolonial studies, postcolonial theory became a noticeable trend
in the humanities, starting first in departments of literature and then
spreading to other parts of the humanities. It shared company with the
new humanities that proliferated at the time:womens studies, gay/les-
bian studies, and cultural studies (Gandhi 1998:4243). It also surfaced
just as the new philosophies known as poststructuralism and decon-
struction had already begun to encroach upon the academy. They, too,
became associated with postcolonial theory (Loomba 1998). But if postco-
lonial theory was part of a wider revolution in the humanities, it was also
a new burgeoning body of writing and thought in its ownright.
As it emerged, postcolonial studies encountered some criticism and de-
rision for its trendiness. Scholars from within literary studies as well as
outside it (including social scientists) often dismissed it as yet another
passing fancy of armchair professors. The radical credentials of these
postcolonial professors had to be checked at the door; they were seemingly
mired in the lit crit task of reading novels only (Ahmad 1994; Gellner
1993). Some critics were not as concerned about postcolonial theorys
radical posture as they were with its real radicality: the threat it posed
to convention. Harold Bloom, the famous Yale and former University of
Chicago literary critic, opined that postcolonial studies was infected with
the disease of Resentment. He told The NewYork Times:All aesthetic and
cognitive standards have been overturned in favor of this ideological pre-
judgment. They have taken over positions of power within the academy.
They are zealots, commissars. They have severely wounded humanistic
education in the English-speaking world (Hedges2000).

But is postcolonial theory simply an exercise in reading novels? Is it

just another fad devoid of substance? And did it really threaten to entirely
overturn humanistic education? In short, what is postcolonial theory?
Achille Mbembe (2008) observes that postcolonial studies and postco-
lonial theory is characterized by its heterogeneity, so what constitutes
its originality cannot be summed up easily in a few words. But there are
common strands and themes, shared positions and problematics, and core
concerns and coordinates that can be identified. These constitute what
Icall simply, postcolonial thought.
So what are these common strands? One is that empire matters. The
claim is that, along with related processes of colonialism and imperialism,
empire has been central to the making of modern societies, so much so
that its powerful legacies persist to the present (however, imperceptibly
sometimes). And modernity itself, then, is the product of imperial rela-
tions. The industrial wealth of Anglo-European societies was made pos-
sible through imperial expansion and accumulation overseas. And other
crucial aspects of modernity (techniques of value extraction, labor control,
discipline, policing and punishment and surveillance, modern systems of
sanitation and health, the bureaucratic state, racial theories, and the very
idea of the modern itself) were initially deployed and developed (if not
invented) in overseas colonies or through imperial relations. Postcolonial
thought is a mode of analysis that takes these imperial processes and pat-
terns into critical account. It recognizes their importance and strives to
apprehend their legacies. In the same way that capitalism is the condi-
tion of existence for Marxist theory, or patriarchy for feminist theory, so,
too, are empire and its legacies the main preoccupation of postcolonial
Postcolonial thought recognizes the constitutive character of empire
upon modernity, but it offers more than just the injunction to bring
colonialism (or empire) back in. It is a sustained critique of empire and,
in particular, a critique of the ways of knowing, seeing, and being atten-
dant with empire. To recognize that empire is constitutive of modernity
in metropoles and colonies is also to recognize that it has impacted the
very culture of those metropoles along with the culture of the colonies.
This culture includes so-called high culture: art and literature, for in-
stance. But it also includes racial ideologies, discourses, ideas, attitudes,
everyday practices, and so-called objective knowledge itselffrom its un-
stated assumptions to its explicit claims. Postcolonial thought critically
apprehends empire and its role in making modernity, but its more par-
ticular self-assigned task is to render visible and critically interrogate the
culture and episteme of empire: the meanings and modalities of seeing and

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [19]

knowing that, according to postcolonial thought, accompanied empire

and made it possible in the first place. This is important. It means that
postcolonial theory is an epistemic project, not just an empirical one. It is
not just about what happened in the world of empires but also about how
empires have shaped how we see and understand the world; or what we do
not see, what we do not understand. Finally, postcolonial thought is about
critiquing those modalities and meanings while seeking out alternatives.
It is about finding ways of knowing and thinking that escape the stric-
tures of the imperial episteme.
These and other related issues are explored in this chapter, for there are
many strands to postcolonial theory to unravel. Accordingly, this chap-
ter explores the key contributions, insights, and claims of postcolonial
thought, focusing upon representative thinkers of the two main waves of
postcolonial thought. We will then be able to see that postcolonial theory is
much more than a trendy way to read novels, and that Harold Bloom fret-
ted rightly. As Robert Young (2001: 60) puts it, postcolonial thoughtand
hence its abstract manifestation as postcolonial theory and its academic
form as postcolonial studiesmounts a radical challenge to the political
and conceptual structures of the systems on which [imperial] domination
had been based. It is nothing less than a call to intellectual revolution; an
epistemic uprising. And its target is not just the academic humanities.



The thinkers of what I am calling the first wave of postcolonial thought

were a diverse array. They included W. E. B. Du Bois, Aim Csaire, Frantz
Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, C. L. R. James, Lopold Sdar Senghor, Benoy
Kumar Sarkar, Albert Memmi, Anouar Abdel- Malek, and prominent
writer-activist-politicians like Mahatma Gandhi and Kwame Nkrumah
as well as many others.1 They were all embroiled in a wider climate of an-
ticolonial revolution. Many of them actively participated in the numerous
anticolonial struggles of the century, whether by the pen or otherwise.
But the thinkers of the first-wave also offered more than calls to arms for
independence and self-government. Precisely as they challenged empire,
they first tried to better understand it. In so doing, they offered new in-
sights into colonialism, illuminating its multifarious logics and its nefari-
ous effects. These insights included an analysis of the culture of empire,
as noted above, but they included other things besides. First-wave think-
ers offered insights into the experience of colonial domination from the

[20] Postcolonial Thought


standpoint of the colonized. They theorized colonialism as a constitu-

tive force in its own right. They recharted imperial history away from its
Eurocentric coordinates. And they excavated the episteme of empire of
which the Enlightenment itself was no small part.

The Subjective Experience ofthe Objective

Frantz Fanons first book, Black Skin, White Masks, published in France in
1952 is a fitting place to start. In this partly autobiographical work, Fanon
famously narrates a moment when, as a student in France coming from
the French colony Martinique, he was on a train and a young white boy
exclaims to his mother, Look, a Negro! Mama, see the Negro! Im fright-
ened! Fanon writes of his reaction:I made up my mind to laugh myself
to tears, but laughter had become impossible.

I could no longer laugh, because Ialready knew that there were legends, sto-
ries, history, and above all, historicity
I was responsible at the same time for my body, for my race, for my ances-
tors. Isubjected myself to an objective examination, Idiscovered my blackness,
my ethnic characteristics; and Iwas battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism,
intellectual deficiency, fetichsim [sic], racial defects, slave-ships
All Iwanted to be was a man among other men.[]
I wanted to be a man, nothing but a man. [] (Fanon 1967 [1952]:9192)

Fanon testifies to the experience of being a black man in the French empire,
capturing one moment in the larger stream of the experience of colonial
subjecthood. This is one of the themes of the book. Fanon asks in the be-
ginning What does the black man want? And throughout the work, he
recounts his own experiences and trialsfrom growing up in the French
colony of Martinique to traveling to and studying in the French metro-
pole. Black Skin, White Masks thereby encapsulates one of the key interven-
tions of the first-wave:to illuminate the experience of colonialism from the
perspective of the dominated. The first wave uniquely offered a view of co-
lonialism from the standpoint of the colonized themselvesa standpoint
that had been ignored or buried in dominant accounts (Young 2001:274).
Colonialism depended upon racializing and dehumanizing colonized peo-
ples or, at best, constructing them as unruly populations to be disciplined,
worked upon, managed, ruled, or otherwise civilized. But through their
poetry, writings, or scholarship, first-wave theorists uniquely expressed
the colonized peoples own voice, disclosing how colonialismw ith all of

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [21]

its brutality, racism, and exploitationwas actually experienced by those

subjected to its perniciouspower.
First-wave writers captured, conveyed, and also theorized colonial ex-
perience. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon moves from the experience
of being racially hailed to a discussion of how it generates a third person
consciousnessa form of racial alienation whereby the racialized sub-
ject, by consistently being particularized on racial grounds, is forced to
see himself or herself not as an I but only as a him or her. As Fanon
says, I wanted to be a man, nothing but a man. But alas, he is forced into
his inferior position and consistently reminded of it. In the white world,
the man of color encounters difficulties in the development of his bodily
schema. Consciousness of the body is solely a negating activity. It is a third
person consciousness (1967 [1952]:110).2 Here, Fanon uniquely approxi-
mates a proper social psychology of colonialism. Black Skin, White Masks,
as Sardar (2008:x) explains, was among the first books to investigate the
psychology of colonialism. It examines how colonialism is internalized by
the colonized and how an inferiority complex is inculcated.
W. E.B. Du Boiss The Souls of Black Folk (1903) prefigured this exami-
nation of the subjectivity of colonized subjects. In this early work, Du
Bois captured the experiences of African-A mericans in the United States,
thereby offering insight into the experiences of internal colonialism
(Blauner 1969). And just as Black Skin, White Masks captures the experience
of racialized subjugation in the French empire, Du Boiss Souls articulates
the experience of African-A mericans within the U.S.empire. At the time,
dominant discourses of African-A mericans classified them as a prob-
lem to be governed:the Negro Problem. Du Bois reframes the matter,
asking:How does it feel to be a problem? As Aldon Morris (2007) aptly
puts it, Du Boiss writings broke from the conventional white perspective
on African-A mericans and instead sought to escort the reader inside the
world of Black people, revealing their cultural formations, their organi-
zational and institutional dynamics, and their tears, triumphs, and inner
conflicts. He opened the door on the real Black world (516). Like Fanon,
therefore, Du Bois is able to capture the actual experience of racism. And
like Fanon he theorizes it. Racialized social structures generate a double
consciousness, Du Bois argues.3 As Fanon is not allowed to be just a man,
the same goes for African-A mericans. According to Du Bois, they are not
granted a true self-consciousness. Instead, the African-A merican must
see himself through the revelation of the other world:

It is a peculiar situation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always look-

ing at ones self through the eyes of others, of measuring ones soul by the

[22] Postcolonial Thought


tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his
twoness,an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled
strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone
keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the his-
tory of this strife,this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge
his double self into a better and truerself.4

Later, when postcolonial studies became a trend in the humanities,

critics charged it with a subjective focus, faulting it for focusing upon
the cultural or discursive aspects of colonialism at the expense of the
more material aspects (Ahmad 1994). But that is partly the point: one
of the first-waves contributions was to recover the voices, experiences,
and subjectivity of colonized peoples. This is arguably why postcolonial
studies would find a home in literature departments and why novelists,
poets, and writers like Lopold Senghor (who was eventually a Senegalese
politician but also a renowned poet) or Chinua Achebe (author of Things
Fall Apart, published in 1958) are often included in the postcolonial canon.
Through their texts, these writers articulate the sentiments and subjec-
tivities, knowledges and experiences of peripheral populations whose
voices had been suppressed or silenced. Postcolonial literature studies in
the United Kingdom started out exactly as the study of Commonwealth
literature. It was meant to circumvent the dominant voices of English
writers and recover writers from Britains colonies and former colonies
(Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 2002). What each of these literatures has
in common beyond their special and distinctive regional characteristics,
explains Shohat (1992: 102) of the literatures coming from different parts
of the commonwealth, is that they emerged in their present form out of
the experience of colonization and asserted themselves by foregrounding
the tension with the imperial power, and by emphasizing their differences
from the assumptions of the imperial centre. It is this which makes them
distinctively post-colonial.

Colonialism asa ConstitutiveForce

Although first-wave thinkers uniquely recovered the experience of colo-

nial subjugation, they did not retreat analytically to the recesses of sub-
altern subjectivity. Excavating subjectivity was not the end point:it was
also a window into colonialism and empire more broadly. Criticisms of
postcolonial theorys presumably excessive culturalism overlook this cru-
cial point:the first-wave unearthed not just the subjective dimension of

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [23]

colonialism but also the subjective experience of the objective (Young

2001:274). Their exploration of the experience of colonization facilitated a
critical interrogation of the otherwise unseen or hidden logics of colonial-
ism, yielding an innovative understanding of colonialism as a social object
and constitutiveforce.
That Fanon and Csaire wrote within the French imperial context is
here instructive. French intellectuals had not made colonialism a proper
category of analysis in the 1950s. When they discussed colonialism, it
was usually in terms of colonial policies (debating the policy of assimila-
tion versus association, for instance). Or it was subsumed under de-
velopmental categories such as modernization, urbanization, ethnic
groups, and acculturation. Colonialism was merely a medium for other
social forces. Missing was a proper colonial studies:theories and research
that treated colonialism as a social force, as an object or a structure that
had definite impact upon social relations and identities (Cooper 2002;
Go 2013a: 5053). First-wave postcolonial theorists here intervened,
analyzing colonialism as a social force of its owna distinct society of
a typerather than just a siphon through which other forces flowed
(Mannoni 1964 [1950]: 7). Fanon, for example, observed that although
Frances proclamations of the rights of man portended a universal
humanity and hence a unity, French colonialism had produced instead
a distinct colonial social orderan order that was almost irrevocably
Manichean. The colonial world is cut in two. The dividing line, the fron-
tiers, are shown by barracks and police stations The two zones are op-
posed, but not in service of a higher unity. Obedient to the rules of pure
Aristotelian logic, they both follow the principle of reciprocal exclusivity
(Fanon 1968 [1961]: 3839). Csaire similarly saw colonialism not as a
disseminator of culture or as a space of culture contactas colonial
ethnologists were wont to suggestbut as a system of domination punc-
tuated by fits of brutality. Security? Culture? The rule of law? Ilook
around and wherever there are colonizers and colonized face to face, Isee
force, brutality, cruelty, sadism, conflict . No human contact, but rela-
tions of domination and submission which turn the colonizing man into
a class-room monitor, an army sergeant, a prison guard, a slave driver,
and the indigenous man into an instrument of production (Csaire 2000
The innovation here was to recognize colonialism as a system in its own
right; one that consisted of hierarchical social positions and associated
practices (often violent) to reproduce ita series of relations of domina-
tion and submission rather than a neutral system by which the supposed
benefits of European civilization could be dispensed and disseminated.

[24] Postcolonial Thought


This way of conceiving of colonialism as a systemic series of relations is

seminal, for it hatches the important notion that colonialism matters.
Fanon challenged colonial stereotypes by reference to this idea. French
settlers and officials justified colonial rule of Algeria on the grounds that
black Algerians were racially inferior and primitive. Fanon argued instead
that it was the colonial system that must be taken into account (Fanon
1967 [1952]:97100). The colonizeds inferiority does not countenance co-
lonialism; the colonizeds inferiority was produced by colonialismand
this exactly because colonialism is a structuring force rather than a neu-
tral medium.
Fanons novel theorization of race was premised upon this notion
of the colonial constructed-ness of hierarchy.5 At a time when biologis-
tic thought or as Fanon puts it, epidermal thinking dominated
European metropoles, Fanons analysis of the subjective experience of
racism in imperial contexts allowed him to see race as a construction
rather than as a givena matter of sociogenesis as opposed to only
biological constitution. And for Fanon, the colonial relationship itself
constructs race:the colonized exist only in relation to colonizer, and so
blackness constructed only in relation to whiteness. For not only must
the black man be black, Fanon declares in Black Skin, White Masks, he
must be black in relation to the white man (1967:110). The very identity
of black, and with it, the sense of inferiority which the colonized inter-
nalize or epidermalise, is invented by the colonial relationship:

I begin to suffer from not being a white man to the degree that the white man
imposes discrimination on me, makes me a colonized native, robs me of all
worth, all individuality, tells me that Iam a parasite on the world, that Imust
bring myself as quickly as possible into step with the white world The feel-
ing of inferiority of the colonized is the correlative to the Europeans feeling of
superiority. Let us have the courage to say it outright:It is the racist who creates
his inferior. (Fanon 1967 [1952]:93)

Fanon here specifies a colonial construction of race that approximates so-

ciological theories of the social construction of race.6 And with this, Fanon
intimates the other important insight of the first-wave:colonialism was
a force that constituted not only the identity of the colonized but also of
the colonizer.7
This is a persistent theme among first-wave writers. In his Discourse
on Colonialism (1955), Csaire also evokes the notion of mutual constitu-
tion, but he does so to stress how the colonizers humanity is corrupted
by the colonial relationship. He sketches colonialism as a violent and

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [25]

exploitative structure that had a destructive impact upon the European

colonizers, too: colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutal-
ize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to
buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativ-
ism (2000 [1955]:35). Csaire identified this as the boomerang effect of

colonization, Irepeat, dehumanizes even the most civilized man; co-

lonial activity, colonial enterprise, colonial conquest, which is based on con-
tempt for the native and justified by that contempt, inevitably tends to change
him who undertakes it; the colonizer, who in order to ease his conscience
gets into the habit of seeing the other man as an animal, accustoms himself to
treating him like an animal, and tends objectively to transform himself into an
animal. It is this result, this boomerang effect of colonization that Iwanted to
pointout. (Csaire 2000 [1955]:41)

Colonialism is a dehumanizing structure whose grip colonizers them-

selves cannot escape. This is the beginning of a social theory about
colonial societies that first-wave thinkers helped originate, thereby
wrestling our understanding of colonialism away from the colonizers

Recharting History

The idea of the mutual constitution of colonizercolonized relates to

another contribution of the first-wave: to rechart history away from
its European-centered coordinates and instead reveal how the coloniz-
ers historyt hat is, Europes historyis entangled in wider relations.
First-wave thinkers extended the idea of a mutually constituting rela-
tionship between colonizer and colonized, or metropole and colony, to
global history in its entirety. They thereby subverted dominant stories
about the exceptionality and agency of Western development. Europe,
the first-wave showed, is not an isolated agent. It is constituted by its
imperial peripheries. History is not the history of single nations but of
metropoles and colonies, empires and peripheries, interlocked and en-
chained in international and transnational relations. As the historian
Catherine Hall remarks, this notion that the the political and institu-
tional histories of the centre and its outer circles [are] more mutually
constituted than we think is a defining contribution of postcolonial
thought (Hall 1996a: 70).

[26] Postcolonial Thought


Fanon was unequivocal in this regard, famously asserting that the his-
tory of Europe was made possible only by its economic plundering of colo-
nies:Latin America, China, and Africa. From all these continents, under
whose eyes Europe today raises up her tower of opulence, there has flowed
out for centuries toward that same Europe diamonds and oil, silk and
cotton, wood and exotic products. Europe is literally the creation of the
Third World. The wealth which smothers her is that which was stolen from
the underdeveloped peoples (Fanon 1968 [1961]: 102). But first-wave
thinkers did not only speak of economic history. Csaire makes the power-
ful and original assertion that colonialisms dehumanizing force contrib-
uted to fascism in Europe; that fascism was only one instance of a larger
global logic of imperial violence and brutality. The European bourgeoi-
sie, he notices, is awakened by a terrific reverse shock; that is, Hitler.
The reason Hitler is such a shock is because Hitler represents the brutal-
ity endemic to colonialism applied against whites:it is the crime against
the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he ap-
plied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved
exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks of
Africa (Csaire 2000 [1955]:36). Europes fascism and its overseas impe-
rialism are two sides of the same coin; the same global logic articulated in
different localities.
If this approach approximates a type of entangled history that schol-
ars today promote, Du Bois had uniquely prefigured it when he discerned
a global racial logic to empire. This is encapsulated in his oft-quoted state-
ment about the global color line:The problem of the twentieth century
is the problem of the color linethe relation of the darker to the lighter
races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea
(2005:62). Here Du Bois connects the different histories of all the various
subjugated populations around the world, and includes African-A mericans
in the United States. Our race question, he says, referring to the situation
of African-A mericans in the United States, is not a purely national and
local affair but rather part of a color line that belts the world and encom-
passes the entirety of the civilized world to the dark races of mankind
(2013:111). Du Bois shifts his discussion breathlessly from racial domina-
tion in Americas Puerto Rico and the Philippines to British India and to
the Boer War in South Africa. Yet this is not only a history of subjugated
peoples. It is a history of the subjugators as well:a history not of any single
group but of global relations between groups. The question of the color line
is the question of the relation of the advanced races of men who happen to
be white to the great majority of the undeveloped or half developed nations
of mankind who happen to be yellow, brown, or black (Du Bois 2013:119).

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [27]

Du Bois hereby replaces Eurocentric history with a global history of im-

perial and racial domination, smashing the borders that divide national
histories and the histories of metropole and colony.
Though Du Bois first conceived the notion of a global color line
at the turn of the twentieth century, he later renames this sort of his-
tory with audacious precision. The history of our day, he boldly writes
in his autobiography, Dusk of Dawn, may be epitomized in one word
Empire; the domination of white Europe over black Africa and yellow Asia
through political power built on the economic control of labor, income and
ideas (2007: 48). This is a new analytic that connects the domestic and
the foreign as well as peoples across the world. What is the black man
but Americas Belgium, he writes in his Darkwater (1920: 34), and how
could America condemn in Germany that which she commits, just as bru-
tally, within her own borders? This new analytic for narrating history
also enables Du Bois to offer a new narrative of the First World War. In
his 1915 essay (nine months after the outbreak of First World War), Du
Bois implores his readers to recognize that the First World War was not a
European or white war (Du Bois 1915). It involved the deployment of
African and other colonial soldiers, for one; and for another its causes lay
in the dynamics of empire unfolding on African terrain. Although there
are those who would write world-history and leave out this most marvel-
ous of continents, he argues, Africa is central for understanding the war.
Prefiguring Lenins Marxist interpretation of the imperialist causes of the
war, Du Bois detects that the war was just an extension of the scramble
for Africa by imperial powers. Yet in a very real sense Africa is a prime
cause of this terrible overturning of civilization which we have lived to see
and these words seek to show how in the Dark Continent are hidden the
roots, not simply of war to-day but of the menace of war tomorrow (Du
Bois 1915: 707).
Armed with this notion of entangled and connected histories, first-
wave postcolonial thinkers inaugurated new histories, narratives, and
knowledges that promised to shift the dominant ways in which the re-
lations between western and non-western people and their worlds are
viewed (Young 2003:2). First-wave writers thus rethought history, cri-
tiquing its Eurocentric focus and its tendency to isolate the colonizers
agency as the basis for history. They reoriented history toward an analy-
sis of entangled relations between metropole and colony and highlighted
the agency of those groups and peoples whose history had been hitherto
subjugated. This was the intellectual equivalent of anticolonial revolution.
The colonists usually say that it was they who brought us into history,
Amilcar Cabral declared in a conference in Dar es Salaam in 1965 in the

[28] Postcolonial Thought


heat of the war for liberation in Guinea, today we show that this is not
so (Cabral 1969:65).

The Imperial Episteme and theEnlightenment

The first-waves uprising against Eurocentric history was part of a larger

project to which its historiographical critique was tethered. Ultimately,
the discipline of conventional history is a knowledge project and a repre-
sentational apparatus. It offers a mode of understanding, thinking about,
and displaying peoples either near or afar that stakes claims to objectiv-
ity. The first-waves critique of conventional history, therefore, amounted
to more than a critique of a single particular discipline like history. It was
an assault upon the deeper and more fundamental epistemic operations
upon which historical thought had been premised:binary thinking that
hierarchizes self and other, abstracts individuals and events from social
contexts (colonial and imperial contexts especially) and universalizes cat-
egories of thought based upon European experiences. In short, first-wave
postcolonial thinkers targeted nothing less than the entire imperial epis-
teme and its moorings in the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment is admittedly a broad term to cover a complicated
and sometimes inconsistent set of ideas and discourses, but there are
basic themes of the Enlightenment that postcolonial thinkers scrutinized.
One is humanism, which maintains that there is a universal and given
human nature [i.e., Man] that can be known and improved on the basis
of Reason (Gandhi 1998:27). Enlightenment humanism, in turn, necessi-
tates a belief in universalism:the notion that the world can be fully known
and understood in terms of basic truths independent of space and time. By
this view, not only does Reason allow us to access truths, but those truths
are applicable everywhere. Furthermore, humanism and universalism
both depend upon a notion, largely traceable to Descartes, of objective
and impartial observers who are themselves unconstrained by space
and time. Their knowledge gives access to truths because they deploy a
universal Reason. Finally, postcolonial thinkers targeted Enlightenment
positivism: the set of philosophies that reject metaphysics and herald
Reason, and its presumed practical form of the scientific method, as the
best approach for knowing human nature and the world in generalif
only so that humans can controlboth.
Postcolonial thinkers scrutinized and ultimately critiqued these foun-
dational ideas and beliefs on the grounds that they were not innocent;
that, to the contrary, they were part and parcel of imperialism. The French

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [29]

mission civiliatrice depended upon Enlightenment assumptions, and along

with European imperialism more broadly, was propped up ideologically by
humanistic concepts. For example, the very notion that there is Reason
depends upon a notion of the irrational; and, historically, colonized or
would-be colonized peoples served as the ideological alter, the figure of
the irrational, thereby justifying colonial domination. Because they are
not rational, colonized people are not capable of political rights, and so
require foreign rule. To take another example, the idea of mankind, as
Gandhi (1998: 29) notes, operated similarly: the humanist valorization of
man is almost always accompanied by a barely discernible corollary which
suggests that some human beings are more human than otherseither
on account of their access to superior learning, or on account of their
cognitive faculties. Humanism thus includes only by excluding, as even
Jean-Paul Sartre (with whom postcolonial thinkers engaged) recognized.
Humanism, wrote Sartre, is the counterpart of racism: it is a practice
of exclusion (Sartre 1976: 752). Enlightenment humanism in this way
could be both a justification and a goal of empire; or at least its discursive
For all of these reasons, the first-wave critically interrogated the
Enlightenment and its corollaries. Part of their critique was directed at
Europes hypocrisy. Fanons The Wretched of the Earth is unabashed:That
same Europe where they were never done talking of Man, and where
they never stopped proclaiming that they were only anxious for the wel-
fare of Man:today we know with what sufferings humanity has paid for
every one of their triumphs of the mind. When Isearch for Man in
the technique and style of Europe, Isee only a succession of negations
of man, and an avalanche of murders (Fanon 1968 [1961]:312). More
than hypocrisy, the first-wave also drew logical connections between
the Enlightenment and colonialism. Csaire (2000 [1955]) suggested
that Enlightenment humanism was the handmaiden of colonialism and
European fascism at once:At the end of formal humanism there is
This critique of Enlightenment humanism also entailed a firm cri-
tique of Enlightenment universalism. Csaire was not compelled by the
abstracted notion of man or mankind that disregarded the particu-
larities of differenceparticularly racial difference.8 The humanism es-
poused by European intellectuals was a disembodied universalism, as
Csaire put it, which occluded the particular experiences of racialized col-
onized subjects. Put simply, Enlightenment universalism was Eurocentric,
yet purported to be objective. Csaire thus strove for a different kind of
universalism. I have a different idea of a universal, he wrote in 1956.

[30] Postcolonial Thought


It is a universal rich with all that is particular, rich with all the particu-
lars there are, the deepening of each particular, the coexistence of them
all (Csaire 2010 [1956]: 152).
Fanon exhibited the same skepticism. European humanism, he de-
clared, is the ideology of the Western bourgeoisie, which has no room
for any other notion of humanity except that which is modeled after
itself. Western bourgeois racial prejudice as regards the nigger and the
Arab is a racism of contempt; it is a racism which minimizes what it
hates. Bourgeois ideology, however, which is the proclamation of an es-
sential equality between men, manages to appear logical in its own eyes
by inviting the sub-men to become human, and to take as their prototype
Western humanity as incarnated in the Western bourgeoisie (Fanon 1968
[1961]: 163). Fanon saw in European humanism little else than a bour-
geois narcissism projected onto the entire worlda world teeming, in the
view of the Enlightenment, with ignorant hordes awaiting the salvation of
European colonialism.9
If hypocrisy and Eurocentrism was on the first-waves critical map,
so, too, was the Enlightenments Cartesian assumption that producers of
knowledge are somehow unsituated and impartial. This was already im-
plied in their criticisms about the way history had been narrated:those
criticisms intimated that historiographical knowledge was not neutral or
impartial but rather connected to imperialism. C.L. R.James thus opined
that conventional histories had occluded African agency, and that this
represented the view of white capitalists. The only place where Negroes
did not revolt, he declared, is in the pages of capitalist historians
(James 1994:77). In other words, so-called knowledgefrom historical
knowledge to naturalist scientific knowledge, to philosophical ideas and
social scienceis situated, connected to power rather than neutral. It is
situated, in particular, within the machine of imperial power. First-wave
writers thus pinpointed the subjectivity of seemingly objective knowl-
edge, unveiling the imperial interests masked by proclamations of disin-
terestedness. Amilcar Cabral put it thisway:

The practice of imperialist rule demanded (and still demands) a more or less
accurate knowledge of the society it rules and of the historical reality (both
economic, social, and cultural) in the middle of which it exists. This knowledge
is necessarily exposed in terms of comparison with the dominating subject
and with its own historical reality.[]
In fact, man has never shown as much interest in knowing other men and
other societies as during this century of imperialist domination. An unprec-
edented mass of information, of hypotheses and theories has been built up,

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [31]

notably in the fields of history, ethnology, ethnography, sociology, and cul-

ture concerning people or groups brought under imperialist domination.
The concepts of race, caste, ethnicity, tribe, nation, culture, identity, dignity,
and many others, have become the object of increasing attention form those
who study men and the societies described as primitive or evolving. (Cabral

It followed that critiquing imperialism and ultimately overcoming it re-

quired questioning the modalities and meanings of knowledge that sub-
vent it in the firstplace.
Cabral mentioned race as one of the concepts of interest to imperial
power, and it is this concept that many of the first-wave writers problema-
tized. Du Bois was probably the first to do so. In early twentieth century
North America, racial theories influenced by proto-Eugenics and Social
Darwinism dominated social scientific discourse, but Du Bois challenged
that discourse as emitting race fictions rather than truths. He also criti-
cized nearly all bodies of social scientific knowledge:

This insistent clinging to the older patterns of race thought has had extraor-
dinary influence upon modern life. In the first place, it has for years held back
the progress of the social sciences. The social sciences from the beginning were
deliberately used as instruments to prove the inferiority of the majority of
the people of the world, who were being used as slaves for the comfort and
culture of the masters. The social sciences long looked upon this as one of their
major duties. History declared that the Negro had no history. Biology exagger-
ated the physical differences among men. Economics even today cannot talk
straight on colonial imperialism. Psychology has not yet recovered from the
shame of its intelligent tests and its record of conclusions during the First
WorldWar. (Du Bois 2005:138)

Fanon extended this sort of critique of social science to psychiatry.

Beginning in 1953, Fanon was assigned to the largest psychiatric hos-
pital in Algeria, the Blida-Joinville Hospital. The hospital exemplified
colonial institutions. Algerian inmates were separated from the non-
native inmates and were, in turn, separated by ethnicity (Muslim
patients were put into their own wing). The way in which psychiatric
knowledge was deployed in this hospital was an extension of these
colonial divisions, representing, as Macey (2000:170)puts it, a ratio-
nalization and even a refinementof colonial thought and adminis-
tration. The entire premise of colonial psychiatry was that Algerian,

[32] Postcolonial Thought


Maghbrebian, and Muslim culture were pathological. The Muslim

native was theorized as exhibiting, in the words of one of the propo-
nents of the Algiers school of psychiatry, a childlike credulity and
stubbornness. Algerians as a people were credulous and suggestible
prone to outbursts of homicidal rage, fanatical, possessively jealous and
fatalistic (Macey 2000:223).10
It should not be surprising that these psychiatric categories resonated with
discourse about colonized peoples more broadly: both were likely informed
by or at least reproduced dominant anthropological discourse at the time,
not least Lucien Lvy Bruhls dichotomy between primitive and civilized
mentalities (see Macey 2000: 225). Nor, then, should it be surprising that
Fanon charged this body of psychiatric knowledge for being a Eurocentric
tool of colonialism. For Fanon, it was exactly this sort of categorical scheme
in psychiatry that contributed to the subjugation of colonized peoples rather
than helping them. If psychiatry is the medical technique that aims to
enable man no longer to be a stranger to his environment, Fanon wrote in
1956 in his letter of resignation from his medical post, I owe it to myself to
affirm that the Arab, permanently an alien in his own country, lives in a state
of absolute depersonalization (Fanon 1970 [1967]: 53).
In these ways, first- wave postcolonial thinkers troubled the
Enlightenment notion that knowers are objective. The Cartesian sub-
ject, who views the world from an objective stance, on high and far from
the realities of the world, is an untenable notion. No human can pull the
god trick. Foucault and postmodern theorists would later insinuate this
sort of critique to illuminate how knowledge and power were intertwined,
but long before them first-wave thinkers disclosed how knowledge and
power were intertwined:specifically, imperial and colonialpower.
Fittingly, evinced in this critique, was a sustained assault upon
Enlightenment universalism that presaged postmodernism. If the impe-
rial knower cannot pull the god trick, then its knowledge is not univer-
sal. Return to Fanons critique of European psychiatry. Fanon himself
deployed European psychiatry, referring at times to Freud, Lacan, and
the Swiss analyst Germain Geux.11 But he was cautious of the fact that
psychiatry originated in Europe and was based upon the experiences of
Europeans, even though it masqueraded as universal; applicable to every-
one everywhere.12 In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon insists that for un-
derstanding people who are subjected to colonization like Algerians, the
discoveries of Freud are of no use to us (Fanon 2008 [1986]:77). Neither
the theories of Freud nor others like Alfred Adler or Carl Jung, he writes,
can be applied to the effort to understand the man of colors view of the

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [33]

world (Fanon 2008 [1986]: 109). Jung, in devising his psychoanalytic

theory reaching back to childhood, went only back to the childhood of
Europe (Fanon 2008 [1986]).
In Fanons view, what was needed was a consideration of the distinct
experiences of Africans, not least experiences of colonization and colo-
nialisms brutality, exploitation, and racism. Colonialism created a dis-
tinct social context that had to be taken into account. Fanon thus called
for a social rather than an individualisticpsychoanalytic explanation of
the black mans alienation: a sociogenywhich recognizes the social
and hence colonial context in its explanatory apparatusas opposed to
phylogeny and ontogeny. Psychological dynamics, Fanon averred, had to
take into account the relations between consciousness and the social con-
text; and by social context Fanon also was referring to the fact of colo-
nialism (Fanon 2008 [1986]:72). Hence, for Fanon, the Eurocentrism of
psychiatry lies not only in its racism but also in its ignorance of the social
impact of colonialism.
Fanon extended this critique of humanisms problematic universal-
ism to Hegels master-slave dialectic, which Jean-Paul Sartre had in turn
appropriated for his existentialism. The Hegelian scheme that Sartre
had appropriated depended upon a teleology:a dialectical progression
from in-itself (or facticity) to for-itself (or transcendence) that rep-
resents a true self-consciousness. But Fanon found a Eurocentrism in
this teleology: for the Black man in a colonial society, things are dif-
ferent. Racial regimes of power render the Black man trapped within
his body based upon his skin color; the Hegelian transcendence of full
self-recognition is impossible. I am given no chance. Iam overdeter-
mined from the outside. Iam the slave, not of an idea that others have
of me, but of my appearance. Iam fixed (Fanon 2008 [1986]:87).
Hegelianism is undone by its universal assumption: the dialectic,
rooted in Western philosophers particular European context but uni-
versalized to the world, does not take into account the specificity of
racialization in imperial contexts. Jean-Paul Sartre had forgotten that
the Negro suffers in his body quite differently from the white man
(Fanon 2008 [1986]:106).

Marxist Universalism inQuestion

This skepticism toward Enlightenment universalism had another inflec-

tion:it was accompanied by an ambivalent relationship to Marxist thought.
On the one hand, it would be wrong to claim that first-wave thinkers were

[34] Postcolonial Thought


wholly opposed to Marxist thought. Du Bois, Fanon, Csaire, Cabral, and

others all read Marx or Marxist writers, deployed Marxist ideas in their
writings, and affiliated with communist or socialist political parties.
On the other hand, they did not hesitate to direct their critique of the
Enlightenment partly toward Marxist thought. Marxist thought is multi-
vocal and complex; and Marx himself was critical of the Enlightenment,
at least those aspects of the Enlightenment that divorced history from
its material bases.13 But what first-wave postcolonial writers seized upon
within Marxism was a certain reading or understanding of Marx that, at
the time, was represented largely by the Communist Party. And according
to the first-wave, the problem was Communist Marxisms failure to take
difference seriously enough, a problem that stemmed from its universal-
izing tendencies.
One expression of this is Amilcar Cabrals charge that Marxist theory
reduced everything to the same universal template. Just as Fanon had
questioned Hegelian thought for failing to consider the specificities of
the colonial situation (such as racial domination), so did Cabral question
Marxism. [T]hose who affirm, Cabral announced at the Tricontinental
conference in 1966, that the motive force of history is the class strug-
gle would be able to make it more precise and give it an even wider field
of application if they had a better knowledge of the essential character-
istics of certain colonized peoples, that is to say peoples dominated by
imperialism (Cabral 1974:6264). Put differently, the Marxist theory of
class struggle had been conceived only in relation to the white European
working-class. Its application to colonized peoples required significant re-
vision; it could not just be unproblematically imposed upon the complexi-
ties of other societies.
Cabrals critique here was not simply Maoist reframing. Cabral did not
agree that the peasantry was the Afro-Asian version of Europes teeming
proletariat (Young 2001:286). Cabral instead contended that, due to co-
lonialism, colonized peoples had a different history and set of concerns
than the white European proletariat. Theirs was a different struggle.
Liberation from foreign dominationwhether in the form of colonial-
ism or neocolonialismwas the prerequisite for true emancipation, and
Marxism failed to acknowledge this (Cabral 1969:83). Furthermore, Cabral
insinuated that the imposition of European-based Marxist categories has
the effect of denying the history and agency of colonized peoples entirely.
This leads us to pose the following question:does history begin only with
the development of the phenomenon of class, and consequently of class
struggle? To reply in the affirmative would be to considerand this
we refuse to acceptthat various human groups in Africa, Asia, and Latin

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [35]

America were living without history, or outside history, at the time when
they were subjected to the yoke of imperialism (Cabral 1974: 64).14 For
Cabral, the claim that there are people without a history was not an onto-
logical one but rather an ideological effect of Marxist Eurocentrism.15
The same themes surface in other first-wave theorists writings. Just
as Fanon lamented how Sartrean categories did not acknowledge how race
fixes certain people, so, too, did he question the Marxist valorization of
the European (read:white) working class as the agent of history. Fanon
drew upon Marxist themes in his discussion of colonial alienation, for
instance; but his point was to illuminate a specific type of alienation
brought about by colonialism and its brutality: racial alienation (Zahar
1974). Fanon also crafted a position that prefigured intersectional social
thought: race and class in the colonial context was intertwined, such
that Marxist thought had to be revised. In the colonies, he writes in The
Wretched of the Earth, the economic substructure is also a superstructure.
The cause is a consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are
white because you are rich. This is why Marxist analysis should always be
slightly stretched every time we have to deal with the colonial problem
(1968 [1961]:32). If anything, Fanon aligns more with Maoist positions
that placed hope in the peasantry, but even then, Fanons own theoreti-
cal scheme was less about relations to the mode of production in the ab-
stract than it was about relations within colonial systems in the concrete.
His discussion of Algerian society under French rule, for example, effec-
tively renarrates economic class division as a colonizercolonized division
(Fanon 1968 [1961]; 1970 [1967]).
Fanon here extended Marxist thought, but he also critiqued its limits.
For Fanon, Marxist thought may have been incredulous of certain univer-
salisms but, in this version as expressed by the Communist Party, it merely
reuniversalized the experience of Europe and of the white European
working-class. Csaires criticisms of his communist colleagues exemplify
this position. Csaire was a member of the French Communist party but
in 1956 he resigned. He had been a member for more than ten years. In his
resignation letter to Maurice Thorez, he said that his resignation was due
to the inadequacy of Marxist thought. Because he was a man of color, he
occupied a particular subjectposition reflecting a situation in the world
that cannot be confused with any other problems that cannot be re-
duced to any other problem [and] of a history constructed out of ter-
rible misadventures that belong to no other (Csaire 2010 [1956]:147).
In other words, the Marxist theory embodied in the Communist Party
was inadequate. It was reluctant to deal with the specificity of the colonial
situation, instead absorbing it into its homogenizing categories:

[36] Postcolonial Thought


The colonial question, cannot be treated as a subsidiary part of some more

important global matter, as part over which deals can be arranged or upon
which others patch up compromises they think they have a right to seek in
the name of an overall situation which they retain the exclusive right to in-
terpret our colonialism, the struggle of coloured people against racism,
is much more complex, indeed, it is of a totally different nature than the
struggle of the French workers against French capitalism, and cannot in
any case be considered a part, as a fragment, of that struggle. (Csaire 2010

If the Marxist thought of the Communist party was inadequate at best,

it was, at worst, paternalisticand in this sense a part of, not separate
from, the imperial episteme. In his letter, Csaire makes parallels between
French communist thought and colonialist ideology. French Communists
wanted to reduce colonized peoples to passive receptors and docile beings.
French colonial ideology portrayed Europeans as the fathers who will
civilize the natives, Marxist ideology just replaced the father with a big
brother, who, full of his own superiority and sure of his experience, takes
you by the hand (alas, sometimes roughly) in order to lead you along the
path to where he knows Reason and Progress can be found. Csaire was
defiant: Well, that is exactly what we do not want. What we no longer
want. Paternalism, whether colonialist or Marxist, be damned. [I]t
should be Marxism and communism at the service of black peoples,
Csaire declared, not black peoples at the service of the doctrine (Csaire
2010 [1956]:147).
In many ways this encapsulates the first-waves relationship to Marxist
thought. Like other first-wave theorists, Csaire did not completely reject
Marxism. The point was to unsettle its universalistic assumptions, prob-
lematize its categories, and thereby recraft or redeploy it to best theo-
rize matters of social difference, which European versions of Marxism
had for too long underestimated, if not ignored, at their own peril. In
an interview in 1967 with the Haitian poet and militant Ren Depestre
in Havana, Csaire explained that he had been critical of some of his
communist colleagues for not recognizing the particularity of race. I
criticized the Communists for forgetting our Negro characteristics. They
acted like Communists, which was all right, but they acted like abstract
Communists. I maintained that the political question could not do away
with your condition as Negroes. We are Negroes, with a great number
of historical particularities. Csaire went on to say, Marx is all right,
but we need to complete Marx (Csaire 2000 [1955]: 70).16 First-wave
writers worked not against Marx but with him, if only to transcend his

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [37]

limitations. This was part of the larger challenge that first-wave postcolo-
nial theory ultimately took up: to work within the inescapable legacies of
the Enlightenment, including the Marxist version of it, but to be aware of
its limits and remain vigilant about its potential occlusions.
We can now see postcolonial thought in its pristine form. Starting from
the subjective experiences of the colonized, first-wave writers captured
the multiple facets and conceits of empire. Whereas anti-imperial thought
already had questioned the economic bases of empire, the first-wave il-
luminated its cultural or epistemic aspects. They identified the particular
constitutive logics and racialized violence of colonialism and how colo-
nialism impacted the identities of colonizer and colonized alike. They laid
bare the narratives of history upon which imperialism was justified and
sought to rechart history toward a more global vision that recognized
shared histories and did not discount the agency of the colonizedor of
colonialismin shaping modernity. And they excavated the episteme of
empirethe various narratives, discourses, and knowledges upon which
imperialism and colonial rule staged theirpower.
But what, then, of the second wave of postcolonial thought and its par-
ticular interventions, extensions, and differences?


One date by which to mark the transition from the first to the second
wave of postcolonial thought is the year 1973. In September of that year,
Amilcar Cabrals Partido Africano da Independncia da Guin e Cabo
Verde (PAIGC) officially declared the independence of Guinea-Bissau, an
act recognized by Portugal. Thus did one of the last remaining European
colonies in Africa finally achieve independence. And the very same year,
Amilcar Cabral was assassinated. According to some, he was murdered by
the Portuguese government. The year 1973 thereby marks both the end of
European colonialism and, with the assassination of Cabral, the end of the
first wave of postcolonial thought.
Something else happened in 1973. This was the so-called ArabIsraeli
War, which erupted after Syria and Egypt attacked Israeli forces in the
Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula in October. Initially, most in the
West assumed that Israel would emerge victorious, but then Egyptian
forces crossed the Suez Canal and moved into the Sinai, surprising nearly
everyone. For the history of postcolonial thought, the event is significant
because it was an important source of inspiration for Edward Said, then
a literature professor at Columbia University. By Saids own account, the

[38] Postcolonial Thought


media portrayals of Muslims prompted by the ArabIsraeli war provoked

Said to begin work on Orientalism (1978). My interest in Orientalism
began, Said explained, as a response to the ArabIsraeli War of 1973,
which had been preceded by a lot of images and discussions in the media in
the popular press about how the Arabs are cowardly and they dont know
how to fight and they are always going to be beaten because they are not
modern. And then everybody was very surprised when the Egyptian army
crossed the canal in early October of 1973 and demonstrated that like any-
body else they could fight.17 The second-wave of postcolonial thought was
thus born. Saids Orientalism, published five years after Cabrals death,
But what exactly was this wave of postcolonial thought about? Let
us begin by highlighting the contributions of Saids pioneering text,
Orientalism, and tracing out its connections with the first-wave. We can
then turn to the other writers of the second-wave who picked up the
mantle; not least Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, and the school of subal-
tern studies.18

Orientalism and Colonial Discourse

The influence of Saids Orientalism on the second-wave is unequivocal.

The original 1978 edition of Orientalism has been cited at least 28,000
times. Most scholars of postcolonial theory refer to it as one of the found-
ing sources, if not the most important source, for the subsequent body of
writing in postcolonial scholarship.19 To a certain extent, this influence is
surprising, for the actual claim of the book should be uncontroversial by
now. In fact, the claim simply continued the claim of the first wave:that
colonialism and imperialism entailed cultural, ideological, and epistemic
operations; or, in Saids more general formulation, discourse. But Saids
Orientalism also pushed the claim in new directions, building upon but
also extending the insights of the firstwave.
The topic of Orientalism is, of course, orientalism: the body of knowl-
edge of the geographic area known as the Orient. But Saids move was to
specify orientalism as more than just a field of academic study; more than
just Oriental studies or area studies. For Said, Orientalism is an entire
style of thought; a way of thinking and set of representations (Said 1978:
3). This style of thought, according to Said, is manifest in a whole set of
discourses, from historical writing to economics to travel accounts to race
theory to literature and philosophy. It involved a very large mass of writ-
ers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists,

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [39]

economists, and imperial administrators producing elaborate theories,

epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the
Orient, its people, customs, mind, destiny, and so on (34). The other
move was to argue that this style of thought and its were not outcomes
of imperialism but its necessary ideological form. More than an appur-
tenance to imperialism, they enabled and facilitated it from the start.
Neither imperialism nor colonialism, Said explained later in Culture and
Imperialism, is a simple act of accumulation and acquisition. Both are sup-
ported and perhaps even impelled by impressive ideological formations
that include notions that certain territories and peoples require and be-
seech domination, as well as forms of knowledge affiliated with domina-
tion (Said 1993: 9).
Although Saids theoretical argumentation is nuanced (and, some have
said, inconsistent at times), the point is simple enough:in order to rule
and dominate something, it has to be a seen as a thing to be ruled and
dominated in the first place. Orientalism, by analytically bifurcating
East from West, is the discourse that creates the thing that Western
imperialism could then rule, manage, colonize, and exploit. Saids anal-
ysis of Orientalism, therefore, is not an analysis of textual or literary
representationsfor representation assumes the existence of an object
that is then represented, reflected, or mediated. Nor is it an analysis of
knowledge about the Orientfor again, knowledge of something as-
sumes that the object is separate from the knowledge that aims to ap-
prehend it. Orientalism, rather, is an analysis of the discursive production
of the Orient itself; the construction of something as real rather than just
the representation or knowledge of it. Texts like those associated with
Orientalism, Said declares, can create not only knowledge but also the
very reality that they appear to describe (Said 1978:94). More boldly, Said
explains, It is not the thesis of this book to suggest that there is such a
thing as a real or true Orient On the contrary, Ihave been arguing that
the Orient is itself a constituted entity (1978:322). More than a critique
of racist stereotypes, Orientalism targets a certain form of thought that is
productive rather than epiphenomenal of imperialism.
For Said, Orientalism is expressed in purportedly objective and sci-
entific knowledge as well as in popular discourse. He thereby extends the
first-waves tradition of charting and critiquing the imperial episteme. To
be sure, in his later work, Culture and Imperialism, Said explores imperial
thought in the wider culture of empire beyond Orientalist writings: all
those practices, like the arts of description, communication and represen-
tation that are relatively autonomous from the economic, social and po-
litical realms. Included, then, are the popular stock of lore about distant

[40] Postcolonial Thought


parts of the world and specialized knowledge available in such learned

disciplines as ethnography, historiography, philology, sociology, and liter-
ary history and with it cultural forms like the novel (1993: xii). These are
important, for they all represent the power to narrate: the power to
narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very
important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main
connections between them (1993: xii).
But what exactly is the content of this culture:What are the key sche-
mas or assumptions of the imperial episteme? As with the first wave of
postcolonial thought, at issue is a fundamental binary. The first wave re-
charted history to illuminate the mutual entanglements of metropole and
colonyentanglements that had been covered up in imperial discourse
and its assumption of an autonomous and agentic metropole or West.
Similarly, for Said, Orientalism is premised upon an ontological and
epistemological distinction made between the Orient and (most of the
time) the Occident (Said 1978:3). It divides up peoples and places into
two putatively separable entities, each with its own essence, and holds up
one as superior and the other as inferior. In later work, Said declares this
assumption of separation to be a sort of defining law of the imperial
epistemethe law of division.

Throughout the exchange between Europeans and their others that began
systematically half a millennium ago, the one idea that has scarcely varied is
that there is an us and a them, each quite settled, clear, unassailably self-
evident. As Idiscuss it in Orientalism, the division goes back to Greek thought
about barbarians, but, whoever originated this kind of identity thought, by
the nineteenth century it has become the hallmark of imperialist cultures
as well as those cultures trying to resist the encroachments of Europe. (Said

The imperial episteme and its law of division essentializes peoples and
places that are historically and socially determined, while effacing how
they are reciprocally constituted by the very same operation. Just as Fanon
had asserted that Europe is literally the creation of the Third World, so
does Said declare that, in the production of the Orient, Europe also
produces itself. The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe, the Orient has
helped to define Europe (or the West) (1978:1). The Orient has helped
to define Europe as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience
(1978:2). By the same token, then, the imperial epistemes law of division
covers up the agency of colonized peoples:the colonized are assumed to be
passive and without history. In imperial culture, the source of the worlds

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [41]

significant action and life is in the West, whose representatives seem at

liberty to visit their fantasies and philanthropies upon a mind-deadened
Third World. In this view, the outlying regions of the world have no life,
history, or culture to speak of, no independence or integrity worth repre-
senting without the West (Said 1993:xix).
Said thus extended and further elaborated the critique of colonial cul-
ture and imperial knowledge initiated by the first-wave, but he did so by
focusing upon Orientalism. And his frontal attack upon academic and
scientific knowledge for their complicity with Orientalist discourse was
innovative. First-wave thinkers had recognized sciences role in imperial-
ism but had not subjected scientific knowledge to such sustained inter-
rogation. Saids Orientalism exposed, in minute detail, the lies behind
academic knowledges claims to autonomy and objectivity. In thereby
making the culture of imperialism, including its academic and scientific
branches, a direct object of analysis, Said inaugurated a new subfield of
postcolonial inquiry that would come to be known as colonial discourse
studies or colonial discourse analysis:the critical study of a variety of
texts (from colonial officials records to academic works to paintings and
novels) to examine how Self and Other are discursively constituted and
represented; the sustained analysis of one of the primary operations of
imperial culture.

Resistance, Agency, and theSubaltern

It was not Said, however, who took the analysis of colonial discourse to its
most extreme conclusion. This was done by Homi Bhabha, who emerged
as one of Saids more notable interlocutors. If Said had revealed the im-
portance of colonial discourse for understanding colonial (and postcolo-
nial) cultures, Bhabha questioned whether Said had interrogated colonial
discourse sufficiently enough (Bhabha 1994). In Bhabhas view, Saids
analysis of Orientalism underestimated colonial discourse and effaced its
complexity. Hence Bhabhas friendly but critical amendment:colonial dis-
course is not homogenous or singular, replete with only the same set of
images and meanings. It is ambivalent and internally conflicted.
Bhabha uses this critical amendment to Saids work to stage his own
intervention, which begins with a reformulation of colonial discourse.
Foremost, he reframes the operations of Orientalist discourse as a form
of stereotyping. For Bhabha, stereotyping expresses how all forms of
difference are discursively constructed, whether racial or sexual, and
stereotyping is not only the setting up of a false image It is a much

[42] Postcolonial Thought


more ambivalent text of projection and introjection, metaphoric and

metonymic strategies, displacement, guilt, aggressivity; the making and
splitting of official and fantasmic knowledges (1994:82). Rather than
operating from a single law of division, colonial discourse is a complex,
ambivalent, contradictory mode of representation, as anxious as it is as-
sertive (1994:69). It is a fundamentally ambivalent mode of knowledge
and power (1994:66).
Bhabhas use of terms like ambivalence, desire, displacement, and
guilt is precisely motivated:His theory of colonial discourse and its ste-
reotyping is inspired by psychoanalytic theory, extending back to Freud
and through Jacques Lacan. This is a crucial departure from Said, who had
avoided psychoanalytic theory altogether. But it extends the insights of
Fanon who, as we have seen above, had problematized European psychia-
try and exposed the psychological impact of colonialism upon colonizer
and colonized. Colonial discourse, Bhabha says, is contradictory and am-
bivalent, manifesting both derision and desire for the Other, both de-
light and fear, in a way that is analogous with Freuds theory of sexual
fetishism. Furthermore, Bhabhas conceptualization of colonial discourse
as ambivalent is unabashedly Freudian. Freud specified the touch-
ing phobia as involving an ambivalence of the subject toward an object,
marked by the subjects desire to touch on the one hand and, on the
other, their disgust with it. Colonial discourse, Bhabha (1994) suggests,
operates in the same way, curiously mixed and split, polymorphous and
perverse, an articulation of multiple belief. The colonized black is both
savage (cannibal) and yet the most obedient and dignified of servants
(the bearer of food); he is the embodiment of rampant sexuality and yet
innocent as a child; he is mystical, primitive, simple-minded and yet the
most worldly and accomplished liar, and manipulator of social forces (82).
Such conflicted portrayals manifest the ambivalence of colonial discourse
and the colonizers anxiety at once:an anxiety about the populations that
colonizers both desire and deride, and whom they can only desperately try
to fix categorically into essential identities through discursive repetition
(1994:6684). Bhabha thus exposes how the culture of imperialism is shot
through with complexities that Saids analysis had failed to appreciate.
By this intervention, however, Bhabha also does more. While summon-
ing psychological tensions to stereotyping, he simultaneously gestures
toward anticolonial resistance, or at least toward unwitting recalcitrance
to colonial power. In Orientalism, Said unearthed Orientalist discourse as
it was produced by Western writers, scholars, scientists, colonial adminis-
trators, and travelers but he failed to theorize resistance to it. He did not
recover alternative or oppositional discourses. Nor did he specify breaches,

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [43]

breaks, ruptures, or openings that would have permitted challenges

to Orientalist authority. He does so later, with Culture and Imperialism
(1993). But before that, in Orientalism, there was little of thisan omis-
sion that prompted more than one critic, not least Bhabha, to opine that in
Orientalism it appears as though colonial discourse and power is possessed
entirely by the colonizer (Bhabha 1990b:77).20 For Bhabha, conversely, re-
sistance is possible exactly because of the complexity of colonial discourse.
The ambivalence and internal tensions of colonial discourse foment their
own undoing, marking an incompleteness and instability that opens up
the possibility for colonial authority to be disrupted, unsettled, or at least
One concept that Bhabha mobilizes to open up this question of resis-
tance is mimicry. Colonial authority, through its practices and ever-pro-
liferating discourse, declares that the colonized are inferior and insists
that they become western and civilized. It insists that the colonized
mimic their masters. The irony is that if the colonized do become west-
ern and civilized, the distinction and self-proclaimed superiority of
colonial power is overturned. Here arises ambivalence: colonizers want
the colonized to emulate them but they must simultaneously rescind the
invitation. And here, too, arises the potential power of mimicry. As the
colonized becomes almost the same, but not quite, their mimicry stands
as both a resemblance and a menace (1994: 86, 140). The ambivalence
of colonial authority, Bhabha warns, repeatedly turns from mimicrya
difference that is almost nothing but not quiteto menace. And this, for
Bhabha, stands as a form of subtle resistance to colonial power; a resis-
tance engendered by the ambivalence of colonial discourse itself. Mimicry
discloses the ambivalence of colonial discourse and also disrupts its au-
thority (1994: 88). Mimicry thus marks moments of spectacular resis-
tance; or at least a breach in the otherwise seamless flow of authoritative
discourse (1994: 172).
With his concept hybridity, Bhabha extends this notion. Deploying
Jacques Derridas theory of diffrance, Bhahba underscores that stereo-
types are like linguistic signs, in that they establish their meaning only
through difference and repetition. Colonial authority thus depends upon
its continual reiteration, but no reiteration can be the same. One can never
step into the same river twice. In Signs Taken for Wonders, Bhabha sug-
gests that this nonidentity of repetition is seen in English missionaries
attempts to convert Hindus in India in the early nineteenth century. Those
attempts required translating the Bible from English to Hindi. The result
was a hybrid text; not in the sense of cultural admixture but in the sense
of a text with two different voices, a doubling (Bhabha and Rutherford

[44] Postcolonial Thought


1990: 210). And so now the translated Bible, carrying both English and
Hindu voices, undermines English authority. The book retains its pres-
ence, but it is no longer a representation of an essence, he insists. As the
production of colonial hybridity, the English book no longer simply
commands authority. Thus hybridity afflicts the discourse of power
and estranges the familiar symbol of English national authority. It is a
strategic reversal of the process of domination (1994:112).
However circuitously or obliquely, Bhabhas analyses of colonial dis-
course and resistance raise the important issue of colonial agency. First-
wave writers also had raised this question, critiquing Eurocentric histories
for repressing the role of colonized peoples in their accounts and narratives.
Bhabhas analysis of colonial discourse also summons the issue while insin-
uating a generative approach to agency that does not reduce it to bourgeois
individualism. It is not a consciously driven form of agency; a willed action
on the part of colonized subjects to revolt or overthrow colonial authority.
In Bhabhas rendering, it is an effect. Resistance arises from the convergence
of the structure of ambivalence in colonial discourse on the one hand and
the practices of mimicry by the colonized on the other. The incompleteness
of colonial discourse opens up spaces into which is ushered a resistance un-
foreseen by the colonizers and colonizedalike.
This question of colonial agency brings us squarely to the next key
strand of second-wave postcolonial thought: the subaltern studies school
of Indian historiography and its associated proponents and interlocutors,
including Gayatri Spivak. Unlike the work of Bhabha and Said, the subal-
tern studies project did not spring from literary studies but rather from
the discipline of history. Initiated by a group of historians in India, in-
cluding Ranajit Guha (1983, 1984, 1988, 1997) and Dipesh Chakrabarty
(1993, 1997, 2000), subaltern studies was first animated by a critique of
the existing historiography of India. That historiography had been domi-
nated by two schools: on the one hand, the so-called Cambridge School
produced by English historians and, on the other, nationalist historiog-
raphy, which was anticolonial and produced by English-trained scholars
coming out of India. The subaltern studies scholars found both of these
existing approaches to be elitist to the core. They either focused upon
British colonialists or, as the diametric opposite, Indian nationalist politi-
cians. Neither analyzed the contributions by people, on their own, that
is, independent of the elite (Guha 1988: 39).
Against both of these schools, the subaltern studies scholars mounted
a full frontal assault. First, they underscored how histories of India ex-
tended rather than questioned the imperial episteme (after all, the ar-
chival documents that historians used were largely produced for and by

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [45]

the colonial administration). Historiography, in other words, is a form of

colonial discourse, with all of its Orientalizing and stereotyping; yet an-
other tool in the colonial masters toolbox. Second, and accordingly, the
subaltern studies project set out to wrestle existing histories from these
colonialist moorings. Existing narratives centered upon colonial adminis-
trators or nationalist Indian elites, but the subaltern studies group sought
instead to recover the role of the subaltern in their histories. Founding
member Ranajit Guha explained:We are indeed opposed to much of the
prevailing academic practice in historiography for its failure to ac-
knowledge the subaltern as the maker of his own destiny. This critique
lies at the very heart of our project (Guha 1984:vii).
The task of subaltern studies was thereby set:to recover the repressed
voices and experiences of the colonized peasantry, to unearth the activities
and knowledges of people who had been occluded in conventional histori-
cal representations. This was another iteration of the first-waves primary
interest in the subjectivity and experiences of subjugated peoples, but the
novel use of the concept subaltern in this project is paramount. The sub-
altern studies historians appropriated the term from the Italian Marxist
philosopher Antonio Gramsci, who used it to refer to exploited social
classes who lack self-consciousness as a class (including Italian peasants).
The subaltern studies scholars refashioned the term to refer more generally
to dominated groups who are not represented in history, their experiences
and voices erased by the colonial episteme. The subaltern referred not to
a single identity or sociological slot but rather, in Guhas words (1994:vii),
a general attribute of subordination in South Asian society, regardless
of whether that subordination took the form of class, caste, age, gender
and office or in any other way. In other words, while Gramsci, extending
a Marxist ontology, had introduced the concept subaltern to refer to a
sociological essence, the subaltern studies school redefined it to refer to a
relational position.21
Subaltern studies emphasis upon the agency of colonized peasants has
made it tempting to reduce the project to the history-from-below ap-
proach to English history, rather than recognizing its lineage in first-wave
postcolonial thought. Spearheaded by historians like Eric Hobsbawm
and E. P. Thompson, the history-from-below approach also had aimed
to transcend the biases of history and recover the practices of marginal-
ized groupshowever, in this case English peasants and workers. There
is no doubt that this approach partly influenced subaltern studies but, as
Chakrabarty explains, subaltern studies was not just an Indian reiteration
of the history-from-below school (Chakrabarty 2002:8). Understanding
why enables us to see how second-wave postcolonial theory extended

[46] Postcolonial Thought


another theme of first-wave postcolonial thought:a problematization of

Marxist universalism.

The Limits ofMarxist Universalism Revisited

Edward Saids Orientalism already had initiated the second-waves prob-

lematization of Marxism. For Said, Marxs references to the Orient (es-
pecially in his writings on India) either followed the logic of romantic
redemption or reduced Asian societies to exemplars of Oriental despo-
tism (1978:15456). Both of these portrayals fell prey to Orientalist as-
sumptions, classifying Asians as requiring imperialist intervention. But
the Marxist discourse of the Orient, according to Said, likewise failed to
take gender or racial difference seriously, producing instead a universalis-
ing and self-validating historicism that depends on a homogenizing and
incorporating world historical scheme that assimilated non-synchronous
developments, histories, cultures, and peoples to it (Said 1985:102).
Said could not abide by this form of essentialist universalism (Said
1985:102). He was particularly frustrated by the uncritical deployment of
Marxist thought to make sense of his homeland of Palestine. [T]heoretical
Marxism in the Arab world did not seem to adequately meet the chal-
lenges of imperialism, the formation of a national elite, the failure of the
national revolution (Sprinker 1992:261).22 Therefore, as with Fanon and
Csaire before him, Said was cautious of how Marxist categories reduced
human experiences into little else than indicators or markers of other pre-
sumably universal categories like the proletariat. And like Fanon and
Csaire, Said was admittedly inspired by Marx but was willing to acknowl-
edge the limitations of Marxist categoriesincluding their inability to
fully absorb the particular plight and experiences of colonized peoples
and racism. Not surprisingly, as Saids work has been heralded by devotees
of postcolonial thought, it has been derided by devotees of Marxism in
equal measure, some of whom have tried to recover Marxist thought from
Saids characterizations (Anderson 2010).23
The subaltern studies school launched a similar critique of this brand
of Marxism. According to the subaltern studies school, Marxist narra-
tives employ temporal distinctionssuch as premodern and modern
or precapitalist and capitalistthat correspond with metropolitan
thought and its Orientalist categories such as primitive and back-
wards. Marxist narratives thereby reproduce colonial discourse; their cat-
egories were deployed by British colonialists in India (Chakrabarty 2000:
24). Conventional Indian histories, for example, code Indias spiritual

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [47]

practices as religious and, in turn, equate them with superstition and

magic. India comes to represent, if not a backwards culture, at least
an incomplete modernity. India is nothing but lackingan image that
denies Indian agency and instead invites imperialism, or at least inter-
vention and intercession on behalf of modernity, while heralding mod-
erns and metropolitans as superior (Chakrabarty 2002). The argument of
the subaltern studies school was that, because Marxism itself reproduces
these very same categories, it is a part of the imperial episteme rather
than its valiant critic.
Given this reluctance to countenance certain Marxist narratives, the
subaltern studies school cannot be seen as merely an Indian version of
the English history-from-below approach, for that approach is viti-
ated exactly by its Marxist fidelity. Staged upon conventional Marxist
assumptions, Hobsbawm classified the consciousness and activities of
subalterns as backwards and archaic, or as lacking some kind of true
consciousnessas falling short of a presumed universal trajectory of
development.24 The subaltern studies project, thinking along parallel
lines as Said if not informed by him, was hesitant to adopt this schema
uncritically and instead pushed its limits. Whereas Hobsbawm would
have reduced the sort of consciousness animating peasant revolt in
India as prepolitical, primitive, and premodern, for instance, Ranajit
Guha (1983, 1997) argued that peasant revolt consisted of powerful
local idioms of community that articulated with (rather than predated)
modern formallegal frameworks of governance. Peasant consciousness
was properly political rather than lacking. In other words, analyzing
peasant consciousness in India required more than a simple transposi-
tion of the Marxian history-from-below approach. It required local-
ized categories, rooted in or at least sensitive to the particularity of
the colonial context in India. Hobsbawms categories were limiting be-
cause they were derived almost entirely from the European experience
(Chakrabarty 2002: 12; Guha 1988). They were obliged to treat Indias
culture either as a replication of the liberal-bourgeois culture of nine-
teenth century Britain or to attribute it to some kind of survival of an
antecedent pre-capitalist culture (Chakrabarty 2000:15).
Guhas critique of Hobsbawm is homologous with Fanons critique of
the false universality of psychoanalysis and Hegelian thought. Just as
Fanon had questioned the applicability of those categories, Guha likewise
insisted that India had to be understood in different terms. Although
India had become part of capitalism to be sure, it still exhibited particular
forms of social relations of domination and power that Marxist analysis
had not fully appreciated (see Chakrabarty 2002: 1314). These elisions

[48] Postcolonial Thought


provoked Chakrabarty, who picked up the mantle of subaltern studies

but pushed it further, to question Marxist thought and look elsewhere,
producing a new mode of postcolonial historiography. As we will see in
more detail shortly, although Chakrabarty started out as a Marxist-in-
spired labor historian, he eventually lost his faith: the more I tried to
imagine relations in Indian factors through categories made available by
Marx and his followers, the more I became aware of a tension that arose
from the profoundlyand one might say, parochiallyEuropean ori-
gins of Marxs thoughts and their undoubted international significance
(Chakrabarty 2000: x).

The PostcolonialP ostmodern

We can now see how the second-wave extended the first-waves interest in
the culture of empire and its episteme, albeit through a more specific focus
upon colonial discourse and representations. We also can see how it con-
tinued the first-waves interest in the agency and experiences of the colo-
nized and extended its skepticism of certain Marxist forms of thought.
But there is another line of thought that the second-wave extended: a
critical stance toward the Enlightenment and its corollaries of humanism
and positivism. As seen, the first-wave problematized the Enlightenment
as the ideological arm of empire. Key figures of the second-wave extended
this critique, but in so doing they also inflected it by drawing upon new
intellectual trends. Crucial here was postmodernism and poststructural-
ism, which had been taking over North American campuses in the 1980s
just as second-wave postcolonial thought began to surface, too (Gandhi
1998:4243; Hiddleston2010).
Much of second- wave postcolonial thought drew inspiration from
these new intellectual currents in the humanities. The influence of Michel
Foucaults poststructuralism upon Edward Saids Orientalism should be
unmistakable. And although Saids theoretical fidelity to the strictest in-
terpretation of Foucaults analytic method, assumptions, and conclusions
have been questioned (and although Said was often critical of Foucaults
Eurocentrism, as will be seen later), there is no doubt that Said bestows
upon Foucaults theory of discourse the honor of imitation (Said 1978:4).
Still, the second-wave took much more from contemporary intellectual
currents than theories of discourse. Emboldened by the likes of Lyotard,
Baudrillard, and Derrida, they also appropriated the postmodern incre-
dulity toward grand narratives and claims to full knowledge. With this
postmodern version of second-wave postcolonial thought, the critique of

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [49]

the Enlightenment initially birthed by the first-wave became an unrelent-

ing epistemological onslaught.
Part of this new critique of the Enlightenment was directed toward his-
toriography, represented in the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty. Influenced
by poststructuralist thought, Chakrabarty systematized the subaltern
studies reproach of Marxism to generate a critique of a much broader
modality of thought: historicism. This is the generalizable schema
that inserts entities into a universal temporal process of development
(Chakrabarty 2000: 2223).25 Marxist thought is one expression of this
schemait is stagist in that it treats societies as unfolding through
distinct phases. Chakrabartys claim is that historicism, whether in its
Marxist form or not, inscribes a law of division over temporal space,
thereby reproducing Orientalist discourse. As applied to places like India,
for example, historicism constructs distinctions between reason/sci-
ence vs. superstitionor between progress and backwardness
while proclaiming the former to be superior. Historicism thus inevitably
treats India as inferior, and it portrays nearly all non-European peoples
as inferior not because of their race alone but because of their history (or
lack thereof). In this narrative, Europeans are the originators of moder-
nity and all of its moral, mental, and material goods; everyone else is con-
signed to historys waiting room. Colonized and postcolonial peoples are
portrayed as secondary peoples whose modernity is incomplete and, even
when complete, will always be an inferior copy of the superior original
(hence interminably inferior). Historicism, writes Chakrabarty (2000:
8), along with the modern, European idea of history came to non-
European peoples in the nineteenth century as somebodys way of saying
not yet to somebody else.
With Chakrabarty, subaltern studies shifted away from the project
of recovering subaltern consciousness and toward a sustained critique
of historicismand with it, the entire discipline of history. The sub-
altern studies project became an engaged critique of the academic dis-
cipline of history itself (Chakrabarty 2002: 19). Or, as Gyan Prakash
(1994:1489)puts it, even as Subaltern Studies has shifted from its origi-
nal goal of recovering the subaltern autonomy, the subaltern has emerged
as a position from which the discipline of history can be rethought.
Still, for Chakrabarty, historicism is also an instance of an even broader
mode of thought and practice than disciplinary history. It expresses
the Enlightenment rationalism associated with European modernity
(Chakrabarty 2002: 24). If Indian historiography, Marxist thought, and
British colonial discourse reflect historicism, it is only because historicism
itself is just a pawn in the global game of the Enlightenment.

[50] Postcolonial Thought


This is Chakrabartys other bold move:to escalate his critique of his-

toricism from historiography to the Enlightenment in its entirety. In
Chakrabartys approach, historicism is part of the larger Enlightenment
package of thought that was imposed by Europe upon the rest of the world.
If Europe brought modernity to the world through empire, it also sought
to universalize its attendant categories of understanding (Chakrabarty
2002:24). The phenomenon of political modernitynamely, the rule by
modern institutions of the state, bureaucracy, and capitalist enterprise
is impossible to think of anywhere in the world without invoking certain
categories and concepts, the genealogies of which go deep into the intel-
lectual and even theological traditions of Europe (2000:4).26 Accordingly,
Chakrabarty puts nearly all of the categories and concepts associated with
Enlightenment rationalism on the register for reconsideration and cri-
tique. These concepts, like Orientalist ones, were deployed by imperialists
to consolidate and justify rule. John Stuart Mill theorized liberty and rep-
resentative government as the highest form of government while arguing
that Indians or Africans did not deserve it yet (2000:8). Positivism, which
guided John Stuart Mills thinking, denigrated mysticism and metaphys-
ics and praised Reason, insisting that the latter is superior. It thereby de-
clared that the colonized, classified as representing the former, must be
saved by the latter.
More than challenging colonial representations of the Other,
Chakrabartys larger mission here is to suggest that the Enlightenment
not only justified imperialism but was a form of imperialism itself. The
Enlightenment proclaimed that the modes of thought of the majority of
the worlds population were inferior and retrograde, and the universal-
ization of Enlightenment categories thus amounted to repeated bouts of
epistemic violence. Imposing Enlightenment thought served to authorize
some ways of thinking and being in the world while relegating others to
the margins.27
For Chakrabarty, this universalization of Enlightenment thought is
suspect on ethical and political grounds. By the proclamation that the
worlds modes of thought are inferior, the Enlightenment implied that
those modes of thought should be repressed or excised. But universal-
ization is also suspect on analytic grounds. Chakrabarty claims that the
Enlightenment categories by which we think the world were formed in
the particular context of European history, a part of Europes heritage
and its imperial history. Concepts such as citizenship, the state, civil
society, public sphere, human rights, equality before the law, the indi-
vidual, distinctions between public and private, the idea of the subject,
democracy, popular sovereignty, social justice, scientific rationality, and

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [51]

so on all bear the burden of European thought and history, Chakrabarty

(2000:4) insists. The problem is that they are treated as universals by
historians. Following the Enlightenments positivist principles, they are
mobilized to make sense of all of the world, categorically absorbing ev-
erything and everywhere, just like an empire. All of our knowledge is thus
Eurocentric. Europe remains the sovereign, theoretical subject of all
histories, including the ones we call Indian, Chinese, Kenyan and so
on, Chakrabarty (2000:27)explains. There is a peculiar way in which
all these other histories tend to become variations on a master narrative
that could be called the history of Europe. As such, how appropriate can
those concepts and narratives be for apprehending, understanding, and
representing Indian history with all of its particularities? The problem,
in brief, is the same as that initially posed by Csaire but in a new post-
structuralist guise: Enlightenment assumptions demand that we take
European thought as universal and global even though European thought
is parochial and local. With Chakrabartys extension of subaltern stud-
ies, Enlightenment universalism is again vitiated, if not for its imperial
complicity then for its analytic inadequacy; and for its dogged insistence
that it is neither.
Chakrabartys historiographical critique thus manifests something
more than an incredulity toward grand narratives; as if all that is needed
is a local narrative to remedy the imperial epistemes occlusions. Rather,
the critique questions the Enlightenments broader and more founda-
tional assumption that the world is fully knowable through Reason. For
Chakrabarty, historicism of any sort does epistemic violence to the com-
plexity of difference. It is not Eurocentrism that is problematic but rather
its presumption that the Cartesian knower is possible atall.
This incredulity pervades other second-wave writings, too. It is evinced
in Homi Bhabhas analysis of colonial discourse, and it is brought by
Bhabha to its logical conclusion, one that manifests what we might call
the postmodernpostcolonial critique. The conclusion is that any attempt
to know is impossible and instead stricken with ambivalence. As Young
(1990: 11) puts it, colonial discourse analysis since Said, that is, in its
poststructuralist version, is not merely a marginal adjunct to more main-
stream studies, a specialized activity only for minorities or for historians
of imperialism and colonialism, but itself forms the point of questioning
of Western knowledges categories and assumptions. Implicit if not ex-
plicit in Bhabhas analysis of ambivalence in colonial discourse, then, is
the claim that the operations of colonial discourse are more general than
just colonial stereotyping. They are typical of Enlightenment humanism,
positivism, and their relentless will to knowledgethat is, the will to

[52] Postcolonial Thought


classify and categorize in order to arrive at universal truths. All such at-
tempts to know exhibit a structure of ambivalence; and colonial discourse
is just one instance of this.
On the one hand, colonial discourse recognizes colonized subjects
(or any Other) as difference; something patently foreign and distant
(Bhabha 1994:73). On the other hand, it inserts the colonized into some
familiar category (black, uncivilized, etc.). This is what enables the col-
onizer to believe that they know the colonized and thereby allows them to
manage, regulate, or rule. Colonial discourse admits of something foreign
but then rejects the difference by classifying it as something familiar. It
tries to make the unknowable entirely knowable and visible, seeking to
fulfill its fantasy of coherence (Bhabha 1994:70). Enlightenment Reason
is animated exactly by this fantasy. As colonial discourse presumes the
knowability of the colonized, so does Enlightenment positivism presume
the knowabilty of the world. In both cases, ambivalence structures the
operation. This tension between not knowing and yet knowing, between
recognizing difference but disavowing it, between fixity and fantasy,
marks the ambivalence of colonial discourse; indeed, of all forms of
knowledge (1994:77). So the colonizers insistence upon overcoming such
ambivalenceand their very Enlightenment assumption that they can do
soexpresses a will to power birthed by the Enlightenment, manifest in
the imperial episteme, and practically expressed in colonial domination
This postmodernpostcolonial critique of Enlightenment rationalism
culminates in the intervention by Gayatri Spivak, who critiqued subaltern
studies from the outside (Spivak 1988c).28 At the most simplistic level,
Spivaks intervention has to do with gender, a social identity that the sub-
altern studies school had not made central to their work (though it was
a part of it).29 More than just accusing the subaltern studies literature of
leaving women out of the picture, though, Spivak uses gender issues to
stage her critique of imperial knowledge and representation more gener-
ally, and so refashion the project of subaltern studies entirely. If subaltern
studies critiqued historiographical knowledge and Enlightenment ratio-
nalism at once, one of Spivaks generative moves is to question whether
that critique reached its logical conclusion.30 The task of subaltern studies
is to recover the subaltern voice, but Spivak wonders:Can the subaltern
speak atall?
Spivaks exploration of this question emerges from an examination
of the nineteenth century controversy in India over sati, a practice that
has come to be known as widow self-immolation (wives burning them-
selves on their husbands funeral pyre) (Spivak 1985, 1988a). British

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [53]

colonial officials took sati as uncivilized and barbarica sign of Hindu

backwardnessand so criminalized it in 1829. For Spivak, this simple
act is pregnant with imperial politics and the politics of knowledge.
Outlawing sati was conducted in the name of British imperial benevolence
and patriarchy. It was part of their civilizing mission. To wit:white men
save brown women from brown men (Spivak 1988a:297). But, as Spivak
points out, the practice of sati was multivocal, internally contested, and
layered. It signified the patriarchy of Hindu culture but also the poten-
tial for female agency. Sati, after all, was a practice of self-immolation.
By criminalizing it on the grounds of their civilizing mission, the British
effaced these complexities and at the same time the Hindu womens own
interests, subjectivity, and politics. In other words, by outlawing sati, not
only did the British override womens agency, they also conducted an act of
epistemic violence: the subalterns understandings, perceptions, norms,
and related schemas or knowledges are marginalized if not entirely erased
(Spivak 1988a:28081). While British guns subjugated and suppressed if
not eradicated Indians bodies, British discourse subjugated, suppressed,
and ultimately eradicated local knowledges.
So far so good; there is little here that contradicts Saids work or the
subaltern studies project. Spivaks challenge arises when she invokes
poststructuralist/postmodern philosophers like Michel Foucault, Gilles
Deleuze and Jacques Derrida to conclude that, after all, there is no way
around the problem. The attempt to recover the knowledge and subjectiv-
ity lost through epistemic violence is impossible. The issue is not the lack
of evidence, archival information, or texts that would allow us to excavate
womens true voice to discover the way things really were. Historical
knowledge is never an objective or disinterested representation of the
real facts. All texts are representations, hence they rely upon the logics
of significationlogics whereby the referents of the sign are necessarily
fabricated rather than present and are thus subjected to the dictates of
human interests rather than objectivity. This sort of (mis)representation
is clear enough when it comes to Orientalism, but Spivaks point, invoking
Derrida, is that it is endemic to textual representation itself. And for his-
toriographies in colonial settings, the matter is all the more difficult:not
only is the historical archive limited to texts written by colonizers (or the
colonized elite), nearly all forms of representation are products of colonial
power.31 In this setting, the appearance of a subaltern is only a subal-
tern subject-effect of colonial discourse (Spivak 1988c:204). Recovering
an authentic subaltern voice so that the subaltern can speak and be repre-
sented in history cannot be done. The task the subaltern studies group had
set out for itself is impossible. It is an aporia. The subaltern cannotspeak.

[54] Postcolonial Thought


Spivak thoroughly explores this aporia in her discussion of how

Indian nationalists challenge the British policy on sati. As seen, Spivak
highlights that the British colonial state silenced womens agency by
criminalizing sati. The response of Indian nationalists, representing the
nativist or traditionalist position, was that this criminalization of
sati effaces Hindu womens free will; that the women wanted to die
(Spivak 1988a:297). But Spivak shows that this ostensibly anticolonial
claim is itself also a representation that does not fully capture the com-
plexity of the very Hindu tradition in whose name the anticolonial
critique was invoked. The indigenous Indian elite simply used sati to ad-
vance their nationalistic romanticization of the purity, strength and
love of these self-sacrificing women (Spivak 1988a:301). Missing from
either positiont he British or the native eliteis the womans voice.
Everyone else speaks but the woman, that is, the subaltern. One never
encounters the testimony of the womens voice-consciousness (Spivak
1988c:297). And the problem is not simply that the women are not al-
lowed to speak for themselves; it is that no representation of womens
voices allows the possibility of a female subjectivity that is shifting,
contradictory, inconsistent (Mani 1992: 397). There is epistemic vio-
lence on all sides. Due to the very logic of signification and representa-
tion, there is no space from where the subaltern (sexed) subject can
speak (Spivak 1988a:307).
Postcolonial theory here takes its most radical and disconcerting turn,
for it appears to be an ally of a dangerous postmodernism that swiftly
lapses into extreme relativism. Does Spivak mean to suggest that there is
no reality to uncover? Is there no truth at all? Nothing but discourse
and texts? Even scholars sympathetic to postcolonial theory register their
hesitation.32 It is the same charge that might be leveled against Homi
Bhabhas work or colonial discourse analysis more broadly. All represen-
tations are misrepresentations, and the implication is simple enough
but impossibly perplexing: any attempt to truthfully or fully repre-
sent the subaltern is fruitless. At best it is fraught with dangers that
the subaltern studies historians had only laterdue to Spivakcome
to acknowledge.
We can now see how the second-wave of postcolonial thought extended
the first-waves interests in questions of empire, agency, and the imperial
episteme, even as it surmounted it by drawing upon poststructuralism to
raise entirely new questions. Only two questions remain:First, what was
it all for? What animated the second-wave? Second, how did second-wave
postcolonial theory attempt to counter the imperial episteme? How did it
seek to cultivate post-colonial knowledge?

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [55]


The first-wave envisioned a postcolonial world, while the second-wave

wrote in one. When Du Bois, Csaire, Fanon, or Cabral registered their
condemnations of the Enlightenments complicity with colonialism and
binary frameworks of imperial knowledge, they did so in the context of
anticolonial strugglea time when the formal colonial empires ruled
the world and anticolonial revolution was in the air. By the late 1970s
and early 1980s, when Orientalism burst onto the academic scene, decol-
onization already had happened. The colonial empires already had been
dissolved. The first-wave was embroiled in political struggles against
colonialism, while the second-wave occurred after colonialism already
had ended. Theirs became a struggle in the academy; an assault not just
upon the imperial episteme but upon the academic knowledgefrom
literary studies to historiographyt hat reflected it. But why? What, for
instance, was the urgency and object of Saids critique of Orientalism, if
empires were already over? Or of Bhabhas deconstruction of colonial
discourse? Why should second-wave postcolonial theory be necessary at
all, beyond the confines of academic politics?33
It is imperative to recognize that second-wave postcolonial theory ac-
quired its initial impetus because of decolonization rather than in spite
of it. When Said wrote Orientalism, and as his influence spread, this much
already had become clear: Although the formal colonial empires were
over, their legacies remained. We already have seen that Said conceived
of Orientalism in response to the negative portrayals of Arabs during the
ArabIsraeli war. These portrayals were indicative of a larger issue: po-
litical decolonization had brought a formal equality between the Global
North and the Global South but had not brought cultural, political, racial,
or socioeconomic equality. The new postcolonial nations wrestled with
poverty and persistent violence. Dictators and military regimes dotted
the landscape of the postcolonial world and emulated the corruption, ex-
ploitation, and brutality of their European colonial predecessors. Earlier,
Fanon (1968 [1961]) had warned of such dangers in his critique of the
African national bourgeoisie, and they were apparently being realized.
New relations of power to replace the old colonial hierarchies also were
being reinscribed. We live, Gayatri Spivak would later write, in a post-
colonial neo-colonized world (Spivak and Harasym 1990:166). Not only
were many dictatorial regimes propped up by metropolitan countries,
neoimperial forms of intervention through the mechanism of finance and
institutions like the International Monetary Fund were underway and
being perfected: new types of global discipline imposed upon fledgling

[56] Postcolonial Thought


postcolonial states. All of this served to squash some of the utopian or at

least liberatory visions and hopes of radical decolonization movements.
Postcolonial studies [of the second-wave], Neil Lazarus (2011) suggests,
emerged as an institutionally specific, conjuncturally determined re-
sponse to these global developments (Lazarus 2011:910).
Other related events and processes were influential too; not least
the seeming persistence of imperial culture among metropolitan actors
and postcolonial societies alike. The very law of division and styles of
thought that had characterized formal imperialism and that Said had
meticulously unearthed did not just disappear with political decoloni-
zation. Said pinpointed neoimperialism alongside the continuation of
Orientalist frames:

And yet despite its failures, its lamentable jargon, its scarcely concealed
racism, its paper-thin intellectual apparatus, Orientalism flourishes today
in the forms Ihave tried to describe. [] Orientalism has also spread in the
United States now that Arab money and resources have added considerable
glamour to the traditional concern felt for the strategically important Orient.
The fact is that Orientalism has been successfully accommodated to the new
imperialism, where its ruling paradigms do not contest, and even confirm, the
continuing imperial design to dominateAsia. (Said 1979:325)

Nor was the law of division and its attendant schemas limited to the
West or the worlds metropoles. Said made haste to stress that colonial-
isms culture, evident in contemporary representations of the Muslims
and the Middle East, was persistent, palpable, and powerful; so much so
that it had even begun to take hold of the colonizeds own imaginations.
Indeed, there is some reason for alarm in the fact that its [Orientalisms]
influence has spread to the Orient itself:the pages of books and journals
in Arabic (and doubtless in Japanese, various Indian dialects, and other
Oriental languages) are filled with second-order analyses by Arabs of the
Arab mind, Islam, and other myths (Said 1979:325).
Spivaks critique of epistemic violence and the sati controversy can be
seen as motivated by a similar concern. As right-w ing or nationalistic
groups throughout the postcolonial world came to make appeals to tra-
ditions while dangerously excluding womens voices and concerns, they
reproduced Orientalist essentialisms. Meanwhile, questions of multi-
culturalism in the 1980s surfaced in metropolitan societies, exactly in
response to the influx of immigrants from the Global South, and in partic-
ular from the very post-colonies that metropoles used to rule. As Bhabha
noted, the discourse of multiculturalism ran the risk of reinscribing

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [57]

colonial essentialism. It also overlooked the colonial past and history

of imperial displacement that made migration possible in the first place
(Bhabha and Rutherford 1990: 218).
In short, as the first wave of postcolonial thought passed, the cultures
of imperialism persisted despite political decolonization, and they ap-
peared to be contributing to continued global inequalities between the
global South and North, between the new postcolonial societies and the
former metropolitan centers. Second-wavers were thus concerned about
what Bhabha called the hegemonic normality given to the persistence
of global inequalities (Bhabha 1994:171). And they saw a need to critique
this hegemonic normality.
The problem is that the North American academy was not helping.
While new problems emerged and old problems persisted in the postco-
lonial world, universities appeared immune. The new social movements
of the 1970s contributed to the rise of critical race studies, feminist stud-
ies, and queer studies in universities, but it seemed to some that these
movements failed to appreciate global power relations. Spivak bemoaned
that the new feminist theories in literature did not recognize Third World
voices. She thus questioned the inbuilt colonialism of First World femi-
nism toward the Third (Spivak 1986:184). The academic feminist, she
wrote in 1981, must learn to learn from [Third World women], to speak
to them (156). Similarly, the new trendy theories of poststructuralism,
postmodernism, and deconstruction made headway in the 1980s, but
these also failed to recognize the importance of empire and colonialism as
modes of domination worthy of analysis. Said drew from Foucault, but he
was equally critical of Foucaults elision of colonial power in his own theo-
ries. Foucaults global analysis fumbled where his critique of knowledge
was true (Said 1978:711).
The postcolonial project of the second-wave emerges in this context,
not as a fleeting phantom of the first wave but rather, given the neoimpe-
rial realities of the current era, its necessary extension. If the first wave
took up arms and called for decolonization, the second wave in the wake of
decolonization picked up the mantle of epistemic decolonization, adopt-
ing for themselves the unfinished task of decolonizing knowledge and cul-
ture. If the culture of imperialism persisted in various sectors of modern
life, second-wave postcolonial studies emerged as one way to challenge
it. And if the first-waves goal of cultivating alternative knowledges had
not been completed, the second-wave tasked itself with finding alterna-
tive knowledges and different ways of dealing with difference and oth-
erness, as opposed to the dominant law of division and Eurocentric
modes of thought. New and different sorts of knowledge are needed to

[58] Postcolonial Thought


help decolonize consciousness:to grapple with colonialisms legacies and

find alternative representations or knowledge that do not fall prey to co-
lonialist knowledges misrepresentations and epistemic violence. The task
remains the same. As Venn (2006:3)puts it, postcolonial critique contin-
ues and seeks to complete the work of decolonization.


But how? Robert Young (2001:2)notes that postcolonial thought seeks

theoretical structures that contest the previous dominant western ways
of seeing things and tries to shift the dominant ways in which the re-
lations between western and non-western people and their worlds are
viewed (Young 2003: 2). But exactly how did second-wave postcolonial
thought in the humanities purport to do this? The very critique of the im-
perial episteme that the second-wave offered was itself a move in the right
direction toward postcolonial knowledge. But what about other strate-
gies? There is no consensus here; no singular approach. Instead, there are
a variety of tactics and methods. Not all of them are consistent with each
other. But they all endeavor to cultivate knowledge that challenges the
imperial episteme rather than reproducesit.
Take, first, Saids critique of Orientalism:this critique, which spawned
colonial discourse analysis, aims for critical knowledge of how the impe-
rial episteme works. Rather than trying to positively represent the Orient,
colonial discourse analysis closely tracks how the Orient is discursively
constructed.34 In this approach, even anti-imperial sentiments and dis-
course can be scrutinized. For example, Said reads the novels of Joseph
Conrad to find their anti-imperial positions but also to uncover how
Conrads anti-imperialism reproduced certain assumptions of the impe-
rial episteme. To the extent that we see Conrad both criticizing and re-
producing the imperial ideology of his time, says Said, to that extent we
can characterize our present attitudes:the project, or the refusal, of the
wish to dominate, the capacity to damn, or the energy to comprehend and
engage with other societies, traditions, histories (1993:xx).
A different approach forgoes this focus on colonial discourse for the
attempt to recover subaltern voices, perspectives, and agency, where sub-
altern refers not to an essentialized social category but a relational posi-
tion of subjugation. We have already seen that this is the main goal of
subaltern studies historiography:to map subaltern agency and excavate
the knowledges, perspectives, and understandings of colonized groups
that have been subjugated by imperial culture. The approach thereby aims

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [59]

to critique the cultural hegemony of European knowledges, as Gandhi

(1998: 44) puts it, in an attempt to reassert the epistemological value
and agency of the non-European world. This approach has an equivalent
within literary studies in the United Kingdom, where postcolonial stud-
ies originally took the form of Commonwealth Studies. This refers to
the study and promotion of literary texts from the Caribbean or Africa
to highlight non-Western voices and perspectives. Whereas conventional
English literature, starting with those produced by administrators, trav-
elers, settlers, and soldiers in the colonies, were bound to inevitably
privilege the centre, post-colonial literature captures the experiences
of colonized and postcolonial peoples, often emphasizing the conscious
and unconscious oppression of the indigenous personality and culture by
a supposedly superior racial or cultural model (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and
Tiffin 2002:9).
But what about Spivaks critique? As Spivak puts it, the radical intel-
lectual in the West is either caught in a deliberate choice of subalternity,
granting to the oppressed either that very expressive subjectivity which
s/he criticizes or, instead, a total unrepresentability (Spivak 1988c:17).
This is a problem recognized by proponents of the subaltern studies proj-
ect themselves, such as Dipesh Chakrabarty and Gyan Prakash.35 So what
is the solution? Spivak herself offers one:strategic essentialism. This is
a complex concept that has been interpreted in various ways.36 The most
straightforward reading is that it is a maneuver of formal politics. We rec-
ognize that the category woman cannot capture the radical heterogene-
ity of the experiences and practices of women, but we can still deploy
the concept in the political sphere for the purposes of mobilization and
making claims. Strategic essentialism thus means treating the subaltern
as actors with fixed identities but only as a strategic or rhetorical move,
not to claim an essential identity. This is similar to a tactic alluded to by
Fanon. Fanon, witnessing nationalist movements making appeals to an
indigenous or authentic African past, warns against the paradoxes and
pitfalls of such appeals. They are objectively indefensible. But while
Fanon recognizes their falsity and constructedness, he also recognizes
the political value of such appeals amidst decolonization struggles. They
are an incomparable and subjective importance the plunge into the
chasm of the past is the condition and source of freedom (Fanon 1970
There is another meaning to Spivaks strategic essentialism: rather
than a political device, it is a historiographical device. The goal is to write
histories that do not fall prey to Eurocentric universalism and Orientalist
representations. Spivak reads the subaltern studies project as making this

[60] Postcolonial Thought


move exactly:a strategic use of positivist essentialism meant to serve as

a critical counterpoint to Orientalist discourse and elite historiography.
I am suggesting that although the [subaltern studies] group does not
wittingly engage with the post-structuralist understanding of conscious-
ness, our own transactional reading of them is enhanced if we see them as
strategically adhering to the essentialist notion of consciousness (Spivak
1988c:15). So what does this mean exactly? One way to think of it is that
it is about recovering native agency and voices as best the historical ar-
chive allows, while nonetheless making visible the incompleteness of the
representation.37 It means reading the historical archive for the subal-
tern subject-effect and treating that effect as referring to an actual stable
identity, but only to reveal the limits of any truth claims about that sub-
altern and unhinge essentialist readings. As Spivak puts it, one writes the
subaltern as the subject of historyfinding a positive subject-position
for the subalternbut only to show that the subaltern marks the ab-
solute limit of the place where history is narrativized into logic, not to
establish an inalienable and final truth of things (Spivak 1988c: 16).
One writes the subaltern only to show the impossibility of such a task. In
Spivaks own account of sati, one must posit a subaltern identity in order
to show how neither British nor anticolonial nationalist discourses fully
This is Derridean deconstruction taken to the postcolonial archive;
or, rather, in Spivaks sense, an affirmative deconstruction (Spivak
1988c:205).38 If knowledge is power, and imperial knowledge was founded
upon binaries, challenging the binaries by revealing their limits serves as
an alternative representational strategy. Fittingly, other postcolonial the-
orists have adopted this tactic. Homi Bhabhas work is exemplary. As seen,
Bhabha critiques colonial discourse and the Enlightenment will to know
at once. His alternative is to deploy concepts like mimicry, hybridity,
and ambivalence. If hybridity in practice confounded colonialists, then
textually recovering hybridity and celebrating it can confound imperial
knowledge, serving to represent the colonized in a manner that escapes
the binaries or essentialisms of the imperial episteme. Rather than recov-
ering an authentic subaltern identity and consciousness that is the source
of resistance, the task is to illuminate those moments when mimicry and
subsequent hybridization undo the colonizers authoritative claims.39
This is destabilization as an effect, and the approach thereby recovers
a sort of agency without resorting to essentialized notions of the colo-
nizeds culture or consciousness (i.e., without assuming a knowable will,
subjectivity, or pure native culture that embeds them). As Bhabha puts
it, hybridization is neither assimilation nor collaboration. Instead it

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [61]

makes possible the emergence of an interstitial agency that refuses

the binary representation of social antagonism (Bhabha 1990a: 212).40
Hybridity escapes the Enlightenment assumption that dominated cul-
tures and peoples can be fully known, and hence fully controlled. What is
irremediably estranging in the presence of the hybrid, announces Bhabha
(1994:14), is that the difference of cultures can no longer be identified or
evaluated as objects of epistemological or moral contemplation:cultural
differences are not simply there to be seen or appropriated.
Again, the point is to foreground the limits of the imperial episteme.
Imperial discourse aimed to know a foreign culture in order to domi-
nate it and establish itself as authoritative, but Bhabhas deconstruction
of colonial discourse and his descriptions of the ambivalent and fractured
character of colonial power are textually insurrectionary. If this is post-
colonial knowledge, it is not knowledge that represents the colonized. It is
knowledge that admits of knowledges own limits by incessantly poking at
imperial insecurities, laying bare the ambivalences of colonial discourse.
To avoid Eurocentrism in historiography, postcolonial historians
emerging from the subaltern studies school take a different tack. But the
difference is slight. This is Chakrabartys (2000) approach: provincializa-
tion. On the one hand, partly influenced by poststructuralist critiques
and Spivaks intervention, Chakrabarty aims to trouble the categorical
schemes attendant with European imperialism by showing their limits.41
Chakrabarty, recall, questions historicism and associated categories of
the European Enlightenment. Those concepts are inadequate for rep-
resenting non-European life-worlds. They have been used to represent
India in Orientalist ways that justified imperialism, and there is always
a difference they cannot fully enclose. The conjugal, familial, and po-
litical practices of the Bengali middle-class under British rule do not boil
down a simple public/private distinction. Concepts like civil society or
nation do not capture the intricacies of communal relations and solidari-
ties in India. The rationalities and social relations attendant with Indians
religious practices are neither primitive nor modern; nor religious
or purely secular. India in the nineteenth century is not reducible to the
category premodern.
But if the categories are inadequate, Chakrabarty (2000:4)notes, we
cannot just wish them away. We must work with them; hence, the strat-
egy of provincializing Europe for writing history. By this strategy, post-
colonial histories reveal both the indispensability and inadequacy of
European thought (2000:4). If you cannot beat them, you must join them,
but only by pushing them to their limits and making the invisible visible.
Rather than stubbornly reiterating these categories in an endless play of

[62] Postcolonial Thought


difference and deferralor proliferate yet more concepts or layer catego-

ries upon categories to desperately try to translate the untranslatable
the key is to deploy the concepts while always pointing to the difference
they cannot cover up completely. The trick is to deploy those concepts or
codes but only to get a glimpse of their finitude, a glimpse of what might
constitute an outside to it (2000:93). It is to explore the capacities and
limitations of certain European social and political categories in concep-
tualizing political modernity in the context of non-European life-worlds
(Chakrabarty 2000:20).
We have, then, a variety of strategies; ways in which postcolonial
thought in the academy attempts to counter and transcend the powerful
and durable episteme of empire. Of course, the foregoing discussion is not
exhaustive. It is just a glance. More will be said in subsequent chapters.
But before we get there, readers will be forgiven for first wondering:if this
is postcolonial theory, what in the world does any of it have to do with
social theory?

Wav e s o f P o s t c o l o n i a l T h o u g h t [63]


The Postcolonial Challenge

In fact, man has never shown as much interest in knowing other men and other societ-
ies as during this century of imperialist domination.
Amilcar Cabral,19721

W hat is postcolonial thought? At its core, postcolonial thought is a

critique and an invitation. As seen in the previous chapter, post-
colonial thought recognizes the constitutive character of empire upon
identities, culture, and knowledge while also illuminating how the latter,
in turn, shaped and reshaped empire. Postcolonial thought thereby impli-
cates empire and all of its violent, economic, and racialized processes in
the making of modernity. It critically interrogates not only the represen-
tations or images of colonized peoples that justified imperialism but also
the entire imperial episteme that lent empire its intellectual basis and
ideological form. Beyond this critique, postcolonial thought is also an in-
vitation. It is an invitation to imagine knowledge or modes of apprehend-
ing the world that surmount if not transcend the imperial episteme, or at
least do not reproduce it. In the face of the powerful episteme of empire, it
is an invitation, indeed a plea, to see and think otherwise.
Understood in this light, postcolonial thought addresses a wide
swath of issues that would be of interest to social scientists:from his-
tories and sociologies of race to the murky relations between power and
knowledge, from identity-formation to economic exploitation, from
cross-c ultural relations to the making of modernity itself. Yet, as an
intellectual project, postcolonial thought has been a humanistic en-
terprise. The second-wave of postcolonial theory occurred not in the

social sciences but in the humanities:it became both the platform and
the target of postcolonial critique, a key player in what Gandhi (1998)
calls the new humanities. This is not entirely surprising. Given that
postcolonial thought interrogates culture and empire, it makes sense
that specialists in culturen amely, the humanitiesh ave absorbed
and claimed it. Unearthing the cultural operations of empire and inter-
rogating imperial representations summons cultural rather than social
scientific expertise. If novels are to be read for their hidden imperial
meanings, who better than literary scholars to pull it off? But it does
open up the question of the present chapter. If postcolonial thought
has been a humanistic project, what exactly does postcolonial thought
imply for social theory, and for social theorys current institutional
manifestation as sociology? If postcolonial thought is a humanistic
project, what does sociology have to do withit?
The good news is that, to a certain extent, postcolonial thought has
already begun to subtly influence social science, taking the form of calls
for indigenous, Southern, and connected sociologies (Alatas 2006a;
Bhambra 2007a; Boatc and Costa 2010; Connell 2007). Still, these prom-
ising developments require further elaboration and systematization to
more clearly specify the possible implications of postcolonial thought
for sociology. Does Saids Orientalism, for example, also extend to social
theory, and if so, does this mean that social scientists should not ever
speak of other societies? What, if anything, does Csaires critique of
modernity and the Enlightenment have to do with social science? How
might Bhabhas Lacanian readings of colonial discourse be pertinent to
social theory? Does the subaltern studies problematization of colonial
archives or Chakrabartys reproach of historiographical schemas also
mean that social science suffers from similar disabling problems? What,
exactly, is the situation of scarcity within sociology requiring importa-
tion from the humanities? These are the questions summoned when con-
sidering a possible encounter between postcolonial thought and social
theory. This chapter takes the first step at addressingthem.
The chapter begins by discussing two opposed claims about the possi-
ble relevance of postcolonial thought for sociology. The first is that postco-
lonial theory is relevant because it offers a complicity critique. The second,
representing the postmodern variant of postcolonial thought, suggests
that it is relevant because it offers a corruption critique. The chapter then
offers a different way to approach the matter. It suggests that postcolonial
thoughts first and main contribution is to alert us to certain intellectual
or analytic tendencies that originate in social sciences imperial origins
and that social science perpetuates at its own peril. Rather than only

T he Postcoloni a l Ch a llenge [65]

pointing out sociologys practical complicities, postcolonial thought thus

offers insights into how sociology falls short of fulfilling its own mission
of systematically apprehending social relations and socialforms.


Take, first, the critique of complicity. In this view, postcolonial thought is

relevant to social science in that it offers a critique of social theory as an
epistemic engineer of empire. In this critique, social theory is vitiated be-
cause it functions positively for imperialism and complies with its require-
ments. Sociologists, then, are to be castigated for their pro-imperialist and
pro-racist positions. This view thus sees postcolonial thought as a critique
of both Orientalist humanists and sociologists for their role in facilitating
the violence of empire.
This reading of postcolonial thought has some merit. In their writings,
first-wave thinkers did target social science as being part of the imperial
episteme. Second-wave thinkers did, too. In his Culture and Imperialism, Said
clarifies that he is interested in both a general world-wide pattern of impe-
rial culture, and a historical experience of resistance against empire; and
in defining imperial culture he names not only the humanities but also
sociology (Said 1993:xii). Accordingly, this reading of postcolonial thoughts
relevance is probably the one most social scientists think of, and so they vig-
orously defend sociology from the charges. They point out that sociology has
not been a direct tool of imperialism, or that sociologists were not as racist
as postcolonial critics assume; or that, in fact, many sociologists did not
support imperialism. Many were even anti-imperialists. The implication is
that postcolonial thought is in equal parts incorrect and irrelevant (Lewis
2014; McLennan 2014). Sociology is just fine, thank you verymuch.
Have social theory and sociology been handmaidens of empire? We
have seen in the Introduction that social theory and sociology, indeed,
were born within the culture of empire. But that is not the same thing as
saying that they directly serviced empire. So have they serviced empire?
The answer is not straightforward. The institutional and practical rela-
tions between social theory or disciplinary sociology on the one hand and
imperialism on the other have yet to be fully unearthed, but it is safe to
conclude that the relationship has been variable atbest.2
On the one hand, it is the case that some sociologists have been directly
complicit with imperialism. In France in the early twentieth century, soci-
ologists associated with the Durkheim school provided ethnologies used
by colonial administrators (Kurasawa 2013). In the early twentieth century

[66] Postcolonial Thought


United States, some sociologists wholly supported the nascent overseas

American empire (Go 2013d). Furthermore, social theory offers a notion
of the social that was at times deployed by imperialists to service colo-
nial regimes or quell anticolonial resistance (Mantena 2012; Owens 2015).
Other ideas associated with social science have been crucial for empire,
too. Take positivism. Some of Auguste Comtes ideas were directly enlisted
by the French empire in the late nineteenth century (Amster 2013: 62).
Prominent French colonial officials such as Jules Ferry drew upon Comtes
ideas to proclaim that France had a duty to bring science and reason to the
uncivilized world, not least to erase and replace so-called Muslim fanati-
cism. In a sense, the entire imperial apparatus of the French Third Republic
was founded upon the French elites belief in scientisme, which was the
positivist project that promoted the superiority of an objective view of
Nature and Reason (Petitjean 2005:7). And it would not be a stretch to
say that, throughout the imperial world in the late nineteenth century,
positivist views of racial superiority and beliefs in Progress aided by su-
perior Reason motivated or at least justified imperial rule (Adas 1990;
Yet, on the other hand, there is no direct line from social theory and
sociology to empire. Social theory may have been used for some impe-
rial projects, but it has not unequivocally functioned in this way (Go,
2016). Some versions of social theory have served anti-imperial causes,
such as when W. E. B. Du Bois used social thought to challenge scientific
racism (Morris 2015). And although some sociologists have directly ser-
viced empire, in just as many if not more cases, sociologys relationship
with imperialism has been mediated and indirect. Unlike French sociolo-
gists or anthropologists, for instance, comparably fewer U.S. sociologists
have served in colonial states or imperial administrations (Go 2013d).
And some sociologists supported imperialism but others did not. Pierre
Bourdieu was one among many ardent critics of French colonialism (Go
2013a; Swartz 2013). Before him, J. A. Hobson, who published in promi-
nent sociology journals, originated his novel theory of imperialism while
being one of British imperialisms most vocal and famous opponents
(Hobson 1895, 1902).
Claims that sociology as an entire disciplinary enterprise is pro-
imperialist or that social theory has only serviced empire do not hold
water. Degrees of autonomy and complicity must be acknowledged, and
internal variations within social theory and sociology must be recognized
(Steinmetz 2013b). But does this mean postcolonial thought has nothing
more to offer? Proponents of the complicity critique, the self-appointed
defenders of social science, have been obliged to answer in the affirmative

T he Postcoloni a l Ch a llenge [67]

(Collins 1997; Lewis 2014; McLennan 2014). But then their reading of
postcolonial thought is reductive where their defense of sociology is sure.
Postcolonial theory offers much more than leveling complaints at social
scientists racist attitudes or their practical complicity with empire. It
offers much more than a sociological guilt trip (Collins 1997). Below
we will see that one of postcolonial theorys challenges is not to question
direct complicity between sociology and imperialism but rather to prob-
lematize certain analytic tendencies and operations of social science. In
other words, the postcolonial challenge is not that social science is viti-
ated by practical complicity but rather by certain assumptions, concerns,
categories, and analytic operations that, regardless of their political or
ethical implications, inhibit sociology from fulfilling its own stated goal
of critically understanding modern society. If it is reductive and mislead-
ing to charge that sociology is inherently imperialist, it is also reductive
and misleading to reduce postcolonial thought to only a critique of practi-
cal complicity.


Enter the other possible claim about what postcolonial thought means
for social science:the corruption critique. This is the view that might come
from humanists influenced by postmodernism. It suggests that what
postcolonial thought offers social science is a critique of social sciences
insurmountable corruption: that social science at its very core is impe-
rialistic; that its very standing as a science explodes it as a knowledge
project. This is one of the more radical critiques of social science. It has to
do with the Enlightenment basis of social science itselfhence the very
status of sociology as a science.
As noted in the previous chapter, a critique of Enlightenment Reason
was endemic to first-and second-wave postcolonial thought. This culmi-
nates in the postmodernpostcolonial critique. According to this cri-
tique, the Enlightenment is itself a product of empire and serviced it. Its
positivist assumption that the world is knowable by an objective observer
who accesses universal truths, and its belief that Reason exemplified in
Science is the superior mode of accessing those truths (over and against
superstition or religion, for instance)these and other associated el-
ements of the Enlightenment gave imperialism its epistemic form and
ideological moorings. The Enlightenment not only justified imperialism
but also facilitated its assault, feeding actual violence as well as epistemic
violence. The implication is that, because the Enlightenment is vitiated

[68] Postcolonial Thought


by this ideological role, it is fundamentally contaminated and so must be

resisted. Second-wave thinkers who drew heavily from postmodernism
were especially adamant about this latter point; in fact, mounting their
postcolonial strategies upon it. Given that the Enlightenment assumption
about the knowability of colonized cultures or peoples is untenable, these
postmodernpostcolonial thinkers took their own critique to its logical
conclusion:Derridean deconstruction.
So how does this postmodernpostcolonial critique and strategy per-
tain to social science? The implication is straightforward but also discon-
certing: social science, like the Enlightenment, must be resisted. Sociology
manifests some of the deepest principles of the Enlightenment. Social
theory stakes itself upon the causal efficacy and dynamics of the social,
but that very concept of the social is inextricably tied to the Enlightenment.
The social is a causal force in opposition to the causal force of gods or
mystical belief (Wolf 1988: 759). And, to be sure, the social sciences as a
whole originate in August Comtes positivism, which carries some of the
deepest assumptions of Enlightenment thought. Comtean positivism her-
alds scientific Reason as the superior mode of knowing, rejecting religious
or metaphysical perspectives as inferior. This means that sociology, by
its very scientific nature, represses difference. As Goswami (2013: 149)
summarizes, it cannot tolerate nonhistorical forms of temporality and
non-secular modes of social being. It must label those other mentalities
and practices as irrational or premodern; hence, as illegitimate and
inferior ways of knowing. Thus, as Chakrabarty (2000: 8889) and Seth
(2013) note, social scientists can never invoke the gods in their explana-
tion, they instead have to ground their explanations in the social and
insist their explanations are superior while others are incomplete at best.
Had not Comte argued that sociology itself would replace traditional reli-
gions and metaphysical nonsense?3
At issue is not social sciences deployment or appropriation by colonial
power but rather social sciences very modality of understanding. Social
sciences claims to objectivity and impartiality are examples. Social sci-
ence is premised upon the Cartesian notion that true knowability of the
world is only possible when the observing subject is objective: observ-
ers eliminate biases such as self-interest or politics in order to better see
the true causal laws and regularities of the world.4 The meaning of social
theory itself bespeaks this premise. The word theory goes back to the
Latin theoria and the Greek theria, which connote detachment, specta-
torship, contemplation, and vision from afar and from high. It suggests
the observer is endowed with a cold, disembodied eye.5 These are the
notions that the postmodernpostcolonial approach put on the chopping

T he Postcoloni a l Ch a llenge [69]

block. In Orientalism, Said (1979: 10) rebuked the scientific stance adopted
by Orientalists who insisted that true knowledge is fundamentally
non-political (and conversely, that overtly political knowledge is not true
knowledge). No knowledge is so innocent. Fanon (1968: 77), too, chal-
lenged the idea that knowledge in Europe was somehow detached. [F]or
the native, he reminds his readers, objectivity is always directed against
In this view, sociology also is corrupted by its Enlightenment assump-
tion that the world consists of knowable universal laws and that uncover-
ing these laws is the way to explain the world. This assumption cuts to
the core of positivist social theory. As Calhoun (1995) notes, the whole
goal of such social theory is to construct universally applicable, prefer-
ably law-like statements that offer universal truths. Social theory seeks
universal validity, certainty, positivity (Calhoun 1995:7071). From the
postmodernpostcolonial perspective, however, this will to knowledge is
just another mask for a will to power. After all, as Wagner (1995) notes,
the key modernist quest of the social sciences when it emerged was for
certainty, and social sciences causalistic assumptions of rationalistic
and social determinations made human social life appear as ultimately
calculable (Wagner 1995: 188).6 Social science is corrupted by its main
goal of managing, controlling, and dominating theworld.
By the postmodernpostcolonial view, there is another manifestation of
sociologys corruption:its emphasis upon systemic thinking. This modality
of thought carries a totalizing tendency that implicates social knowledge
as yet another instance of the imperial episteme. Marxist social thought
is one exampleand we have seen how the first-and second-wave think-
ers were thus critical of it. But all forms of system theory are suspect in
this light. Under the assumption of full knowability, they reduce peoples,
events, and processes to total systems (like capitalism) and categories
(like premodern) and thereby essentialize the social worlds complexity.
This is the sort of systemic thinking that Spivak finds objectionable in
Western feminism. According to Spivak, Western feminism brushes aside
important differences between First World and Third World women
by seeing gender only in terms of systemic theories such as structural-
functionalism or through the uncritical deployment of totalizing catego-
ries like woman. Such a mode of thought itself represents an inbuilt
colonialism of First World feminism towards the Third (1981:184). It is
also the sort of thinking that, according to Said, characterizes Orientalism
and the practice of imperialism itself. If youre going to assume that there
is some way of apprehending the whole of reality, he warns, then youre
simply enhancing this totalizing process. All of these systems that

[70] Postcolonial Thought


confirm themselves over and over again so that every shred of evidence
becomes an instance of the system as a wholethese systems are really the
enemies (Said 2001:65). In other words, social science by its very nature
is just like imperialism:it cannot stand for untidiness. Its positivist pre-
sumptions require an epistemic hubris that is blind to the fact that no
theory is capable of covering, closing off, predicting all the situations in
which it might be useful. No theory can accommodate the essential unti-
diness, the essential unmasterable presence that constitutes a large part of
historical and social situations (Said 1983:241).
Homi Bhabhas (1994) analysis of colonial discourse stages a similar
questioning of social science. As seen, Bhabha highlights how colonial
discourse seeks to know and represent the alterity it encounters, just as
Enlightenment rationalism does. But this attempt to know is impossibly
structured by an ambivalence that goes unproblematized and unacknowl-
edged by the Enlightenment assumption of Reasons capacity to fully know
the world. Social science, as another manifestation of Enlightenment ra-
tionalism, suffers the same fate. Its dogged determination to privilege
holistic forms of social explanation is problematic because it cannot
handle contingency and textual indeterminancy (1994:173). This is the
reason Bhabhas postcolonial strategy enlists the concept of hybridity as
its arbalest:just as hybridity in practice upends colonial authority, so, too,
does it unsettle and escape the conceptual confines of scientific rational-
ism and systematic thought.
This is the corruption critique. As a positivist project manifesting
Enlightenment rationalism, a project of Enlightenment scientism, sociol-
ogy necessarily essentializes the complexity of the world through concep-
tual abstractions, reduces the irreducible ambiguity of the world through
its ostensibly objective procedures and claims, and assumes its findings
to hold universal validity. It thereby represents and authorizes a will to
power:a search for totalizing knowledge about the calculable world and a
need to master and conquer the unknowable, just like imperialists them-
selves (Bhabha 1994; Bhambra 2007b; Connell 2006:25859; Gutirrez
Rodrguez 2010). Social science is thoroughly tethered to the imperial
episteme. It mirrors it, reproducing its formal structure, while also being
an intrinsic partofit.
It would seem that sociology is intrinsically problematic. Its
Enlightenment scientism renders it irrevocably corrupt and so, as a mo-
dality of knowing, it is incompatible with the postcolonial project. Or, as
Goswami (2013:146)puts this view, because postcolonial theory is a cross-
disciplinary project that is broadly poststructuralist in its epistemological
mooring whereas disciplinary sociology, especially in the United States,

T he Postcoloni a l Ch a llenge [71]

has been strongly positivist, sociology is intrinsically opposed to post-

colonial theory. The postcolonial suspicion of sociology combines both
a reproach against conceptual abstraction and a critique of developmen-
tal historicism such that there is a fundamental misalignment between
the epistemological concerns of postcolonial theory and the generalizing,
explanatory habitus of sociology (Goswami 2013:147). In short, social
science is yet another one of those formalized expressions of modern
Western thought (e.g., Orientalism) that require critical interrogation and
then, ultimately, disavowal and rejection (Seth 2009:337). In the event,
the sociological project, notes McLennan, is part of the problem for postco-
lonialism, not part of the solution (McLennan 2003:72).
But is the rebuke just? Surely the postmodernpostcolonial critique is
damning. If it is valid, then social science as a mode of thought and an in-
stitutional project of knowledge must be overturned entirely. Uncovering
any kind of social truths, searching for and disclosing social patterns or
structures, generalizing or conceptually abstracting from the social world,
explaining social outcomes by reference to social lawsa ll of these social
science projects are suspect.7 Exactly because of this charge, the postmod-
ern variant of social science would urge a dissolution of social science.
Ending sociologys complicity with modern empires would destroy sociol-
ogy itself (Chua 2008:1186; Seth 2009:338). Given this, it makes perfect
sense that postcolonial thought has remained a humanistic enterprisea
project tied to the humanities disciplines only. Given that a postcolonial
social science is a contradiction in terms, the postcolonial project is best
pursued on different disciplinary grounds.
Yet, this critique of sociology is untenable, and must be fiercely defied;
at allcosts.


Let us ask more simply:Is social science really so useless? Is it intrinsically

opposed to postcolonial thought? Does it necessarily enact the epistemic
violence of the imperial episteme? This is a problematic assertion because
in many ways postcolonial thought depends upon the sorts of social scien-
tific claims it would appear to critique and jettison. W.E. B.Du Bois was a
sociological thinker, not only a humanistic one, and his critique emerges
from social thought. He is not the exception. Other strands of postcolonial
thought are similarly dependent upon social scientific notions. Fanons
analysis of colonialism, for instance, does not posit a Bhabha-esque in-
determinancy of texts and hence of knowledge. To the contrary, it boldly

[72] Postcolonial Thought


detects structures and patterns of racialized power under colonialism. And

it makes strong causal claims about how colonial society, particularly its
bifurcated structure and violence, constitutes the subjectivity of the colo-
nizer and colonized. In more ways than one, Fanons is a social theory of
colonial power, moored in secular Enlightenment claims. His very critique
of colonial racist psychology is a social one:whereas racist psychology re-
duced the colonizeds psychological problems to individual causes, Fanon
argues that they are rooted in social causesspecifically in the racialized
dynamics and violent structure of the colonial system itself.8 Fanons own
critique of colonialism depends upon at least a minimal Enlightenment
rationalism of the very sort that the postmodernpostcolonial position is
determined to disavow.
McLennan (2003) observes a similar point about the postmodern
postcolonial critique: it is actually based upon a baseline sociology
(McLennan 2003:79). To be sure, one of the premises of the postcolonial
critique, from the first wave through the second wave, is that empire is
constitutive of modernity. This is a sociological claim about the causal
impact of colonialism. So, too, is the related claim that European devel-
opment depended upon exploitation. This is, in fact, a positivist claim in
the sense that it must be verified through social scientific procedures
that is, through procedures that isolate colonialism as a causal variable
compared with other possible explanations for European development
(like Max Webers claim that the Protestant ethic was determinant). Even
Bhabhas (1994) postmodernpostcolonial approach depends upon social
scientific claims. Bhabhas strategy of celebrating hybridity depends
upon implicit knowledge about how cultures intermingle or not, about
how colonial knowledge operates, and about the causal efficacy of colonial
discourse. And implicitly, it posits general patterns or regularities across
certain times and spaces that approximate positivist law-like statements
(but admittedly do not reach for the status of them). To wit:hybridity dis-
rupts colonial authority. How is this claim not positing a social regularity
that presumably holds across various colonies?
Note, too, that the very premise of the postmodernpostcolonial
critiquethat is, that knowledge and power are connectedis itself a
sort of positivist assertion that inscribes a truth claim and implicit if
not explicit causal explanation (Guhin and Wyrtzen 2013). To make even
the most basic claim that knowledge fueled imperialism is to summon
the basic tenets of social science. It is to posit a realist social ontology:
it is to insinuate that there is a world consisting of some regularities or
patterns (even if they are not total or universal) that is observable and
knowable. There is, therefore, something problematic about staking the

T he Postcoloni a l Ch a llenge [73]

postcolonial project entirely upon a humanistic or normative critique of

Enlightenment rationalism. [T]o use theory normatively without at least
implicitly having a deeper sense of the workings of social life in a given
time and place, notes Isaac Reed (2011: 86), leaves the investigator in an
awkward position. In fact, in most texts written primarily in the norma-
tive epistemic mode, a causal story about the social actions under study
is implied. To cover up those implicit causal claims and assertions about
social regularities is disingenuous at best.9
The same must be recognized about the critique of social sciences
totalizing character and its conceptual abstractions that apparently,
by their very nature, seek to fully represent the world and obliterate
difference. It is hard to reconcile this criticism of social science with
certain postcolonial gestures that are no less universalizing or totaliz-
ing. Bhabhas work is instructive. Bhabha theorizes colonial discourse
as ambivalent (as expressing both desire and derision), and, there-
fore, as a complex, ambivalent, contradictory mode of representation,
as anxious as it is assertive (Bhabha 1994:100). He likewise famously
theorizes colonial mimicry as the desire for a reformed, recognizable
Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite
(Bhabha 1994:86). As noted, these concepts come from psychoanalytic
theory and, more precisely, from Lacans symbolic reading of Freud (with
Derridas articulation of the logic of diffrance thrown in) (Derrida 1976;
Lacan 1977). Thus comes such statements as, the fetish or stereotype
gives access to an identity which is predicated as much on mastery and
pleasure as it is on anxiety and defence. Or:the stereotype, then, as the
primary point of subjectification in colonial discourse, for both colonizer
and colonized, is the scene of a similar fantasy and defence (1994:75).
But how exactly these categories circumvent totalization is unclear, as
is how psychoanalytic theory more broadly (or for that matter a theory
of symbolism or language) is not universal (McLennan 2003:79; Young
1990: 152 55). The Lacanian model of psychoanalytic development
that Bhabha deploys presumably applies to everyone, everywhere, at all
timesa nyone who has a psyche. Even if such theories are deployed to
refer to the specific context of colonialism, we still end up with universal
categories (desire, lack, repression) filled with local content (e.g., colo-
nial desire).
Finally, the alignment between social science and certain assump-
tions of the Enlightenment is not as neat as the postmodernpostcolonial
critique might imply. The latter, for example, reduces social science to
a nave positivism and thus ignores powerful movements within social
scienceand indeed coming from within disciplinary sociologythat

[74] Postcolonial Thought


already have critiqued positivism and offered alternatives. The real thrust
of the postmodernpostcolonial critique of Enlightenment rationalism,
Iwould argue, is not of social science intrinsically but of traditional posi-
tivism in social science, which aims for prediction and universal cover-
ing laws, and assumes absolute independence between social-scientific
thought and its context.10 Not all social scientists today would endorse
this sort of traditional positivist sociology. In fact, various alternatives to
traditional positivism can be found, from post-foundationalist theories
to post-positivist projects.11 These have proliferated in the past two de-
cades, and they cannot be ignored. If the complicity critique is predicated
upon an impoverished reduction of postcolonial theory, the postmodern
postcolonial critique of sociologys irreversible corruption is based upon a
homogenized notion of social science.
More will be said on these post- positivist alternatives later (see
Chapter Four). The point here is that the postmodernpostcolonial cri-
tique of sociologys Enlightenment rationalism cannot do without the
social knowledge it promises to dismantle. It follows that social science
and postcolonial theory are not intrinsically opposed; that social science
should not be rejected outright. As Chakrabarty (2000:6)puts it in an-
other context, there is a simultaneous indispensability and inadequacy
of social science thought.
Yet, none of this is to absolve social theory or sociology entirely.12 To the
contrary, it is simply a call to be more precise about exactly which aspects
or currents of sociology merit critique and reconsideration from the view-
point of postcolonial thought. At issue, in other words, is not sociology
in general but certain assumptions and analytic tendencies in particular.
These are not definitive of sociology, but they are palpable and presentif
we only deploy the excavating tools of postcolonial thought to find them
and lay thembare.


So if not offering charges of practical complicity or interminable corrup-

tion, what exactly does postcolonial thought have to offer sociology? The
first thing to be said has been intimated already: postcolonial thought,
rather than offering just a normative critique, invites sociology to recog-
nize first and foremost its embeddedness within the culture of empire.
This is not the same thing as saying that sociology is complicit with
empire or fundamentally corrupted by it. It is merely to urge sociology to
recognize its own historical and geopolitical location. Sociology, like all

T he Postcoloni a l Ch a llenge [75]

types of knowledge, is situatedand it is located within a global imperial

At least since Thomas Kuhn, and the subsequent proliferation of social
studies of science and feminist standpoint theory, we know that knowl-
edge is socially situated. Scientific knowledge is fraught with interests and
social determinations. What scientists study and what they find (covered
under the term science and knowledge) are shaped by their social posi-
tion, location, and interests. They are likewise shaped by the particular
institutional setting and the communities of peers or audiences in which
scientists do their work. Even physicists recognize that ones explanation
of the behavior of particles depends upon the point from which it is ob-
served (Galison 1997). In short, scholars readily recognize that, in theo-
rizing and explaining the world, where you stand can influence what you
see (Fisher 1998:137).13
There should be little about this that would be controversial to social
science. Sociologists themselves have helped to spearhead these investiga-
tions into the social determinants of knowledge. We are all post-positivists
now! But what the postcolonial critique adds needs to be foregrounded.
Foremost, the postcolonial critique helps highlight and problematize so-
ciologys metropolitan location within imperial and colonial hierarchies.
We can thank not only science studies but also feminist theorists for
highlighting how social theory and sociological knowledge have a stand-
point. Dorothy Smith (1990) effectively disclosed that sociology has been
almost inextricably connected with societys ruling relations:its admin-
istration, governance, and management (or what Foucault might see as
part of governmentality). These ruling relations require social knowl-
edge and deploy it for its operations. This knowledge has a male subtext.
Social knowledge, constructed and arrayed for ruling relations, carries a
gendered bias that is concealed by its apparently neutral and impersonal
rationality (Smith 1990).14 If power is knowledge, it is also male-centric.
It embodies a male standpoint. The postcolonial critique of sociological
knowledge is related but nonetheless distinct:sociological knowledge is,
indeed, socially situated and has for a long time been shaped by its gen-
dered standpoint, but it also embodies an imperial and colonial standpoint.
This recognition of the imperial situatedness of knowledge is an under-
lying theme of both the first and second waves of postcolonial thought.
When Fanon criticized the deployment of psychiatric knowledge by the
French colonial regime in Algeria, he was touching upon psychiatrys com-
plicity while also calling attention to the location of that knowledge
viz., that psychiatry was a European invention mobilized for colonial rule.
When Du Bois (1903) questioned existing social science in the United

[76] Postcolonial Thought


States and its views of the Negro problem, he was drawing attention to
the fact that social science was situated on the other side of the veilre-
flecting the standpoint of white power. When the subaltern studies schol-
ars revealed that the dominant historiography of India overlooked the role
of peasants in making history, it was acknowledging that historiography
emerged from the viewpoint of colonial administrators. The postcolonial
critique of knowledge thus entails a recognition of knowledges geopo-
litical and colonial standpoint, showing us that knowledge, rather than
forged on high from a detached point of disinterest, is always cultivated
on the ground, in specific contexts and, in this case, from the standpoint
of imperial metropoles and colonial states.15
As Iwill discuss more in Chapter Four, a standpoint is a position of
knowing rooted in social location, a position that facilitates a particular
way of seeing the world. It refers to a perspective, viewpoint, or set of
interpretive schemes that emerge from a historical and institutional posi-
tion. There can be little doubt that social theory has a distinct perspective.
When we speak of the sociological standpoint, for instance, we might
be speaking of it in contrast to the economic standpoint or the politi-
cal science standpoint. Hence, Michael Burawoy, former President of the
American Sociological Association, suggests that: If the standpoint of
economics is the market and its expansion, and the standpoint of political
science is the state and the guarantee of political stability, then the stand-
point of sociology is civil society and the defense of the social (Burawoy
2005:24). But it is the social determination of this sociological standpoint
that is at issue here. The very concern of sociology in the social (along
with social theorys other concerns) itself emerges from a particular
locationas does sociologys assumptions, methods, and concepts.16 And
to appreciate sociologys metropolitan standpoint, we need to recognize
its history of formation.
Here we come to the matter of social theorys origins that was raised at
the beginning of this book. The social science that we know today emerged
in a specific time and place: nineteenth- century Europe and North
America. As a discipline with distinct problems, issues, and languages,
sociology is very much a product of the nineteenth-century metropole.
It first emerged as way to conceive of the domain of the social as distinct
from the religious or the biological. If mankind was no longer ruled by
gods, monarchs, lords, or nature, what were the forces that shape individ-
uals and that could be harnessed to better manage them? It then tasked
itself with the goal of addressing the dilemmas of Anglo-European mo-
dernity. How to identify and manage the social problem in cities and in
overseas colonies? The very meanings of civil society and the social

T he Postcoloni a l Ch a llenge [77]

that Burawoy upholds as embodying sociologys distinct contribution to

knowledge have been forged within and in some sense for imperial and
colonial contexts. Those concepts reflect the viewpoint of Anglo-European
empires and their civilizing missions, their derision of irrational peo-
ples, and their fear of the Hobbesian state of nature that was embodied in
the seemingly uncivilized savages they encountered amidst their quests
(Aravamudan 2009; Mantena 2012; Owen2015).
As disciplinary sociology emerged in the United States, early sociologi-
cal work deployed these concepts of the social and of society to further
elaborate theories, concepts, and analyses meant to capture the many
transformations and dilemmas of the time. Industrialization, urbaniza-
tion, the division of labor, and related issues like immigration and emerg-
ing threats of criminality and deviance were among the major concerns
and categories. After all, sociologists living in Boston or New York or
Chicago could hardly escape thinking about these issues. And where would
the famed Chicago School of sociology be without its focus upon ethnic
groups in the United States? But as noted in the Introduction, empire was
on their minds as well. As the United States and European powers were in
the midst of (re)initiating territorial assaults on foreign lands, sociology
continued to develop within the imperial centers. As Connell (2007) poi-
gnantly observes, sociology developed in a specific social location:among
the men of the metropolitan liberal bourgeoise in the heart of empires
(14). It was formed within the culture of imperialism(9).
The point is not to reiterate the complicity critique. The point is to rec-
ognize that, regardless of whether it was complicit with imperialism or
not, the social sciences in North America today emerged within the wider
culture of imperialism as it was manifest in the metropoles. It has been
embedded within the imperial episteme. Sociology has not necessarily
been directly complicit with imperialism. Nor has it been irrevocably cor-
rupted by empire. But it has been contaminated by it. Wylie (2003), summa-
rizing standpoint theory, points out that social location systematically
shapes and limits what we know, including tacit experiential knowledge
as well as explicit understanding, what we take knowledge to be as well
as specific epistemic content (28). Similarly, the social location of social
theory and research within the metropoles of empires has shaped many
of its concerns and content, as well as its meaning and method. Not only
did it mean that sociology was interested in urbanization or immigration,
for instance. It also meant that its major theories, empirical concerns,
and methods expressed in some way or another, to some degree or an-
other, aspects of the wider metropolitan imperial standpoint. Again, this
should not be surprising: ideas are social and historical products. But the

[78] Postcolonial Thought


important lesson from postcolonial thought is that this embeddedness in

imperial culture has shaped much of the content of sociology. It has struc-
tured some of the main assumptions, concepts, and analytic operations of
sociology. The relevance of postcolonial theory is to alert us to this influ-
ence, and invite us to problematize its outcome.
Enlightenment scientism is one aspect of sociology that has been
shaped by its imperial standpoint. But there are others. So what else about
sociology has been shaped by its metropolitan imperial standpoint? What
are the tendencies or trends within sociology that a postcolonial critique
would target, trouble, and try to traverse or transcend? These are matters
of pressing concern to which we can nowturn.

Persistent Orientalism:Seeing Like anEmpire

Surely one aspect of social science to which postcolonial thought would

be alert is Orientalism. Orientalism pervaded early sociology. As Connell
(2007) shows, given its early embeddedness in the imperial episteme,
sociology was first and foremost concerned with the global difference
wrought by modern empire. From the view of the metropolitan centers,
all societies were to be classified and catalogued in order to be ruled
and managed. Large swaths of social science operated from this stand-
point, and here arose Orientalism. The writings of the so-called found-
ers of sociologyK arl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim, among
othersare exemplary. They portrayed non-Western societies as ho-
mogeneous essences, blanketing over inter-g roup complexity and dif-
ferences and transforming the non-West into a generalized other
(Chua 2008: 1183; Kurasawa 2013; Seidman 1996). Said (1979) called at-
tention to these Orientalist strands of thought in Marxs work (Howe
2007). He also found them in Webers studies of religion, arguing that
Webers ideal-t ypes presented an untenable ontological difference be-
tween Eastern and Western economic (as well as religious) mentalities,
which blew him (perhaps unwittingly) into the very territory originally
charted and claimed by the Orientalists (2003: 60).17 Boatc (2013) and
Zimmerman (2006) highlight similar aspects of Webers work on ethnic-
ity and race. According to Zimmerman (2006), Webers thought qualifies
him as operating from a form of neo-racial thinking later theorized by
Etienne Balibar. This is a racism that denies the importance of biological
race while working out a system of cultural differences that functions
as effectively as race as a means of underwriting political and economic
inequality (53). Astute readers might detect the parallels here between

T he Postcoloni a l Ch a llenge [79]

Weberian thought and Samuel Huntingtons (1997) theory of the clash

of civilizations.
Along with these essentialist characterizations, classical social sci-
ence also mounted much of its theoretical development upon Eurocentric
historicism illuminated by Chakrabarty (2000) and other second-wave
writers. Classical social theory painted non-Western societies as static
and backward while reserving dynamism, social creativity, energy, and
enlightenment for European societies alone. Marx and Webers charac-
terizations of Asian development are indicative. As Turner (2006:3941)
points out, Marxs theory of the Asiatic mode of production argued that
the geography and systems of landownership in North African and Asian
societies meant there was no endogenous logic to social change. No class
struggle, no history. In his 1853 journalistic article The British Rule in
India, Marx wrote that Indias social condition has remained unaltered
since its remotest antiquity. Marx later wrote to Engels:Indian society
has no history at all. At least no known history.18
Weber and Marx atypically shared common ground here. Weber treated
non-Western societies as spaces of lack. Without a proper system of ac-
counting or religious ethics, Weber argued, the non-Western world was for-
ever backward. Fittingly, the most common term Weber used to describe
India was absence (Magubane 2005: 94; Thapar 1980). Marx likewise
portrayed the Orient as a collection of gaps or a list of deficienciesthe
absence of private property, the absence of social classes, and the absence
of historical changes in the mode of production (Turner 1994:41). Marx,
Weber, and Durkheim assumed, summarizes Seidman (2013):

. that a civilizational divide between the Occident and the Orient was at
the foundation of world history. The Orient was imagined to have its his-
torical roots in the ancient empires of the Meso-potamia, Egypt, Persia, and
China. Oriental civilization was defined by a more or less fixed cluster of social
traits:traditionalism, localism, social stagnation, and empire. By contrast, the
historical origins of Occidental civilization could be traced to the Greek city-
states and the Roman republic. Its defining features were social development,
cosmopolitanism, the advance of reason, and human progress. Whereas the
history of the Orient endlessly replayed a cyclical pattern of imperial rise and
decline, the Occident revealed a pattern of development and progress culmi-
nating in the modernera. (Seidman 2013:46)

By this Orientalism, social theory was homologous with imperial percep-

tions, inscribing a questionable and at times normative dichotomization
of the world. But more than homology, social theorys Orientalism also

[80] Postcolonial Thought


could justify and give intellectual form to pro-imperial thinking. The

implication of social theory was this:given that Asian societies were in-
trinsically static, they could only change and develop through Western
Said (1979) noticed this strand of thought in Marxs writings, quot-
ing Marxs famous statement that only British colonialism could inject
progress into a fundamentally lifeless Asia (1979: 154). England,
Marx wrote, has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive,
the other regeneratingthe annihilation of the Asiatic society and the
laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia (quoted
in Said 1979:154). As Chandra (1981:37)notes, Marx here implied that
it was only by destroying communal forms of life in India that colo-
nialism could set the conditions for regenerating India. Marx fittingly
wrote that English imports into India had dissolved these small semi-
barbarian, semi-civilized communities, by blowing up their economi-
cal basis and had produced the greatest, and, to speak the truth, the
only social revolution ever heard of in Asia. Of course, as Said (1979)
recognizes, Marx was sensitive to the degradations and violence atten-
dant with this process of transformation. He lamented them. But Saids
(1979) point is that Marxs theoretical analysis nonetheless insinuated an
Orientalism that could be easily appropriated by anticapitalists and capi-
talists alike to support the spread of imperialism. And in this sense, his
theoretical schema did not contradict the imperial episteme but, rather,
was homologous withit.
Examples from early social theory could be multiplied. Sociologists
in the United States also worked from concepts of global difference, re-
peatedly constructing Orientalist contrasts between so-called developed
and underdeveloped peoples. The early American sociologists, or the
American Spencerians (as Breslau [2007] calls them), were enraptured
by social evolutionism. They drew contrasts between colonized societ-
ies and metropolitan societies that mapped onto social evolutionary and
racial difference. This is Chakrabartys (2000) historicism run rampant,
and it fueled imperialist notions. Leading American sociologist Lester
Ward argued that imperialism was a natural outcome of racial and evo-
lutionary difference. The races of Europe are the products of compound
assimilation of a higher order than that of other nations and as a con-
sequence this race has become the dominant race of the globe (Ward
1903: 23839). Again we see how social science was a spawn of empire,
operating from the imperial standpoint, and thereby how its theories and
conceptual schemas were homologous with the Orientalism of the impe-
rial episteme.

T he Postcoloni a l Ch a llenge [81]

Still, does this Orientalism persist in more recent social theory?

Sociologists were men of their time (and, indeed, most were white men).
In this sense, the pervasive Orientalism and evolutionary historicism
inscribed in their theories are to be perfectly expected. The question is
whether these views have disappearedsince.
It is indeed the case that some dominant strands of recent social theory
reproduce Orientalist characterizations. As Connell (2006, 2007) per-
suasively shows, the theories of James Coleman, Pierre Bourdieu, and
Anthony Giddens insinuate developmentalist binaries where the West
represents the modern and the Rest stand for primitive. Such essen-
tialist divisions between us and them are not incidental but integral to
their theories. This could be used as evidence to suggest that Orientalism is
an inborn feature of sociology that cannot be overcome without demolish-
ing sociological thought entirely (Chua 2008). And one could be forgiven
for thinking that Orientalist tendencies have seeped into various areas
of sociology. Modernization theory and related structural-functionalist
theory are the easy examples (Gilman 2003), but even more recent work
in urban sociology can be considered in this light. The tradition within
American urban sociology of reversing negative stereotypes of urban
blacks by instead constructing the urban poor as paragons of morality
insinuates an essentialist characterization that carries no small taint of
the Orientalist episteme (Wacquant 2002:1469). It inscribes the trope of
the noble savage:a classical example of positive Orientalism (Turner
2000: 14). If anything, this view reproduces what Edward Said called
an Orientalist discourse of romantic redemption evident in Marxist
thought (1979:15456). To wit:they must besaved.
Yet, there is a variety and internal complexity to social theory and so-
ciology that would counsel against hasty characterizations of social sci-
ence. Many social theorists are attuned to Orientalist tendencies in social
science and already have begun their campaign against them. Du Boiss
early work stands the counterpoint to the more Orientalist renderings
of his colleagues (Morris 2015). The sociologist Bryan Turner penned a
critique of Marxs Orientalism that emerged the same year as Saids own
path-breaking book, Orientalism (Turner 1994, 1978). And in the face of
the postcolonial critique, some sympathizers of Marx have reread his
work to recover the non-Orientalist elements of his thought. Anderson
(2010) is persuasive when he argues that Marxs journalism and other
scattered pieces were less Orientalist and less pro-imperialist than crit-
ics have charged.19 Anderson shows that Marxs views changed over time.
Undoubtedly his earlier writings portrayed India and other Asian societ-
ies as inherently static and, hence, requiring imperialistic intervention to

[82] Postcolonial Thought


develop, but by the end of his career he had shifted his initial thinking.
Marx wrote about India, China, Russia, Algeria, and Indonesia as if they
had their own autonomous trajectories of development. And he did not
always write about colonialism as a positive force. Marx recognized that,
in places like Ireland, British colonialism was stultifying rather than re-
generative (Chandra1981).
The question is whether Marxist thought is vindicated or vitiated by
this theoretical reconstruction. We will return to this later. For now we
must forge ahead, because Orientalism is not the only aspect of social sci-
ence that postcolonial thought would underscore. There are other aspects,
too; other critiques that a postcolonial approach to social science would
registerand which extant social science might not so easily absorb. One
is social sciences occlusion of empire, which has two particularly pernicious
effects:analytic bifurcation and the repression of agency.

Hiding Empire, Bifurcating theWorld

Orientalism is one legacy of social sciences imperial standpoint, but there

is another:the occlusion of empire from sociological accounts. On the one
hand, social science is a modernist enterprise. Social theory in particu-
lar is inextricably tied to modernity:it emerges from modernist thought,
which separates the religious from the social and other spheres of life.
It also aims to apprehend modern social forms and relations (Adams,
Clemens, and Orloff 2005:3; Bhambra 2007a). On the other hand, even
though social sciences mission has been to apprehend modernity, and
even though it is born within the culture of empire, it has failed to incor-
porate empire into its accounts. This is the irony:social science originates
as an intellectual project to apprehend and explain modernity, but it has
erased from modernity one of modernitys foundational social processes
(Amin 1989). Of course, as discussed above, early sociologists did discuss
and refer to empire. The issue is that when they did not ignore empire,
they marginalized its importance, treating it as an outcome of modernity
rather than constitutiveofit.
This is evident in the so-called founders of sociology like Max Weber.
Although he devoted a certain amount of his writing toward empire, his
key works overlook it.20 His formative account of capitalism emphasized
the causal force of a religious ethic in the formation of capitalist moder-
nity rather than surplus appropriation from abroad (Magubane 2005). In
Webers scheme, it was the discipline of Calvinists in the Anglo-European
world that sparked capitalist accumulation and hence our modern era, not

T he Postcoloni a l Ch a llenge [83]

the discipline of the whip unleashed upon slaves in the Atlantic planta-
tion economy. Thus does Webers causal explanation (upon which so much
social theory on meaning, subjectivity, and action has been mounted) re-
press the role that imperialism and colonialism played in the development
of capitalism.
The same can be said of Emile Durkheim. It is well- known that
Durkheim developed his theory of social solidarity and his explanation of
religion based upon his understanding of so-called primitive social forma-
tions. But his writings occlude the fact that these social formations were
subject to foreign rule or invasion. His conceptual apparatus obscures the
messiness of colonial domination with an orderly schema that divides the
world into only pristine tribal societies or modern societies. There is no
such thing as a colonial society or imperial society, even though in his
time these were pretty much all there were in the world. This is especially
ironic, given, too, that Durkheims data for his understanding of tribal
societies was derived from colonial anthropologies.21
In short, just as Du Bois had charged historians for writing Africa out
of world history, so, too, did Durkheim and other classical social theo-
rists write colonialism out of its accounts, agenda, and analytic infra-
structure. Boatc (2010:16)summarizes the problem:key moments of
Western modernity, for which the sociological approach was supposed to
offer an explanation, were considered to be the French Revolution and the
English-led Industrial Revolution, but not Western colonial politics or the
accumulation of capital through the Atlantic Slave Trade and the over-
seas plantation economy. This suppression abstracts social relations from
their wider relations, contributing to the persistence of a dubious method-
ological nationalism wherein imperial or colonial relations have no place,
and which does not accord with history (Chernilo2006).
Marx is perhaps the exception, but his vindication is not as simple as
some would argue (Anderson 2010). On the one hand, unlike Durkheim
and Weber, Marx did not completely separate discussions of colonialism
from his main theoretical apparatus, that is, his theory of capitalism. He
introduces colonialism into his discussion of capitalism, for instance, as
a form of primitive accumulation:the process by which laborers are up-
rooted from the means of production and thus compelled to sell their labor
to survive. For Marx, this is a process that occurs everywhere, including
England, and it takes various forms, one of which is imperial expansion
and colonial appropriation:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and
entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the

[84] Postcolonial Thought


beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa
into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things that
characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic pro-
ceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. Hard on their heels
follows the commercial war of the European nations, which has the globe as its
battlefield. (Marx 1976:915)

In Capital, Marx also mentions how racial subjugation through slavery

in the Americas had served the English classes:whilst the cotton indus-
try introduced child slavery in England, it gave in the U.S.a stimulus to
the transformation of the earlier more or less patriarchal slavery into a
system of commercial exploitation. In fact, the veiled slavery of the wage-
earners in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the
new world (Marx 1976:833). In these passages of his vast corpus, Marx is
indeed alive to the reality of empires, and he neatly folds imperialism and
colonialism into his larger account of capitalist development.
From the perspective of postcolonial thought, however, if Marxs
framework is exceptional, it is not without its serious limitations. As even
sympathetic Marxian thinkers concede, although primitive accumula-
tionand hence imperialismplays a part in Marxs account of historical
development, his theorization of capitalism externalizes it. Primitive ac-
cumulation is a precondition for capitalism, not a necessary component in
its continual operations.22 In Marxs actual theory of capitalismthe main
conceptual apparatus that discloses capitalisms immanent logicsim-
perialism as an active and prominent force dissipates into thin air, disap-
pearing from view. The same goes for the other processes associated with
imperialism, such as slavery, gendered practices of bondage, racial domi-
nation, and colonial rule. Anderson (2010) shows how Marx, later in his
career, indeed wrote about slave labor and colonized populations. He saw
in them allies of the working-class. But these writings amount to sympa-
thetic portrayals and political support. They do not alter his fundamental
theory or analysis of capitalism itself. Take out of his theory any discussion
of plantation slavery or imperialism and the conceptual armature remains
unscathed. But take out his references to the wage relation between white
workers and white capitalist employers in the English factory and the
entire theory falls apart. Even his passing statements in Capital about how
slavery functioned for English capitalism at home, such as the one quoted
above, do not figure into his theoretical apparatus, and so barely palliate
the postcolonial critique.
Marx may have recognized difference in the form of colonialism, race,
or gender but these do not make a difference for his theoretical apparatus

T he Postcoloni a l Ch a llenge [85]

or logic. All we need to know about capitalism is the value theory of labor,
the logic of surplus value, and capitalist accumulation as it occurred in
the metropole; not imperial relations, racial subordination, or empire.
These remain external and contingent to his overarching theoretical
system; they are rendered theoretically marginal. Driven by the need
to achieve the scientific elegance and interpretive economy demanded
by theory, Cedric Robinson (2000:xix) observes, Marx consigned race,
gender, culture and history to the dustbin. Fully aware of the constant
place women and children held in the workforce, Marx still deemed them
so unimportant as a proportion of wage labor that he tossed them, with
slave labor and peasants, into the imagined abyss signified by precapital-
ist, noncapitalist, and primitive accumulation. Or as Bhambra (2007b)
puts it in a slightly different context, even when differences of colonial-
ism, race, or gender are acknowledged, there remains a refusal for differ-
ence to make a difference to the founding categories.
It is true that Marx cannot be criticized for failing to theorize that
which he does not mean to theorize. Capital is Marxs main object in his
mature social theory; imperialism and colonialism are secondary. But this
admits rather than allays the postcolonial critique, and vindicates the
cautious yet respectful skepticism with which postcolonial thinkers ap-
proach Marxs work. From the postcolonial perspective, the very assump-
tion that imperialism and colonialism are secondary to the operations of
capital marks the line of his theoretical occlusions and hence the space
of his limitations. In as much as Marxs theory does not attend directly
to imperialism and colonialism because its main object is Capital, post-
colonial thinkers cannot countenance adopting his theoretical categories
whole-scale and, therefore, rightfully search for other additional concep-
tual lenses and theoretical systems. It is just as Csaire insisted:we need
to complete Marx.23
The point remains:classical social theorists overlooked if not repressed
the constitutive role played by imperialism and colonialism. Founding
theories may have referred to empire or colonialism, but they refuse to
treat it as foundational for modernity. In this way, they neglect the ways
in which the violence, exploitation, and racism of colonialism exist at
the very core of metropolitan societies; at best treating them as aberra-
tions in an otherwise normal course of development. This is exactly the
critique of knowledge registered by Du Bois, Csaire, and Fanon:the con-
tributions colonialism and hence colonized peoples made to history are
suppressed and excised from theoretical memory. Then again, this should
not be surprising once we acknowledge the social situatedness, and hence
the geopolitical situatedness, of social theory at the time. Forged in the

[86] Postcolonial Thought


metropole and meant to service the elite, the nascent social sciences could
only reproduce the metropolitan elites worldview of their superiority and
autonomous agency, adopting the imperial gaze that depended upon a
one-way flow of information (Connell 2007:12). If anything, the elites
dependence upon colonial subjugation overseas was a fact to be lived, not
recognized and theorized, much less something to trouble the state of
But what about more recent social theories beyond the classics? Do
they bear the imprint of social sciences early embeddedness in the impe-
rial episteme? Things do not fare as well as we might hope. In the 1960s,
amidst the Vietnam War and the violent fall of the older colonial em-
pires, the sociologist S.N. Eisenstadt published a book called The Political
System of Empires (Eisenstadt 1963). The title is promising, but the con-
tent is unsurprising:empires are what the Egyptians, Chinese, Muslims,
and feudal Europeans had, not what modern European societies have.25
Eisenstadt theorizes empires but in a way that reproduces Orientalist dis-
tancing, only barely adumbrating the fact of modern Western empires.
Other social theories are also awash with these occlusions. As Connell
(2006) argues, Anthony Giddenss theory of modern society is telling.
The theory is predicated upon a typology of societies that includes three
types:tribal society, class-divided society, and capitalist-class society. But
nowhere is there a notion of a colonial society that has its own dynam-
ics (e.g., of ethnic or racial hierarchy); despite the fact that, since the fif-
teenth century through the 1960s, the world was never a world of isolated
tribes or capitalist class societies but, rather, one of empires and colo-
nies. This is not a repression of imperial history, it is full erasure; and it
does nothing to undo Durkheims earlier omissions in his social schema.
To the contrary, it reproducesthem.
Another example is the work of Pierre Bourdieu; or, rather, conven-
tional interpretations of Bourdieus work. On the one hand, Bourdieus
early research was on the impact of French colonialism upon Algeria. He
did not repress colonialism analytically. [T]here never existed in Algeria,
he declared (1959:63), a truly isolated community, completely untouched
by the colonial situation. In fact, he later developed his theory of practice,
habitus, fields, and reproduction based upon this early work (Go 2013a).
Furthermore, Bourdieu (1993: 50) was fully aware that French sociol-
ogy had been a colonial science. He was alive to the knowledgepower
nexus and social theorys role in it. But critics note that Bourdieus actual
theory of social practice carries little trace of the fact of French rule or
anticolonial resistance (Connell 2007:3944). His theory elides the colo-
nial conditions that made that theory possible in the first place. The fact

T he Postcoloni a l Ch a llenge [87]

that Bourdieus earlier work on colonialism has been ignored, and that the
dictates of social theory require abstraction from the colonial context to
render the theory appropriate to disciplinary norms, is indicative of soci-
ologys repression of empire.
One strand of recent sociological research that is an obvious contender
for attending to empire is historical sociology. Historical sociology has
long been interested in power relations, politics, and modernity, and so it
is a prime intellectual candidate for absorbing postcolonial thought. But
it, too, has been slow.26 Emerging as an institutional subfield since the
1980s in the Anglo-European context, its main objects have been revolu-
tions, capitalist development, or state-formation in Europe. Comparably
less attention has been given to anticolonial revolutions or colonialism
and imperialism generally (cf. Lawson 2015). Take a look at the found-
ing works in historical sociology. For instance, Skocpols States and Social
Revolutions incorporated China but steadfastly refused to include anti-
colonial revolutions, even though those revolutions traversed the globe
(Skocpol 1979). And seminal work in historical sociology has spilled much
ink on the French revolution and the attendant Eurocentric claim that
the French revolution was the originator of liberal political modernity
(and, according to Skocpol, the first modern social revolution) (Skocpol
and Kestnbaum 1990), but we read next to nothing about how France in
the wake of its supposedly original declaration of liberty, equality, and
fraternity proceeded to extend its violent imperial hand overseas. Nor do
we read about the other significant revolution at the time, which in some
ways facilitated Frances own revolution: that is, the Haitian revolution
(Magubane 2005: 1012). We are left to resort to stories of diffusion
with Europe as the center of history and modernity (cf. Bhambra 2007a).
Surely, various strands of social theory and research have their share of
omissions, whether empire, race, gender, or sexuality. But the postcolonial
critique would not only have us catalog omissions. Much more is at stake.
The reason the omission of empire is especially problematic is not because
it misses a truer history, but because it is indicative of and reproduces a
deeper problem:the artificial bifurcation of social relations in social theory
and research. This is what Said called the law of division in the imperial
episteme, though here expressed in social theory. For Said, recall, the law
of division posits an us and a them, each seen as internally homog-
enous and autonomous. The law of division covers up relations between
colonizer and colonizedand all identities more generallyand obscures
their mutual constitution while praising the presumably autonomous
agency of the former. Postcolonial thought invites us to consider that
this very same law of division so characteristic of the imperial episteme

[88] Postcolonial Thought


might also be operative in social theory. The occlusion of empire is one

The law of division, or analytic bifurcation, is unmistakable in many
classical works. Durkheim postulated transitions from various types
of solidarity (that he neatly mapped onto binaries like primitive and
modern, preindustrial and industrial, etc.) but never considered that one
may have been dependent upon the imperial consolidation of the other.
More recent theories exhibit the same problems, reinscribing a method-
ological nationalism that occludes expansive relations across space. For
instance, not only does Giddens typology of societies fail to include a
category for colonial society, it fails to show dynamics or relations be-
tween the societies. There is no recognition that capitalist societies, for
instance, often tried to maintain and keep tribal societies deliberately
intact during colonial rule for political and economic purposes (e.g., indi-
rect rule) (Mamdani1996).
Analytic bifurcation is evident, too, in Michel Foucaults otherwise het-
erodoxic social theory of modernity and disciplinary power. In Discipline
and Punish, Foucault argues that the spectacle attendant with punishment
in the ancien regime disappears and is replaced by the prison (Foucault
1979: 78). Foucault restricts this transformation (in his words) to
Europe, but the realities of imperial history upend his characterization
and this reflective spatial qualifier. The British colonial state in India did
not respond to the Indian Mutiny with a panopticon but with public bru-
tality that involved executions, hangings and floggings, and spectacles
such as blowing rebels from the cannons mouth (Connell 2006: 261).
Frances colonies from Saigon to Senegal to Algeria saw spectacular vio-
lence, too. As Rosalind Morris points out, if it is true that the slackening
of the hold on the body and the decline of spectacle marked the nine-
teenth and twentieth centuries in Europe it remained profoundly cen-
tral to colonial regimes (Morris 2002:265). Although Foucault qualifies
his narrative spatially to Europe, this gesture itself gets at the heart of
the issue:his theory arbitrarily cuts Europe off from its coloniesas if
imperial and colonial history were not also Europes history.
The issue in occluding empire, put simply, is not just that it fails to pro-
vide a factually accurate history of modernity. The issue is also that it bi-
furcates relations:it analytically separates social relations that might not
have been separate at all. This is a pernicious problem. It threatens to un-
dermine social theorys best efforts at critically apprehending modernity.
Consider another example of how the textual repression of empire
and analytic bifurcation move in tandem, and the unfortunate effects of
this:Charles Tillys magisterial work on state-formation, Coercion, Capital,

T he Postcoloni a l Ch a llenge [89]

and European States (Tilly 1990). Tillys work is notable because he stands
as one of the vanguards of historical sociology. Coercion, Capital, and
European States is exemplary. As the best historical sociology does, it aims
to explain key aspects of modernity; in this case, the formation of the
nation-state or, as he calls them, national states. How did national states
come to dominate political imagination in the contemporary world? How
did national states become the dominant form over other possible socio-
political forms such as city-states andyes indeedempires? But from
the postcolonial perspective, this promising start ends in disappoint-
ment. Some critics have criticized Tillys work for falling short because it
focuses upon European states rather than other states, but this is really
not the problem. The problem is how those so-called European states are
conceptualized in the firstplace.
Tilly defines national states as states governing contiguous regions
and their cities by means of centralized, differentiated, and autonomous
structures (1990: 2). We anticipate, given this conceptual scheme, that
Tilly will tell a story of how, around the mid-t wentieth century, national
states in Europe emerged from the ashes of European empire. After all,
for most of the historical period Tilly covers, European states like Britain
and France (which Tilly refers to as exemplary of national states) were not
coercion-w ielding organizations governing contiguous regions and their
cities by means of centralized, differentiated and autonomous structures.
They were empire-states; coercion-w ielding organizations governing ex-
pansive regions and cities with a hierarchy of citizen/subject at the core
of the system. In the 1920s and 1930s, the British empire-state was at its
territorial highpoint, encompassing more than 33million miles of terri-
tory around the world, structured by various hierarchical political divi-
sions and fragmented sovereignties. The French empire encompassed over
12 million miles around the same time. These states only became truly
national states later, after World WarII.
Yet remarkably, this is not Tillys story. Tilly instead sees the national
state winning out over city- states, empires, theocracies, and many
other forms of government a century earlier, in the nineteenth century
(1990:23). 27 How can this be? The problem lies in the bifurcation effected
by Tillys understanding of states. He notes, for instance, that just as na-
tional states in Europe were emerging, they were also creating empires
beyond Europe, in the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific.. He refers
to these as external empires (1990:167). In other words, Tillys theory
posits an internal national state inside Europe and its external
empire outside Europe. In Tillys model, there is a European national
state and then there is imperialism and an overseas empire. There is a

[90] Postcolonial Thought


national state in Europe, exerting sovereignty over parts of Europe, and

then there is, over there, an empireas if the latter were an appendage
irrelevant to the constitution of the former, as if the model of sovereignty
had not been already forged in and by interactions with the periphery out
there; as if there could realistically be such an easy distinction between
inside and outside. But, of course, national states did not develop their
ideas and practices about sovereignty first in Europe and then transpose
them outward; they developed first amidst sixteenth century colonial
claims and disputes between empires about overseas territory (Branch
2012). And the so-called external colonies of Britain were not outside
Britain:they were British. They were declared subject to the sovereignty of
Britain, just as Frances so-called external colonies were subject to the sov-
ereignty of Francehence, fully inside it. This is why the English crown
fought, so hard and so often, to keep colonies within itself, suppressing
the American revolution in the 1770s or, for that matter, violently sup-
pressing the Mau-Mau rebellion in the 1950s. And Frances colonies, like-
wise, were not outside of France:they were French. Hence France fought
the bloody Algerian war in the 1950s to keep Algeria French. That was
the mantra after all. Tillys model thus analytically bifurcates into distinct
domains the national state and empireinternal and external,
inside and outsidethat were never really separated in practice.28
The point is that these elisions render inadequate the theoretical cat-
egories by which social thinkers seek to apprehend modernity. In Tillys
analysis, is the national state even a useful category when it is always
also an imperial state? In Foucaults analytic, exactly when, where, and
for whom does disciplinary power as opposed to the spectacle domi-
nate? In Giddenss theory, what are the boundaries of tribal society or
capitalist class society such that their interrelations can be ignored? In
Durkheims theory, are the colonial societies by which he theorized me-
chanical solidarity included in the organic solidarity presumably felt
by the imperial metropole ruling them? The pernicious persistence of the
law of division lamented by Said in his critique of Orientalism exacts a
high cost. It threatens to devalue and debilitate the analytic power of our
social theories.

The Agency ofColonialism

If the occlusion of empire and analytic bifurcation go hand-in-hand, to-

gether they contribute to a related problem: the repression of colonial
agency. We have seen how first-and second-wave postcolonial thinkers

T he Postcoloni a l Ch a llenge [91]

problematized this issue. They highlighted how conventional histories and

Orientalism covered up the ways in which colonized peoples contributed
to history. In social theory, occlusions of empire and analytic bifurcation
have similar effects. They yield a Eurocentric narrative that posits Europe
as the sole originator and autonomous agent of history. Contributions
from other places or relations with other peoples are repressed, margin-
alized, or simply overlooked. This is the law of division perpetuated in
historical narrative, and it paints colonized peoples as little else than pas-
sive receivers.
One manifestation of this is the theory of world society and related
studies of global diffusion that produce various cultural accounts of global
modernity (Meyer 1980, 1999; Meyer, Boli, and Thomas 1987; Meyer etal.
1997). Sociologists first discussed diffusion as a matter of imitation.
Gabriel Tarde (1903) was the founding sociologist of this approach: for
him, things first spread across space as social actors instinctively imitate
others. His theory was firmly tethered to the imperial episteme:his exem-
plars of imitation include children imitating adults and natives in the
non-Western world imitating whites (exactly because, in the classificatory
scheme of Tardes time, natives were children). Current theories of world
society and diffusion rehearse the same structure in their analytic logic.
Meyer etal. (1999:138)claim forthrightly that modernity originates in
the metropolitan core and then diffuses throughout the rest of the world-
system. This theory, by its very categorical scheme, centers Europe as the
origin of all things and makes Europe the prime agent. This is exactly
what Chakrabarty calls historicism here making its grand appearance
in the sociology of diffusion. When it comes to colonized and postcolonial
peoples, the modern is always something that had already happened
somewhere else (Chakrabarty 1997:373).
We know that colonialism sometimes served as a mechanism through
which things, practices, and ideas flowed. We know that sometimes things
spread. We also know that, yes, colonial peoples learned from colonizing
cultures. The problem is what gets elided in the theoretical approach. We
cannot see, for instance, the ways in which the presumably essential un-
changing thing that spreads might get refashioned or reconstructed along
the way or how it may have been forged through interactive relations in
the first place. It may very well be that our modern notion of human rights
emerges from key discourses and events in the West and that the concept
of rights has diffused to other parts of the world. But what would not be
captured in existing sociological theories of diffusion is how the notion of
rights has been able to diffuse partly as a dialectical response to Western
imperial domination; or that the very reason it has been able to resonate

[92] Postcolonial Thought


with non-Western peoples (and, therefore, more easily diffuse) is because

non-Western peoples already have their own indigenous or preexisting
local discourses of rights from which to work (Go 2008a; Karlstrom 1996).
Also occluded is how the ostensibly diffused modern thing itself has a his-
tory that belies notions of European originality. Theories of world society
insist that documents like the U.S. Constitution spread to non-Western
societies that unconsciously mimic it. But those theories are blind to how
the U.S. Constitution itself was partly modeled upon and inspired by
Native-A merican political forms (Grinde and Johansen 1991). So why is
it that the U.S. Constitution is treated as the originary form that every-
one copies? Why not Native-A merican political forms? The problematic
assumption, reflected in the theory, is that diffusion always and only hap-
pens when it is from the West to the Rest. It is a unilinear flow. What gets
lost are the actions of the dominated and, in turn, the interactive relations
by which the social is produced.
There are other examples of this tendency. While sociological research
on social movements or ethnographic studies of urban and minority pop-
ulations are probably the only traditional subfields of sociology where the
actions, practices, and agency of peripheralized groups are analyzed in any
sustained manner, most meso-level and macro-level sociology, and indeed
much of social theory, has been more silent on the agency of non-elite sub-
jects. They are like studies of diffusion noted above:they jettison from our
theories the experiences, practices, and contributions of the subaltern.
To be sure, there is a danger in uncritically valorizing subaltern agency.
Spivak, recall, warned that the attempt to represent the subaltern at all is
fraught with difficulty. But if Spivak rendered the project questionable, at
least sheand the other postcolonial theorists with whom she engaged
raised these matters at all. Can the subaltern speak? Can the subaltern
be represented? If so, what does that do to our conventional narratives? If
not, by what conceptual or textual means, methods, and modes might we
capture the traces of agency? Does it matter? How is the figure of the sub-
altern, or any presumed truth about essential identities and agency, pro-
duced? Postcolonial thought does not cohere around any single answer to
these complicated questions. It does, however, bring them to the fore. And
this offers a salutary lesson for social theory. For instance, even though a
number of social scientists have partially remedied the European-focus
by paying attention to imperialism and colonialism, most of this work
runs the risk of reinscribing the problems it ostensibly seeks to surmount
(Go 2009; Pitts 2010). Much of it focuses upon what the imperialists and
colonizers do without reference to their embeddedness in interactive local
environments. This otherwise promising literature examines the causes

T he Postcoloni a l Ch a llenge [93]

of imperialism, the policies of colonial states, or the political-economic

legacies of colonialism but the explanatory factors are rarely, if ever, the
actions of colonized groups (Mann 2013b; Steinmetz 2007,2008).
The question of agency in postcolonial thought, therefore, is not about
demarcating a space absent from power relations or somehow distinct
from them. This is more so the approach in conventional social theory,
where questions of agency are subsumed into universalizing and abstract
categories like agency versus structure or pragmatist reflexivity (and as
we will see shortly, these are tendencies that postcolonial thought helps
us trouble, too).29 Rather, the problematic of agency is about attending to
what even traditional sociology should attend to:interactions. It is about
recognizing the lesson imprinted by founding postcolonial theorists like
Fanon (1968 [1961])v iz., that colonizer and colonized are mutually con-
stituted, that the history of European states or any powerful metropoli-
tan states is not separable from the history of their so-called Others, and
that, as Bhabhas theory of colonial discourse suggests, power is always
exercised in concrete settings and, in turn, refracted or reflected by those
whom it seeks to control (and so has limits). But with much of social
theory, as with the imperial episteme, these relations are bifurcated by
taken-for-granted analytic operations and concepts that bear the lasting
imprint of the imperial episteme.

Social Theorys Metrocentrism

The final analytic operation that merits critical attention is metrocen-

trism. This is the generalized version of the Eurocentric universalism
that postcolonial writers questioned. Iuse the term here to refer to the
transposition of narratives, concepts, categories, or theories derived
from the standpoint of one location onto the rest of the world, under
the assumption that those narratives, concepts, and categories are uni-
versal. The transposition does not have to be from Europe to elsewhere.
Metrocentrism refers to any instance when the particular and parochial
is unreflexively universalizedwhich is why it is helpful to think of it as
metrocentrism rather than Eurocentric universalism. But in either case,
it is a false universalism.30
Chakrabartys critique of historicism registers one form of metro-
centrism. Historicism, recall, refers to the insertion of all societies and
places into a singular narrative of development based upon an idealized
European experience, such that countries like India appear as lacking.
Europe works as a silent referent in historical knowledge (Chakrabarty

[94] Postcolonial Thought


2000:28). This is a form of metrocentrism exactly:in this case, it is the

application of a temporal template based upon a European model to the
rest of the world. Another example of metrocentrism comes from Fanons
critique of psychoanalysis. Fanon noted that the categories developed by
Freud to apprehend the human psyche are of no use for understanding
the specificity of the colonizeds situation because they were meant to
make sense of the dilemmas of the Austrian middle-classes. Freud and
Adler and even the cosmic Jung did not think of the Negro in all their
investigations. And they were quite right not to have. It is often forgot-
ten that neurosis is not a basic element of human reality. Like it or not
the Oedipus complex is far from coming into being among Negroes (1967
[1952]:151; see also Nandy 1983). Based upon the narrow experiences of
the Austrian middle-class, why, Fanon opines, should we automatically
and unproblematically apply the categories to other contexts?
[P]ostcolonial studies, observes Gandhi (1998: 44), claims that the
entire field of humanities is vitiated by a compulsion to claim a spurious
universality. Is social science similarly vitiated? As noted, the social sci-
ences as we know them today emerged from the Anglo-European metro-
politan context, and early social scientists modeled their concepts and
theories upon the Anglo-European experience. Metrocentrism, therefore,
is when social scientists unreflexively apply those concepts and theories
to the rest of the world under the assumption of universality. Of course,
all knowledge emerges from a social location. It comes from a place. The
problem is that while social science is located and hence provincial, it pur-
ports nottobe.
Social sciences very self-classification as a science is indicative. That
notion of science partly goes back to Cartesian thought, which enunci-
ated the founding declaration of universal rationality and objectivity. This
assumption of Cartesian subjecthood is unique to the European context,
and was itself embedded in the specific context of the rise of the Dutch
empire to replace the putative decadent empires of Spain and Portugal
(Dussel 2008; Grosfoguel 2012). It heralded the disembodied knower, the
subjectobject dichotomy, and the associated idea that rationality and
knowledge derived by it is universal rather than somatically or socially
dependent.31 Social science thereby announces its existence from within
this tradition, predicating its label upon a self-proclaimed ability to pull
the god trick; to assume the position of the all-knowing I that is able
to see clearly everything from above, unhindered by location, place, or
Such is the intellectual and philosophical field in which social science
emerges, and it highlights the key operation of metrocentrism: though

T he Postcoloni a l Ch a llenge [95]

social theory is provincial, its Cartesian trick is to cover it up with claims

to omnipotence. As Keim (2008:559)notes, sociology, as the Science of
society, pretends to produce generally valid, universal statements, con-
cepts and theories but it is actually distorted because the claim for
universality so far has been formulated from a Eurocentric perspective
(2008:559). She quotes Lander (2003):As the notion of universality was
constructed on the basis of the particular (or parochial) experience of
European history, and the totality of time and space of human experience
was apprehended from that particular standpoint, a radically exclusive
universality was created (quoted in Keim 2008:561).
But if the tendency to universalize on the basis of singular experiences
yet cover up that provincialityhence, pull the god trickis part of the
founding of sociology, does it persist now? Surely the postcolonial critique
would suggest that at least some strands of Marxist thought fall prey to this
tendency. For Chakrabarty, Marxist theories of capitalism are versions of
historicism par excellence, which are, in turn, Eurocentric. And we have seen
in the previous chapter how Amilcar Cabral and Aim Csaire registered
similar critiques of Marxist thought. Csaire specifically warned against
using the white European working-class as the prototype for understanding
the experiences and struggles of racialized colonial subjects. Had not Marx
based his entire theory of capitalism upon the experience of white workers
in England, who confront their employers (behind the hidden abode) in
a situation of free wage labor? He developed his theory of value not from
looking at slave labor on the colonial plantation but instead by looking
behind the hidden abode of the English factory door. Cedric Robinson thus
points out the provinciality of Marxs theory. The masses whom Marx
presumed would be seized by theory were European male wage laborers
and artisans in the metropoles of Western Europe, Britain and the United
States (Robinson 2000:xxviii). Automatically applying Marxs categories
and theory to other societies is a model of metrocentrism, ironically falling
prey to the fetishism of which Marx had accused Adam Smith.32
Beyond certain versions of Marxism, we can find other instances of me-
trocentrism. Classical sociology and modernization theory in the 1950s
are the easy examples. They induced concepts of development based upon
European industrialization (or American economic growth) and then im-
posed them onto other countries (the latter thereby figuring theoretically
as developing countries). But the problem of metrocentrism is wide-
spread enough that it already has been noticed by critics within social
science. Are we right to assume, Sanjay Seth (2013) wonders, that
modern Western knowledge transcends the circumstances of its his-
torical and geographical emergence and thus that the social sciences are

[96] Postcolonial Thought


true for everyoneeven though to do so is to privilege the modern and

the Western over the premodern and the non-Western? Connell (2006,
2007) pinpoints metrocentrism in current social theory, too, referring
to it as the northern-ness of theory (2006, 2007). Inspired by post-
colonial thought, Connell refers to social theory as Northern in that
it embeds the viewpoints, perspectives and problems of metropolitan
society, while presenting itself as universal knowledge (2007: viiv iii.
Northern theory is generated within and for the metropole. It reflects
the concerns and categories of a particular type of society:a metropoli-
tan imperial society that has repeatedly ruled weaker societies. Yet we
nonetheless apply Northern theory to everywhere else. This universal
pretension comes in the form of social theorys abstraction or context-
free generalization:Social science usually prefers context-f ree general-
ization. Special prestige accrues to a theory which is so abstracted that
its statements seem universally true (2007:196). And the problem with
Northern Theory is not that it seeks generalizability. It is rather that the
source of generalization is provincial but Northern Theory claims univer-
sality. As Keim (2008:559)warns, according to the assumptions of social
theory:The social realities of the southern hemisphere are thus always
thought of as fitting into a universally valid scheme produced elsewhere.
It thereby blurs the distinction between the universal and the partic-
ular, equating the North-Atlantic particular with the universal (Keim
Let us take an example from a masterful and renowned work of po-
litical and historical sociology:Michael Manns remarkable The Sources
of Social Power (Mann 2012 [1986], 2012 [1993], 2013b, 2013c). The book
seeks to offer a history of power in human societies. In this sense, it
purports to offer a sort of universal analysis. What is more universal
than humanity? But this history of human societies in their entirety
ends up being a history of a small group of people in Europe. The analy-
sis focuses largely upon Anglo-European countries. His analysis of the
long nineteenth-century, for instance, is essentially about Great Britain,
Europe, and the United States (Mann 2012 [1993]). Admittedly, the
breadth of this work is staggering:Mann astutely moves in and out of
various countries. But they are Anglo-European countries nonetheless.
Does the experience of these countries really constitute the history
of power in human societies? We might imagine the response of W.E.
B.Du Bois upon reading this work:But what of the darker world that
watches? Most men belong to this world. With Negro and Negroid, East
Indian, Chinese, and Japanese they form two-thirds of the population
of the world (Du Bois1920).

T he Postcoloni a l Ch a llenge [97]

This shortcoming is not just a matter of nominalism. It is not just that

Mann names his story a history of power in human societies when really
it should be named the history of power in a handful of countries in
less than half the world. It is also that the analysis of power in Anglo-
European history is used to induce an overarching abstract theoretical
frame (the four sources of social power) meant to apply everywhere and
to everyone, even though it was only analytically derived from the analy-
sis of a very limited and particular set of experiences:those of Europeans.
This is metrocentrism in its clearest form:the assumption that the experi-
ences and categories of one small place and peoples should be the basis for
theorizing and analyzing all other places and peoples.
We can take another example of metrocentrism:the structure-agency
debate in social theory. This is a dominant issue in North American and
European social science, so much so that leading theorists like Anthony
Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu have tried to solve it. It is subsequently
taught in most social theory courses. So why are we bothered with this
theoretical construction, such that we apply it to all social situations ev-
erywhere? Of course, what we call agency should pique our interest, but
how agency is defined and theorized within the terms of these specific
theories is questionable. Compared with Bhabhas notion of agency, which
is implied in his analysis of colonial discourse, or the agency of colonial
contact upon metropolitan societies as intimated in Fanons thought,
agency here is narrowly individualistic. In terms of the structure versus
agency debate, agency is theorized and empirically manifested in terms
of individuals will, subjectivity, capacities, reflexivity, or capacitya ll in
opposition to (or in dialectical relation with) structure. There is no con-
ception of the agency of objects, groups, or institutions. Even if there is
a discussion of something approximating collective agency, it would only
have to emerge as the outcome of individuals with the right reflexive
practices, capacities, or intentions pursuing changethat is, as a social
outcome that only emerges, as in neoclassical economics, from the sum
total of individuals actions. And when theorists solve the problem of
structure versus agency by arguing structure and agency are the same,
they still work from this basic opposition between individual agency and
Taking postcolonial thought seriously summons the question: From
where does this peculiar approach to structure and agency not arise, except
from within metropolitan societies? As Connell (1997) notes, the fact that the
structureagency issue is narrowly conceived of in this way might be be-
cause metropolitan societies have special privilege. They are not exploited
from the outside or politically managed as colonies. The standpoint is one

[98] Postcolonial Thought


of power. And bourgeois individualism is the norm and value. The terms
of the structureagency debate thus emerge from this particular context. The
fatal flaw of Northern Theory comes when it transposes its concerns and
categoriesdeveloped in this specific context of intellectual habit, and
formulated from the standpoint of powerto the peripheral world, where
the local experience and context is different. Peripheral societies do not
occupy the seat of power. They have been subjected to foreign imposition
or colonization. They have been and are constrained. To transpose the
categories and concerns of metropolitan sociology (whether of structure/
agency or rational choice) is the analytic version of imperial imposition. It
commits an epistemic violence.
If the foregoing examples are too easy, let us take, as a final extended
example, Mertonian middle range theories like the state.33 This has
been one of the dominant concerns of Anglo-European social science,
particularly in the subfields of historical sociology and comparative poli-
tics. In the 1970s and 1980s, sociology journals carried various empiri-
cal studies and theoretical pieces attempting to analyze the state, and an
almost infinite amount of theoretical labor was devoted to it. Sociologists
working in the Marxist tradition debated whether or not the state was an
instrument of class rule or a structural complex representing, as Nicos
Poulantzas (1978) argued, different class fractions. Peter Evans, Theda
Skocpol, and their collaborators brought the state back in for under-
standing revolutions, welfare regimes, and economic development (Evans
etal. 1985); while various others focused upon state-formation and war,
culture, and religion and took the state to the study of all regions of the
world, questioning its autonomy or its capture. They looked outward
from the North American and European metropoles to conceptualize
weak states and failed states. All of social science, it seems, has ended
up thinking about the state if not seeing like a state (Scott1999).
But why? Does the state really warrant such attention? An argument
can be made that while the state is surely an important aspect of modern
social life, it has been overemphasized as an object of analysis in some
sectors, if not fetishized; something that is not actually there except as
an effect (Mitchell 1991). It is not even obvious why political scientists
should theorize and study the state. Political scientists might instead
focus upon the government, elections, or politics. These are all related to
what has gone under the category the state, but they are different ana-
lytic objects that arguably require alternative conceptual lenses. Surely
they are no less important for modern political life than the state.34
Yet, the focus on the state does make sense as the product of situated
knowledge: the product of distinct concerns among Anglo- European

T he Postcoloni a l Ch a llenge [99]

leftish scholars since the 1970s. Weber himself made the state a con-
cern, of course. And the state was a question in the Marxian political and
intellectual tradition. But all of this so-called classical thinking on the
state was summoned amidst and for particular purposes and projects. For
instance, during the seemingly revolutionary tumult of the 1960s in the
American and European metropoles, activists and scholars began taking
an interest in the state as a problematic worthy of scholarly attention. Is it
necessary to seize the state in order to effect a proper anticapitalist revo-
lution? Or is the modern state an intrinsic part of capitalist modernity
such that it, too, must be abolished entirely?35 Questions about the state
also connected with questions about structure and agency that Anglo-
European theorists were worried about:those questions partly embedded
questions about the individuals relationship to the state in modern soci-
eties (Giddens 1991). Meanwhile, liberals lamented the demise of the wel-
fare state in the 1980s while accordingly seeking to understand how and
why it emerged historicallyor did not emergein the first place (Evans,
Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol 1985; Skocpol and Amenta 1986). The study of
the state then became connected to the global development project that
was formulated in neoimperial metropoles and their international organi-
zational arms. If the state is autonomous enough to impact economic
development, then maybe neoliberal policies should be rethought, and in-
stead the developmental state should be promoted by the International
Monetary Fund (IMF) or World Bank (at least to use as ideological fodder
for the ColdWar).
The concern of 1970s leftists reeling from the disappointment of 1968;
the focus of liberals longing for new social policies; the worry of court his-
torians and social scientists seeking the best policies to promote economic
development in the then-Third World:the state as an object of social
scientific labor has a particular history, rooted in a specific Euro-A merican
metropolitan context. Meanwhile, the peoples and societies of the Global
North were visited by other things, other processes, other forces. In the
wake of decolonization, they were faced with transnational corporations
seeking to penetrate new fertile fields or otherwise dispossess them. They
faced financiers from the Global North creating new transnational banks
to which they increasingly had to turn. The World Bank and the IMF first
foisted infrastructural projects upon them and later demanded structural
adjustment. Dictators propped up by the United States were maneuver-
ing to fill the vacuum left behind by colonial regimes. The Nestl corpora-
tion was busy selling baby formula to peasants. Nike began outsourcing to
Asia. Food shortages and food riots in the wake of the green revolution
proliferated. Debt accrued.

[100] Postcolonial Thought


To be sure, an analysis of the state and the use of related concepts

and theories peddled by metropolitan social science were and are useful
for analyzing these forces, dynamics, and processes. They are all related to
state functions and policies. But the issue is twofold. First, even if we take
the state to be a necessary concern for understanding dynamics and pro-
cesses in colonial and postcolonial contexts, clearly the types of theories
and related concepts generated by focusing upon Euro-A merican contexts
would need to be problematized. The distinctions among civil society,
the state, and the economy (and the concept state autonomy) upon
which theories of the state rely are themselves provincial (Sousa Santos
2012). Second, would not entirely different objects of analysis, and hence,
different concepts and theoretical problematics, be required, than the
state? Why not alternative concepts capturing different social processes?
As historical sociologists studied the historical development of the au-
tonomy of the state, and as they drew upon Weberian concepts of ratio-
nalization and bureaucracy to do so, they left out entire worlds. They did
not, for instance, offer historical sociologies of slavery, diasporas, or the
impact upon local communities of chartered companies, multinational
corporations, or debt regimes imposed by the IMF. They did not examine
state-formation from the bottom up as opposed to the top down. Focusing
upon the dilemmas of state-making faced by state elites, this work repro-
duced the standpoint of power, and so the viewpoint of those subjected
to state power was left out of the picture (as was an entire range of social
processes in the Global South to which the categories of state theory paid
little mind).36 This is the sort of historical sociology that W.E. B.Du Bois
or Fanon would have lamented (Magubane, In Press).


This gets to the heart of the postcolonial challenge. Despite the chorus of
constant consternation about postcolonial thought among some thinkers,
the point of postcolonial thought is not to send social science on a so-
ciological guilt trip (Collins 1997). Postcolonial thought is irreducible to
charges of social sciences past or present complicity with imperialism. It
includes such charges, to be sure, but it also includes more. What it offers
is a theoretical critique, an unsettling of assumptions and analytic op-
erations within social theory and social science. If anything, postcolonial
thought challenges us to recognize and trouble social sciences epistemic
complicity with empire. It asks us to arrest social science theory and re-
search that reproduces rather than contests the imperial episteme. In

T he Postcoloni a l Ch a llenge [101]

other words, this is a critique not of social sciences practical complicity (a

critique that need not come from postcolonial theory anyways) but of its
categories, operations, and ways of knowing, which are often homologous
with imperial power, even if it is not in empires employ.
Still, this postcolonial critique cannot be read as an indictment of an
entire discipline or field. We must not homogenize intellectual fields in
the same way that Orientalism homogenizes cultures and people. As Sitas
(2006) warns, by defining forms of scholarship as Eurocentric, there is
a counter-damage involved in the complexity of the Wests traditions. It
reduces in one grand counter-gesture many insights, points of dissent and
critical engagement of a complex intellectual heritage. The examples from
social theory and sociology discussed here and throughout this book rep-
resent larger strands of thought, but they are not definitive of the entire
field. In fact, we will see in forthcoming chapters that there are strands
of social thought that help rather than hinder the task of meeting the
postcolonial challenge. Contrary to the critiques that might arise from the
postmodernpostcolonial perspective, therefore, social theory as a whole
or social science in its entirety cannot be impugned. As seen, postcolonial
thought requires sociological thought. It cannot naively abjureit.
So, in the end:What does postcolonial thought mean for social theory
and sociology? The succinct way to put it is this: Postcolonial thought
alerts us to certain strands, elements, and tendencies within the social sci-
ences even if they are not definitive of the social sciences. We have seen
these pernicious intellectual practices here:Orientalism, analytic bifur-
cation, the suppression of colonial agency, and metrocentrism. These are
the legacies of social sciences metropolitanimperial standpoint. They
are imprints of empire upon the sociological body. Whether or not these
operations directly reproduce imperial violence is beside the point. The
point is that these operations weaken the analytic power and scope of the
sociological imagination. Simply put, they mean that social science is not
always as good as it shouldbe.
And so we are left with a choice. Either we dismiss the critique from
postcolonial thought as irrelevant or quaint and then move on. Or we
accept it, engage it, and see where it takes us. Let us try the latter.

[102] Postcolonial Thought



Reconnecting Relations

The other point Im trying to make is not only that the history of colonialism is the
history of the West but also that the history of colonialism is a counter-history to the
normative, traditional history of theWest.
Homi Bhabha, interview,19901

T he second wave of postcolonial thought found its home in the academic

humanities. Is a third wave of postcolonial thought, grounded in the
social sciences, possible? For some, this question would appear nonsensical.
According to this view, postcolonial thought is inherently opposed to social
science, and social science is inherently opposed to postcolonial thought.
As discussed in a previous chapter, this is the postmodernpostcolonial
perspective that suggests that postcolonial thought requires overturning
social theory and its research arm of social science entirely. Postcolonial
theory is only a humanistic enterprise, and rather than attending to the
social, we should deconstruct texts, disclose the insurmountable ambiva-
lence of knowledge, or craft critical genealogies of Orientalism (1994:225).
But we have seen the problems with this view. It fails to recognize that
postcolonial theory is itself premised upon certain social scientific claims.
Rather than eschewing sociological realism, postcolonial thought depends
upon it. This highlights Chakrabartys (2000:6)remark, in a different con-
text, about the simultaneous indispensability and inadequacy of social
science thought. Accepting the postcolonial challenge and critiquing the
episteme of empire does not require the complete dissolution of social
theory. Nor does accepting social theory require hastily dismissing post-
colonial thought. The question is how to systematically articulate the two.

What might a postcolonial social theory look like? As Edward Said (1980)
asked in a different context:What can bedone?
One solution is to integrate colonialism and empire into our sociological
narratives and accounts. There is, indeed, a new sociology of empire and
colonialism that qualifies here (Go 2009; Steinmetz 2013b). But in itself,
this would not fully meet the postcolonial challenge to social science. One
could very well study colonialism and empire from a Eurocentric view; or
a limited view that denies agency to the colonized or reinscribes metro-
centric theories. In other words, only studying colonialism and empire is
not sufficient. It depends upon how one does so. Another move is to take
insights from postcolonial theory and turn them into new variables for
causal analysis.2 But this, too, is not an articulation of postcolonial thought
and social science given that it is a selective appropriation of the former
for the latter, leaving unscathed social theorys analytic infrastructure.
For a proper articulation, more is required.
The claim of this chapter is that a different and potentially more gener-
ative articulation would be to draw upon relationalism, a mode of thought
within social theory that is both an ontology of the social and a related
way of looking at it. My claim is that relationalism can be mobilized to
overcome social sciences tendency toward analytic bifurcation, which in
turn has perpetuated social theorys persistent Orientalism, its occlusion
of empire, and the repression of colonized agency from its accounts. To
call this approach postcolonial relationalism would not be inappropriate. It
takes a certain strand of thought already immanent to social theory and
redeploys it to meet the postcolonial challenge. In particular, to make the
case for postcolonial relationalism, this chapter uses relational insights to
offer postcolonial accounts of two key founding events in the making of
modernity: the French Revolution and the British Industrial Revolution.
Social scientists have long studied these two events; they are part of social
sciences empirical armature (Bhambra 2007). Reconsidering them in
light of relational social theory will hopefully make the point that social
science can meet some of the critiques posed by postcolonial thought not
by self-dissolution but by absorption. This is not trivial. As we will see,
relationalism can serve as an aperture for a postcolonial social theory that
does nothing less than sketch the global connectedness of social being.


To begin, it is helpful to return to the problem of analytic bifurcation

and its related operations of imperial occlusion. Analytic bifurcation,

[104] Postcolonial Thought


recall, is the manifestation in social theory and social science of what

Said (1993: xxviii) referred to as the imperial epistemes law of divi-
sion. This is the law that insists that there is an us and a them,
each quite settled, clear, unassailably self-e vident. This law of divi-
sion is definitive of Orientalist discourse, but in Saids view it is also
a generalized operation. It is the hallmark of imperialist cultures as
well as those cultures trying to resist the encroachments of Europe
(1993:xxviii). It is pervasive. And it makes its appearance in social sci-
ence not only as Orientalism but also in the ontological and method-
ological treatment of spaces, places, peoples, and entities as separate
rather than related.
As noted in the previous chapter, analytic bifurcation is particularly
palpable in the repression of imperial history and colonial domination. It
separates metropole from colony when, in practice, they were not always,
if ever, so separate. Bhabha (1990) alludes to this operation when discuss-
ing how colonialism has been excised from historical memory:

I think we need to draw attention to the fact that the advent of Western mo-
dernity, located as it generally is in the 18th and 19th centuries, was the moment
when certain master narratives of the state, the citizen, cultural value, art,
science, the novel, when these major cultural discourses and identities came
to define the Enlightenment of Western society and the critical rationality of
Western personhood. The time at which these things were happening was the
same time at which the West was producing another history of itself through
its colonial possessions and relations. That ideological tension, visible in the
history of the West as a despotic power, at the very moment of the birth of
democracy and modernity, has not been adequately written in a contradictory
and contrapuntal discourse of tradition. Unable to resolve that contradiction
perhaps, the history of the West as a despotic power, a colonial power, has not
been adequately written side by side with its claims to democracy and solidar-
ity. (Bhabha 1990:218)

Bhabha here points out how a certain law of division has characterized
the Wests own self-conception and history. Europe denies its connections
with the peoples whom it subjugated and exploited. Bhabha concludes by
pointing to the legacy of this in the metropole. The material legacy of this
repressed history is inscribed in the return of post-colonial peoples to the
metropolis. Their very presence there changes the politics of the metropo-
lis, its cultural ideologies and its intellectual traditions, because they
as a people who have been recipients of a colonial cultural experience
displace some of the great metropolitan narratives of progress and law

R econnec t ing R el at ions [105]

and order, and question the authority and authenticity of those narra-
tives (1990:218).
Analytic bifurcation also surfaces in various sectors of social theory as
well as in historical accounts that neglect empire. It appears, for instance,
as methodological nationalism, whereby the nation is separated from its
constitutive external relations (Chernilo 2006). It appears also in ontolog-
ical distinctions between the West and the Rest, metropole and colony,
the domestic and foreign, or the inside and outside of nations (Barkawi
and Laffey 2002; Magubane 2004). As seen in the previous chapter, theo-
ries of state-formation are based upon analyses of European national
states, but they occlude the fact that those national states were imperial
states and hence not separate from colonial domination outside Europe.
Theories such as Giddenss (1986) theory of society posit three societal
types, but it does not occur to Giddens, for example, to consider inter-
relations between these three types and treat them as connected rather
than distinct.
So pervasive is analytic bifurcation that it is even evident in Michel
Foucaults work, despite the fact that Foucaults theory of power and
knowledge has informed second- wave postcolonial thought. Bhabha
takes Foucault to task for occluding colonialism in his discussion of race.
Foucault directly links the flamboyant rationality of Social Darwinism
to Nazi ideology, entirely ignoring colonial societies which were the prov-
ing grounds for Social Darwinist administrative discourses all through
the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Bhabha 1994: 248; cf.
Stoler 1995). There are other omissions in Foucaults theorization of mo-
dernity. As seen in the previous chapter, Foucaults analysis of the emer-
gence of disciplinary power fails to incorporate the operations of power in
Frances colonies. Said (1978) argues that such a move, in turn, serves to
obscure the relationship between Europe and the rest of the world (Said
1978:711f). Foucault, according toSaid:

seems unaware of the extent to which the ideas of discourse and disci-
pline are assertively European and how, along with the use of discipline to
employ masses of detail (and of human beings), discipline was used also to
administer, study, reconstructa nd then subsequently to occupy, rule, and
exploita lmost the whole of the non-European world. This dimension is
wholly absent from Foucault's work even though his work helps one to un-
derstand it; since it strikes me as being a definitive part of modern history,
some account of this European hegemony over the world needs to betaken.
(Said 1978:711ff)3

[106] Postcolonial Thought


Said then compares this with Fanon. Although both Fanon and Foucault
stress the unavoidable problematic of immobilization and confinement
at the center of the Western system of knowledge and discipline, Fanons
work differs. Fanons work programmatically seeks to treat colonial and
metropolitan societies together, as discrepant but related entities, while
Foucaults work moves further and further away from serious consider-
ation of social wholes (1993:278).
It is exactly this issue of social wholes that will lead us toward socio-
logical relationalism as a solution (though, as we will see, the term social
wholes requires some reconsideration from a relational perspective).
Still, this issue of analytic bifurcation is worth exploring even further.
For surely there are sectors of social science that are alive to its dangers?
World-systems theory, for instance, has been formulated as a remedy to
social sciences spatial provincialism.4 And the multiple modernities per-
spective, which explores civilizations rather than nations, offers another
possible reprieve from Eurocentric bifurcations. But the imperial epis-
teme works in mysterious ways, and its law of division is deep enough for
even these approaches to unwittingly fall prey to itssway.
Take recent world-systems analyses of global capitalism such Giovanni
Arrighis acclaimed work on financialization and hegemonic cycles
(Arrighi 1994). If any approach should be attuned to analyzing relations
across the globe rather than analytically separating them, it should be
this. It emerges from the world-systems tradition, which has alerted us to
the Eurocentrism of social categories and the problems of methodologi-
cal nationalism (Wallerstein 2001). But Arrighis world-systems analysis
of capitalist cycles and financialization reinserts rather than relinquishes
analytic bifurcation. Arrighi (1994) posits that the capitalist world-system
goes through different phases corresponding to hegemonic states own re-
gimes of accumulation. The initial phase of accumulation is based upon
production and trade, while the next phase is pure finance:accumulation
based upon borrowing, lending, and speculating. Money begets money.
The theory of these phases is derived from Marxs own formula for capital
(M-C-M1), but the problem arises when Arrighis theory characterizes fi-
nancialization as a historical phase definitive of the entire world-system.
For Marx, the formula for capital does not refer to historical phases cor-
responding with hegemonic state strategies. It is a theoretical abstraction
meant to demonstrate how surplus value is obtained through the exploita-
tion of labor:the C in the formula is labor power (Harvey 1982; Marx
1977). Arrighi uses the formula to claim that financialization is a histori-
cal moment characterizing the entire capitalist system.

R econnec t ing R el at ions [107]

Surely this redeployment of the formula is useful for Arrighis pur-

poses, but it comes at a price. It centers the metropole as the point from
which to model the system, bracketing what happens outside the finan-
cial centers of the world. It takes particular financial practices in capitals
like London or NewYork and uses them as the standard for characteriz-
ing the system, separating financial accumulation in these capitals from
accumulation practices elsewhere in the world. In the Global South, for
example, is financialization the dominant form of economic activity and
accumulation? We know that although finance is a part of the story, the
Global South also has been visited by transnational corporations trolling
for cheap labor for commodity production. This is the capitalists search
for the primary commoditylabor-power, or the C, in Marxs formula
for capitalby which value is produced. And the Global South also has
been visited by various predators who accrue surplus not by trading but
by dispensing violence and displacing peasants, amounting to a persis-
tent primitive accumulation that Marx had relegated to the prehistory of
capitalism. This is a process only barely adumbrated in Marxs formula
mobilized by Arrighi.
Surely, financialization in the metropole relates to primitive accumula-
tion. It is also connected to the proliferation of new production platforms
that extract value from neophyte proletarians across peripheralized spaces
traversing the globe. But this is exactly the point. Arrighis theory that the
world capitalist system is undergoing a financial phase conceals these other
practices, bifurcating the metropole from the Global South while univer-
salizing the former as characteristic of the whole. The relations between
financialization and production disappear from the theoretical apparatus.
The relations between the cheers and tears on Wall Street or Londons City
on the one hand and, on the other, the blood and sweat in the factories
of Shenzen, Jakarta, Bombay, or Cebu are severed down the middle, as if
they were not connected at all.5 In Arrighis (2002) other important work,
the so-called periphery of the world system is more present and directly
analyzed, but here the theorization offered in his model of financializa-
tion obscures rather than illuminates.6 At most, the connections between
metropoles and colonies, and core and periphery, linger in the theoretical
Let us now explore another sector of theory and research that purports
to overcome Eurocentrism:the multiple modernities approach and the
associated civilizational analysis initially proposed by sociologists such
as S.N. Eisenstadt (1986, 1987, 2000; Spohn 2011). Rather than general-
izing from the core, as certain versions of world-systems analyses some-
times do, this approach recognizes particular historical trajectories of

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development in various societies around the world. And contrary to the

assumptions of convergence in conventional modernization theory, the
actual developments in modernizing societies have refuted the homog-
enizing and hegemonic assumptions of the Western program of moder-
nity (Eisenstadt 2000:1). The argument is this:the world does not follow
a single Eurocentered type of modernity (Eisenstadt and Schluchter
1998:5). Modernization plays out differently in different societies because
of cultural differentiation across those societies. Different civilizations
have different modernities. And as there are multiple rather than singu-
lar modernities, Eurocentric assumptions about the analytic primacy or
superiority of one over the others must be dispatched (Eisenstadt 2000;
Eisenstadt and Schulter1998).
Yet, this theory of multiple modernities falls short even if the aim is
clear, for it does not transgress the imperial epistemes law of division. As
Bhambra (2007) observes, there remains a lingering Eurocentrism in the
approach:what counts as modern is still dependent upon the European
model. Multiple modernities turn out to be merely variants of European
modernity, emerging initially from Western civilization and then dif-
fusing to other civilizations (2007:67). The approach thereby marshals
an essentialism that would make Orientalists blush with pride. Dirliks
(2003) observation is on the spot:Although the approach is an improve-
ment over an earlier Eurocentric modernization discourse it perpetu-
ates the culturalist biases of the latter, relegating to the background social
and political differences that are the products not just of past legacies but
of modernity, and cut across national or civilizational boundaries(Dirlik
2003:285). Analytic bifurcation thus endures. The theory cordons off dis-
tinct cultures of the world, neglecting the relations of exchange, coop-
eration, or conflictoften through colonialism and imperialismwhich
contribute to the various ostensibly different modernities and civiliza-
tions in the first place. The approach, as Bhambra (2013: 303) concisely
puts it, fails to recognize the social interconnections in which modernity
has been constituted and developed.
A final example is Michael Manns magisterial work The Sources of Social
Power (Mann 2012 [1986]; Mann 2012 [1993]; Mann 2013b; Mann 2013c).
As noted in a previous chapter, this deservedly acclaimed work purports
to do nothing less than give us a history of power in human societies. It
is thus meant as a global analysis. Indeed, the conceptual apparatus Mann
puts to work promises to overcome the vicissitudes of methodological
nationalism and, potentially, analytic bifurcation. Mann conceptualizes
power relations in terms of complex and sprawling networks rather than
reducing them to the boundaries of national states (Mann 2012 [1986]:1).

R econnec t ing R el at ions [109]

And in his last two volumes, bringing history up to the present, Mann
uses this conceptual schema to examine empires and globalization. For
avoiding Saids law of division, we are on promising ground.
Yet, a certain analytic bifurcation silently structures the analysis. While
his first volume explored various parts of the world, his latter volumes only
focus upon Europe, the United States, and the most powerful countries in
Asia:Japan and China. Ahistorical sociology of human societies becomes
a history only of the most powerful countriesnot unlike Arrighis reduc-
tion of world capitalism to an analysis of what happens in the metropoles.
Mann (2013) justifies this with precision:to best analyze power in human
societies we must focus upon the leading edges of powerthat is, the
most powerful countries (Mann 2012 [1986]:viii; Mann 2013a:501). But
this exactly demarcates the limit:Manns analysis focuses upon the lead-
ing edges like England, France, or the United States, but it conceptualizes
those leading edges as spatially delimited national states. Even when
Mann casts his eye upon the eighteenth century through the early twenti-
eth, a time when these leading edges were empires stretching far beyond
North America or Europe, his analysis separates metropole and colony.
The metropole is treated as an entirely distinct entity, the so-called lead-
ing edge, while the rest of the world is relegated to a space outside of
that edge, someplace external to the leader. When referring to the British
empire as a leading edge, for instance, Mann does not mean the entirety
of the relations within the British Empire, which stretched all the way to
India, Malaysia, Nigeria, and farther, and then around to Australia and
Canada (and which partly enabled Britain to become a leader in the first
place). He only means the small island of England. His analysis of human
societies winds up bifurcating humanity into those who live in the metro-
pole and those who do not, focusing only upon the former and illuminat-
ing no constitutive relations between the former and the latter.7 This is a
case where even an analysis of empires does not escape the imperial epis-
temes law of division.


If analytic bifurcation is present in various sectors of social theory,

does postcolonial thought offer a way out? In fact, Edward Said himself
offered a strategy for overcoming the law of division: a contrapuntal
perspective that reveals overlapping territories and intertwined his-
tories (1993:xxviii, 36). He explains:If Ihave insisted on integration
and connections between the past and present, between imperializer and

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imperialized, between culture and imperialism, I have done so not to

level or reduce differences, but rather to convey a more urgent sense of
the interdependence between things. He continues:

So vast and yet so detailed is imperialism as an experience with crucial cul-

tural dimensions, that we must speak of overlapping territories, intertwined
histories common to men and women, whites and non-whites, dwellers in the
metropolis and on the peripheries, past as well as present and future; these
territories and histories can only be seen from the perspective of the whole of
secular human history. (1993:61)

The strategy is deceitfully simple. If the imperial epistemes law of division

cuts the world up into separate entities, a postcolonial approach would
start by reconnecting the separated parts. This is one way to read Saids
criticism of Foucault for overlooking social wholes: whereas Foucault
separates disciplinary power in the French metropole from its operations
in the colony, a strategy of illuminating overlapping histories and in-
tertwined histories would analytically reconnect disciplinary power as
it operated in France with its operations elsewhere in the French empire,
thereby revealing it as a form of power that encompassed colonizer and
colonized alike, men and women alike, whites and non-whites alike.
The strategy, in short, means recognizing that the experiences of ruler
and ruled are not so easily disentangled such that the social whole, in
Saids words, is reconstructed (1993:20).
The origins of this approach are informative:it is generated from the
space of the postcolonial. Said notes that Fanons and Csaires work
had been influential for his adoption of the contrapuntal approach (Said
2003). He adds that another influence was the Cuban anthropologist,
Fernando Ortiz. Said takes the term contrapuntal from him exactly.
Ortizs 1940 work, Cuban Counterpoint, narrated how Cuban history had
been shaped by the dynamics of sugar and tobacco production (Ortiz
1995). He used the term counterpoint to refer to the processes of trans-
culturation between diverse social groups in Cuban history (including
Indians, African slaves, Spanish conquerors, and Chinese and French im-
migrants) and between Cubas two main colonial crops:coffee and sugar.
The concept contrapuntal thus originates from the history of colonialism
and the mutually constitutive social relations of interdependence that it
But what is it all about? For Said, contrapuntality is a methodological im-
perative:a way of reading texts. It means reading texts not univocally but
contrapuntally, with a simultaneous awareness both of the metropolitan

R econnec t ing R el at ions [111]

history that is narrated and of those other histories against which (and to-
gether with which) the dominant discourse acts (1993:59). For instance,
a contrapuntal literary analysis would mine texts to find constitutive rela-
tions and interdependencies between metropole and colony, or dominant
culture and subordinate culture. Understanding an English novel contra-
puntally involves contextualizing the novel within a bigger history of
colonization, resistance, and native nationalism (1993:59). This tactic of
reading underscores not just the English characters of the narrative but
also the otherwise hidden histories of colonization and subaltern agency
that stage those characters trials and tribulations (1993:51). Said accord-
ingly rereads Jane Austens Mansfield Park to show how Englands over-
seas possessions structured the narrative. In his reading, slavery on West
Indian plantations provided the wealth of the English estate in the novel.
Slavery is thus shown to be intimately connected with the lives of protago-
nists like Fanny Price far off in England (1993:8095). The principal aim
of this contrapuntal strategy, Said (1993:15)stresses, is not to separate
but to connect.
Contrapuntal analysis thereby extends the first-wave theorists empha-
sis on the reciprocal constitution and interdependence of colonizer and
colonized, and of metropole and colony. And for Said, it had other possibili-
ties besides just offering a way to read novels. Said suggests that it could
be used to craft new histories and narratives, such as those about English
or French identity. These identities would be approached analytically not
as god-given essences, but as results of collaboration between African his-
tory and the study of Africa in England or between the study of French
history and the reorganization of knowledge during the First Empire. Said
explains further:In an important sense, we are dealing with the forma-
tion of cultural identities understood not as essentializations but as
contrapuntal ensembles, for it is the case that no identity can ever exist
by itself and without an array of opposites, negatives, oppositions (Said
Said goes on to suggest that contrapuntal analysis is pregnant with
political possibilities. It could serve to cultivate new humanistic knowl-
edge, which might inform a postcolonial politics, particularly Saids own
politics of postcolonial secular humanism (Parry 1992; Said 2004). [B]y
looking at the different experiences contrapuntally, he explained, I
shall try to formulate an alternative both to a politics of blame and to the
even more destructive politics of confrontation and hostility (1993: 18).
In other words, contrapuntal analysis for Said offered a way of thinking
that did not fall prey to the imperial epistemes binarisms. Said, recall,
worried about the fact that imperial binarism had not only captured the

[112] Postcolonial Thought


imperial imagination but also anticolonial discourses. It had become the

hallmark of imperialist cultures as well as those cultures trying to resist
the encroachments of Europe, manifest in the latter as reverse essential-
ism (1993: 228229). Contrapuntal analysis offers a way out. In one fell
swoop, it overcomes Orientalisms essentialism of foreign cultures and
its equally dangerous antithesis: traditionalism or nativism espoused by
There is more. First, by carefully recounting the ways in which Europe
and the Rest, West and East, colonizer and colonized were constituted
ideologically, discursively, and materially by their relations with each an-
other, a certain type of agency on the part of the colonized is retrieved.
Analyses that show overlapping territories and intertwined histories
disclose, in Gandhis (2006) summation, how the substance of imperial
self-articulation was in fact furnished by the materials of nonwestern
difference (4). Contrapuntality adumbrates how colonized peoples have
helped constitute the West and, indeed, modernity itself. It serves to
incorporate the subaltern into historical narratives without resorting to
essentialism or claims of an authentic subaltern consciousness.
Second, contrapuntal analysis accords with Bhabhas theoretical inter-
vention regarding hybridity. According to Gandhi (2006:4), the hybridity
concept is the apogee of contrapuntality. We have seen how Bhabhas con-
cept of hybridity is meant to unsettle the assumption of fixity:the figure
of the hybrid shows the impossibility of colonial discourses incessant at-
tempt to essentialize the identity of colonial subjects. This is a critique of
the unitary or originary notion of identity, but as such it also challenges
imperial binarism. The space of the hybrid marks an in-betweeness but
not by positing two fixed identities or cultures that then mingle. It is a
space of overlapping territories and intertwined histories; a space where
putatively separate and opposed cultures or identities (fetishized as natu-
ral and essential) are actually contaminated by each other. All cultures are
hybrid in this sense. [A]ll forms of culture are continually in a process
of hybridity, Bhabha (1994: 211) explains, because the act of cultural
translation (both as representation and as reproduction) denies the essen-
tialism of a prior given original or originary culture. Just as Saids con-
trapuntal approach reveals how histories, places, spaces, and peoples are
connected rather than sequestered, Bhabhas concept of the hybrid reveals
that identities and cultures are always intertwined, intermingled, inter-
connected. The hybrid marks this interstitial space of entanglement, and
its transgression of imperial binarism is one of the reasons why the figure
of the hybrid is such a threat to colonial authority. The hybrid reveals
the colonial space as one of unchecked procreation that reverses colonial

R econnec t ing R el at ions [113]

disavowals and muddies colonial transparency (1994: 112). Bhabhas

theory of hybridity and Saids contrapuntality thus operate in tandem to
expose the epistemic and existential impossibility of colonial division
and the failure of imperial authority to fulfill its fantasy of discrete bina-
rization (Gandhi 2006:4).
For cultivating postcolonial knowledge, contrapuntality is a richly
generative approach. But the question is here begged:can any of this be
translated into social theory? Can contrapuntality be mobilized for social
science? It can and should. The strategy is deceitfully simple:if one of the
problems of conventional social science is that it analytically bifurcates
social relations, a postcolonial sociology following Saids approach would
reconnect those relations, which have been covered up in standard sociologi-
cal accounts. That is, rather than focusing narrowly upon processes within
societies (western, colonized or non-Western) or even just between them
(as in inter-national studies), this would mean tracking the processes and
relations between diverse but connected spaces in the making and remaking of
modernity. It would mean, for example, that colonizer and colonizer must
be understood, as Fanon had urged us to, in relation to each other; that
state-formation or disciplinary power in England or France should not
be seen as occurring in isolation from patterns and practices in the colo-
nies; that financialization in London should be examined as constituted
by and constitutive of primitive accumulation in the Global Southand
vice-versa; that an analysis of the leading edges of power in the world
system must also consider the relations between those leaders and those
with whom the leaders interact or whom they conquer. It also means that
if there is such a thing as Western civilization it only exists in as much as
it is constituted by its relations with other civilizations and those rela-
tions, in turn, unsettle any cultural boundaries between them. It means,
in short, replacing the imperial epistemes law of division with a method-
ological law of connection:sustained examinations of mutual connection
across expansive socialspace.
This is the task:analytically reassemble what has been torn asunder.
It is not surprising, then, that some scholars have taken inspiration from
Saids approach to propose this exact agenda. Patel (2006: 392) argues
that sociologys goal should not be to study the colonizers or the natives,
rather the interrelationship between them (emphasis added). Magubane
(2005) suggests that attending to overlapping territories and intertwined
histories can help restore sociologys global imagination. Bhambra
(2007a) enlists Saids notion of interdependent histories and the histo-
rian Sanjay Subrahmanyams concept of connected histories (2005) to
articulate a vision of postcolonial historical sociology. Bhambra (2007a)

[114] Postcolonial Thought


argues that connecting histories can help us overcome the limitations

of civilizational analysis, for example. Rather than analyzing distinct and
separate civilizations, each with its own ostensibly bounded cultures,
Bhambra urges us to trace the complex interrelations betweenthem.
We can mount our approach toward a postcolonial social theory upon
these insights, too. But to realize the full potential of these insights, some
clarification and elaboration is necessary. Even if we accept Saids con-
trapuntal approach and these related approaches of connectivity, impor-
tant questions remain. For instance: is not a social science based upon
connected histories merely another name for transnational history or
global history, areas of inquiry that are already present in disciplin-
ary history? Transnational and global history also attend to connections
across spaces and relations between people around the globe. As the histo-
rian Sven Beckert (in Bayly etal. 2006:1455)puts it, transnational history
acknowledges the extraordinary importance of states , it pays atten-
tion to networks, processes, beliefs, and institutions that transcend these
politically-defined spaces. Transnational histories are premised upon and
seek to further illuminate the interconnectedness of human history as a
whole (Bayly etal. 2006:1455).8
If postcolonial social science or postcolonial social theory is merely an-
other name for transnational history, this is not a bad thing in itself. But
it might be. For instance, there is nothing inherent to transnational his-
tory that militates against Eurocentrism. We could follow the model of
transnational history and track relations and connections, but only do so
from a Eurocentric point of view. Think of studies that posit a European
core that presumably spreads and diffuses its genius around the world
but remains relatively untouched by the relations; such a narrative would
count as a transnational history but it still makes Europe the center.9
Furthermore, if postcolonial social science or postcolonial social theory is
merely another name for transnational history, this would imply that so-
ciology has no distinct role in cultivating postcolonial thought. We might
as well dissolve social theory entirely and replace it with mere historical
reconstruction. Postcolonial social theory? No such thing and no need:let
us all just write transnational histories.
This leads to another related question:By what concepts and categories
do we analyze contrapuntality? On the one hand, neither transnational
histories nor recent suggestions by sociologists to attend to overlapping
histories or contrapuntal analysis go very far in delineating what sorts
of theoretical categories or which conceptual apparatuses will help us
do the job (Bell 2013). Such abstractions would be central for any post-
colonial social theory. The practice of historical reconstruction requires

R econnec t ing R el at ions [115]

some concepts or categories for determining what counts as a connec-

tion in the first place. If two entities have one point of intersection or
engagement, does that mean their histories are connected? Or by con-
nected histories do we mean causal connections? Does something have to
make a difference for another thing in order to say it is connected to or
overlapping with that other thing? And by which criteria do we establish
that difference? Which categories or theoretical principles can we use to
reduce the empirical complexity of connections in order to isolate and ex-
cavate them? These are questions that extant postcolonial theory fails to
answer, but they must be addressed if we are to produce social knowledge
that transcends analytic bifurcation. In other words, a postcolonial social
theory that overcomes analytic bifurcation remains to be seen; we cannot
just avoid it by declaring that everything is connected.
On the other hand, some may argue the reverse:There are already ex-
isting social theories that enable us to analyze connected histories. Andre
Gunder Franks dependency theory, conceived as far back as the 1960s,
offered a sustained critique of development studies with its explanation
of the development of underdevelopment (Frank 1967). The explanation
was mounted upon a theory of the social as a chain of metropolesatellite
relations. These relations are defined by their mutual dependency: a
metropole is a metropole only in as much as it appropriates and expro-
priates surplus from another site, the satellite, which, in turn, is only a
satellite in as much as it is exploited by the metropole. Metropoles develop
only because of the underdevelopment of the satellite, and vice versa.
The historical development of the capitalist system has generated un-
derdevelopment in the peripheral satellites whose economic surplus was
expropriated, while generating economic development in the metropoli-
tan centers which appropriate that surplus (Frank 1967:3). It is difficult
to find a clearer statement on intertwined or connected histories.10
Wallersteins world- systems approach also theorized connections
across spaces on a global scale (Wallerstein 1974, 1980). We already have
seen how one variant of world-systems analysis, Arrighis theory of finan-
cialization, entails and reproduces analytic bifurcation. But Wallersteins
original world-systems theory properly transcends it. The point of his
world-systems theory was to focus upon a single unit of analysis, a world
system, which is constituted by relations between cores and peripheries.
The theory captures a series of interdependencies within an overarching
whole, and the world system is itself treated as an overlapping territory
constituted by intertwined histories of the elements within the system.
In Wallersteins analysis, there could be no distinct civilizations that
are untouched by each other: everything is integrated. Nor could there be

[116] Postcolonial Thought


leading edges of the world-system that are separated from peripheries:

they necessarily implicate each other. On a broader spatial scale in ab-
stract theoretical form, world-systems theory thus rearticulates Fanons
declaration that Europe is literally the creation of the Third World.11
These theoretical innovations suggest that there already are postcolo-
nial social theories that transcend analytic bifurcation and the law of
division within the imperial episteme. So why not just enlist and remobi-
lize these for reconnecting relations, and be done withit?
The issue is that there are significant limitations to world-systems and
dependency theory that might debilitate a proper contrapuntal social
theory. Foremost, as Marxist-derived approaches, both theories tend to
focus exclusively upon economic processes, and so they overlook culture
and knowledge. They pay some attention to ideology and culture, but the
primary categories remain strictly economic (metropole, satellite,
core, periphery, etc.). It is true that Andre Gunder Franks dependency
theory was prefaced by a potentially generative epistemic and ideologi-
cal critique pointing out how modernization theory was part and parcel
of a broader nexus of imperial power and knowledge. But this aspect of
his work has become buried, and, instead, scholars focus solely upon his
economic analysis (Frank 1967; Lele 1993). There are other related limita-
tions, too. Partly because of their debt to conventional Marxist thought,
both world-systems and dependency theory entail grand narratives of
capitalist development that overlook questions of difference or presume
to explain difference entirely through a singular schema of capitalist
development (Chibber 2013). When gender or race appear, they are sub-
sumed into the category of socioeconomic class or treated as secondary at
best, irrelevant at worst (Grosfoguel 2002: 218220). When colonialism or
slavery appear, they are significant only in as much as they contribute to
capital accumulation. It is exactly because of these sorts of omissions that
postcolonial thinkers like Aim Csaire, Franz Fanon, and Edward Said
sought insights outside of the confines of Marxist thought.
We will return to these issues momentarily. For now, the point is that
transnational histories and the study of economic interdependencies
offer rich openings but are not the final word. Apostcolonial social theory
would ask for more. Let us return to Saids contrapuntal approach:It is
not just that this approach shows that there are relations or connections,
it also shows that those relations and connections are mutually constitu-
tive. In an important sense, he writes, in discussing his approach for
understanding English or French identity, we are dealing with the forma-
tion of cultural identities understood not as essentializations but as
contrapuntal ensembles, for it is the case that no identity can ever exist

R econnec t ing R el at ions [117]

by itself and without an array of opposites, negatives, oppositions (Said

1993:52). Acontrapuntal approach entails an illumination of constitutive
connections. Neither transnational history, dependency theory, nor world-
systems theory meet this imperative in themselves. Transnational history
can and often does trace connections while not showing mutual constitu-
tion. It would only overcome the law of division if it traces connections
and shows how the things being connected are not things in the sense of
essences but fluid entities constituted by the connections in the first place.
Similarly, a world-systems approach does not fully overcome the law of
division unless difference makes a difference, helping us see how all iden-
tities (not just economic entities) are constituted by their relations and
how the system itself does not have a stable identity outside the margins
and differences it engenders. In short, a postcolonial social theory that
overcomes analytic bifurcation also must overcome essentialism. This is
the imperative summoned by a contrapuntal approach.
Fortunately, there already exists a strand of social theory that might
help. Enter relationalism.


Relationalism, which has deep roots in social science, is variously thought

of as an ontology, theory, or analytic method. It is usually traced to
Cassirer (1953) and has since appeared in various guises across a vast array
of social theory. Relational thought is present in social theorists as di-
verse as Karl Marx, Norbert Elias, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, Seyla
Benhabib, and Nancy Chodrow (Dpelteau and Power 2013:1). But what
binds it together is its opposition to substantialism. Substantialism in-
sists that the basic units and actors of sociological inquiry are substances
or essences: as in things, beings, or even systems. These substances are
treated as static agents; they do the acting and reacting and retain their
identity throughout. The starting point for substantialism, then, is to
posit durable and coherent entities that possess emergent properties
such as groups, nations, cultures, and other reified substances (Emirbayer
1997:283, 285). By contrast, rather than assuming social substances and
explaining the social world by reference to them, relationalism starts with
interactions or relations and sees those interactions or relations as consti-
tutive. Generally speaking, Tskeris (2013: 89) explains, relationalism
directly opposes the obsolete substantialist framework where social real-
ity is preferably described as, or uncritically reduced to, a dense and seam-
less constellation of things (reification) or essences (essentialism), which

[118] Postcolonial Thought


allegedly possesses a very wide range of intrinsic or natural properties

To better understand relationalism, consider two dominant forms of
substantialist thought: individualism and holism (Crossley 2011: 720).
Individualism and holism are often seen as opposites, but both are vari-
ants of substantialism. On the one hand, holism posits a social system
or structure that has essential characteristics and then explains social
events or processes by fitting them into the whole. The whole is greater
than the sum of its parts; it has its own logic and inherent properties.
The structural-functionalism of Talcott Parsons and the structural an-
thropology of Radcliffe Brown are exemplary (Crossley 2011: 78). Any
social theory that rests upon an assumption of a unified culture, system,
or society containing intrinsic properties, and to which causality might
be inferred, qualifies as a holistic variant of substantialism. In this sense,
world-systems theory, which posits a single global structure, is substan-
tialist. The world-system has an essential structure (in this case an eco-
nomic structure of core, semiperiphery, and periphery) and internal logics
(of value appropriation, for instance). Social units or events are treated for
their function within, or their opposition to, the operations of the eco-
nomic world-system.
Individualism, the other form of substantialism, prioritizes a single
social actor, not a single culture, system, or society. Whereas holism in-
volves the analytic move of adducing upward from a part to a presumably
self-identical whole, individualism reduces downward to a self-identical
individual unit. There is no overarching system. There are only indi-
viduals and their actions. Jeremy Benthams claim that communities do
not really exist is a good example:The Community is a fictitious body,
composed of the individual persons who are considered as constituting
as it were its members (Bentham quoted in Crossley 2011:10). Another
example is rational choice theory and its assumption of homo economicus.
Like all forms of individualism, rational choice theory refuses to acknowl-
edge that there are autonomous systems or structures: If there are any
systems at all, they are simply the sum total of individual actors calcula-
tions and actions. In turn, the individual is presumed to have an essential
unchanging identity:the rational and utility-maximizing person. Other
examples are theories that posit some other essential individual trait as
the vital part of the explanans, such as Giddenss theory of structuration,
which rests upon the idea of an individual acting subject with reflexive
capacities, or Fligsteins otherwise relational theory of fields, which de-
pends upon a notion that certain actors have some kind of innate social
skill (Fligstein 2001; Fligstein and McAdam 2012). Yet, individualistic

R econnec t ing R el at ions [119]

theories need not only be individual persons:the individual could also

be an organization, like a nation-state. Realist International Relations
theory, for instance, reduces the international system to the actions of
rational states pursuing their interests (Morgenthau 1978). This is a form
of methodological nationalism that is homologous with methodological
individualism:both are variants of individualism and, therefore, of sub-
stantialist thought.
We can now turn to relationalism, which disavows both holism and in-
dividualism. Relationalism rejects the notion that one can posit discrete
pregiven units such as the individual or society as ultimate starting points
of sociological analysis (Emirbayer 1997: 287). This is because relational-
ism posits essences neither as the basis for theory, nor as the analytic en-
tryway. What takes priority, instead, are the relations that constitute the
ostensible essences. Things are not assumed as independent existences
present anterior to any relation, but again their whole being first
in and with the relations which are predicated of them (Cassirer 1953: 36;
Emirbayer 1997: 287). As Emirbayer (1997: 287) summarizes: the very
terms or units involved in a transaction derive their meaning, signifi-
cance, and identity from the (changing) functional roles they play within
that transaction. According to relational thought, for instance, the in-
dividual and society are not two ontologically separate entities. Rather,
as Powell and Dpelteau (2013: 2) put it, the words individual and so-
ciety merely designate two distinguishable but inseparable aspects of
the ongoing flow of interdependent human action. Similarly, individu-
als actions, behaviors, or attributes do not flow from innate qualities but
from the relations in which they are inseparably embedded. Anything
that appears as an essential trait is but an effect of relations. Seemingly
individual attributes such as distinction, says Bourdieu (1998: 8), or a
certain quality of bearing and manners, most often considered innate
is nothing other than a difference, a gap, a distinctive feature, in short,
a relational property existing only in and through its relation with other
In sum, as opposed to substantialism, relationalism does not presume
an essence or substance in which agency and identity are located. It in-
sists that connections and interactions between units are constitutive,
and so it confers analytic priority upon those relations. Difference is thus
constitutive for relational social theory; a fact that makes relationalism
appear to be something like Saussures (1966) linguistic structuralism
with its emphasis upon the differential value of signs. Indeed, relation-
alisms emphasis upon difference bears some similarity, but it is not re-
ducible to structuralism. Unlike the latter, relationalism does not posit

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that the multiple relations add up to a singular system with a single logic
or unchanging properties. There is only a series of relations, an array of
constitutive connections, and these may or may not adduce to something
bigger. If they do, this is a social accomplishment that requires exami-
nation and explanation. It is not the starting point or assumption that
predicates social analysis.
Here is the other key aspect of relationalism:it is not only that rela-
tions are constitutive of supposed substances, it is that, by this very
token, there is persistent fluidity and the ever-present possibility for
change. Relations shift and so do the identities they constitute. Relations
form a dynamic, unfolding process (Emirbayer 1997:287). If there is an
overarching structure or system, then, it is fluid and unstable, so much so
that reducing it conceptually to an autonomous system is analytically haz-
ardous. Fetishism this way lies; and due to this danger, relational social
thought often speaks of fields or networks instead of systems. For
example, Somers (1994) speaks of relational settings rather than sys-
tems. Arelational setting:

is a patterned matrix of institutional relationships among cultural, eco-

nomic, social, and political practices. It invokes spatial and geometric network
metaphors rather than systemic ones. The most significant aspect of a rela-
tional setting is that there is no governing entity according to which the whole
setting can be categorized; it can only be characterized by deciphering its spa-
tial and network patterns and temporal processes. As such, it is a relational
matrix, similar to a social network. (Somers 1994:72)

We might now be able to see how relationalist elements of thought under-

pin a variety of social theories, whether those theories consciously clas-
sify themselves as relational or not. Relational thinking is evinced, for
instance, in Marxs assertion that capital is a historically formed social
relation, not an essence or natural substance. Of course, there are strands
of Marxist thought that suggest that his theory of capitalism is not rela-
tional after all. But the relational strands are palpable. Capital is not a
thing, he pronounces in Volume III of Capital, but rather a definite social
production relation, belonging to a definite historical formation of soci-
ety, which is manifested in a thing and lends this thing a specific social
character (Marx 2000:530).
Even Louis Althussers more structuralist Marxism carries some
amount of relational thinking:His claim that individuals are nothing but
interpellated subjects is exactly an antisubstantialist, relational claim
(Althusser 1971). Classic Chicago School sociology also carries strong

R econnec t ing R el at ions [121]

relational elements. George Herbert Meads (1934) theory of the self can
be understood as a critique of humanist essentialism from the stand-
point of relationalism. The self is not a natural thing or substance but
is only constituted through its relations with others and through rela-
tions with itself. And Foucaults (1982) innovative theorization of power
is little more than a reconceptualization of power away from its prior
substantialist mooring and toward a relational grounding. Power is not a
substance. It is a mode of action upon the action of others (1983:221).
Rather than a thing to be possessed, withheld, or doled out, it is a relation.
Tellingly, Foucault implicitly adopts Althussers anti-essentialist theory
of the subject and interpellation to declare the soul not to be a thing
or substance but rather the product of power relations. The individual
is an effect of relations (1983). This is relationalism expressed as critical
If we can see how relationalism is immanent to so many areas of social
theory, we might also see how it is relevant for postcolonial studies. For
example, there is a powerful sense in which relationalism is the unnamed
theoretical armature of Saids Orientalism, if not its premise. I have begun
with the assumption, Said explains in the opening to Orientalism:

that the Orient is not an inert fact of nature. It is not merely there, just as
the Occident itself is not just there either. We must take seriously Vicos great
observation that men make their own history, that what they can know is
what they have made, and extend it to geography:as both geographical and
cultural entitiesto say nothing of historical entitiessuch locales, regions,
geographical sectors as Orient and Occident are man-made. (1979:45)

Said firmly plants his project in an antisubstantialist grounding, and does

not merely assert that the Orient is a social rather than a natural con-
struction. His bold claim is that the presumed substance that we call the
Orient only exists relationally in opposition to the Occident. Therefore,
as much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and
a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it real-
ity and presence in and for the West. The two geographical entities thus
support and to an extent reflect each other (1979: 5, emphasis added). In
other words, Saids contrapuntal approach dispatches substantialist
thought and instead rests upon a relational ontology. Dewey and Bentley
(1949:112)clarify that relationalism involves the seeing together of
what before had been seen in separations and held severally apart. How
better to describe the move away from analytic bifurcation and toward a
reconnection of relations?

[122] Postcolonial Thought


Relationalism silently pervades nearly all of the postcolonial theorists

insights. The critiques of colonial discourse within postcolonial studies are
implicit critiques of substantialist ontologies from the standpoint of rela-
tionalism. If Bhabha insists that colonial discourse must repeatedly fix
the image of the colonized through repetition, and that this reflects the
ambivalence of discourse, it is exactly because the colonized do not mark
an essential identity that can be fixed once and for all. Rather the colo-
nized mark an identity that is constructed through discursive relations.
The same goes for Spivaks famous declaration that the subaltern cannot
speak:the reason why the subaltern cannot speak is because the subal-
tern is not a substance, like a consciousness or soul, but rather an effect of
power relations. Or, take the insight that metropole and colony were mu-
tually constituted:This is a relationalist understanding, as opposed to the
substantialist ontology of methodological nationalism, which presumes
that a metropolitan nation or Europe is an isolated coherent agent that
exists outside of its constitutive relations. When Fanon declares Europe to
be the creation of the Third World, is he not implying that Europe is an
effect of relations, rather than an autonomous essential entity?
My claim, therefore, is that relationalism is especially useful for tran-
scending the essentialism of Orientalism and with it, analytic bifurcation.
Just as contrapuntal analysis transcends Orientalisms law of division, so,
too, can relational thought be mobilized and redeployed from its conven-
tional moorings to offer postcolonial sociological accounts that do not fall
prey to imperial binarism. The imperative is simple enough:Reconstruct,
not deconstruct or disconnect.
But what would this mean exactly? To illustrate postcolonial relational-
ism, let us turn to some existing relational theories and redeploy them to
rethink conventional substantialist accounts in social science. One such
theory is Pierre Bourdieus theory of social fields. Below Ireveal how field
theory can help us think about the French Revolution in a way that does
not occlude its ostensible Other:the Haitian Revolution. After this, Iwill
turn to a different relational theory and analyze a different event, show-
ing how actor-network theory can serve to (re)narrate British industrial-
ization from a postcolonial perspective.


The French Revolution of 17891799 has long been heralded as a monu-

mental event in modern history (Sewell 1996; Skocpol 1979; Skocpol and
Kestnbaum 1990; Wallerstein 1990). The French Revolution has figured

R econnec t ing R el at ions [123]

as a story of the origins of the modern world that establishes European

identity as modern (Bhambra 2007b:107). Brubaker (1992) summarizes
the long-standing view that the French Revolution invented modern
national citizenship, bringing together for the first time ideals of civil
equality, political rights, and the link between citizenship and nation-
hood (Brubaker 1992: 35). Others expound its global and universal
character, a centerpiece in the history of all of humanity. The Revolution,
declares cultural historian Lynn Hunt (2007:160), was the first to have
granted equal political rights to free blacks and emancipated the slaves
(1794) long before any other slaveholding nation. Historical sociologist
Theda Skocpol (1990:27)declares:The French Revolution was, isand
ever will be a truly world-historical event. Once the valiant French
revolutionaries invented and codified this universalist language, it then
spread to other parts of the globe to make the modern world (Feher 1990;
Skocpol 1990:27).
This scholarly story about the French Revolution as the center of
modern human history sits happily with dominant social theories. It fits
with the categories and logic of diffusion stories, for instance; otherwise
known as world polity or world society theory (Meyer 1980, 1999;
Meyer etal. 1997). Highlighting the Western origins of global political
ideas, this theory would treat France as the mother and repository of the
universalist language of rights (Dubois 2000:22). It would then concep-
tualize the French Revolution as the source from which all things liberal
and universal flowed. Even critical theorists are not immune to these
tempting grandiose characterizations. As Bhabha (1994) notes, Michel
Foucault ethnocentrically treats the Revolution as the paradigmatic sign
of modernity(244).
Is there another way to think of this? Consider C. L. R. Jamess The
Black Jacobins (1963). Rather than putting the French Revolution, or
indeed European revolutions, at the center of history, James puts the
Haitian Revolution at the center, thus inviting a reconsideration of the
French Revolution by virtue of his analysis of the Haitian Revolution.
James reminds us that France was economically dependent upon its over-
seas colonies, such as Saint Domingue, which, along with Guadelopue and
St. Martinique, had been among the worlds most lucrative slave-holding
colonies. He explains that the fortunes created from the slave trade sup-
ported the revolutionary bourgeoisie; and many of the National Assembly
members relied upon colonial trade for their own wealth (James 1963:
3161; see also Magubane 2005: 107). In this sense, liberty in Paris de-
pended upon slavery in the colonies. James further reveals how the
French Revolution was connected to the Haitian slave revolt in critical

[124] Postcolonial Thought


ways. In fact, it was the slave revolt that compelled the French revolution-
aries to rethink their own beloved concepts of freedom and liberty. The
revolutionaries previously had discarded the notion that libert should
apply to blacks or mulattoes. Robespierre was among many who did not
even support the notion that blacks should have equal rights. But the
slave insurgency changed everything. Due to the slave revolt the Parisian
revolutionaries eventually universalized their otherwise restricted opera-
tionalization of rights and liberty (James 1963: 119121). Later historians,
directly inspired by Jamess approach, have built upon Jamess insights,
further highlighting their relevance. If we live in a world, writes one
such historian, Laurent Dubois (2004b: 3), in which democracy is meant
to exclude no one, it is in no small part the actions of those slaves in Saint
Domingue who insisted that human rights were theirs too.
As a historical narrative, Jamess story fulfills the postcolonial chal-
lenge of overcoming analytic bifurcation. The law of division between
metropole and colony, France and Haiti, Parisian revolutionaries and San
Domingo slaves, does not here apply. Jamess historical narrative connects
them all, revealing an interdependence rather than bifurcation. Hence
Magubane (2005: 101) rightly refers to The Black Jacobins as one of the
founding texts of postcolonial studies. It also could be read as a form of
transnational history. But as social theory, what can be extracted? What
type of social theory does Jamess connected history summon? What is
the analytic infrastructure that can absorb its detail? One way to think
about Jamess narrative is to consider it for its relational aspects by enlist-
ing Bourdieus field theory.
In Bourdieus (1991) conceptualization, a field is a social space of rela-
tions defined by struggle over capitals. It is an arena of struggle in which
actors compete for a variety of valued resources, that is, various species of
capital that are potentially convertible to each other. The concept field
thus refers to the configuration of actors (the multidimensional field
of forces) and the classificatory schemes and rules of the game, which
actors use as they strategize and struggle for position (i.e., the rules of
the game) (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 97). A field is a network, or
configuration, of objective relations between positions (Bourdieu and
Wacquant 1992: 97). Field theory thus offers a relational rather than
substantialist view of the social. To think in terms of fields, explain
Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992:96), is to think relationally. Fields are not
entities with stable and essential characteristics. They are not systems
or structures. Afield, Bourdieu (1993:72)specifies, is a structured space
of positions. Although fields do have inherent logics of struggle, they
are fluid and their borders shift; and the logics as well as the borders are

R econnec t ing R el at ions [125]

defined by relations of struggle. Struggle defines whether a field exists or

not in the first place. The moment there is no struggle over or competition
for capital, there is no field. Furthermore, the identity and action of the
agents or players in the field are established by relations within the field.
Their relational position, not their intrinsic qualities, defines their inter-
ests and actions. Afield is a space of position-takings, i.e. the discursive
and non-discursive practices that actors carry out from the symbolic and
material positions that they hold. And these practices do not flow from
the intrinsic qualities of agents but are analyzed in relation to one another
as a system of differential deviation (Bourdieu 1994:22).
The field concept is also relevant because although it typically has been
used to refer to intranational or local arenas of action (like a professional
field), it also can refer to terrains of action that cut across national bound-
aries. The boundaries of fields are at times blurry but always potentially
extensive; the boundaries themselves are often the site of struggle and,
therefore, can expand, contract, or be redrawn. This means that, analyti-
cally, fields might not just be restricted to sites within a single society or
nation. We might thus think of transnational or trans-, intra-, or inter-
imperial fields; fields of interaction and struggle between actors (over
different species of capital) that extend across conventional nation-state
boundaries. Recognizing wider transnational fields of action is thus an-
other analytic move away from methodological nationalism. To think in
terms of fields is to think of extended social relations across expansive
space, and so field theory offers what existing transnational histories
and connected histories do not:a theoretical category for selecting out,
highlighting, and examining overlapping histories and intertwined
In terms of the French Revolution and its relation to the Haitian
Revolution, a fields approach offers an angle that more closely approxi-
mates Jamess analysis than conventional bifurcated accounts. Rather
than seeing unilateral flows of influence from France outward, a fields ap-
proach urges us to consider revolutionary actors in wide arenas of struggle
and conflict, interacting and (re)shaping other actors and one another. To
be sure, the Parisian revolutionaries were not just struggling against con-
servative loyalists at home. They were embedded in wider transnational,
inter-and intra-imperial fields of interaction that included challenges
from imperial rivals like Britain and potential problems in Frances colo-
nies in the Caribbean, not least Saint Domingue. Expanding the lens to
include these wider fields is exactly Jamess approach in The Black Jacobins.
The intraimperial economic field that included the Caribbean colonies
was vital for the Revolution, as James (1963) points out. And there was

[126] Postcolonial Thought


also a wider politicalideological field wherein Parisian revolutionaries

interacted with a wide range of political actors, including groups in the
Caribbean like the gens de couleur (freemen of African descent), French
settlers and planters, bureaucrats, and slaves. From Paris to Nantes to
Saint Domingue, all of these groups were engaged in various struggles for
position (in Bourdieus phrase) to define and shape the Revolution. The
French Revolution became a field in itself, overlapping with and shaped by
the other fields. And it included not just revolutionaries in France but also
colonists and colonized peoples.
With this field mapped out, we can begin to reconnect and reconstruct
rather than separate. For instance, one of the key issues at stake in the rev-
olutionary field was citizenship. According to conventional accounts, the
French Revolution is to be noted for connecting citizenship to nationhood
and articulating both with a universalist language of rights. But what gets
overlooked in these accounts is the question of who was to be granted full
rights and citizenship. What about, for instance, the gens de couleur? Or
the slaves in Frances Caribbean colonies, like Saint Domingue, the richest
slave colony of the Americas? The matter was not discussed. Neither the
Revolution of 1789 nor that of 1791 did anything about slavery. Any time
the question of slavery came up in the National Assembly, it was tabled
or swiftly ignored (Dubois 2004b: 7476). This outcome surely pleased
the many colonial plantation owners in the French assembly (Blackburn
2006:650651). They had been trying to keep at bay the Socit des Amis
des Noirs (Society of the Friends of Blacks), the only active political
group in Paris discussing race and citizenship. inspired by antislavery
movements in Britain, the Socit had been attacking the slave trade. The
antislavery movement in France had nowhere near the same following as
did its counterpart in Britain, and the Socit restricted its initial efforts
to granting citizenship to the gens de couleur. But its efforts nonetheless
put French planters on the defensive, and so the planters funded the Club
Massiac to pressure the National Assembly to work in their interests.
One of the planters allies, M.Barnave of Dauphin, proposed impor-
tant new laws in 1790. These effectively ensured the continuance of slavery
in the colonies and prohibited even the gens de couleur, the black freedmen,
from full citizenship status by granting colonies full autonomy: Given
that the colonies were ruled by white planters, it was assumed the plant-
ers would maintain the existing slave system and the racial hierarchy that
excluded gens de couleur from enjoying full rights. With hardly any debate,
the laws came into effect in March of 1790.14 They essentially meant that
the French constitution or, presumably, the Declaration of the Rights of
Man, did not apply to the colonies. The colonies, historian Laurent Dubois

R econnec t ing R el at ions [127]

(2004b: 85) notes, were made safe from the dangers of universalism.
Thus did France perpetuate conservative tyranny, even as it supposedly
originated liberal modernity. This is the sort of thing that Bhabha, in his
remarks on Foucaults valorization of the French Revolution, might refer
to as the aristocratic racism of the ancien rgime (1994:244). It marked a
tragic lesson that the moral, modern disposition of mankind, enshrined
in the sign of the Revolution, only fuels the archaic racial factor in the
society of slavery (Bhabha 1994:244).
Later, the French Constitution was, indeed, extended to the colonies.
The gens de couleur obtained active citizenship and the slaves were freed.
This was radical, and it came in two steps. On April 4, 1792, the National
Assembly declared that the hommes de couleur and the ngres libres must
enjoy, along with the white colons, equality of political rights. They could fi-
nally vote in local elections and be eligible for positions (as long as they, like
whites, met the regular financial criteria for active citizenship) (Dubois
2000: 130). The salient political distinction in the colony was no longer
based upon color but upon freedmen status. It was not whether one was
black or mulatto that mattered, it was whether one owned property or not.
Then, later, even that distinction was obliterated. In 1793, still amidst the
slave insurgency, French Republican colonial officials on the island abol-
ished slavery, and in 1794, the National Convention ratified the decision.
Slavery for the entire French empire was abolished. Slaves were no longer
slaves, and the principle of liberty and active citizenship applied toall.
This was a profound transformation in the modern world. But how and
why did this happen given the Parisian revolutionaries early recalcitrance
to the extension of rights? What had changed? The answer does not lie
in the benevolence of the Assembly, nor even in the work of the Socit
des Amis des Noirs in Paris. Rather, it lies in the agency of colonial subal-
terns:specifically, the slave insurgents in Saint Domingue.15 Erupting in
August of 1791, when thousands of slaves overthrew their masters in the
Northern Province, and then spreading to most of the colony by January
of 1792, the slave insurgency altered the revolutionary field in fundamen-
tal respects, ultimately leading to the profound transformations that
existing scholars pin on the agency of the Parisian revolutionaries only.
The slave insurgents claiming Republican citizenship and racial equal-
ity during the early 1790s ultimately expandedand universalizedthe
idea of rights. The actions of slave insurgents brought about the institu-
tionalization of the idea that the rights of citizens were universally appli-
cable to all people within the nation, regardless of race (Dubois 2000:22).
How? The answer lies in the slave insurgency, which transformed
the field entirely. The slave revolt had posed a radical threat to the

[128] Postcolonial Thought


Revolution:without stability and order in the colonies, the Revolutionary

states wealth and power would be undercut. The Parisian revolutionaries
now had to do all they could to stop it. In order to enlist their support,
the Parisian revolutionaries decided to finally grant the gens de couleur,
and the so-called mulattoes in the colony, the rights they had been de-
manding. The decree granting them their rights expressly noted that the
decree was in response to the uprising of the slaves and would create
unity among citizens against the slaves (Dubois 2004b:154). It would put
freed blacks and mulattoes on equal footing with white planters, aligning
them against the insurgent slaves. The irony is not lost on historians. The
only way to save the colony, C.L. R.James (1989 [1963]:115)observes,
was to give the Mulattoes their rights. The National Assembly, adds the
historian Laurent Dubois (2004b: 131), had to grant racial equality in
order to save slavery.
Ironic or not, this extension of active citizenship to freed blacks was a
strategic measure amidst struggles within the imperial field, a relational
action rather than one that flowed from the benevolence of Paris. On the
one hand, it is the case that the insurgent slaves had been partly inspired
by the language of rights articulated by the Parisian revolutionaries. On
the other hand, the Parisian revolutionaries did not extend the consti-
tution until the unexpected slave revolt compelled them to do so. In the
terms of Bourdieus field analysis, the slave insurgency turned the gens
de couleur and mulattoes into a valued resource to the Parisian revolu-
tionaries, whereas they had not been one before. Due to the agency of the
once silent slaves in Saint Domingue, the gens de couleur suddenly became
political capital for Paris. Or as historian Robin Blackburn put it, the ar-
gument for free-coloreds political rights did not resonate due to French
Republic ideals alone. It had been transformed by the sight of the smoke
rising from burnt-out plantation buildings and cane fields (Blackburn
The ultimate extension of the constitution to the slaves also can be ap-
prehended in terms of relational field dynamics. For this, there was an
additional field at play: the interimperial field, which included the rival
empires of Spain and England. In January of 1793, the Republican revo-
lutionaries executed Louis XVI, and the Spanish and British monarchies
declared war on France. They wisely had their eyes on San Domingue:as
the heart of the French empire, taking it would be decisive for the tide
of the interimperial war. If the British completed the conquest of San
Domingo, James (1989 [1963]:136)writes, the colonial empire of revolu-
tionary France was gone; its vast resources would be directed into British
pockets, and Britain would be able to return to Europe and throw army

R econnec t ing R el at ions [129]

and navy against the revolution. It was so important that England dis-
patched enough troops to leave itself defenseless against an invasion from
the Continent (1989 [1963]:135).
Had the war broken out a decade earlier, in the absence of the slave
revolt, this might have been a typical war. But the fact of the slave in-
surgency, with thousands upon thousands of armed blacks clamoring for
freedom, changed the field significantly:having the support of the insur-
gent slaves was now vital political and military capital. Therefore, amidst
this interimperial struggle, the French intraimperial struggle over the
meaning of the Revolution took a radical turn. The French Republic even-
tually offered full freedom to the slaves to encourage them to fight off the
foreign empires banging on the door. It began when the Republics Civil
Commissioner in Saint Domingue, Lger-Flicit Sonthonax, granted of-
ficial freedom to all slaves in an effort to win them over. He previously
had pleaded with the Convention to do something for the slaves be-
cause it would give the Republic new allies in the interimperial war and
against monarchical loyalists (quoted in Dubois 2004b:154). As the war
erupted, though, he took the initiative himself, declaring that any slaves
who took up arms and fought with him would become equal to all free-
men and be granted all the rights belonging to French citizens (Dubois
2004b: 157). His official decree later freed all slaves in the colony. The
decree began by stating:Men are born and live free and equal in rights
(Dubois 2004b:163). Finally, the National Convention in France ratified
the decree, but only as a strategic measure to ensure that the slaves would
fight for France. James (1989 [1963]:142)summarizes:by ratifying the
liberty which the blacks had won, the Convention gave the ex-slaves a
concrete interest in the struggle against British and Spanish reaction.
And it gave France the power it needed to fend off its imperial rivals. The
English are done for, shouted Georges Jacques Danton after the ratifi-
cation at the Convention, Pitt and his plots are riddled (James 1989
Standard sociological accounts of diffusion would compel us to think
of metropolitan France as the center from which the innovative ideas
of modernity emanated. This would accord with conventional histories
that portray slave emancipation, as Blackburn (2006:643644) notes, as
something that flowed easily from the proclamation of the principles of
1789 and the Rights of Man and the Citizen to the colonies. It is true that
Enlightenment thinkers in France played a part in conceiving of the idea
of universal rights. But whereas diffusion stories are obliged to stop there,
a fields approach in the spirit of Jamess empirical analysis and Bourdieus
theoretical apparatus enables us to see this and subsequent processes for

[130] Postcolonial Thought


their relational aspects. Afield is not a space wherein ideas or action flows
unidirectionally from one point to another. Rather than having us search
for metropolitan origins, a field analysis beckons us to map diverse stances
and positions in relation to each other. And rather than an outward flow
it posits interactions between actors engaged in struggle and exchange,
alliance and confrontation. While not denying power differentials (i.e.,
differential access to economic, social, or symbolic capital) across actors,
it nonetheless highlights mutual constitution and interdependent action
between them. Unlike conventional diffusion accounts, therefore, recog-
nizing the wider field of discourse and interaction in which the Parisian
revolutionaries were embedded alerts us to the contrapuntal dynamics to
which Edward Said alluded: the overlapping territories that made the
French Revolution both French and Haitian, a story of master and slave,
metropole and colony.16
In sum, the relational analysis here forces the recognition that France did
not benevolently bestow rights upon its slaves. Those rights were not Frances
to give. Instead, the slaves seized what was rightfully theirs, changing ev-
erything about the Revolution in the process. Or as Laurent Du Bois puts it
simply:If we live in a world in which democracy is meant to exclude no one,
it is no small part because of the actions of those slaves in Saint Domingue
who insisted that human rights were theirs too (Dubois 2004b:3).


Turn now to a different relational theory:Actor-network theory (ANT).

This theory has been developed by a number of scholars, but most prom-
inently by Michel Callon, Bruno Latour, and John Law. Originating
within the sociology of science and knowledge (also known as Science
and Technology Studies), it is typically understood as emphasizing the
agency of nonhuman actors; that is, materials like physical objects, tech-
nologies like machines, or biological entities (including animals). Part of
its task is to unsettle social theorys long-standing divide between the
social on the one hand and the material or the natural on the other.
Another part is to trouble the foundational subjectobject dichotomy of
modernity that extends back to Hegel. Much of this work, therefore, dis-
closes how human activity is embedded within and is oriented around
networks or assemblages that include not only other humans but also
objects, sociotechnical environments, and natural elements. We have
never been modern, declares Latour (1993), if only because human sub-
jects have never been fully autonomous from the world of material objects

R econnec t ing R el at ions [131]

that humans purport to control.17 If postcolonial thought strives to over-

come analytic bifurcations within the social, Latours ANT project aims
to overcome the bifurcation between subject/object and human/nature
predicating modern science (Latour2005).
Some scholars fruitfully mobilize ANTs focus upon nonhuman actors
to advance postcolonial criticism (Kempel and Mawani 2009; Mitchell
2002), but my claim is that ANTs relational ontology is also ripe for post-
colonial thought, not just its emphasis upon nonhuman actors. The rela-
tionality of ANT is unmistakable. One of the tenets of ANT is that social
analysts must not assume that societies, groups, nations, or any social
entities are substances with boundaries that are marked, delineated, and
rendered fixed and durable (Latour 2005:33). What we call the social
is not reducible to a substance such as a predefined system, structure, or
rational actor. It is rather a network of relations among humans, materi-
als, and ideas. Social relations are patterned networks of heterogeneous
materials that are continually in formation and contestation (Latour
2005: 2528; Law 1992: 2). This is not to deny that some relations may
take on systemic characteristics. Relations can indeed become institu-
tionalized over time. The claim is rather that even when there are such
institutions they are not essences; nor can they be analyzed as such. They
must been seen as patterns of heterogeneous networks created by humans
relating to other humans and trying to translate into the network a di-
verse array of nonhuman materials.
If these relational assumptions of ANT render it uncontroversial to
some, note the implications. For example, the relational approach means
that ANT categorically circumvents the confining lenses of methodologi-
cal nationalism or other substantialist theories like world-systems theory.
Taking ANT seriously means the unit of analysis cannot be a nation-state
or a world-system whose boundaries are assumed to be stable; instead,
ANT invites us to follow transnational relations and networks that might
cut across metropole and colony, East and West, or center and periphery.
ANTs relationality thus gives us a warrant for violating the law of divi-
sion. And while this focus upon relations across extended space makes
ANT akin to, say, dependency theory, ANT goes further by incorporating
the cultural/semiotic dimensions of colonialism of interest to postcolonial
studies. ANT defines actor-networks as consisting of people, things, and
concepts; they are material and semiotic, human and nonhuman. Unlike
economic studies of imperialism, the focus is not just upon economic rela-
tions but a vast array of elements besides.18
A proper deployment of ANT has relevance for postcolonial studies in
other senses, too.19 Given its relational premises, an ANT approach would

[132] Postcolonial Thought


not be amenable to narratives asserting European originality or accounts

that confine agency to colonizers or metropolitan actors. ANT does not
conceive of agency as a trait of presumably superior people. Nor does it
conceive of agency in terms of the sociological debate of structure versus
agency, which emphasizes subjective intentionality. In ANTs relational
approach to action, agency is thought of as an effect generated by a net-
work of heterogeneous, interacting, materials (Law 1992:4). Actors are
not agents in and of themselves but only in relationships: an actor is
not the source of action but the moving target of a vast array of entities
swarming toward it (Latour 2005:46). Napoleons, says Law (1992:2),
explaining the ANT approach, are no different in kind to small-time hus-
tlers, IBMs to whelk-stalls.
Furthermore, ANTs relationality invites us to see processes across
social boundaries in terms other than diffusion. Rather than a Eurocentric
narrative that locates modern capitalism, democracy, or civilization in a
core that then spreads outward, actor-network theory invites us to con-
sider how preexisting chains of relations (heterogeneous networks)
are consolidated from their diverse points into an overarching whole
(Law 1992). As actor-network theory would have it, the effect of this is
the appearance of an entity or actor that has agentic characteristics and
that seems to have come from a single geographic origin (Bockman and
Eyal 2002). But this is only an appearance; an effect of the network itself.
Extended in this manner, ANT facilitates a critique of and alternative to
conventional sociological accounts that attribute agency and innovation
to the metropolealone.
An examination of cotton textile production and industrialization
in Britain from the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries illustrates
these insights of ANT.20 Historians and historical sociologists have long
been interested in the mechanization of cotton textiles production in
this period because it marks the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.
Mechanization, which began in Lancashire and Manchester, initiated
Englands industrial take- off. Whoever says Industrial Revolution
says cotton, notes Eric Hobsbawm, and more specifically, the cotton
industries of Lancashire and Manchester (Hobsbawm 1968: 63; Crafts
1995: 596). In other words, like the French Revolution, mechanization
of textiles is taken to be one of the foundational events in the making
of modernity. Wallerstein (1989:13740), in his early analysis of the de-
velopment of the world-system takes it as central for the development
of Englands productive capacities. It is also central to Arrighis world-
systems analysis of financialization. It is the last key moment of the
industrialization expansion of England that was integral to an ongoing

R econnec t ing R el at ions [133]

financial expansion, restructuring and reorganization of the capitalist

world-economy (1994:209).
Existing accounts of this foundational process have taken at least two
forms. One is to emphasize the importance of inventions like Hargreaves
cotton-spinning jenny, Arkwrights water frame, or Cromptons spin-
ning mule and then trace the spread of these machines across England
and eventually around the West. This is the story of English ingenuity
and agency. It is a story of an innovation that diffuses to the Rest; a story
that thereby puts England at the center of modernity and emphasizes
English agency. Another account is to explain why England industrialized
by reference to factors specific to England. Ever since Arnold Toynbees
conventional analysis (Toynbee 1884), these accounts emphasize either
English ingenuity or particular demographic factors within England
(Crafts 1977). Related tales compare England with other countries. Why,
for instance, did England industrialize while France did not? Wallersteins
(1989:116)answer is that it was because Englands trade flourished while
Frances suffered, and this was because of Frances internal problems, its
Revolution, and then the NapoleonicWars.
To account for industrialization in England, India also is used as an
example. India is a more compelling case than France because it had been
the dominant manufacturer of textiles through most of the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries up until England overtook it. The comparative
strategy here has been to pinpoint what India lacked, which prevented it
from industrializing (Landes 1999). For instance, Goldstone (2002) right-
fully questions the notion of a European modernity as something for
the world to adopt or combat. But he then replaces it with a notion of a
particular strand in European culture, engine science, that is extremely
useful for generating natural knowledge and improving production pro-
cesses (376).21 The implication is that since India lacked that strand in
European culture, it did not industrialize.
An actor-network approach to industrialization would lead us in dif-
ferent directions. Foremost, it would urge us to consider the wider actor-
networks in which English textile production had been embedded. The
problem with comparing England to other countries like France or India is
that such an approach overlooks relations between them. This is especially
problematic when trying to compare English and Indian cotton textile
production:such a comparison assumes that the two industries were sep-
arated when, in fact, they had been connected for a long time (Bhambra
2007a:13538). Notably, this connection is not analytically reducible to
Wallersteins core-periphery relationship:India and England did not exist
in a hierarchical core-periphery relationship at the time. Comparably

[134] Postcolonial Thought


speaking, India dominated. Its products entered the English market and
outsold competitors. As early as the 1660s the value of calicoes in England
imported from India exceeded that of Chinese silks. By the end of the cen-
tury, Indian calicoes accounted for one-quarter of all textiles imported
to England (OBrien, Griffiths, and Hunt 1991: 39697). Furthermore,
textiles from India were in high demand throughout Europe just as they
were in England. In 1750, South Asia as a whole accounted for 25percent
of the worlds manufactures, and this trade put England and Europe at an
economic disadvantage relative to India (Bairoch 1982:296). The English
saw the problem early on and so banned calicoes and other textiles in 1721
(unless they were for re-export) in an effort to protect home industries.
But throughout this period, Indian textiles continued to enter through
illicit means:the East India Company (EIC) was one of the main smug-
glers. And while EIC acquired the goods in India through the eighteenth
century, it had not (yet) controlled production as it later would (and as it
brutally would) (Parthasarathi 2001:942).
In short, rather than two separate sites that could be abstracted and
compared, the textile industries of England and India occupied points
within a wider heterogeneous network stretching across, between, and
through England and India and beyond. The appearance of a single English
industry with its own internal dynamics outside of its relations with India
was a practical accomplishment of network ordering that an ANT ap-
proach would problematize rather than assume (Law 1992). By this order-
ing, the contributions of India and others within this network have been
covered up; the actor-network has been punctualized (to use the terms
The analytic imperative that ANT lays down is to uncover this vast
network, trace its connections and lines, and expose its workings. In so
doing, not only would ANT point to the relations just mentioned, it also
would facilitate a postcolonial account of why industrialization in England
eventually happened. Although existing internalist accounts might stress
English ingenuity or special domestic factors, ANTs relational lens would
alert us to a wider hetereogeneous network, which enabled ingenuity and
in which domestic factors were embedded.
First, the fabric from India supplied Britains nascent industry and
conveyed the technological knowledge (such as weaving and dyeing) for
producing the finished products (Goody 2006:8690; Washbrook 1997).
Second, the textiles themselves were made of such quality that they were
desirable and deemed worthy of imitation. Expressing novel designs, they
came in multiple patterns and had nonfading colors (Berg 2004). ADanish
report on textile production in Bengal admiringly wrote of the prettiest

R econnec t ing R el at ions [135]

and finest cloths without use of machines (Chaudhury 1995:133). One

British observer in the 1750s marveled at how works of such extraordi-
nary niceness can be produced by such a people who must be deprived
of such tools as seem absolutely necessary to finish such manufactures
(quoted in Chaudhury 1995: 132). Here an Orientalism of consumption
helped proliferate and sustain the network. The allure was irresistible. As a
scholar in the 1920s noted about this period, people could not be made to
return to their old fashions. There was a real demand for lighter and more
elegant clothing, and this had to be met somehow (Thomas 1924:208).
Put differently, the textiles served as actantsin ANT termswhich
expanded European markets for textiles and invoked an almost desperate
search for copies (Berg 2004:102104, 122124). Finally, while the English
domestic market was partially protected by tariffs beginning in the early
eighteenth century, English producers still had to compete with Indian
producers in the European market. And they had to compete with illicit
Indian imports in the domestic market.22
So what else do we find if we follow the network further? Where in
India, for instance, did these textiles originate? The answer is that
most of the imports came from the regions of Gujarat, the Punjab, the
Coromandel Coast, and Bengal, all of which produced for international
markets (Chauduri 1978: 243). The spinners were often women and, ac-
cording to reports, the best spinners were from untouchable households.
Telugu parayars settled in the northern Tamil country, Parthasarathi
(2001:60)notes, spun some of the finest yarns in South India and their
production was used to weave the muslin of Arni. This is crucial, because
it highlights an important fact that helps us better understand why in-
dustrialization happened in England; namely, that the cost of labor in
Southern India was considerably lower than in England. By some esti-
mates, unskilled wages in England were about five times higher than
unskilled wages in India (Broadberry and Gupta 2005:15). This was not
because labor conditions in India were more oppressive. It also had to
do with the cheaper cost of grain in India. This is the other part of the
actor-network of the textile industry spanning from England to Europe
to India; that is, the foodstuffs (or the nonhuman materials) required for
laborers to cultivate, spin, and weave the objects. In the regions of India
producing cloth, agricultural productivity had been comparably high. Tied
to local state-building processes and ritual life, high agricultural produc-
tivity had been promoted by kings and temples, and it ended up yielding
more abundant supplies of grain. The grain in the actor-network of textile
production cost half as much in India as it did in England (Parthasarathi
2001:4344; Chaudhury 1995:13334).

[136] Postcolonial Thought


These differences compelled the search for and spread of labor-saving

technologies in England. Because wages were so much higher in England
yet because English and Indian workers were in the same network, acting
and reacting to each other and to all other objects (from cotton to grain),
English capitalists began investing in and using new technologies to in-
crease productivity and, hence, lower their labor costs. As Broadberry
and Gupta (2005: 29) explain, it is not surprising that British produc-
ers seeking to imitate Indian cotton textiles could not adopt labour in-
tensive Indian production methods. Rather, British producers needed
to find new production methods, and it is this search which led them to
the innovations of the Industrial Revolution (see also Bayly 2004:173
76; Broadberry and Gupta 2009; Parthasarathi 1998). Maxine Berg
(2007: 338) writes: Lancashire mill owners synchronized the use they
made of machinery tended by child pauper apprentice spinners and the
spun yarn of Indias thousands of rural female spinners. English observ-
ers in the eighteenth century were prescient: The East-India Trade pro-
cures things with less and cheaper labour than would be necessary to
make the like in England; it is therefore very likely to be the cause of the
invention of Arts, and Mills, and Engines to save the labour of Hands
(quoted in Parthasaranthi 1998:108).
Later, these increases in labor productivity in England significantly
outpaced Indian production. In the 1700s, a hand-spinner in India took
about 50,000 hours to process one hundred pounds of cotton. Cromptons
mule in England cut the time to 2,000 hours. By 1825, further develop-
ments had reduced the time to 135 hours (Wolf 1983:274). Meanwhile,
the East India Company tightened its grip on Indian production, ex-
tending its often violent hand to intervene directly in production, much
to the detriment of Indian laborers and the Indian textile industry as a
whole (Chaudhury 1978, 1995). But all of this only happened because of
Englands embeddedness in the wider heterogeneous network that ex-
tended to India, and consequently, because English producers had to try
desperately to keep up with the superior productivity in India. The fact
of high labor costs in England was, of course, an internal factor, but it
only mattered in relation to India and because of its place within a wider
actor-network. In this sense, industrialization was not due to the genius
or agency of Englanders alone. It was an Indian achievement as much
as an English innovation (Berg 2007:338).23
The point is not that ANT explains everything that we would want to
know. It is not an explanatory theory in the sense of pinpointing causal
variables and specifying their precise effects. Like field theory, it is a lens,
a way of looking at the world. The point is its relational way of looking at

R econnec t ing R el at ions [137]

the world alerts us to relations and connections that existing approaches

would occlude by their analytic bifurcations.
To see this added value, consider Wallersteins (1980) world-systems
analysis of industrialization. Oddly, it is blind to Indias contributions
to the process. Wallerstein (1980: 116) instead compares England with
France and argues that Englands lack of revolution explains why England
advanced. So how could Wallerstein overlook the role of India in this way?
Iwould argue it is due to the categorical scheme and related substantial-
ist ontology of world-systems theory. In the world-systems approach, the
world economy is a substance:an essence with clear boundaries and in-
ternal logics. The identification of those boundaries is what enables one
to identify internal logics in the first place. Internally, of course, there are
relationsthat of core, semiperiphery, and periphery. But anything that
does not fit into this substance is theorized as external to the system
and, hence, irrelevant for a world-systems account. Thus, according to
Wallerstein, there was only one proper world-economy in the seven-
teenth and eighteen centuries, and that was a European world-economy.
India, however, was external to this European world-system in this
period. Along with the Ottoman Empire, India was not involved in the
integrated links that constituted the commodity chains of the capitalist
world-economy (1980:137). It only produced luxury items that were not
central to the European economy; the economy that Wallerstein names
the European world-economy (1980: 137). Because India was outside
the system but France was inside, Wallersteins analysis for why England
took off only involves an analysis of England and France. India drops
out of the analysis precisely because it is not in the system; a system,
recall, theorized as a substance. Only when areas became incorporated
into the world-system as peripheries do they warrant attention. And
in Wallersteins account, India only becomes fully incorporated after
1800, that is, after mechanization in England had already been initiated
(Wallerstein 1989:13740). Therefore, India has no place in the account of
English mechanization. The theoretical categories of world-system anal-
ysis, which sees transnational relations only in terms of its strict core-
periphery hierarchy constituting an essential system, makes it difficult
to reckon the actor-networks that enabled English achievement.
Arrighis (1994) world-systems model of financialization operates sim-
ilarly. Adopting Wallersteins notion of the world-system, Arrighi recov-
ers patterns of financial expansion but restricts the analysis to economic
activities within the European world economy. As noted, this is the path
in Arrighis theorization of financialization toward analytic bifurcation.
We can now see why:it has to do with the substantialist moorings of the

[138] Postcolonial Thought


theory. Arrighi theorizes the European world economy as a substance; a

demarcated and bounded system. Thus focusing only upon European dy-
namics of recurrent patterns of financialization, Arrighis model divides
up the complex sprawling relations and networks extending around the
globe into an inside and outside; an internal system and an external set
of relations that are ostensibly irrelevant for the inside of the system. Or
as Andre Gunder Frank points out, Arrighi neglects that in his story the
world economic structure and the process in question was not only that of
Europe but the entire world as a whole (Frank 1998:290). At most, Arrighis
model connects financialization to industrialization, and recognizes that
the expansion of the English textile industry was a crucial part of both
(1994:209). But the relations with India that enabled industrialization in
the English textile industry are still hidden away. Given the substantialist
terms of the theory of financialization, they are almost irretrievable. And
so Arrighi is compelled to argue that the financial expansions were due to
the gifts of history and of geography that made England a particularly
suitable locale for one kind of industrialization or another (1994:209).
It was Englands essence, not its relations with India in a wider network,
which made for the industrial revolution that inaugurates capitalist mo-
dernity. The virtue of ANTs categories and its relational ontology is to
facilitate rather than obstruct an analysis of these networks.24


The foregoing empirical examinations are not meant to be exhaustive

or conclusive. The point is to give examples of how events taken to be
foundational for social theory and for modernity can be reinterpreted in
terms of relationalismin this case in terms of the relational theories of
Bourdieu and Latour. Nor is the point to overlook crucial differences be-
tween Bourdieus field theory and Latours ANT. The former, for instance,
incorporates power, hierarchy and conflict, while Latours ANT theory can
be said to omit such relations. Despite these differences, the point is to
recognize that both theories share a relational ontology. Nor, finally, is
the point to somehow praise or herald Bourdieu or Latour as the saviors
of us allas if they can be somehow elevated to the status of postcolonial
thinkers by virtue of their relational approaches.25 The point, rather, is to
draw out relational strands of their theories to demonstrate how relational
social theory can help meet the postcolonial challenge. The overarching
claim is that the relational ontologies of actor-network theory and field
theory can alert us to important relations and connections across space

R econnec t ing R el at ions [139]

that conventional narratives and theories occlude, but which have been
critical for the making and remaking of modernity. Relationalism helps us
see the overlapping territories and intertwined histories (to return to
Saids phrasing) while showing how relations from afar were not external
to the formation of European modernity but instead deeply inscribed in
it (Hall 1996b:246; Magubane2005).
Existing work occludes these relations because of its analytic bifurca-
tions, which are, in turn, mounted upon implicit theoretical assumptions
of substantialism. Whereas substantialist theories inadvertently cover up
overlapping territories, relational theory illuminates them. By conceiving
of the French Revolution as part of a wider field of action in Bourdieus
sense, we are invited to consider how colonies like Saint Domingue were
also part of that field. We can see, therefore, how the extension of the
French constitution to Saint Domingue was not a matter of diffusion but
a relational effect. Similarly, by conceiving of English textiles as part of a
wider actor-network, we are better able to see that India was a part of that
network, and hence, consider how English protoindustrialists were acting
and reacting to spinners in India and to a vast array of agents in the net-
work. A redeployment of relational thinking for a postcolonial sociology
helps cleanse our lenses. It permits us to overcome analytic bifurcations
and analytically piece together that which has been torn asunder by the
imperial episteme and its substantialist assumption of a pristine metro-
politan identity.
Relationalism also allows us to do more. It allows us to rethink the
problem of agency along postcolonial lines. The occlusion of agency is in-
dicative of the imperial episteme; and we have seen how the problem of
colonized agency was put on the table by postcolonial thinkers. The sub-
altern studies project criticized dominant historiography for overlooking
the role of subalterns in making history. Du Bois, Fanon, and Cabral ques-
tioned how dominant narratives occlude the agency of colonized and post-
colonial peoples. Spivak warned against recovering agency in ways that
fall prey to essentialisms and the binaries of the imperial episteme, and
instead suggested that, at most, scholars deploy a strategic essentialism.
Bhabhas approach followed: his analysis of colonial discourse allowed
him to excavate a novel form of colonized agency:an agency in effect, one
that did not impute an essential identity, consciousness, or intentionality
on the part of the colonized.
One way to conceive of this novel postcolonial approach to agency
in social-theoretic terms is to think of it as a form of relationalism, as
opposed to substantialism. Dominant social theory, such as the kind
that posits the structure/agency problem, tends toward the latter. It

[140] Postcolonial Thought


conceives of agency as emerging from a substance; for instance, an essen-

tial identity (the working class), or a fully knowable consciousness (as
in intentionality or will), or an individual endowed with skills or certain
capacities. By contrast, relational theory more closely approximates the
postcolonial approach. In Latours ANT, for instance:any thing that does
modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor. [] Thus, the
question to ask about any agent is simply the following:Does it make a
difference in the course of some other agents action or not? (2005:71). By
this Latour refers to how objects or nature may also be considered agents
alongside human actors, but his model applies more broadly. In relational
theories, agency need not to be reduced to an assumed space of pure inter-
nationality, consciousness, or individual will. Therefore, we can pinpoint
agency without assuming that the subaltern can speak. Following rela-
tional premises, we can think of agency in terms of differential effects. The
slave revolt in Haiti may not have initially intended to force the Parisian
revolutionaries hand and compel them to extend to them the Rights of
Man. But the effect of the insurgent slaves actions within the intraim-
perial field was, indeed, to compel the Parisians to extend the French
Constitution to Saint Domingue. Or, to return to the rural spinners in
India, they did not intend to spark the Industrial Revolution. But their
labor, conducted within a wider actor-network extending to Europe and
England, had the effect of compelling English manufacturers to seek ways
of cheapening production. This is, indeed, a form of agency, but one which
substantialist approaches to agency are obliged to categorically bracket,
suppress, or elide by their focus upon inherent individual capacities, con-
scious intentions, or essentialized structures.
All of this brings us to the larger point of this chapter: to redeploy
social theory in ways that meet the postcolonial challenge. Relationalism
within social theory is an already existing strand of theorizing that ful-
fills the imperatives of the postcolonial contrapuntal analysis. It provides
a way of seeing intertwined histories and mapping overlapping territo-
ries precisely as postcolonial studies would require. And it does not merely
replicate transnational history or connected histories. Relationalism
proclaims a definite social ontology. Relational theories, whether of social
fields or actor-networks, offer a set of logically integrated categories for
doing the analytic labor of organizing sprawling empirics into a coher-
ent social analysis that does not submit to the imperial law of division.
The question, then, is not whether social theory can meet the postcolonial
challenge. It is not a question of whether to do away with social science.
The question is which kind of social theory can be mobilized. My claim
is that relationalism holds promise. If postcolonial thought forces the

R econnec t ing R el at ions [141]

recognition that empire has a persistent social presence, even today; rela-
tional social thought can help render that presence visible.
Still, in itself, relationalism is not necessarily a modality of thought
to which postcolonial theory would give countenance. In social science,
relationalism has been typically deployed to illuminate relations within
societies. Its insights have not been brought to bear upon colonial or impe-
rial histories. In fact, Charles Tilly was an early innovator and proponent
of relationalism (Diani 2007). But, as seen, his theory of state-formation
suffered from the typical problem of analytic bifurcation.26 This is why we
must be precise. We must think of our approach not as just relationalism
(which does not in itself address the concerns of postcolonial thought), but
rather as postcolonial relationalism. This is a relationalism that attends to
the mutual constitution of the powerful and powerless, the metropole and
colony, the core and the postcolony, the Global North and Global South.
It is relationalism taken to the geopolitical scene, scaled upward and out-
ward to critically apprehend imperial interactions and their enduring
legacies that have been for too long covered up by extant social science.

[142] Postcolonial Thought



The Subaltern Standpoint

Without significant exception the universalizing discourses of modern Europe and the
United States assume the silence, willing or otherwise, of the non-European world.
There is incorporation; there is inclusion, there is direct rule, there is coercion. But
there is only infrequently an acknowledgement that the colonized people should be
heard from, their ideasknown.
Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism,p.53

For generations now, philosophers and thinkers who shape the nature of social science
have produced theories that embrace the entirety of humanity. As we will know, these
statements have been produced in relative, and sometimes absolute, ignorance of the
majority of humankindt hat is, those living in non-Western cultures. [] The every-
day paradox of third-world social science is that we find these theories, in spite of their
ignorance of us, eminently useful in understanding our societies? What allowed the
modern European sages to develop such clairvoyance with regard to societies of which
they were empirically ignorant? Why cannot we, once again, return thegaze?
Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe,p.29

[I]f postcolonial thought is to lay claim to political and ethical import,

avers Leela Gandhi (2006:3), it must use the analytic advantage of his-
torical hindsight scrupulously to disclose the failure of imperial bina-
rism. Gandhi here announces a central task for postcolonial theory:to
overcome what Said called the law of division or, in Gandhis terms,
imperial binarism, by reconstructing the past through reconnecting
relations. As a humanistic project, Saids contrapuntal modality means
to realize this urgent task. As a social scientific project, postcolonial rela-
tionalism is a promising aperture. We have pursued this in the previous

chapter. We have seen that relationalism embeds within social theory a

postcolonial approach for overcoming not only analytic bifurcation, but
also, relatedly, Orientalism, the occlusion of empire and of colonized agency.
Yet, these are not the only obstacles that we must overcome in order
to craft social theories and sociologies sensitive to the postcolonial chal-
lenge. There is another. We have named it metrocentrism. Metrocentrism,
recall, is the generalized analytic practice of Eurocentric universalism. It
is the practice of false universalism:taking a specific parochial or particu-
lar experience and assuming it is universal. Postcolonial theorists prob-
lematized this false universalism on several fronts, from the universalism
of European humanism to that of Marxism. The question thus remains.
How can this limitation be transcended in social science? Relationalism is
not necessarily the panacea. The very theoretical opposition between re-
lationalism and substantialism has an arguably provincial genealogy that
is confined to European Enlightenment thought. And, for all their rela-
tional insights, Bourdieus field theory and Latours actor-network theory
can be said to be provincial theories, rooted in the particular context of
Anglo-European theorizing and concerns. Universalizing such theories
helps transcend the imperial epistemes law of division, but does it not
also reproduce the imperial epistemes metrocentrism at the sametime?
If we want a postcolonial social theory that goes beyond metrocentrism,
we may have to look elsewhere. This chapter ponders the possibilities, and
ultimately suggests that, for overcoming metrocentrism, we might fare
well to look at what can be termed the subaltern standpoint.


Let us first return to metrocentrism. As seen in Chapter Two, metro-

centrism was a characteristic of early social theory and social science
more generally, and it remains pervasive and palpable today. Wallerstein
(1998) suggests that metrocentrism is one of the dominant modalities of
Eurocentric social science, though he calls it universalism:the view that
scientific truths that are valid across all time and space. According to
Wallerstein, European social science, exhibits universalism in assert-
ing that whatever happened in Europe in the sixteenth to nineteenth
centuries is applicable everywhere (Wallerstein 1997: 93). No doubt,
from modernization theory to Durkheims theory of anomie, from Marxs
theory of class conflict to Foucaults theory of disciplinary powerthese
theories are rooted in the specific experience of Anglo-European metropo-
les. Metrocentrism arises as these theories are unproblematically applied

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everywhere around the world:a world that now figures, by this false uni-
versalism, as a blank slate onto which we project our Eurocentric concepts.
Remember, too, the assumption that underpins metrocentrism: that
the particular experiences of Anglo-European metropoles are not par-
ticular, and, therefore, that social theories based upon those experiences
are universal. Metrocentrism denies the situatedness of knowledge.
Universalizing the particular while denying the particularity of that which
is universalized, it attempts to pull the god trick. It refuses to recognize
that the supposed view from nowhere is alwaysalready from somewhere.
As Harding (1992:312)notes, this especially pernicious assumption guides
Anglo-European science in its entirety. By this assumption, only metropol-
itans have scientific knowledge. Western science, which is simply science
for Eurocentrists, is conceptualized as fundamentally pure ideas, not as
the culturally determinate institutions and practices that historians, soci-
ologists and anthropologists report (Harding 1992:312).
We know that this assumption of an omnipotent knower, the Cartesian
subject who is fully rational and objective, independent of social deter-
mination, is itself historically and geopolitically rooted in the emergence
and rise of the Dutch empire and the early stages of Europes global reign
(Dussel 2008). Writing from the decoloniality of knowledge school in
philosophy, Grosfoguel (2012:89)aptly summarizes what thismeans:

We see here the beginning of the ego-politics of knowledge which is nothing

less than a secularization of the Christian cosmology of the theo-politics of
knowledge. In the ego-politics of knowledge, the subject of enunciation is
erased, hidden, camouflaged. The latter is a point of view that hides itself
as a point of view, or, put differently, the point of view that assumes having no
point of view. We are dealing, then, with a philosophy in which the epistemic
subject has no sexuality, gender, ethnicity, race, class, spirituality, language,
or epistemic location within power relations, and a subject that produces
truth from an interior monologue with himself without relation to anyone

Metrocentrism is thus a particularly troubling barrier to postcolonial

social theory, because its associated positivist assumption of full knowl-
edge and objectivity coming from a disembodied knower is seemingly in-
trinsic to social scientific thought. Keim (2008:562)argues that general
sociological theory, by definition, encompasses in the scope of its state-
ments any society, North or South, and claims to be valid for all of them
equally (emphasis added). It thus seems impossible to overcome one (me-
trocentrism) without casting out the other (social theory). The very idea of

T h e S u b a lt e r n S t a n d p o i n t [145]

social theory carries metrocentric assumptions that hide the situated-

ness of knowledge. The original meaning of theory goes back to the Greek
noun theria and verb therein, which suggest detachment and vision:a
visually determined contemplation of the world from afar. The possi-
bility of social theory itself, therefore, depends upon a scopic regime of
Cartesian perspectivalism (Jay 1996:169; Abend 2008:180).
Is metrocentrism alleviated, circumvented, or transcended by relational
social theory? It is true that rewriting our accounts of modernity to show
how imperialism and colonialism constituted modernity or disclosing the
complex connectedness of North and South can help unseat if not upend
traditional Eurocentric sociological theories and overcome sociologys ana-
lytic bifurcations. But what it does not do is problematize the standpoint
by which one views those connections in the first place. We overcome ana-
lytic bifurcation, but from which vantage point? Is the view of connected
histories not another view from nowhere? Bhambra (2007b: 153) suggests
that a connected histories analysis is superior to other sorts of history
for bringing a wider range of phenomena and experiences into view (em-
phasis added). But whose view? From which standpoint? Does not the idea
of viewing all the complex connections of the world on a macroscopic scale
presume an omnipotent knower who can see those vast connections from
on high?1 Relationalism in social theory is not absolved. It is rooted in long-
standing debates within the Anglo-European intellectual scene. And theo-
retical expressions of it, like Bourdieus field theory or Latours actor-net-
work theory, have their own European (and especially French) provenance.
Would not a postcolonial relationalism that uncritically universalizes
these theories and applies them to the entire globe run the risk of reinforc-
ing and perpetuating metrocentrism rather than transcending it?2
All of this brings us back to front:a postcolonial social science is im-
possible. If we can overcome imperial binarism, we cannot also overcome
metrocentrism, which is etched into the very fabric of social science. The
most we can do is follow Chakrabartys suggestion of provincializing that
which is presumably universal:hence, write deconstructive histories, not
postcolonial social theories. The present chapter resists this conclusion. It
argues that the transcendence of metrocentrism lies not in overturning
social science but drawing upon a post-positivist strand already imma-
nent to it: standpoint theory. More precisely, this chapter articulates to-
gether standpoint theory with another emerging body of work in social
science that is sometimes called indigenous sociology (also known as
Southern Theory). The latter has emerged in the wake of the postcolonial
onslaught, and seeks to overcome Eurocentrism in sociology by excavat-
ing native voices from the Global South. Along the Southern barricades,

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critical theorists have trumpeted this sort of sociology. It can be seen as

a parallel project with postcolonial theory, but it has maneuvered on dif-
ferent terrain than second-wave postcolonial theory in the humanities.
My argument is that this Southern Theory/indigenous sociology move-
ment holds promise for meeting the postcolonial challenge, but that its
promises can best be realized if it is mobilized with and articulated as a
form of standpoint theory. As we will see, standpoint theoryparticularly
in its feminist articulationand indigenous sociology share some things,
but they have not been tethered together. This chapter suggests that doing
so can help us craft a particular postcolonial sociology that differs from
postcolonial relationalism. This alternative type of postcolonial sociology
Irefer to as the subaltern standpoint approach, which enlists not only the
insights of feminist standpoint theory but also, as we will see, of perspec-
tival realism.


Let us begin with indigenous sociology. Simply put, indigenous sociology

aims to globalize social science by mining currents of thought from outside
the metropole and using them to reorient social theory. It emerges from
critiques of sociological Eurocentrism and follows logically from them. If,
for too long, sociologists have relied upon theories constructed from and
directed at the concerns and categories of Euro-A merican contexts, the in-
digenous sociology movement proposes to shift or even unseat the canon
entirely. It directs our attention elsewhere.3 In this sense, indigenous so-
ciology is an intellectual movement that aligns with and, indeed, can be
seen as part of postcolonial theory. It also parallels, and in some way pre-
figures, the movement in philosophy for decolonial theory and related
attempts to overcome what Sousa Santos (2010, 2014) calls epistemi-
cide. These movements critique the coloniality of knowledge (Mignolo
2000) and seek to overcome it by recovering subjugated knowledges from
the Southor, in Sousa Santoss (2014) terms, epistemologies from the
This is not a homogeneous movement. It is a movement of shared
themes with diverse strands. One strand originates in Africa; specifically
with Akiwowos (1986, 1999)work and subsequent debates in the 1990s.
Akiwowo aimed to counter Eurocentric social science and reorient the
discipline to African reality (1986:67); that is, to compel a shift in the
mental orientation of sociologists from the fuzzy positivistic univer-
salistic tradition of sociological explanation to an understanding of the

T h e S u b a lt e r n S t a n d p o i n t [147]

logic of thinking that exists in the oral tradition of knowing (Akiwowo

1999:120). Akiwowo drew upon ritual oral poetry in Yoruba and thereby
excavated the idea of asuwada, or the clumping of diverse iwa [beings].
Asuwada paints society as individuals motivated by self-sacrifice and spir-
itual commitments and inextricably tied to community. This, Akiwowo
contended, was a view of society more appropriate to many African com-
munities. Founded in the intellectual soil of a non-western society, there-
fore, the asuwada concept could be the basis for a sociology grounded not
in the Western experience but the Yoruban experience (1999:119120).
On another front of the indigenous sociology movement is the semi-
nal work of Syed F. Alatas (2006a, 2006b, 2010). His goal? To excavate
alternative discourses (2006a); to escape the captive mind and aca-
demic dependency of sociologists in the Global South, which his father
Syed Hussein Alatas (1974) had first diagnosed. But how to do so? Again,
the idea is to excavate Southern thought and find alternative [sociologi-
cal] discourses that can be mobilized for a revolt against intellectual
imperialism (2006a: 81). The move is straightforward enough: uncover
the repressed social theories of thinkers in colonial or non-Western con-
texts like Jos Rizal of the Philippines or, going further back, the Islamic
philosopher Ibn Khaldn (13321406 ad). Alatas does exactly that. For
instance, he unearths Ibn Khaldns theory of state-formation that is
grounded in the history of the Arabs and Berbers of North Africa. The
theory turns upon the concept of asabiyyah, or solidarity, the strength
or weakness of which, in Khaldns theory, shaped the expansion and fall
of North African states (Alatas 2006b).
Connells (2007) proposal for Southern Theory is the most recent
and arguably most comprehensive articulation of indigenous sociology.
As noted in previous chapters, Connell registers a devastating critique of
what she aptly calls the Northern-ness of social theory. What is needed
is a re-founded social science requiring an entire epistemic shift in
order to subvert the structures of Northern hegemony in world social
science (2013: 174). The move is to uncover the subjugated knowledges
of the South and, again, the premise is that these subjugated knowledges
offer new insights. They offer dirty theorythat is, theory rooted in the
experiences and interests of the postcolonial Global South rather than
in those of the North. Connell thus throws down the gauntlet:while the
North has done most of the (abstract) theorizing, and the South has been
treated as only providing the raw material for theory, Connell declares
that the periphery does produce theory, lots of it (2013:177). Connells
tactic is to recover and use it. Connell makes the argument by referring
to Aikowowo and Alatass projects discussed above. She also discusses

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the Subaltern Studies project in India, the Cepalism-dependency theory

framework from Latin America, and others. Connell does not valorize
these approaches as the sole solution for metrocentrism; indeed, she ex-
poses their weaknesses (2007, 2013). But she points to them as examples
of theory that begin from local experience and thereby warrant more con-
sideration than they are typically given.4
In sum, indigenous sociology or Southern sociology suggests that
overturning Eurocentrism in social science requires mining the Global
South and the postcolonial world for new perspectives. Sociology should go
native, opening up conventional social science to voices from the postco-
lonial world. This project is not only about inclusion; only about widening
the tent. It is about dialogue if not replacement and transcendence. Rather
than relying on Max Weber for insights on the societies of the Middle East
we should instead turn to Abd al-R ahmn Ibn Khaldn. Or rather than just
Karl Marx to think about Latin America, we might instead look at Simon
Bolivar, Jos Mart, Octavio Paz or more recent thinkers like Nestor Garca
Canclini (Kozlarek 2013). Rather than using Foucault to examine Indian
society, we should heed the insights of Ashis Nandy or Benoy Kumar
Sarkar (Goswami 2013). Rather than deploying rational choice theory to
apprehend African politics, we should enlist African folklore. And rather
than relying upon colonial administrators and experts in the metropole,
we should pay close attention to powerful insights of social movements in
the Global South, past or present (Sousa Santos 2008).
Can this be the framework upon which to mount a postcolonial sociol-
ogy that overcomes metrocentrism? There is promise. After all, the proj-
ect of indigenous sociology re-enactsor rather continueslong-stand-
ing traditions within anticolonial thought. Alatas (2006a) notes how
Filipino patriot Jos Rizal in the late nineteenth century hoped to build
an association of Philippine scholars who would offer new histories of the
Philippines that did not fall prey to the Orientalist histories produced by
Spanish friars. This was an early indigenization movement, attempting to
bring to the fore indigenous ways of knowing (Alatas 2006a: 35). Patel
(2010) highlights how Indian nationalists working in Luknow University
in the early twentieth century constructed local sociologies and histo-
ries as an alternative to British knowledge formations. One of them, M.
N. Srivinas, constructed an indigenous theory of change grounded in
the dynamics of the caste system.5 The anticolonial African-Caribbean
Ngritude movement also could be seen in this light. Aim Csaire sup-
ported Ngritude because he believed it offered a non-Eurocentric basis
for knowledge and identity-construction: one rooted in the particular ex-
periences of Africans, representing the history of a community whose

T h e S u b a lt e r n S t a n d p o i n t [149]

experience appears to be unique, with its deportation of populations,

its transfer of people from one continent to another, its distant memories
of old beliefs, its fragments of murdered cultures (Csaire 2000 [1955]).
For Csaire, this was one way of overcoming the imperialistic universal-
ism of European thought (see also Wilder 2015).
The tactic of going native for social theorizing is also promising for postco-
lonial social theory because it is what some strands of second-wave postcolo-
nial thought have already advocated, though implicitly. As noted, postcolonial
studies in the humanities began as Commonwealth studies: the point was to
overturn the Eurocentric bias of the Western literary canon by reading litera-
ture produced by colonial and postcolonial writers. Subaltern studies made a
similar move: as seen in Chapter One, the point of subaltern studies was to
recover the consciousness and perspectives of dominated groups. Admittedly,
there are important differences between subaltern studies and indigenous so-
ciology. Unlike the latter, subaltern studies was not about digging into peas-
ant consciousness for alternative theories or epistemes upon which to mount
an alternative social theory. Initially subaltern studies was about trying to
recover lost, buried, or repressed subjectivities to try to understand why the
Indian working-class did not become a class in and for itself. But the parallel
is notable still: both try to attend seriously to subjugated subjectivities, voices,
concerns, and experiences.
For overcoming metrocentrism and forging a postcolonial sociology,
the indigenous sociology solution is as simple as it is noble. If sociology and
social theorizing have been dominated by white Anglo-European males,
and if their ideas have been sown only in the provincial grounds of Europe
and North America, it is best to include Others and to look elsewhere. It
follows from the postcolonial critique that the postcolonial world, or more
precisely the Global South, is the terrain to cultivate. Not only would this
overcome metrocentrism, it would also rectify the global division of labor
whereby those in the North theorize and accrue prestige and resources,
while the Global South does little else than offer intellectual raw material
for the North. Including voices from the Global South might help rectify
this global imbalance. It will counteract academic imperialism while
breaking from social sciences colonial and provincial past, overturning
the hegemony of the center with critiques from the periphery. The task
of the postcolonial, writes Young, is to make the invisible, in this sense,
visible. Within academia, this task begins with the politics of knowledge,
with articulating the unauthorized knowledges, and histories, of those
whose knowledge is not allowed to count (Young 2012:23).
Yet, while indigenous sociology may seem a likely framework for a
sociology that overcomes metrocentrism and meets the postcolonial

[150] Postcolonial Thought


challenge, resistance is high. The project of turning south faces multiple

criticisms. These are worth considering. They pose a significant intellec-
tual barrier to an otherwise promising development.
The first criticism points to the seemingly limited lens of indigenous
sociology. Because indigenous sociology appears to be grounded in the
standpoint of individuals, it fails to illuminate larger institutions or struc-
tures. Bhambra (2007a) worries that subaltern scholars run the risk of
failing to provide an account of the systematic relations of domination
(Bhambra 2007a: 29). How do Yoruban concepts unearthed from deep oral
traditions help us grasp the global logics of capitalist domination? How
can theories or concepts derived from particular local contexts speak to
global social processes such as empires? This brings up a related problem:
Does not a local sociology resort to particularism, crafting social knowl-
edge that is only relevant for grossly limited contexts and hence not gener-
alizable? Social knowledge requires generalizability but indigenous sociol-
ogyemphasizing as it does the particular, the local, the specificoffers
precious little. Put differently, if Anglo-European social theory falls short
because of its provinciality, would not indigenous sociology suffer from
the exact same problem?6
Another problem has to do with the rationale for what counts as in-
digenous or Southern sociology. Burawoy (2010:14)summarizes use-
fully:If there is a Southern sociology then what makes it Southern and
sociological?7 Too often, proponents of these approaches are silent on this
issue. At most, adjudication is based upon identity:if a thinker or sociolo-
gist comes from the global South, then their sociology is Southern.8 But
does not the idea of a southern or indigenous thinker depend upon cul-
tural essentialism? Or, in regards to Sousa Santoss (2014, 2012)attempt
to locate alternative epistemologies in the Global South, is an epistemol-
ogy alternative just because it comes from Brazil? Santos argues that
The West, or global North, claims the right to the dominant view of the
world. But, on the other hand, the global South is entitled to have its own
view of the world (and of the global North) (2012:45). But it is unclear
how to adjudicate whether a view of the world is from the South or
from the North. Does Portugal count as Southern,too?
The irony is that this depends upon reinscribing a bifurcation and
binary between Southern and Northern or metropolitan theory and,
hence, the very cultural essentialism that postcolonial thought laments.
The critique by Sitas (2006) is to thepoint:

The peripheral sociologists claims for difference and differentiation rotate usu-
ally around meaning or culture, around a distinct life world or around values

T h e S u b a lt e r n S t a n d p o i n t [151]

and norms. Asserting such differences is hardly liberatory because that sphere
has been the domain and hunting ground of colonial anthropologythe disci-
pline that not only understood but came to define the cultural other:the tribal
or the native. []. Those others of colonial rule are defined by their unique
essential cultures, their ways of life, their dialectical antitheses to modernity.

A related criticism is that the epistemic warrant for indigenous and

Southern theory is obscure at best, which renders it subject to various
shortcomings. Conventional positivism in social science rests upon rules
that are presumably objective, scientific, and hence universal. This is
the aperspectival warrant, grounded in the assumption of the possibil-
ity of and desirability for the Cartesian subject. Southern theory, by its
critique of metropolitan knowledge and its attempt to universalize its
knowledge to the entire world, would seem to reject this. But what, then,
is the alternative?
Many proponents of indigenous sociology are silent on the issue. Or
they implicitly suggest that all theories from the South are inherently
better, at least better than knowledge from the North, but only because
of being from the South. This, then, is the worldly warrant. In place
of the aperspectival warrant, adjudication is based upon identity. If the
thinker making the claims is from the global south or is from a certain
cultural or ethnic class, the claims made by the thinker about the world
are valid. Bhambra (2007a: 6062) thus criticizes this approach on the
grounds that it insinuates a problematic epistemic privilege, but we
might also rightfully question whether this warrant, grounded upon an
essentialism that the postcolonial critique so deplores, is preferable to
the positivist one against which postcolonial theorists vehemently de-
clare opposition. Does it stand to replace Eurocentrism with Afro-or
Asian-centrism? Our concern should not be with the ethnic identity and
geographical location of social scientists and public intellectuals, notes
the sociologist Said Arjomand (2008: 549), critical of Connells Southern
Theory, but with comparisons of the concepts used to understand the
phenomena and developmental patterns of the metropolitan and pe-
ripheral regions of the world. Arjomands point returns us to our criti-
cal question: What are the criteria by which to assess these comparisons
and concepts? If not positivism, and if not essentialism, the only other
response would be to dispatch any notion of epistemic privilege rooted
in identity. Indeed, if we refuse positivism or identity-based essential-
ist warrants for knowledge, we are left without criteria for adjudicating
knowledge claims.

[152] Postcolonial Thought


Here arises the other critique of indigenous or Southern theory:it, too,

readily falls into subjectivism and epistemic relativism. If we no longer
pull the god trick, objectivity is impossible; indeed, truth is impossible.
Skeptics will thus wonder:Can theorizing from the standpoint of Yoruba
poetry yield anything universally valid or scientific at all? Is social sci-
entific truth still obtainable? Is truth at all possible? All we are left with
are multiple perspectives from various Southern locations, or what Sousa
Santos (2010) calls a pluriverse (see also Grosfoguel 2012). But then,
turning South does not yield better knowledge, only relativist knowledge
that can never be judged from the outside. Precisely because everyone is
included in the discussion, we only have an infinite variety of possibly ir-
reconcilable perspectives (McLennan 2013). At worst, we do not even have
grounds for claiming that there is social injustice, domination, or exploi-
tation at all; or that there is such a thing as Northern theory as opposed
to other types of theory, in the firstplace.
If turning to indigenous or southern voices is to serve as an adequate
basis for launching a postcolonial social theory, all of these criticisms need
to be addressed. It is here where feminist post-positivist standpoint theory
and perspectival realism offer possible deliverance. Let us start with femi-
nist standpoint theory.


What exactly is a standpoint? One way to think of this is by reference to

two very different views of French colonialism. The first is the view held
by Albert-Pierre Sarraut. In the 1930s, he had served as Prime Minister
of the French Third Republic. He also had been an important official
and ideologue for Frances colonial empire, having served as Governor-
General of Indochina. In his book, Grandeurs et servitudes coloniales (1931),
he insisted that French colonialism was an act of altruism carried out for
the good of mankind. French colonization was a charitable enterprise for
human solidarity meant to serve humankinds ultimate right. Higher
than all other rights, he declared, stands the total right for humankind
to spend a better life on this planet, owing to a more plentiful use of mate-
rial goods and spiritual wealth likely to be supplied to all the living beings
While Sarrauts view exemplified the French colonial project aimed at
civilizing the so-called darker races and elevating the rights of man,
Frantz Fanon offered a different view entirely. That same Europe where
they were never done talking of Man, he wrote in The Wretched of the Earth,

T h e S u b a lt e r n S t a n d p o i n t [153]

and where they never stopped proclaiming that they were only anxious
for the welfare of Man:today we know with what sufferings humanity has
paid for every one of their triumphs of the mind. When Isearch for
Man in the technique and style of Europe, Isee only a succession of nega-
tions of man, and an avalanche of murders (1968 [1961]:312).
Now let us ask:Why these diverging if not diametrically opposed views
of colonialism? Sarraut heralds colonialism as a civilizing force for hu-
manity. Fanon sees it as an avalanche of murders. But why? The answer
is deceitfully simple. It goes like this. Sarraut was a French politician in
charge of an imperial apparatus ruling over the colonies. Sitting atop
the empire, residing in the comfortable and opulent corridors of power
in Paris and working with fellow officials and administrators, he barely
witnessed its horrors on the ground. Given this position, it makes sense
that he portrayed colonialism as a benign and beneficial force. He only
saw well-intentioned friends doing their work. And, of course, it was in his
interest to portray colonialism positively:he was a colonial administrator,
after all. Conversely, Fanon was a black colonial subject turned revolution-
ary who had seen colonialism from the ground up. From his position, the
world looked different. Empire was not about valiant European civilizers
but hypocrisy and violencenot least as he and his comrades were visited
by it. In short, because imperial rulers and the victims of colonialism had
different sociopolitical positions and, hence, different experiences, they
saw colonialism differently. From different standpoints, they saw differ-
ent things.
Most social scientists would probably accept this explanation for the
difference. To say that ideas or perspectives are shaped socially is hardly
a controversial claim to sociologists. The social determination of knowl-
edge is something that sociologists can easily get behind (Camic, Gross,
and Lamont 2011; Gross 2009). But if sociologists would, indeed, accept
this explanation, their so-called science is in a bind. To acknowledge that
different social situations or positions lead to different perceptions of the
world (and hence different knowledge) is to betray social sciences asser-
tion that its knowledge is above the fray; that its perceptions and truth
claims are outside its social location and, therefore, that its categories and
theories are applicable everywhere. Hence the bind:in our everyday dis-
course we recognize that different social positions in the world lead to dif-
ferent views about the world (hence Sarraut and Fanons differing views),
yet as social scientists we cling steadfastly to sociologys assertions of a
position external to social determination and to the universality of our
particular categories and concerns. We refuse to let standpoints trouble
our practices and theory, even as our quotidian life cannot do without

[154] Postcolonial Thought


some notion that different standpoints exist.10 We are quick to assert that
Fanons and Sarrauts claims about colonialism are socially determined,
but we are less quick to say the same about social theorys claims about so-
ciety. Apparently, sociologists think that everyone has a standpoint except
It is here where thinking harder about standpoints might help; hence,
standpoint theory and, in particular, the set of ideas about standpoints and
knowledge that emerged from feminist social movements and has since
seeped into various other subfields (including social theory, the sociology
of knowledge and science and technology studies). I suggest that stand-
point theory bears close affinity to the indigenous sociology movement and
can be thought of as its unnoticed subvention. Proponents of indigenous
sociology do not make this explicit, if they recognize it at all. I contend
that standpoint theory and indigenous sociology bear an elective affinity
to each other and that rendering visible their shared ontological, episte-
mological, and theoretical ground can advance a postcolonial sociology.
Foremost, it will help us to dispatch the seemingly insurmountable criti-
cisms of indigenous sociology mentionedabove.
Standpoint theory, of course, has a complicated genealogy and multiple
strands. One early articulation comes from Hegelian thought; in particu-
lar from Hegels masterslave dialectic. According to Hegel, in the rela-
tionship between master and slave, each side sees different things. Yet the
slaves position of oppression enables the slave to attain a privileged con-
sciousness. Lukcs later articulated the Marxist variation on this theme.
According to him, the proletariat achieve a liberating consciousness by
virtue of their distinct position as value creators within the circulation of
capital. The more recent variation comes from strands of feminist theory
that initially asserted that women (as a parallel to Lukcss proletariat)
enjoy an epistemic privilege. This privilege was said to be obtained from
womens biological status. Nancy Hartsock famously argued that because
women are child-bearers, they have an entirely different orientation to
the world than men and, by virtue of that difference, better knowledge
of the world. The female sense of self is connected to the world while
the male sense of self is separate, distinct and even disconnected. The
former makes better knowledge (Hartsock 1983:295).
From this early work in standpoint theory came the two-fold conclu-
sion:first, the womens standpoint should be recovered for any knowledge
project, whether it be conventional natural science, social science, or phi-
losophy. Because the knowledge produced by men is narrow and limited
to mens own position, an improvement of knowledge requires incorpo-
rating womens perspectives. Second: the womens standpoint has to be

T h e S u b a lt e r n S t a n d p o i n t [155]

recovered for political purposes. Women have the ability to see the world
differently than men but, because of masculine hegemony, women need to
learn how to think critically and achieve the right perspective. Standpoint
here is a practical accomplishment, and feminist theory is to aid the task.
Feminist theory can help women overcome masculine hegemony and re-
alize their inherent privileged consciousness. This firmly ties the episte-
mological claim of standpoint theory to the political project of womens
We can now see the parallels with indigenous sociology, but we also
might see the same problems. Does not feminist standpoint theorys em-
phasis upon different viewpoints run into a form of facile individualism
that overemphasizes the individual experience rather than analyzing pat-
terns of power or larger structures of domination (Kukla 2006:82; Hill
Collins 1997)? And what is the warrant for the womens standpoint any-
ways? On what grounds is epistemic privilege justified? Would it not have
to rely upon an essential identitynamely, woman? Other problems
abound. For instance, does not the idea of womens knowledge suggest
that there is no knowledge applicable to everyone? In other words, does
not the idea of standpoints fall into pure subjectivism where truth is no
longer possible?11
There is one significant difference between these critiques and those lev-
eled against indigenous sociology:More recent versions of feminist stand-
point theory, or what we might think of as post-positivist standpoint
theory, have already steeled themselves against these critiques.12 For one
thing, feminist post-positivist standpoint theorists have disavowed any
purely biological or material basis for a standpoint. They have repeatedly
insisted that standpoints are socially rather than biologically determined.
Different social positions mean that different groups of individuals have
different experiences, and different experiences contribute to different per-
spectives. It is not the biological characteristics of child-rearing per se that
are the basis for the standpoint, but rather the fact that women in modern
patriarchal societies have been forced into the domestic sphere. This social
fact is what gives them different experiences and, in turn, shapes their dif-
ferent perspectives. There is, as Patricia Hill Collins (1997:377)stresses, a
commonality of experiences and perspectives that emerge for groups dif-
ferentially arrayed within hierarchical power relations. This implies that
groups who share common placement in hierarchical power relations also
share common experiences in such power relations. Such shared angles of
vision lead those in similar social locations to be predisposed to interpret
these experiences in comparable fashion.13 The charge of essentialism is
hereby rebuked or at least deflated.

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This shift from a biological to a social determination of standpoints also

carries an implication for the ever-pressing question of which standpoint
matters. How do we know which subordinated position creates epistemic
privilege? Is it being a woman or being Black or being Asian? Or transgen-
dered? Or a student? The point about social determination is that any or all
of these things could matter. It depends upon social experience which is,
in turn, embedded in social structure. For instance, it is perfectly accept-
able to speak not just of a womens standpoint but alsoas Patricia Hill
Collins (2000) doesof something like black feminist knowledge, which
recognizes that social domination is occurring along both patriarchal and
racial lines and thus posits the possibility of a racialized and gendered
standpoint at once. The idea raised by some critics that such multiple social
determinations are somehow a problem for standpoint theory is making a
mountain of a molehill (Holmwood 1995). If standpoint is not rooted in bi-
ology or essential characteristics, then the question of how many stand-
points or which standpoint matters cannot be a launching pad for critique
but rather an invitation for empirical investigation.14
The charge of biological determinism or essentialism is a crumbling
scaffold upon which to mount a challenge to feminist standpoint theory.
But what about standpoint theorys claims to epistemic privilege? To claim
that women, as a dominated social group, share experiences that shape
their knowledge is one thing. To claim also that such knowledge is superior
is another thing altogether. But, in fact, many feminist standpoint theo-
rists have disavowed the idea of epistemic privilege. It is not that subor-
dinated positions offer privileged access to knowledge; it is that they offer
different access (Smith 1997a). Here standpoint theory goes beyond its
HegelianMarxian origins (and Lukcsian) articulations that trumpeted
the proletariat as the epistemic vanguard. It replaces epistemic privilege
with a recognition of situated knowledge: social location systematically
shapes and limits what we know, including tacit experiential knowledge
as well as explicit understanding, what we take knowledge to be as well
as specific epistemic content (Wylie 2003:31).15All knowledge is socially
positioned; so-called objective reality can be differentially perceivedor
knownin the sense that different aspects of the same thing might be
viewed or discovered as opposed to others. This need not be a matter of
better knowledge (though it might be; and could lead to it) as much as it
is a basic sociological reckoning:knowledge is enabled and constrained by
social position. What one sees is shaped by where one stands.
This is what post-positivist, post-Kuhnian social scientists already
reckon:knowledge is perspectival.16 Standpoint theory does not rely upon
a presumption that women or dominated groups access truth and others

T h e S u b a lt e r n S t a n d p o i n t [157]

do not. It rests upon the idea that there can be multiple aspects of the same
truth, if not multiple truths. [T]here exist, explains Pels (2004: 274),
objectively opposed locations that generate disparate social experiences,
which in turn define divergent, partial points of view. This solution thus
abjures epistemic privilege for a recognition of different perspectives;
putting in place a politics and epistemologies of location, position, and
situating, as Haraway (1988:589)describes it, where partiality and not
universality is the condition of being heard.
Shortly Iwill speak of perspectival realism as the preferred ground
for this approach. But here another criticism must be dealt with first:does
not standpoint theory valorize the individual and individual experience at
the expense of larger structures?
Dorothy Smiths (2005) feminist-inspired institutional ethnography
absorbs this charge. For Smith, standpoint theory and an analysis of power
structures are not incompatible but rather part of the same analysis. Her
institutional ethnography begins with an investigation of the standpoint
of the subject of interest:that is, it begins with the activities, experiences,
and understandings of women in definite contexts. But that is the start-
ing point, not the end point. Investigators start with womens activities,
experiences, and understandings of women in particular locations because
doing so provides insight into the larger contexts and institutions in which
womens experiences occur and which give them shape in the first place.
Exactly because the connections of actual activities performed locally
are coordinated translocally, contributing their organization to local prac-
tices, analyses that begin with those actual local activities permit us to see
which aspects of the institutions [are] relevant to the peoples experience
and thereby serve as the first step upwardthat is, a first step into larger
patterns and powers (Smith 2005:3738).
This approach resonates with historical anthropologists recognition
that even the most minute detail in a local site offers insights into larger
forces and patterns. As Jean and John Comaroff (1992: 11) suggest, larger
systems are implicated in the sentences and scenes we grasp with
our narrow-gauge gaze. But institutional ethnography is not reducible
to those forms of ethnography that always presume such systems. The
difference from the extended case method of sociologists like Burawoy
(1998, 2000), for instance, is notable. The extended case method treats
the local context as an expression or instantiation of systems that are
alwaysa lready assumed to be there and fully known. Institutional eth-
nography means starting with the local context to understand how it is
connected to and shaped by wider social forces, thereby understanding
those forces from the bottom up rather than deducing them first and

[158] Postcolonial Thought


foremost (Burawoy 1998, 2000: 2728).17 In her collaborative research on

mothers and schools, Smith does not start the analysis from the stand-
point of the principals and their administrative orderw ith its timeta-
bles, bureaucratic rules, payroll sheets, tables of learning goals, and so on.
Rather she starts with mothers of students. Interviewing these mothers
and observing their activities enables Smith to see how those mothers
experience the school. Based upon this initial step, Smith is led to other
considerations: What is it about the social organization of the school that
leads to these experiences? What is it about the local economy upon which
their households depend that leads to the mothers conflicted imperatives
between their household economy and their relation to the school?
Based upon an analysis of the womens experiences, Smith is led to con-
sider and problematize the webs of relations that account for those experi-
ences. Ultimately this scaling upas Iwould call itleads to analyses
of the schools institutional order, with its demands upon mothers and
the systemic limitations that shape those demands, and from there to
the wider public school system and its complex connections to social pro-
cesses like capital accumulation or patriarchic culture. One begins from
the standpoint but ends up with much more. Institutional ethnography
begins by locating a standpoint in an institutional order that provides
the guiding perspective from which that order will be explored (Smith
2005:32). The goal of starting with a womens standpoint is not to occlude
institutions or larger structures but to better apprehend themfrom the
standpoint of the ruled rather than from that of the ruler.18
Critics of standpoint theory and of indigenous sociology take
notice:armed with an understanding of feminist standpoint theory, we
can begin to articulate a postcolonial sociology that draws upon indig-
enous sociology but does not fall prey to conventional criticisms against
it. We can posit a subaltern standpoint as the basis for a social science that
effectively meets the postcolonial challenge.19


By a subaltern standpoint, I mean a social position of knowing akin to

a feminist standpoint, just that it is not rooted primarily in gender
but rather in geopolitics and global social hierarchy. It refers to the
social positiona nd hence, the activities, experiences, concerns and
perspectives of peripheral populations. It refers to a geopolitical
and social position, constituted historically within broader relations
of power, which embeds the viewpoint of peripheral groups. Just as

T h e S u b a lt e r n S t a n d p o i n t [159]

feminist standpoint theory posits a standpoint defined by gendered

structures, a subaltern standpoint approach posits global hierarchies
forged from empire as the defining relation.20 As such, it offers an al-
ternative to the dominant metrocentric standpoint of conventional
social theory. Rather than being grounded in the particular concerns
and metropolitan context of what Connell calls Northern theory; it is
grounded in the concerns, categories, and contexts of subaltern groups.
Return to the example of Fanon and Sarraut:while Sarraut was socially
situated at the apex of the French colonial state, Fanon was a black co-
lonial subject of that colonial state. Given this relation, Fanon would be
seen as articulating a subaltern standpoint.
The idea, in short, is to situate indigenous sociology or Southern theory
within the epistemic frame and premises of standpoint theory. This is
helpful not least because it enables us to rebuke the conventional criti-
cisms against it. Take the charge that postcolonial claims to difference
unwittingly reinsert essentialism. What we have learned from feminist
standpoint theory is that a standpoint is not an essential identityneither
racial, cultural, nor geographical. It is a relational identity. A subaltern
standpoint is a position that is different from the imperialmetropolitan
position of extant conventional social theory, and the difference does not
lie in biological, anthropological, or spatial factors but in social experience
and history. What constitutes a subaltern standpoint is its positionality:it
refers to the subjectivity of subordinated positions within global impe-
rial hierarchies. This standpoint can thus be articulated theoretically as
a form of Spivaks strategic essentialism rather than an ontological es-
sentialism:the subaltern standpoint does not summon a cultural, racial,
or geographic essence but a subjectivity attendant with the experience of
geopolitical and global socioeconomic subjugation.21 It, too, is relational;
it is an effect of power relations.
In this light, the charge that indigenous sociology relies upon essential-
ism recedes into the background if it does not vanish altogether. Spivak
had asked, Can the Subaltern Speak? But what Spivak did not do is make
explicit the powerful tools of standpoint social theory and its important
articulation of the social situatedness of knowledge. By those tools, we can
see that, indeed, there are no essential identities from which subalterns
gain voice: there are socially structured positions. These various positions,
whether on top or bottom of the social hierarchy, offer different insights
onto the world. And the steps in the hierarchy go down further, too: if
Fanon was in a subordinated position relative to Sarraut, thereby offer-
ing a subaltern view, other actors at the time, based upon their gender or
their relative lack of education compared to Fanon, would be situated in a

[160] Postcolonial Thought


different subaltern position. Their standpoint would thereby offer us some

things that Fanons might not.
The charge that a standpoint is reversely (if not perversely) ethnocen-
tric because it claims epistemic privilege can be dispatched on the same
grounds. Privilege is not at stake; at stake is epistemic difference. To admit
of standpoints is to recognize that dominant social science knowledge
that is, the knowledge attendant with conventional disciplinary sociology
or Anglo-European social theoryrepresents one standpoint (or perhaps
a set of standpoints) among others; and that those other possible stand-
points have been long repressed, excluded, and marginalized. Fanons
view is relevant for us not because we are supposed to assume it is valid
based upon Fanons identity. It is relevant because it offered a different per-
spective compared to Sarrauts (or compared to that of dominant social
theory); and because it was of the sort that had been previously policed or
repressed by the imperial regimes of knowledge.
The goal of a postcolonial sociology based upon a standpoint epistemol-
ogy follows:to recover and work from the standpoint of subordinated po-
sitions in the imperially forged global hierarchy. No doubt this relational
position of subalternity based upon imperialism might articulate with
ethnic, gender, or other identities, not least because imperial and colo-
nial systems often articulated them for the purposes of rule.22 But what
makes the subaltern standpoint worthy of theoretical specification is that
it brings to the fore global imperial relations and conventional social sci-
ences place within it. It recognizes that social theory and disciplinary
sociology adopts an imperial standpoint and seeks to circumvent it by
adopting a standpoint from the geopolitical and socioeconomic South. It
aims to transcend the colonizers model of the world by first considering
the colonizeds model of it (Blaut 1993). In so doing it eases one of the
main impulses of postcolonial thought. As Young (2012:22)stresses, one
of those impulses has been to uncover subaltern history and subjectivity
in order to make the invisible visible. He elaborates:

The preoccupation with the subaltern [in postcolonial theory] can be inter-
preted more generally to suggest the extent to which the postcolonial has
always been concerned with a politics of invisibility: it makes the invisible
visible. This is entirely paradoxical to the extent that its object was never, in
fact, invisible, but rather the invisible visible: it was not seen by those in
power who determine the fault lines between the visible and the invisible.
Postcolonialism, in its original impulse, was concerned to make visible areas,
nations, cultures of the world which were notionally acknowledged, techni-
cally there, but which in significant other senses were not there.

T h e S u b a lt e r n S t a n d p o i n t [161]

In other words, a subaltern standpoint approach can help recover sub-

jugated knowledgesin this case, knowledges subjugated through the
epistemic formation attendant with imperial hierarchy. This is the sort
of epistemic difference, as opposed to epistemic privilege, that a proper
postcolonial social theory mightoffer.
But does this subaltern standpoint approach obscure or illuminate
macrostructures, institutions, or larger patterns of domination? After
all, postcolonial social science aims to remember and reckon with rather
than occlude the legacies of colonial domination and empires; some of the
very large structures that a parochial sociology might not be able to ap-
prehend. Is a subaltern standpoint and an analysis of structures or insti-
tutions compatible? Again, by drawing upon feminist standpoint theory,
a subaltern standpoint approach also can be fortified against such claims.
As noted, adopting a standpoint approach is an entry point for analyz-
ing larger structures or systems, not an end point that obscures them.
Smiths (2005) version of institutional ethnography insists that stand-
point analysis must always analyze larger patterns of power (or ruling
relations); the point is that we fare better to start those analyses from
below. A postcolonial social science starting with the subaltern stand-
point would approach empirics similarly. It would start from the activi-
ties, experiences, and perspectives of subaltern groups, but it would not
end there. It would use those standpoints as the basis for scaling the anal-
ysis upward.
Here we arrive at the final critical issue that remains to be addressed:does
not such a subaltern standpoint approach lapse into pure subjectivism? Or
a dangerous epistemic relativism in which intersubjective consensus about
the real and objectivity is impossible? Does not adopting a postcolo-
nial standpoint approach reject truth? As noted, feminist post-positivist
standpoint theory resists this claim by its epistemology of situated knowl-
edge. Asubaltern standpoint theory inspired by indigenous sociology can
be similarly grounded. My claim, in particular, is that it can be fruitfully
grounded in perspectival realism.


Perspectival realism can be seen as the philosophical basis for standpoint

theory and related theories regarding the social situatedness of knowl-
edge. Articulated by philosophers of science like Ronald Giere (2006) and
Helen Longino (2002, 2006), among others, it is meant as a middle ground
between objective realism and radical constructivism. While objective

[162] Postcolonial Thought


realism insists that there are truths in the world to be discovered and
that the truths primarily come in the form of laws, constructivism
holds that truths are discursively (i.e., socially) constructed by scientists
(e.g., before the word planet entered the scientific lexicon, planets did
not exist) (Giere 2006: 47). Perspectival realism instead maintains that
what scientific inquiry and research actually show us is that truths are
the convergence of the physical world on the one hand and the scientists
perspective on the other and that, therefore, the perspective of the scien-
tistobserver is paramount.23 In other words, perspectival realism insists
that there is a real world with observable and knowable features (realism)
but that what we see in that world, how we describe it, and what we think
about it partially depends upon the observer and his or her means of ob-
servation (constructivism).
Take color vision. Whereas color objectivism claims that colors exist
in the world, and are inherent in physical properties, and whereas color
subjectivism theorizes color as inherent to the observer, color is, in fact,
a convergence of perspective and physical properties. Color emerges from
physical stimuli in the world, but the color perceived depends upon the per-
spective of the observer. Most humans are trichromats; they see with the
aid of three receptors. But some humans are dichromats, and so they actu-
ally see different colors. Animals that have more than three receptors see
more colors than humans (Giere 2006:14).24 Another example is modern
astronomy. In modern astronomic practice, different observational in-
struments are used to view the cosmos, which involves capturing certain
gamma rays. Astronomers use various instruments, and each instrument
generates a different image of the same thing. The Oriented Scintillation
Spectrometer Experiment (OSSE) produces a different image of the center
of the Milky Way than does the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory
(CGRO):the two instruments respectively offer different perspectives on
the same thing (Giere 2006:4448). As Giere (2006) notes, Each detector
views the electromagnetic world from its own perspective. Every observa-
tion is perspectival in this sense (48, emphasis added).
Perspectival realism is important for our purposes because it high-
lights a crucial point about knowledge in general:the truths of knowledge
are always partial, and such partiality depends upon the observers posi-
tion. In other words, knowledge is perspectival and yet objectively valid at
the same time. The image of the center of the Milky Way produced from
OSSE is no less, or no more true, than the image produced by the CGRO.
They are just different instruments capturing the same reality but captur-
ing different parts of it. They each capture a part of reality, offering partial

T h e S u b a lt e r n S t a n d p o i n t [163]

Maps are another informative example. Maps are always perspectival,

aimed at a particular purpose, and offer a partial view of the thing or
object they seek to represent; and they can never represent everything
about it. Amap of the London subway system is meant to allow someone
to use the subway. It will thus be different than a road map of London,
which is meant for someone to walk or drive through the city. Both will be
different from a map of Londons main buildings, which is meant for tour-
ists to visit Londons sites. They are each equally true, but only relative to
their purpose. And they are each partial. Amap of Londons buildings says
little to nothing about the subway; nor does it represent everything about
Londons buildings (it does not, for instance, represent the height of the
buildings). We could, of course, try to put all of these things on a single
map, but even that would not fully represent London. What about the
trees in London and their relative density? What about the sewer system?
As Giere (2006:73)concludes, the only perfect map of a territory would
be the territory itself, which would no longer be a map at all.26
My claim is that social theories and associated concepts are akin to
maps: they are perspectival, offering partial but objective truths. This
claim is consistent with feminist standpoint theory. Although standpoint
theory insists upon first seeing the world through the subjectivity of
actors, it does not deny the existence of an objective knowable world. Its
more minimal claim is the social situatedness, that is, the perspectivism,
of knowledge, and hence partial but objective truths. What we know about
objective reality is partially dependent upon our social positionhence
our location, history, experiences, and perspective. Where one stands in-
fluences what one sees, which is not the same as saying that where one
stands determines the very thing one sees.27
Feminist standpoint theory refers to gendered standpoints to make
this case, but we need only consider Marxs critique of political economy to
see the same thing. Marx famously criticized bourgeois economists work-
ing in the vein of Adam Smith for fetishizing the market. While Smith
(1976:63)reduced value to market price (as opposed to natural price), and
explained market price by reference to supply and effective demand,
Marx contended that the real action lies in labor, and hence in the pro-
duction process. We must enter the hidden abode of production where
we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is itself pro-
duced and where the secret of profit making must be laid bare (Marx
1977:27980). Marx thus shows us how value is labor-time and hence sur-
plus value comes from surplus labor through the extension of the working
day and through gains in efficiencya ll of which occur in the factory; that
is, in the sphere of production. Put differently, Marx offered a different

[164] Postcolonial Thought


standpoint on capitalism: the standpoint of production. This, in turn,

yielded a different map of capitalism andvalue.
Yet, Marx did not, in fact, overturn the basic theoretical logic of supply
and demand (nor did he, by the way, upend the premise upon which that
logic works: that actors in capitalism are self-interested). He, in fact,
agrees that supply and demand regulates the temporary fluctuations of
market prices (Marx 1969:11). That is, the relative distribution of supply
and demand explains exchange-value, the price of a commodity, but not
value, which is the socially necessary labor-time it took to produce the
commodity. Supply and demand, he insists, will explain to you why the
market price of a commodity rises above or sinks below its value; it is just
that it can never account for the value itself (Marx 1969:11). And his
explanation for the falling rate of profit and accumulation crises depends
upon the assumption that the law of supply and demand is operative. As
capital accumulates through relative surplus value, gains in productiv-
ity reduce value and exchange-value at once, but because those gains are
achieved through technological development and hence the release of
human labor, wages fall and hence so does demand (Marx 1977:689705;
see also Harvey 2007:17789, 39192).28
In short, perspectival realism helps us recognize that knowledge can be
situated and partial yetalso objective. Based upon their different stand-
points, Smith and Marx saw different things, and each offered different
but valid knowledge about capitalism. Indeed, even Marxs knowledge of
capitalism was only partial. It was another map that did not cover every-
thing. This, of course, is the insight of Marxist-feminism that offers a dif-
ferent map of capitalism; a different standpoint. Marxs standpoint was the
standpoint of production by male workers in an industrial factory. Once
we view capitalism from the standpoint of women in the Victorian house-
hold, we can see that although surplus value is produced in the factory, the
entire production of surplus value is supported by womens unpaid labor
in the home (Eisenstein 1979:11; Hartmann 1979; Hartsock1983).
If perspectival realism facilitates recognition of partial but objective
truths, it also should allay fears that a standpoint approach occludes ob-
jectivity or true knowledge; or that it necessarily lapses into epistemic
relativism. Recognizing the existence of different maps does not mean
every map is right. Each one is open to falsification. If Ihave a streetmap
of London and it is wrong, someone else can show me how it is wrong
by walking me down the street. Or similarly, the Mercator Project Map,
created by the German cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569, portrays
the world in a way very different from the Peters Projection. It is the colo-
nizers model of the world (Blaut 1993). But when considering the map

T h e S u b a lt e r n S t a n d p o i n t [165]

in terms of representing land space in square miles, as well as relative

location of the various countries when treating NorthSouth lines at right
angles, it has been shown to be incorrect. While it is true as a confor-
mal projection, it is not true in representing the area of the continents
(Giere 2006). In like manner we can again return to the example of Fanon
and Sarraut. Both had different views of French colonialism, and while
those views were conditioned by their respectively different positions,
both could be wrong just as one could be more right than the other. In
other words, their respective knowledge claims are still open to falsifica-
tion through empirical investigation following intersubjective standards
of observation and validity. Fanons summoning of various empirical
instances of French colonial violence in Wretched of the Earth and other
work can be seen as an attempt to falsify the claims of French officials
like Sarraut. And others (whether other activists in Algeria or scholars
in Paris) could access Fanons arguments and come to conclusions about
whose views were correct.
It follows that a subaltern standpoint approach is not claiming epis-
temic privilege. Nor is it justified on the grounds that it gets to everything
we need to know. But at the same time, a subaltern standpoint approach
should not be devalued on the grounds that it is purely subjective or that
it is getting us no truth. Rather, a subaltern standpoint is justified on the
grounds that it offers the possibility for a difference that has been too long
suppressed. It represents a new map of things in the world that we might
not have seen before; a map that has been buried for too long beneath a
stack of others. It offers the potential for insights into subjugated knowl-
edges worthy of recovery.


To better see what new sorts of knowledge a subaltern standpoint ap-

proach can yield and how it does so, let us now consider the work of some
of the first-wave postcolonial thinkers. Return to Frantz Fanon. We have
seen the difference between Fanons view of colonialism and Sarrauts,
but it should be remembered, too, that Fanons view of colonialism was
itself part of a novel theory of colonial systems, race relations, and iden-
tity. Fanons thinking came at a time when popular and most scholarly
understandings of colonialism had been mired in colonial ethnologies
and administrative discourse that either occluded colonialism as a social
object or only thought of it as a neutral expression of governance (see
Chapter One). But Fanon innovated. He theorized colonialism as a system

[166] Postcolonial Thought


in its own right that directly impacted social identities. He also tied this
theory to his seminal insights on race, critiquing the dominant ontolo-
gies of racemanifesting epidermalized thoughtand highlighting
the relational constructedness of racial categories as well as the mutual
constitution of the colonizer and colonizeds own racial identities (Gilroy
2010a:157). But how did Fanon begin? What was Fanons analyticentry?
Here is where we can see the logic of standpoint analysis. Fanon did
not begin by transposing categories such as structure- agency onto
the colonial site. Of course, given that Giddenss formulation had yet to
enter social science, he could not have done so. But Parsonian structural-
functionalism as well as French structuralism was available at the time.
Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxism:also available. Yet Fanon did not
begin his analyses of colonialism with categories derived from these sys-
tems of thought (although he would later discuss psychoanalytic catego-
ries, he notoriously criticized Freudian categories for their Eurocentrism).
Nor did he begin by transposing other categories from the conceptual
toolkit of the metropolitan-imperial standpoint. Rather, in crafting his
account and critique of race relations, Fanon first drew from his own
experiences and observations as a black subject of the French colonial
empire. His experience of being interpellated on the train was founda-
tional:Look, a Negro!
As seen in Chapter One, this is exactly one of the innovations of first-
wave postcolonial writers like Fanon: to reveal the distinct experiences
of colonized peoples when those experiences previously had been buried
or hidden from view. Iam arguing here that this is also the beginning of
Fanons innovative theories:one of the sources of his knowledge. Starting
from this experience of being racialized, Fanon theorized the features and
functions of race in the French empire. He traced the devastating impact
of racism upon colonized peoples as well as the mutual constitution of
racial categories and identities. Throughout, Fanon indeed engaged with
Marxist categories as well as those of Freud. He also referred to Sartre and
other Parisian writers. But he did not begin analytically with these cat-
egories. He instead started from the standpoint of the racialized colonial
subject:their activities, experiences, and perceptions. Recall his famous
opening to Black Skin, White Masks (1967 [1952]:xii):

Im bombarded from all sides with hundreds of lines that try to foist them-
selves on me. Asingle line, however, would be enough. All it needs is one simple
answer and the black question would lose all relevance.
What does manwant?
What does the black manwant?

T h e S u b a lt e r n S t a n d p o i n t [167]

The move is analogous to that made by feminist standpoint theorists.

Dorothy Smiths standpoint approach begins with peoples experience
and the issues, concerns, or problems that are real for [them] (Smith
1997b:32, 129). Feminist theories start from womens lives. Similarly,
Fanon starts from the lives of colonized subjects. Another way to put it
is that Fanon forsook the objective as an entry way for the subjective.
In this study, he declares in Black Skin, White Masks, I have attempted
to touch on the misery of the black mantactually and affectively. Idid
not want to be objective (1967 [1952]: 67).29 Elsewhere in Black Skin,
White Masks, he declares:The problem of colonialism includes not only
the interrelations of objective historical conditions but also the human
attitudes toward these conditions (1967 [1952]: 84). To understand co-
lonialism and race relations, Fanon bracketed available categories of ad-
ministrative science, colonial ethnology, Marxism, and psychoanalysis
and started first and foremost with the lived experience, concerns, and
categories of colonial subjects.
As seen in Chapter One, W.E. B.Du Boiss The Souls of Black Folk also re-
vealed the perceptions and experiences of subalterns. But note how stand-
point theory operates here, too, and in a way that serves as the aperture for
his sociological innovations. Throughout Souls, Du Bois refers to the domi-
nant perception of African-A mericans in the postbellum era. Sociologists
had been framing the African-A merican experience as the Negro prob-
lem, offering statistics on illegitimate births and prostitution and con-
ceiving it theoretically in terms of social evolution and biologism. From
that standpointthat is, the view held by the American state, whites,
and the policy-oriented social scientistsA frican-A mericans were a devi-
ant group.30 In opposition to that standpoint, Du Bois offered an entirely
different one. Rather than framing the issue of Americas freed slaves
in terms of the Negro problem, Du Bois first and foremost asks:How
does it feel to be a problem? What, in other words, is the viewpointthe
standpointfrom the other side of the veil, the color line separating
white from black? The African-A merican, hewrote

saw himself,darkly as through a veil; and yet he saw in himself some faint
revelation of his power, of his mission. He began to have a dim feeling that,
to attain his place in the world, he must be himself, and not another. For the
first time he sought to analyze the burden he bore upon his back, that dead-
weight of social degradation partially masked behind a half-named Negro
problem. He felt his poverty; without a cent; without a home to be a poor
man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of
hardships. [] But alas! while sociologists gleefully count his bastards and

[168] Postcolonial Thought


his prostitutes, the very soil of the toiling, sweating black man is darkened by
the shadow of a vast despair.

Du Bois thereby circumvented the dominant standpoint of the time that

embedded the biopower of the postbellum American state and proto-
eugenicist thought. He also bracketed sociological categories associated
with social evolutionism or the Chicago Schools theory of associations.
He instead began with the perceptions and experiences of subalterns.
Leaving then, the white world, he notes at the beginning of The Souls
of Black Folk, I have stepped within the Veil, raising it that you may view
faintly its deeper recesses. Du Bois states this as his motivation exactly;
that is, to go beyond the narrow lenses of dominant social science at the
time and to take a different point of viewin other words, to adopt an
alternative standpoint:Much of the work done on the Negro question is
notoriously uncritical; uncritical from lack of discrimination in the selec-
tion and weighting of evidence; uncritical in choosing the proper point
of view from which to study these problems, and finally, uncritical from
the distinct bias in the minds of many writers worthless as science
(1898:1213). Just as Fanon asked:What does the Black Man want? Du
Bois asks:How does it feel to be a problem?
By adopting the standpoint of the dominated, both Fanon and Du
Bois tap into subjectivities covered up, repressed, or effaced by the
metropolitanimperial standpoint, and this, in turn, opens up their in-
tellectual contributions. But, to be clear, their approach does not mean
a reversion to psychology, subjectivism, or affect. On the one hand, Du
Bois inquires:How does it feel to be a problem? Surely this summons
the affective dimensions of subjectivity; it appears to be an analysis of
emotions that mainstream sociology has mostly renounced but which Du
Bois had sought to recover (England and Warner 2013:960). This kind of
exploration of affect could be part of the standpoint approach. Yet, on
the other hand, neither an exploration of affect or subjectivity exhausts
the standpoint approach. Starting from a standpoint does not mean re-
treating into the hidden dark interiors of subalterns. The move, rather,
is to approach the social first and foremost by exploring the concerns,
interests, and views of subalterns, their practices and activities, and the
social context in which those elements obtain meaning in the first place.
It necessitates looking at the local site in its entirety, exploring not only
the immediate context of action or the actions themselves but also the
subalterns experiences and what Reed (2011) in another context calls
the landscapes of meaning, which give shape to those experiences. Put
simply, it requires starting from a concrete site, a location, a place, and

T h e S u b a lt e r n S t a n d p o i n t [169]

an immediate context. Subjectivities are parts of these sites and so in-

vestigating them is imperative, but understanding the context in which
those subjectivities are embedded is also fundamental. Subjectivities
are important not in themselves, but because they alert us to which di-
mensions of that context should grab our analytic attention.31 The local
site is merely scaffolding for moving upward to apprehend larger social
Return again to Fanon and his illumination of colonialism. Much of
his theoretical labor on French colonialism, its effects, and its racial and
economic logics began with his experiences not only as a colonial subject
living in France but also as chef de service in one of the largest psychiat-
ric hospitals in Algeria. By then, the so-called civilizing mission of the
French had taken on an especially violent form in Algeria, not least as the
French state stepped up its repression of the rising anticolonial movement
in the 1950s. In the hospital, Fanon saw the results of the repression first-
hand, treating both Algerian fighters and French police officers. Starting
from that experience, Fanon moved upward. His experience in the hos-
pital with these patients bore witness to larger patterns and institutions
of racist colonial violence (1968 [1951]). He built upon the perspective of
the individuals to map the larger system of colonial power in which the
individuals were lodged.
The same can be said of Du Bois. In Souls, Du Bois largely jettisons the
governmental approach to the Negro problem by asking, How does it
feel to be a problem? This leads him to the notion of the veil. The veil, to
be clear, is not primarily a psychological concept. Nor is it a mere meta-
phor. As England and Warner (2013) explain, it is also an analytic tool that
conceptualizes society as fractured along racial lines and theorizes them
as two separate, interacting systems (England and Warner 2013:963
64). Throughout Souls, Du Bois then explores these systems. Du Bois rides
the train through the southern United States and contrasts the experi-
ence of riding in the Jim Crow car to that of riding in the white car.
He juxtaposes the view of poor southern black farmers as seen from the
car window sociologist with that of the so-called shiftless field hand.
In this way, Du Bois overcame conventional, biologistic, and essentializ-
ing sociological stereotypes of African-A mericans to represent their inner
life of vast despair; and from there he explored larger fields of social,
political, and economic domination that generated such despair in the

[B]eyond the Veil are problems of ideals, of leaders and the led, of serfdom,
of poverty, of order and subordination, and, through all, the veil of race. Few

[170] Postcolonial Thought


know of these problems, few who know notice them; and yet there they are,
awaiting student, artist, and seera field for somebody sometime to discover.
(1994 [1903]:50)

For Du Bois, looking beyond the veil does not amount to penetrating the
psyche, it is about witnessing the broader social patterns demarcating and
sequestering the white and black worlds in American society. And, ul-
timately, Du Bois finds not just larger racial divisions in the United States
but also across the imperial world and indeed the whole globe:a global
color line first detectable by starting from a subaltern standpoint.
Let us now turn to the final important point about standpoint so-
ciology:it does not require any particular identity (gender or race, for
instance) of the investigator. There is no epistemic privilege tied to
an essentialized position. Return to Fanons scene of French colonial
Algeria. As noted, Fanon produced novel insights on colonialism and
race by starting first and foremost with the lived experience of colo-
nized subjects. But it follows that others who start at the same place
and deploy the same method could produce similar insights. This is the
case, in fact, with Pierre Bourdieu. Although Connell (2006) highlights
the northern-ness of Bourdieus theory of structure and agency, and
although Edward Said (1989) questions Bourdieus putative occlusion of
Algeria from his theoretical labor, Bourdieus (1959, 1961 [1958]) early
sociology was, in fact, rooted in Algerian fieldwork in the late 1950s
(Goodman and Silverstein 2009). And in particular, his early sociology
examined French colonialism in Algeria (Loyal 2009). Bourdieu did his
work and wrote his early tracts around the same time as Fanon, and
although Bourdieu later would criticize Fanon, their analyses of colo-
nialism shared important similarities. Both circumvented the conven-
tional administrative discourse of colonialism as well as the modern-
ization frameworks for understanding Algerians during colonialism.
Bourdieu made colonialism itself an object of analysis, just as did Fanon;
and both theorized colonialism as a racialized system of domination
that impacted colonizer and colonized alike (Go 2013a). It is on these
grounds that Bourdieu criticized French colonialism and its support-
ers, rejecting their ideology of assimilation as baseless and hypocritical
(Bourdieu 1959, 1961 [1958]). So how was this possible? If Bourdieu was
a Frenchman born in Barn and educated in the metropole, how could he
arrive at a similar theory of colonialism? The answer is Bourdieus stand-
point approach. Along with local researchers, and in particular his col-
laborator Abdelmalek Sayad, Bourdieu used ethnography, surveys, and
interviews to probe the perceptions, concerns, and lived experience of

T h e S u b a lt e r n S t a n d p o i n t [171]

Algerians subjected to French colonial policies (Heilbron 2011). By start-

ing from a subaltern standpoint, the Barn cum Parisian academic in the
metropole (Bourdieu) was able to produce a theory of colonialism that
was similar in crucial ways to that produced by the black psychiatrist
from Martinique who took up arms against the French empire (Fanon).32
As for one, so for the other:an analyst could very well write from the
colonies or postcolony and not adopt a standpoint approach. Fanons ar-
gument with Octave Mannoni is telling. Mannonis Psychologie de la colo-
nization was among a handful of works on French colonial societies (in
this case, Madagascar) that was not written as a case study of moderniza-
tion or a colonial ethnology (1964 [1950]. It famously analyzed the psy-
chological and related economic dimensions of colonialism. This makes
Mannonis standpoint more similar to Fanons than to the imperial
metropolitan standpoint. But Fanons critique of Mannoni shows the
difference: Mannonis analysis of colonialism did not start with the ac-
tivities and experiences of the colonized. But it seems to me, Fanon
(1986:67)writes, that Monsieur Mannoni has not endeavoured to sense
from the inside the despair of the black man confronted with the white
man. Instead, Mannonis analysis is purely deductive, starting with ab-
stract economic and psychological categories. He speaks of phenomenol-
ogy, of psychoanalysis, of human brotherhood, but we would like him to
consider these aspects in more concrete terms. [] By considering the
structure of such and such an exploitation from an abstract point of view
we are closing our eyes to the fundamentally important problem of restor-
ing man to his rightful place (1986:69). The result was that Mannonis
examination of colonialism lacked a theorization of colonialism as a vio-
lent system of domination that constituted racial differenceand hence
lacked a conception of postcolonial liberation.
In sum, the subaltern standpoint sketched here refers to an analytic
approach to the social, not an essential identity or individual subjectiv-
ity.33 This is something Fanon himself adumbrated. He did not believe that
knowledge was purely subjective, culturally specific, or the privilege of
those who are of a certain race. In his view, there was always the possibil-
ity for intercultural understanding. I sincerely believe, he insists in Black
Skin, White Masks, that a subjective experience can be understood by all
(Fanon 1967 [1952]: 67). It just takes the right approach. This thereby vin-
dicates the indigenous sociology/Southern Theory movement against its
critics. The movement has it exactly right. The goal of this movement is
to turn to writers from the colonial and postcolonial world such as Jos
Rizal, Frantz Fanon, or Benoy Kumar Sarkar, and to social movements
in the Global South, but not because of the geographic, racial, ethnic, or

[172] Postcolonial Thought


cultural identity of those thinkers (but neither should we reject them be-
cause of their male identities). We should turn to them because, unlike
the staggering amount of theory from the Global North (anointed as ca-
nonical by disciplinary social science), they implicitly or explicitly adopt a
standpoint approach, thereby giving us insights on the social world that
would otherwise go repressed, excluded, or marginalized. It is their stand-
point approach, not their geographical or racial positioning, that renders
their insights valuable. And it is not only their own standpoints that they
offer, but also those of the subaltern subjects in the colonial and postcolo-
nial world whose experiences and subjectivities they excavate for us, and
whose voices should be heard.34


So this is how you do it: suspend or circumvent the analytic categories

constructed from the metropolitanimperial standpoint and instead start
from the ground up. Start, in brief, from the standpoint of the subaltern;
where the subaltern marks not a singular or essential subjectivity but a
relational location from which to begin. Start with the concerns and experi-
ences, categories and discourses, perceptions and problems of those groups
visited by imperial and neoimperial imposition. Start from their perspec-
tives, perceptions, and practices, and from there reconstruct social worlds.35
But if this is how the subaltern standpoint approach works, what ex-
actly is it all for? How exactly does this contribute to sociological knowl-
edge? We have seen that a subaltern standpoint approach does not reduce
to psychology or subjective viewpoints; that, instead it can lead us upward
to analyze larger patterns and institutions. Asubaltern standpoint offers
us the possibility for analyzing macro-level structures with categories and
optics embedded first and foremost in the experiences, concepts, and per-
ceptions of the dominated, thereby overcoming metrocentrism. But is this
to say that a subaltern standpoint is just another route to the exact same
thing? Is it to say it will lead us to what any other standpoint would get us;
such as, say, the conventional metropolitanimperial standpoint? If this
were so, a subaltern standpoint approach would not have added value. So
what is the value accrued? Often, indigenous sociology justifies itself on
the grounds of justice:turning to the standpoint of the South is itself a lib-
erating move, helping to overturn or at least chip away at the unequal divi-
sion of intellectual labor in the world. But more can be had. Specifically, a
subaltern standpoint can help us (a)provincialize categories, (b)produce
better sociological accounts of relations and practices rooted in subjective

T h e S u b a lt e r n S t a n d p o i n t [173]

action, (c)cultivate new theories or concepts of conventional objects, and

(d)redirect attention to otherwise hidden categories and concerns. Let us
take each of these inturn.

Provincializing Categories

One virtue is to use a subaltern standpoint approach to first deeply ex-

plore particularity; to examine the subjectivities and lived experiences of
dominated peoples subjected to the universalizing tendencies of colonial-
ism, capitalism, and attendant power relations. This is about unearthing
new worlds, hidden practices, or submerged experiences that have been
subjugated by dominant formations of power. We might find local spir-
its rather than imperial Lords. The point? It is not to naively celebrate
newness as a point of resistance; to herald differenceand hence the
particularas a space of freedom. Rather than valorizing the particular
over the universal, the point would be to show the limits of the ostensibly
universal through an exploration of the particular; to put them into pro-
ductive tension.
As seen above, this is one of the benefits of a subaltern standpoint ap-
proach: to open up the possibility of new knowledge by disclosing the limits
of our old knowledge. We here see the poststructuralist project partially
embedded in postcolonial theory, and a subaltern standpoint approach can
be deployed for this project. It can help to show the provinciality of Europe
and the power of the fragment. It can help, to use Chakrabartys phras-
ing (2000: 20), explore the capacities and limitations of certain European
social and political categories in the context of non-European life-
worlds. It reminds us of what Said calls the untidiness of our given me-
trocentric theories. This, recall, is the opening for the first-waves critique
of Marxist universalism. Csaire opined that Marxism failed to capture
the particularity of the colonial situation; the singularity of our situa-
tion in the world, and the singularity of our problems that cannot be
treated as part of a more important whole (Csaire 2010 [1956]: 147). By
adopting a subaltern standpoint (in this case, by taking into account his
own experiences as a black subject of empire), Csaire invited us to sketch
the limits of dominant categories.
A standpoint approach also can open up new questions by the same
token. Ray and Qayums (2009) exploration of paid domestic work in
Kolkata is a good example. Studies and theories on paid domestic work
have been grounded in the United States and in European contexts. This
has led to the conclusion that paid domestic work is a response to the care

[174] Postcolonial Thought


crisis in advanced industrialized countries: as women enter the work-

force, they increasingly need paid domestic work. But Ray and Qayums
study is of a context where womens labor-force participation is low but
where domestic service has long been a social practice. In this context, paid
domestic work has a different function: it is a matter of class status. This
turns metrocentric findings about domestic work around. As Ray (2013:
154) explains: Centering the experience of servitude in India, and taking
that explanation as the one to contend with can actually provincialize the
experience of the US. Using India as the center of comparison, then, what
would need to be explained is why, in the US today, paid domestic work is
not seen as constitutive of a class culture but as a market response to
a new demographic and social need. What does this lens reveal about US
This deployment of a subaltern standpoint approach does not hold
up and domesticate the particular by the universal. It holds upand
problematizesthe ostensibly universal through the lens of the particu-
lar. By adopting a standpoint approach, we can reassess the universal by
revealing its limits in particulars. We do not start from Eurocentric theories
and then apply them to the rest of the world. We take what we find from
the rest of the world and then assess Eurocentric theories against them.
What Prakash (1994:1489)says about subaltern studies and disciplinary
history can thus be said of a subaltern standpoint and metrocentric so-
ciology: even as Subaltern Studies has shifted from its original goal of
recovering the subaltern autonomy, the subaltern has emerged as a posi-
tion from which the discipline of history can be rethought. Postcolonial
sociology here is not about valorizing the particular in place of the universal
(cf. Chibber 2013); it is about recognizing the limits of what goes under the
sign of the universal. It is about exposing false universalism and opening
up an analytic path for somethingnew.

Recovering Meanings inAction

Provincializing knowledge is one thing, but a subaltern standpoint ap-

proach also can go further. There is, for instance, the added value of ap-
prehending actors subjective orientations and hence producing better
accounts of action. Take, as an example, an encounter in November 2010
between a trade delegation from the United Kingdom, led by British Prime
Minister David Cameron, and Chinese officials and business leaders at
the Great Hall of the People in Beijing (White 2010). This was one of the
largest delegations of its kind. It was meant to deepen economic relations

T h e S u b a lt e r n S t a n d p o i n t [175]

between the United Kingdom and China. The problem was the poppies.
The British entourage arrived to the Great Hall wearing Remembrance
Day poppies in their jacket lapels, which is a common annual ritual in
Britain during the days running up to Remembrance Sunday. They are
worn in honor of the British military personnel who have died in service.
But the Chinese officials were offended and so asked the British delega-
tion to remove their poppies. What was going on?
A standpoint approach helps here, for the problem was that the
British delegates had not adopted the standpoint of Chinese history. If
they had, they would have noticed that their poppies did not symbolize
Remembrance Sunday to the Chinese, but rather the Opium Wars whereby
the British invaded China in 18391842 and again in 18561860, laying
waste to land and people and ultimately using the wars as the threat by
which to take possession of Hong Kong and turn it into a British colony.
From the standpoint of the British, however, the poppies simply symbol-
ized Remembrance Day. This is why David Cameron, upon being asked by
the Chinese officials to remove his poppies, refused to do so and instead
proferred a lecture on human rights. The irony, as Young (2012) notes,
was apparent to all but Cameron himself (in Young 2012:21).
In some ways, then, the idea is quite simple:by starting from a subaltern
standpoint, we can better account for incidents such as these. We can re-
construct webs of meaning and better understand events and social prac-
tices, with the added and crucial virtue that we can yield non-Eurocentric
accounts (hence, we might argue, better accounts).36 Why, for instance,
did Hawaiians kill Captain James Cook in 1779 and cook his remains?
We might easily interpret the murder as a typical act of mindless savagery
or of flesh-eating cannibals. This was a popular British image of Pacific
islanders at the time. But, of course, they were not savages or cannibals.
As Sahlins (1981) shows, they were merely performing their longstanding
notions of foreign presences and deities, scripting Cook as their returned
god, Lonoscripts that required Lonos ritual killing. Asubaltern stand-
point approach is what yields this insight. Sahlinss meticulous examina-
tion reconstructs the events from the viewpoint of the Hawaiians; he sit-
uates them within local meanings and the Hawaiians entire cosmological
system to show how the Hawaiians conceived of Cooks demise.37
We can take another example: Why did Filipino political elites holding
positions in the colonial state during the early twentieth century, under
American domination, use political office and public funds to reward their
friends and punish their enemies? The American colonial officials expla-
nation was that Filipinos were corrupt: they were uncivilized mimics of
modernity who did not yet understand the proper meaning of democratic

[176] Postcolonial Thought


self-government, and hence, what political office should entail. American

officials, in turn, used this to withhold independence from the Philippines.
The claim was that if the United States withdrew, Filipino officials would
turn their state into a home for corrupt oligarchs and tyrants who would
abuse their power and position for their own ends. But by exploring the
Filipino officials own history and discourse, we can see that their so-
called corruption was not quite corruption of that nature. It was exactly
what democratic self-government was about. For the Filipino elites had
an entirely different set of concepts of what democracy meant; and those
concepts were not about self-serving corrupt officials but rather about
using public office to cultivate a network of patronage and clients in order
to best protect and serve the population (Go 2008b).
Some might object that this use of a subaltern standpoint approach
does not so much overcome Eurocentrism as reinscribe it in the name of
culture. Does not apprehending the practices of Hawaiians in this way,
or the actions of Chinese officials, require a monolithic and essentialized
notion of culture that supposedly dictates subalterns practices?38 Is this
not just the same old anthropology that essentialized foreign peoples in
the service of empire? The answer is no. To reconstruct social practices by
paying heed to meanings is not the same as essentializing culture. One
need not posit a static or uniform culture to grasp the standpoint of social
actors. If anything, it is by avoiding standpoints that Orientalist social sci-
ence has proceeded. When Weber produced his Orientalist constructions
of Asia, he did not begin by examining the perceptions and subjectivity of
subaltern groups. Had he done so, he probably would have found multiple
variations in meanings and practices that belie any singular classification.
This elision of the subaltern standpoint by Weber is, of course, ironic:was
it not Weber who insisted that social science should investigate the sub-
jectivity of actors to meet the task of explanation? It was. But evidently
he only meant it for Calvinists. Meaning is for metropolitans. Asubaltern
standpoint approach, alternatively, recovers meanings forall.

New Theories and Concepts

Another benefit of a subaltern standpoint approach:to construct new the-

ories of existing analytic objects. This is how we can read Syed F.Alatass
(2006) reconstruction of Ibn Khaldns theory of state formation. As noted
earlier, the state has been a common interest of Northern social scien-
tists since the 1970s at least. But existing theories of the state are rooted
in the European experience. By contrast, Khaldns approach to the state

T h e S u b a lt e r n S t a n d p o i n t [177]

did not start in Europe but with the specific experiences of the Arabs and
Berbers of North Africa. In so doing, his theory of state-formation locates
the emergence of states in the discipline of nomadic tribes whose moral
discipline enables them to conquer cities and found new statesa cycle
that Khaldn found repeated itself for centuries. Ultimately this theory
of premodern state-formation proposes a cyclical model of state ascen-
sion, fall, and replacement that was picked up later by the anthropologist
Ernest Gellner. Yet it was originally forged by Khaldns adoption of the
North African perspective. The standpoint approach yielded a new theory
of state-formation.
Another example is Fanons new theorization of colonialism. As noted,
Fanon generated a new enduring theory of colonialism and race. This was
a new theory, indeed, keeping in mind the context of its emergence. In his
first major work, Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon explained that he hoped
to better understand race relations in the French empire (the BlackW hite
relationship in particular). At that moment racial thinking had been
dominated by colonial sociology and ethnology (Fanon 1967 [1952]:xiii).
These sociologies and ethnographies, produced since the founding of the
Institut dEthnologie in 1925, often worked from anthropological catego-
ries of culture or deployed nascent modernization theories, portraying
colonized racial groups as timeless cultural entities awaiting intervention
or preservation. Meanwhile, by the time of Fanons later work on Algeria
and colonialism in the late 1950s, scholarly and popular thinking about
colonialism had been dominated by administrative discourses of assimila-
tion, such as those espoused by French officials and thinkers like Germaine
Tillion. Colonialism itself had not really been a serious object of an analy-
sis. The notion that colonialism was a system with structuring principles
and causal power was never raised. The only exceptions included Georges
Balandiers theory of the colonial situation and nascent Marxist an-
thropologies that saw colonialism as an engine of primitive accumulation
(Tillion 1958; Balandier 1966 [1951]).
By his standpoint analysis, Fanon saw different things. Eventually he
came to theorize colonialism as a social form with its own dynamics and
impact. More specifically, he theorized it as a racialized system of violence
and domination that impacted the psyches and identities of both colonizer
and colonized.39 Rather than simply a tool for civilization or capital ac-
cumulation, colonialism in Fanons view emerged as a determinate social
system in its own rightone founded upon racial violence and having
deeper effects than conventional thinking allowed. And by his analysis
of colonial domination and its effects, Fanon arrived at a critique of epi-
dermalised thought that had dominated racial thinking and generated

[178] Postcolonial Thought


a conception of race as constructed within large-scale relations of power.

For his time, this approach to colonialism and race was a revelation
indeed, which is why Fanons work, not least his critique of racial ontology
and identity-formation, remains important today for thinking about colo-
nialism and race. This is not a matter of producing a better causal account.
It is about producing a truly innovative social theory; a labor facilitated
exactly by Fanons standpoint methodology. By looking at colonialism and
race from below, Fanon crafted a new theory of it.40

New Concerns and Categories

There is yet another benefit of a subaltern standpoint approach. It can yield

entirely new social objects for analysis; objects grounded in, and, therefore,
more appropriate to, the localities of their inception. This is not just about
crafting new theories or concepts of social objects that theorists already
problematize or examine; it is about identifying entirely new social prac-
tices, forms, or processes that have gone under the radarhence not seen
and not theorized at all. This is about opening up new sociological concerns,
facilitating a process of true discovery that, in turn, yields new concepts
or theories. We have seen, for instance, how objects like the state or con-
cepts like structure-agency are often unproblematically transposed to
the rest of the world. By starting with subaltern standpoints, we might
overcome this problem by grounding our objects of concern in local
contextsmaking our theories dirty, rooted in the ground (to draw
from Connell 2007). Rather imposing preexisting sociological concerns
and categories, we first investigate subaltern subjects, their life experi-
ences, their practices, and contexts to consider their concerns. If this does
not in itself solve the problem of incommensurability attendant with me-
trocentrism, it at least puts it in temporary suspension.
To see how this works, consider Du Boiss concept of the veil. As seen,
Du Bois circumvented dominant categories of racial governmentality to
embark upon his analyses. He asked, How does it feel to be a problem?
In so doing, he found concerns different from those associated with social
evolution or represented in governmental statistics. He found experi-
ences of social exclusion and the negative consequences of social separa-
tion and racism. Accordingly, Du Bois shifted the social object of analysis
away from the Negro problem to focus upon those lived experiences. He
then generated an entirely new concept:the veil. This was meant to capture
the subjective experience of subaltern subjects, the stark racial divisions
of society, and their effects upon African-A mericans. The veil refers to a

T h e S u b a lt e r n S t a n d p o i n t [179]

thin layer of cloth through which African-A mericans see the rest of society
and to a fracturing of society along racial lines. Whereas mainstream so-
ciology at the time did not see those racial divisions and their effects, Du
Boiss implicit standpoint approach made them visible, producing not only
new areas of study but also a new concept for thinking about them, namely
the veil, which sociologists of race have uniformly praised as uniquely gen-
erative.41 In this same way, Du Bois arrived at the parallel idea of double
consciousness. By stepping behind the veil, that is, by adopting the
standpoint of African-A mericans, Du Bois found a subjectivity and experi-
ence of racialized alienation that had not yet been noticed or theorized in
conventional social psychology. He then produced a novel concept, double
consciousness to capture that subjectivity and experience.
Might there be more recent examples of such discoveries through a
standpoint approach? Connells (2007: 2067) discussion of Australian
aboriginal peoples is one candidate. For studying Australian aboriginal
peoples, a subaltern standpoint approach would suggest that we should
not start with questions of structure and agency; or with other concepts
such as the state. We should start first with concrete examinations of
life on the ground. In so doing, we might discover that one of the things
that characterizes the aboriginals experiences is dispossession from the
land; a social process of removal and displacement that has often entailed
violence. For these peoples, dispossession is a formative and important
process that dominant groups in Australian society have not experienced.
According to Connell (2006, 2007), this is probably why dispossession is
one of the most under-theorised concepts in social science (2007: 206
7). It is a subaltern experience that has been repressed and excluded in
metropolitan social science.
It is probably a stretch to say that dispossession is the most under-
theorised concept in social science. But it is true that it is relatively under-
theorized, especially when compared with concepts in conventional
sociology such as structure-agency, the state, orto take an example
from classic sociology rooted in the European experience of modernity
alienation. For Durkheim (1984), alienation was anomie, and referred
to social isolation (such as the type that accompanies modern urban life
in societies with a high division of labor). For Marx, alienation was about
estrangement; that is, the estrangement of man from his presumably
essential laboring self. But what about the dispossession of peasants or
native peoples from the land, rather than alienation in a factory or city?
Unlike the massive literature on the state, social revolutions, or agency,
there is precious little theory and research on dispossession, even as it
marks the experience of most peoples in the worldnot only in Australia

[180] Postcolonial Thought


but in North America, China, and so on. And although Marxs theory of
capitalism offers an important insight on dispossession as primitive ac-
cumulation, his theory relegated such processes of primitive accumula-
tion to the historical and social margins of the system, thereby rendering
it analytically unimportant.42
The social fact of dispossession is an important discovery for a subal-
tern standpoint approach, for it can then form the basis for new theory
and research. What is this experience of dispossession about? How, why,
when, and where does dispossession occur? What are the social processes
involved in it? What forms does it take? How does it vary across different
spaces? What are the effects? Asubaltern standpoint approach in this case
leads us to consider something like dispossession as a new social object
ripe for examination, one that has escaped the eye of ostensibly omnipo-
tent social analysts.43


We can now see how a subaltern standpoint approach can widen our so-
ciological imagination. It can help us incorporate new sociological objects
without unproblematically transposing or imposing concerns and con-
cepts from the metropole. This, in turn, can lead to new middle-range the-
ories of entirely new thingsnew as in previously hidden, subjugated,
or elided. Not only, then, can we generate new objects, we also can produce
new theories and concepts for studying them. We can thus meet Reeds
(2013:163)injunction to Southern Theory; that is, that Southern Theory
should produce new mechanisms or models, new definitions or classi-
fications, a set of semi-general propositions, or a reconstructed theory
rather than only critique. Ultimately we can generate new knowledge,
expand our understanding, and multiply our insights of the social world
while escaping metrocentrism. The colonial and postcolonial encounter,
in its many forms and its myriad social consequences, asserts Connell
(2013:177), does receive an intellectual response from the colonized. We
should learn from those responses.
But does this merely set the grounds for a new universalisma re-
versed metrocentrism? Or are we not lost in endless particularisms? We
are here on sticky ground. On the one hand, by suggesting that a subal-
tern standpoint approach can help us locate new concerns, categories, and
theories, it would be difficult to insist that these new concepts should be
the basis for a reuniversalized sociology. The critique of metrocentrism is
exactly that concerns and categories developed in one particular context

T h e S u b a lt e r n S t a n d p o i n t [181]

(the metropole) have been imposed upon the rest of the world. The new
concerns and categories generated from our alternative subaltern stand-
point approach cannot, then, be similarly imposed to other places and
times. This would be categorical metrocentrism in the reverse. On the
other hand, if we suggest that we will not transport the new theories else-
where, then we thwart the possibility for generalizability. And for social
science, as Connell (2007) suggests, generalizability is still necessary; a
vital part of the program. So if we do not transpose the new theories else-
where, we remain mired in the particular. We are damned if we generalize,
damned if we donot.
If all theories are socially situated, can any of them travel? Take Fanons
theory of colonialism. Though it emerges from the particular standpoint
of a subaltern subject of the French empire, it could be deployed to capture
racial dynamics in other modern colonial situations, as Bhabhas (2004)
reading suggests. This does not mean it is universal. It is it not applicable
to all situations. It just means it is potentially generalizable to colonial
situations. If we accept this then, yes, theories from the south can indeed
scale and travel, as Ray (2013) reminds us. So why is this not metrocen-
trism, just the other way around?
Generalizing based upon a standpoint approach is not the same thing
as universalizing. Universalism and generalizability are not the same
thing. Universalism, the object of the postcolonial critique, insinuates
the Cartesian positivist assumption of the disembodied knowing subject
and the complete knowability of the world. Metrocentrism, defined here,
is a form of this universalism. And we are positing that such universal-
ism, at the epistemic level (not necessarily the political), is impossible. The
postcolonial injunction to recognize what Said called the untidiness of
theory can be summoned here, in conjunction with perspectival realism.
Perspectival realism assumes that no theory is universal. No single map
can capture everything we may want to know about a social space. In this
sense, every theory is untidyevery theory is incomplete, offering insight
into only a fragment of the world we are investigating. But generalizability
is different. Rather than assuming the infallibility of universal theories
that are applicable everywhere and capture everything, generalizability is
applied only to delimited analytic objects. So a theory is not universal but
it may be generalizable. Metrocentrism implies the former.
A subaltern standpoint approach also escapes metrocentrism, even
when generalized, by its immanent reflexivity. The premise of standpoint
theory, and the perspectival realist epistemology to which we have teth-
ered it, is that while it may very well be that the new categories and theories
generated from concrete local investigations are generalizable, we cannot

[182] Postcolonial Thought


assume it to be the case. Fanons theory of colonialism and race could be

and has beenapplied to other colonial contexts. Du Boiss notion of the
veil or concepts like dispossession could be very useful in other contexts,
too, not least as racialization and/or territorial displacement are them-
selves generalized social processes. But unlike a metrocentric approach,
this does not assume the universality of these categories or concepts. We
must discover whether any given theory or concept is generalizable, and
we do so only by moving upward from a subaltern standpoint rather than
downward from an imperial highpoint.44
In brief, we are speaking here of a postcolonial sensibility to social sci-
ence that is reflexive about the dangers of metrocentrism. We should be
constantly concerned about the suitability or appropriateness of theories
for a particular context rather than assuming universality, and the way to
do so is to start with the subaltern standpoint. We always begin with the
experiences and practices of dominated groups. In so doing, we might very
well find that some of these already existing concepts and theories are
useful. We might find that in one colonial context, the sorts of concerns
and experiences registered by colonized groups resonate with Fanons
theory of colonialism and race. We might find that in Eastern Europe, the
meanings and matters of subaltern groups are reflected in the concept of
dispossession. We might find that in Indonesia the discourses and prac-
tices of subjugated peoples align with Du Boiss notion of the veil. In
these cases, we can work with the existing categories derived from other
contexts of domination to illuminate other contexts better. We might
even adjust them or reconfigure them given what we find in the next con-
text, thereby adding to our arsenal of knowledgeour repertoire of sub-
altern theories.45
On the other hand, we might not. We might find radically new experi-
ences and concerns; new in the sense that even existing theories crafted
from other subaltern standpoints do not align. In that case, we start anew.
We start fresh, just as an initial standpoint approach would have us do.
The difference with conventional sociology is not that we reject generaliz-
ability. The difference is that we never unreflexively start with it. Instead
of starting from atop or from afar, instead of starting with theories and
concepts cultivated from the standpoint of power, we start on the ground.
We start from the standpoint of the subjugated.
We should be clear, then:a subaltern standpoint approach is not about
retreating to the particular and rejecting generalizability. As Csaire
warned in another context, we should not solve the problem of dilution
in the universal by replacing it with walled segregation in the particu-
lar. To the contrary, it is exactly by digging into the particular through

T h e S u b a lt e r n S t a n d p o i n t [183]

a subaltern standpoint approach that we might better get at the possibly

general social processes that proliferate around the world. Csaires reac-
tion to reading Hegel is fitting here. When first reading the French trans-
lation of Hegel, he wrote excitedly to his friend Senghor Leopold:Listen
to what Hegel says, Leopold:to arrive at the universal, one must immerse
in the Particular! In a sense, it is the very opposition between the par-
ticular and the universal that is a legacy of Europes epistemic metrocen-
trism. Im not going to confine myself to some narrow particularism,
insists Csaire (2010 [1956]), reacting to certain strands of Hegelian
thought. But Idont intend either to become lost in a disembodied univer-
salism. I have a different idea of a universal. It is a universal rich with
all that is particular, rich with all the particulars there are, the deepening
of each particular, the coexistence of themall.
This invites us to wonder: what other sorts of valuable insights and
knowledges might we obtain by deploying standpoint theory today as
part of a postcolonial sociology? And would not opening the sociological
floodgates lead to an uncontrollable rush of otherwise foreign concepts
and theories, overwhelming sociologys long-standing infrastructure? If a
true subaltern standpoint sociology means this, that it allows theoretical
barbarians to enter the metropolitan gates, so be it; all the better.
Let the invasionbegin.

[184] Postcolonial Thought


For a ThirdWave

The problem of power and culture, and their turbulent relations during the great
metamorphosis of our social world, is too important to be left to litcrit.
Ernest Gellner (1993), on Edward Saids Culture and Imperialism(1993)

T]he past of social science is always one of the main obstacles to social science.
Pierre Bourdieu, Sociology in Question (1993, orig.1975)

T he formal decolonization of the world beginning in the mid-t wentieth

century was a monumental event. It marked the downfall of the colo-
nial empires that had been the dominant political form of modern history.
Yet, the vestiges of colonial empire remain. Its legacies are all around us.
Global inequalities reflect the inequalities first forged by colonialism:the
countries that were comparably the wealthiest one hundred years ago at
the height of modern imperialism are still at the top, while those who were
colonies at the time remain at the bottom.1 And as Edward Said warned,
essentialisms left over from imperial Orientalism persist in various sec-
tors of thoughtfrom the clash of civilizations thesis to neoracism
against Muslims in the wake of 9/11 to religious fundamentalists in the
North as well as in the South. Colonialism has ended, but the power rela-
tions, systems of meaning, and socioeconomic inequalities that it birthed
stubbornly endure.
Postcolonial thought recovers this history of empire and colonialism and
its lingering legacies. It takes particular interest in how this history has

impacted our knowledge systems, excavating the culture of empire and how
it has shaped everything from colonial administrative categories to the idea
of race to the tenets and ideals of Enlightenment humanism. Second-wave
postcolonial thinkers such as Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak,
and Dipesh Chakrabarty take this to its most unsettling conclusion: the
very humanistic disciplines to which they are connected, and from which
they benefit, have been part of this imperial epistemeif not in the sense
of practical complicity then at least in the sense that humanistic thought
reflects the assumptions, analytic operations, and exclusions of empire.
In the wake of postcolonial thought, and the arsenal of historiographi-
cal work that has affirmed and elaborated its claims, it is difficult to deny
the pervasive power of empires legacies. But if we can acknowledge this
power, can we also acknowledge the vestiges of empire in our social theo-
ries and sociological practice? Are we, as social scientists, so special as to
be untouched by the legacies of empire? Or are we too blind to admit it?
Surely we can recognize the institutional legacies upon knowledge pro-
duction. No one disputes that social scientists in the Global North receive
more economic resources and institutional support than those in the
Global South. And few would dispute that the intellectual division of labor
frighteningly reproduces the colonial division of labor:the North provides
social theory, while the South is either ignored or provides the raw data,
the raw material, for theoretical production. But beyond these perplexing
legacies, can we also admit of the epistemic legacies? Can we recognize
how empire also lingers in our theories, how the culture of empire is in-
scribed in very assumptions, categories, and analytic frameworks? Or are
we social scientists and our privileged concepts and thoughts above the
fray of sociohistorical determination?
There are some in social science who would answer in the affirmative.
Social theory and sociological thought is above the fray of imperial de-
termination. The implication is that postcolonial thought is irrelevant.
But this is, frankly, an unsociological view itself: sociologists happily
admit how capitalism shapes our theories, how gender structures impact
our thinking, or how, generally, knowledge is socially determined, but
we cannot then admit that empire also has been one of those determi-
nants? This, despite the fact that sociology was founded within a culture
of empire and modernity itself has been a profoundly imperial phenom-
enon. Up until the 1970s, the world was a world of empire and had been for
centuries. Certainly, we can and should debate the extent to which empire
and its legacies have shaped sociological thought. This book has argued
that its determination has been comparably strong: it has helped to pro-
duce a persistent Orientalism, analytic bifurcations, occlusions of agency,

[186] Postcolonial Thought


and metrocentrisma ll of whose traces are evident across various sectors

of sociological thinking. But debating the extent of imperial influence re-
quires raising the possibility of that influence in the first place.
Herein lies one of the signal contributions of postcolonial thought.
Postcolonial thought helps us to raise and then confront these difficult
questions about the imperial episteme and social theory. The relevance of
postcolonial theory for social science is not that it criticizes social science
for its practical or political complicity with imperialism. Rather, postcolo-
nial theory is a loosely coherent body of thought that recognizes the cen-
trality of empire and colonialism in the making of our metropolitan and
peripheral modernities. As such, it recognizes the legacies and import of
empire upon the culture of those modernities, including its forms and sys-
tems of knowledge. What postcolonial thought offers, in sum, is a recogni-
tion that our social theories, our concepts, our frameworks might also have
been shaped by imperial domination and its correlates. And the invitation
of postcolonial thought follows:to try to imagine alternative post-colonial
knowledges, to push our modalities of knowing further and cultivate criti-
cal understandings that transcend or circumvent the conventions of the
imperial episteme; this not in a vain effort to overcome guilt, but, quite
simply, in an effort to create new and better social knowledge.
If this speaks to the relevance of postcolonial thought for social science,
what about the importance of social science for postcolonial thought? We
have seen that, just as some sociologists might find postcolonial theory
irrelevant or least marginal to the concerns of social science, there are
also postcolonial proponents who might find sociology irrelevant for
postcolonial studies. Is not social scientific thinkingby its persistent
Orientalism, its reproduction of imperial binarism, its failure to recog-
nize the role and agency of non-European peoples, and its Enlightenment
assumptions of the disembodied knower and claims to universalityan
integral part of the imperial episteme? And if so, should not sociological
thought be dismantled and discarded entirely? This book has argued that
such a view is contradictory:that the very postcolonial critique of knowl-
edge that would seemingly warrant social sciences demise itself depends
upon social scientific claims. Social science has been tainted by the impe-
rial episteme, but this does not mean it is intrinsically chained to its arse-
nal. And if we do away with social scientific claims we must also do away
with postcolonial thought, the implicit social theory of which proponents
of postcolonial thought would fare best to recognize and make explicit
rather than naively pretend to disavow.
This book, in short, has argued for the possibility and indeed necessity
of a third wave of postcolonial thought, emerging within and for the social

F o r a T h i r d Wav e [187]

sciences rather than the humanities only. Postcolonial theory can and
must be seen as an interdisciplinary if not transdisciplinary projectin
which case its relevance for and relation to the social sciences like sociol-
ogy must be clearly charted rather than abjured. Accordingly, this book
has sought reconciliation and articulation, convergence and connection.
It has explored the contours and content of postcolonial thought, both in
its initial articulation as anticolonial thought and its more recent mani-
festation in the disciplinary humanities, in order to assess its possible ex-
changes with social theory. It has argued that postcolonial thought and
social theory are not only compatible but mutually necessaryand can
be fruitfully intertwined to open up a third wave of postcolonial thought.
Preceding chapters have proposed two different sociological approaches
that might help animate this third wave. One, postcolonial relationalism, is
inspired by Edward Saids contrapuntal approach and by the second-waves
critique of imperial binarism generally. Its goal? To chart the connected-
ness of being. It draws upon relational social theory to trace the mutually
constitutive and interdependent character of social identities and entities.
It uncovers relations among peoples, places, and processes across global
space that typically have gone unnoticed. In this way, postcolonial rela-
tionalism offers a way to transcend the imperial epistemes Orientalist
essentialisms, its repression of agency, and its analytic bifurcations.
The other approach, the subaltern standpoint, draws upon standpoint
theoryand what I have argued is its logical correlate, perspectival real-
ismto overcome the metrocentrism (hence false universalism) of social
science. This approach starts not from connections but from experiences.
Like Fanons own approach, or Du Boiss before him, it starts from the
standpoint of those subjugated by geopolitical relations of power; and it
does so not to remain in the space of the particular or subjective but also to
render visible the larger relations and connections that have given shape
to those experiences. Postcolonial relationalism seeks to reveal relations,
but so does the subaltern standpoint. The difference is that while postco-
lonial relationalism starts from the connectedness of being, a postcolonial
social theory operating from the subaltern standpoint starts from the
being of connectedness. Both of these approaches push social theory toward
the space of postcolonial thought, but neither of them is completely for-
eign to social theory. They are immanent to it. This is why they constitute
a generative postcolonial social science. And this is why they can contribute
to an emerging third wave of postcolonial thought.2
Still, we must ask:What is the grounding for our third-wave postcolo-
nial social theory? If postcolonial thought has been primarily a humanis-
tic enterprise, and if we then try to recraft it in the terms of social science,

[188] Postcolonial Thought


its ontology and epistemology need to be clarified (i.e., some kind of phi-
losophy of social science to ground it). As seen in Chapter Two, August
Comtes positivism was the initial philosophical scaffolding for sociol-
ogy and colonial sociology. What is the scaffold by which we might today
stage a postcolonial social science? In other words, how can the humanistic
enterprise of postcolonial thought be logically articulated with social sci-
ence? This is a question of ontology and epistemology that is immediately
summoned when translating the humanistic enterprise of postcolonial
studies to social science, but it is the sort of question that postcolonial
thinkers themselves did not often address. Let us try to address it here
before concluding.


What was the modality of knowing and associated social ontology upon
which second-wave postcolonial theory was based? Answers are murky.
At most, second-wave postcolonial theory was grounded upon a norma-
tive epistemology that left its social ontology unstated. Or, its ontology
rested upon an array of tenets from poststructuralism and postmodern-
ism, placing it more squarely in the constructivist or interpretivist modes
of social science (Reed 2011: 86). Saids Orientalism is particularly elusive,
as it appears to navigate between poststructuralist notions of construc-
tivism on the one hand and traditional humanism on the other. If any-
thing, underlying these works is not so much a social ontology as an ontol-
ogy of meaning; that is, an ontology of signification initially derived from
Saussures linguistics and then extended by Derridas deconstruction of
logocentrism (i.e., an ontology that says there is a sign that maps the
relations among signifier, signified, and referent).
But it is this ontology, along with its flirtations with postmodern con-
structivism, which gets the second-wave into some trouble. They rendered
postcolonial studies susceptible to accusations that it was perilously dis-
cursive or culturalist and left the real world behind for the world of
texts. This is not entirely inappropriate:postcolonial thought took root in
the field of literary studies, after all. But the point remains:the ontology
of postcolonial studies remains murky at best, which runs afoul of most
of social sciences realism. It does seem as though postcolonial thought
lacks a general, coherent, referential theory of social reality, as Reed
(2011:87)notes; in which case postcolonial thought would hardly be able
to truck with the realist claims upon which so much of social science de-
pends. So here is the problem:if postcolonial theory rejects realism, what

F o r a T h i r d Wav e [189]

ontology and epistemology might ground and guide a postcolonial social

Let us start by returning to second-wave postcolonial theory in the
humanities, because it might help us better consider how to ground our
articulation of it with social theory. As noted, there are probably multiple
philosophical streams at work in postcolonial thought, and the second-
wave never named its ontology of the social. But my claim is that it does
have an underlying ontology that is relevant for our purposes, even if the
theorists of the second-wave did not themselves articulate it. So what is
it? Isuggest that it is a form of post-positivist realism:specifically, a per-
spectival realism.

Postcolonial Realism

To clarify from the outset:it is not the case that postcolonial thought for-
sakes realism for a nave constructivism. Even Bhabhas critique of colo-
nial discourse depends upon a minimal realism. Bhabhas insistence that
colonizers cannot fix the identity of the colonized rests upon the implicit
claim there is something more in the world than the colonizers discourse.
There is an outside to what colonial categories posit; a real that colo-
nial discourse cannot fully enclose and whose traces are only discernible
in the spaces discourse leaves behind. Implicit in his critique of colonial
discourse, in short, is the notion that there is a social reality that is ir-
reducible to the constructs of discourse. If reality were, in fact, reducible
to discourse, the colonizers could fix the identity of the colonized. Colonial
discourse would not be ambivalent because it would fully construct the
reality of colonial space. Bhabhas insistence upon the ambivalence of
discourse itself evinces a realism that Bhabha has left unstated and
Consider, too, Gayatri Spivak, who is considered one of the other more
radical postmodernpostcolonial thinkers, and her claim that the subal-
tern cannot speak. Like Bhabhas critique of colonial discourse, this claim
of the impossibility of representing the subaltern lies exactly upon a real-
ist ontology. The feasibility of the claim lies in Spivaks implicit appeal to
a register of reality beneath or outside of discourse, not in some construc-
tivist notion that discourse creates reality. If her ontology was indeed
that discourse creates reality, then the subaltern could speak:the subal-
tern would say whatever colonial administrative discourse or nationalists
said she said. But precisely because there is a reality outside discoursea
referent beyond the signany attempt to represent the subaltern will be

[190] Postcolonial Thought


incomplete. Discourse cannot reduce the infinite complexity of the real

and, in this sense, every act of signification is a kind of epistemic mis-
representation. The issue that postcolonial thought puts on the table is
not whether there is a real but how the real is constructed in relation
to power; that is, how certain constructs of the real facilitate and extend
In short, evident throughout the masterful works of the second-wave
is a minimal social realism that postcolonial thought cannot freely jet-
tison without cratering into itself.4 But besides realism, there is also a
certain epistemology circling around much of postcolonial theory, which
has gone only partially articulated. This is a post-positivist recognition
of the simultaneous validity and incompleteness of social knowledge
an embrace of the objectively partial and partially objective character of
knowledge. Edward Saids notion of the untidiness of theory bespeaks
this epistemology. With this claim that theory is always untidy, Said, like
Bhabha or Spivak, insinuates a realist notion that there is a world that dis-
course cannot fully enclose. Orientalist discourse surely does not properly
represent the reality of that to which it refers, and this is not just because
Orientalists are ignorant. It is because any reality is too complex and too
infinite to go unmediated in representation. In other words, the world
is too complex to be fully known and represented by any single concept,
theory, or discourse. Therefore, all forms of knowledge, according to Said
(2001:65), must recognize the unevenness and heterogeneity of the ter-
ritory that one is lookingat.
Said here arrives at the notion that theory captures some parts of
the social world, but no single theory can capture all of it; hence, theo-
ries are untidy. Theory we certainly need, for all sorts of reasons, Said
(1983:241)claims. What we also need over and above theory, however,
is the critical recognition that there is no theory capable of covering, clos-
ing off, predicting all the situations in which it might be useful. What is
needed is to acknowledge the essential untidiness, the essential unmas-
terable presence that constitutes a large part of historical and social situa-
tions. What is needed, in short, is to recognize that there is a real to which
discourse refers, but which it cannot totally represent:an unmasterable
presence. Note, then, that this same idea is implied in the postcolonial
critique of universalism. Like empires themselves, universal theories pur-
port to know all and everything, everywhere, about the world. This hubris
is not only normatively suspect, it is philosophically nave. The world is
too much for any one theory to bear. It is an unmasterable presence,
a presence of the sort that empires and positivist knowledge could only
desperately struggle to contain.

F o r a T h i r d Wav e [191]

What we find in postcolonial thought, in short, is a post-positivist real-

ism of the sort that social science also articulates, and so we can ground
a postcolonial social theory in it. First, a postcolonial social theory would
not reduce to a sheer constructivism or culturalism of the kind that the
second-wave was (wrongly) accused of peddling. It would be realist at mini-
mum, recognizing that there is a world potentially independent of what we
think, say, or write about it. Are there are not empires, colonialisms, racial
structures, and violence? In other words, there is a world, signs and mean-
ings shape it, and vice-versa, but this is not the same thing as the radical
constructivist claim that the real is only textual. Second, while a postco-
lonial social theory would remain realist, it would not be conventionally
positivist. Admitting of a world while not admitting of the full knowability
of the world by a Cartesian knower, it would be post-positivist. It would rec-
ognize the fragmentary and potentially incomplete character of knowledge,
but remain confident in what it can and cannot know. Therefore, it would
not assume universal laws, or that universal laws are possible. At most, as
with other forms of post-positivist realism, it would strive for explanations
rather than covering laws and rich descriptions of patterns of power.5 And
it would recognize that no single theory explains everything. Its very ex-
planations of the unmasterable presence would live with their partiality.

Postcolonial-P erspectival Realism

A more precise way to articulate this post-positivist ontology and episte-

mology is to redeploy the perspectival realism discussed in Chapter Four
as a postcolonial-perspectival realism. As Iam appropriating it here, perspec-
tival realism recognizes the reality of the social world but denies that it is
wholly knowable within the terms of any single theory or conceptual ap-
paratus. To a degree, this approach converges with the critical realism of
Roy Bhaskar (1986), which has been subsequently adopted in sociology
viz., there are multiple layers of social reality, and social events are pro-
duced by multiple causal processes that are not explicable by any single
theoretical system.6 Perspectival realism similarly posits the complexity
of the social world, recognizing its infinite vastness, but it goes a step fur-
ther. The complexity of the social world is so vast that it is not only impos-
sible for any single theory to explain an event (which is critical realisms
interest) but for any single concept, category, or theory to fully apprehend
any social object, form, process, or relation.
To return to the discussion of standpoint epistemology in Chapter Four,
apprehending the full scope, scale, and space of a city requires multiple

[192] Postcolonial Thought


kinds of maps. No single map can cover everything. Each mapwhether

of the subway, of city parks, or of streets, is partial, as is any single theory.
Each map is, to go back to Edward Saids notion, untidy. But if no single
map can cover everything, it can cover something. Each map (or each theory
and concept) is partial, but each map offers partial knowledge about the
world nonetheless. In addition, each of these maps are created from a cer-
tain perspective; a certain standpoint.7 As discussed in Chapter Four, each
theory offers partial knowledge about the real world, but the content of
knowledge obtained or gained depends upon where the theorist stands.
There is no disembodied knower who can pull the god trick, just as there is
no empire that can see and know all. This perspectival realism, therefore,
rests comfortably with the implicit realism and standpoint epistemology
of postcolonial thought. It is the name that we can give to postcolonial
suppositions about the reality of the social and how we can come to know
some things about it. It is for this reason that it can be thought as postco-
lonial-perspectival realism.
Note how this postcolonial-perspectival realism facilitates a promising
theoretical pluralism within social science, supplanting positivist sociol-
ogys narrow theoretical monism and thus conjoining with Saids notion
of theorys untidiness.8 Perspectival realism does not oppose all existing
social theories. It would problematize the purported universalism of theo-
ries and other features of theories such as imperial binarism or essential-
ism while also accommodating a diverse array of theories. Its point is to
admit of the limits of each theory, hence abandoning any presumption of
their universality. It would live with the intrinsic partiality of social theo-
ries, their untidinessjust as Said implores. As Longino (2006:127)puts
it in regards to the theories in biologically based behavioral sciences, and
reiterating the tenets of perspectival realism in science, the multiplic-
ity of approaches is usefully addressed not by selecting the uniquely
correct one, but by appreciating the partiality of each. Again, this is not
to insinuate a radical constructivism that, in turn, falls prey to relativ-
ism, which denies that there are truths about the social world. Nor is this,
likewise, to fall into a postmodern world of incoherence or an uncritical
celebration of plurality, asserting that any perspective or theory is always
true. Recall from Chapter Four, each theory can and must be validated
through empirical examination. What it does mean, however, is that no
single theory can capture everything:the positivist universalism born of
the imperial episteme is implausible if not impossible. It also means that
if no single theory can capture everything, multiple theoretical truths are
both plausible and possible, as well as desirable. We need more maps. And
if some maps can be used to conquer, so can they be used to resist.

F o r a T h i r d Wav e [193]

Here we can return to postcolonial theorys ostensible Other:Marxism.

As seen throughout, postcolonial critics were skeptical of Marxist univer-
salism, and a postcolonial-perspectival realism would be skeptical, too.
Simply put, it would question universal claims. Yet it would not necessar-
ily toss out Marxist thought for some other presumably master map. It
could acknowledge, for instance, that Marxs theory of capital does indeed
capture critical social forms, dynamics, and processes within capital-
ism. It might even defer to Marxs theory of capital as arguably the most
powerful theory of capitalism available, in that it captures certain criti-
cal features of capitalist reality. Notably, Chakrabarty (1993:1094) pro-
nounces:Marxs critique of capital and commodity will be indispensable
for any critical understanding. But perspectival realism means that we
need not reject the insights of postcolonial thought just because we ac-
knowledge the power of Marxist theory. We need only recognize that each
mode of thinking can address different aspects of the same social world.
Marxs theory surely helps us understand the role that colonialism plays
in the accumulation of capital, as well as some aspects of colonial racism.
But it does not capture everything that might be important about colo-
nialism. Why, then, must we treat that theory as somehow opposed to or
mutually exclusive with Fanons theory of racial identity formation, Du
Boiss theory of double-consciousness, or Bhabhas conceptualization of
colonial ambivalence? All representations are partial, explains Kellert
etal. (2006:xv) of perspectival realism, in that any representation must
select a limited number of aspects of a phenomenon (else it would not
represent, but duplicate). This selective and partial character of represen-
tation means that alternative representations of a phenomenon can be
equally correct.
This is perhaps why Edward Said did not reject Marxist thought entirely.
Marxism, in so far as it is an orthodoxy, an ontology, even an epistemol-
ogy, strikes me as extraordinarily insufficient but Ive never indulged
in anti-Marxism either (Said 1992: 259). Or as Csaire says, we must
complete Marx, not reject him, and so a postcolonial social theory is not
obliged to cast out Marxs theory of capital for other theories. As with
Fanon, Csaire, or Chakrabarty, a postcolonial social theory grounded in
perspectival realism could readily accept Marxist thought, or other theo-
ries of the social, if validated empirically. The point is to recognize that
the theory might not tell us everything we might want to know about the
social world. Thus do dogmatic adherents of a certain Marxismor pu-
tative proponents of an imagined purist theoretical sociologyhave it
wrong (e.g., Chibber 2013). Wielding a positivist theoretical monism, they
would demand that we choose between the analytic power of Marxism

[194] Postcolonial Thought


and the insights of postcolonial theory. In so doing, they fail to recog-

nize Marxs own statements on social situatedness while problematically
reducing reality down to the narrow terms of a single theoretical appara-
tus.9 Must our social scientific hubris require such tricks of god?
The same principle, however, must be applied to postcolonial social
theory itself. It, too, has limits. More specifically, we can stage our two
preferred approaches postcolonial relationalism and the subaltern
standpointupon this same postcolonial-perspectival realism. On the
one hand, when proposing these two approaches as modes of a postco-
lonial sociology, we seem to run into trouble. How can postcolonial rela-
tionalism and the subaltern standpoint be articulated together? This is a
problem because relational theory could be seen as betraying the tenets
of standpoint theory. Its view of global connections appears to come from
high above, without a recognition of its own standpoint. In principle,
therefore, postcolonial relationalism and the subaltern standpoint ap-
proach appear to be fundamentally opposed. On the other hand, perspec-
tival realism offers a solution. By its terms, postcolonial relationalism is
indeed a situated knowledge, rooted in a standpoint. And by recognizing
this, and, in turn, embedding postcolonial relationalism and the subaltern
standpoint within the logical apparatus of perspectival realism, we can
see that neither approach contradicts the other, and that neither approach
is mutually exclusive or exhaustive. They are mutually complementary.
For instance, we have seen how the subaltern standpoint approach
embeds a particular view of social relations: it embeds the experiences and
views of those at the bottom ends of the imperial hierarchy. As such, it offers
particular insights, categories, and concerns that conventional social theo-
ries reflecting a different standpoint have occluded. This is a boon for push-
ing social science in new directions, but it is not to say that those particular
insights, categories, and concerns offer everything we need to know. They
just offer things we did not know before, because the imperial episteme
had covered them up.10 At the same time, our other approach, postcolonial
relationalism, must also be seen as a standpoint. Said (1993: 51) contends
that contrapuntal analysis involves looking at the historical archive with a
simultaneous awareness both of the metropolitan history that is narrated
and of those other histories against which (and together with which) the
dominating discourse acts. This intimates that postcolonial relationalism
is the standpoint of convergence, of intersection, of interaction. It is a place
where forces converge and where they are more readily evidenced. Much
like Marx found in the factory the standpoint from which to derive the
secret of profit-making, so too is relational theory an epistemic location
from which to view imperial and post-imperial connectedness. This space

F o r a T h i r d Wav e [195]

is not the space of a presumably pristine subaltern, isolated from exter-

nal cultural forces. But neither is it the space of the omnipotent Cartesian
knower; the imperial panopticon. It is more like the space of the hybrid, the
interstitial, the in-between theorized by Bhabha. This is perhaps why the
contrapuntal concept originates with Fernando Ortiz, from the standpoint
of a colony, Cuba, where cultural, social, ethnic, and political hybridities
were so palpable. Colonies are contact zones where intersocietal connec-
tions and relations coalesce, and where they are all the more visible (Pratt
1992).11 It can also be thought of as the position of accumulation: the point
at which different standpoints coalesce to offer a wide view on the con-
nections between them: a view not from the colony or from the metropole
but the view of relations adduced from the knowledge arising from both.
Contrapuntal histories thus become possible when and where the differ-
ent knowledges from different standpoints accrue.12 In any case, it emerges
from a standpoint; and as such, it offers knowledge that is valuable but by
no means any more complete or total than that emerging from any other
single standpoint.
Postcolonial-perspectival realism, in short, relies upon a standpoint
epistemology, and logic demands that it is not outside of its own supposi-
tions. It cannot, in other words, demand another universal knowledge in
place of the old, but neither can it resort to particularistic knowledge only.
If anything, it unsettles the binary between universalism and particular-
ism:all universals are particular. It thus approximates Csaires notion of
the universal, a universal rich with all that is particular, rich with all the
particulars there are, the deepening of each particular, the coexistence of
them all (2010 [1956]). It is in this sense appropriate that postcolonial-
perspectivalism is partly rooted in standpoint epistemology, and that
standpoint theory goes back to Hegelian thought, which frames Csaires
rethinking of universalism. After all, Hegelian thought is not exactly a
European-specific theory; its standpoint lies elsewhere. As Buck-Morss
(2009) shows, Hegels standpoint theory was itself derived from Hegels
consideration of the slave revolt in Haiti. It is by contemplating the lived
experiences of Haitian slaves during French rule that Hegel arrived at his
idea of the master-slave dialectic. Hegels implicit standpoint theory, in
other words, is a product of Hegels own implicit standpoint approach.
Standpoint theory is a product of the scene of colonial domination and, as
well, of the very sociality of knowledge production that it uniquely theo-
rizes. It is a product of itself.
But all of this is admittedly if not hopelessly abstract. We have perhaps
lost the main point. What is postcolonial social theory, after all? And why
might it be relevanttoday?

[196] Postcolonial Thought



To be clear, postcolonial social theory is not a theory in the sense of

a set of ordered hypotheses about the social world; or, in the sense of a
singular logically integrated causal explanation (Calhoun 1995: 5). It
does not worry about Homanss requirement that theory must involve a
particular causal explanation (Homans 1964). It might and does include
certain causal statements. Postcolonial relationalism, in particular, would
carry causal statements (e.g., metropolitan imperial powers accumulated
wealth through colonialism, or colonizer and colonized shaped their
identities in relation to each other). But postcolonial social theory is not
restricted to such casual claims. Instead, postcolonial social theory can
be seen more broadly as a perspective or worldview: a Weltanschauung,
that is, an overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the
world (Abend 2008). From this perspective, one might derive hypo-
thetical causal statements. But postcolonial social theory is more akin to
Marxist theory, feminist theory, poststructuralism, or queer theory:it is
one particular way among others of looking at the social world. This way
of looking sees the world in terms of colonial and imperial relations and
their legacies, much in the same way that Marxist theory sees the world in
terms of capitalism, feminist theory in terms of gender, or queer theory
in terms of sexuality. Postcolonial social theory is a way of looking at the
world that recognizes that social forms, relations, social knowledge, and
culture generallyas well the social sciences themselvesare embedded
within a history and structure of global hierarchy and relations of power.
Empire, both in the past and in the current moment, has a social presence.
Postcolonial social theory recognizes this presence and seeks to dislodge
social knowledge fromit.
Accordingly, a postcolonial social theory proceeds through at least two
main steps:critique and reconstruction. The first step is about interrogat-
ing extant sociological theory and research to isolate and extricate those
elements that reproduce rather than contest the imperial episteme. The
second is about offering lenses, concepts, or categories for developing
postcolonial sociological accounts of society, rather than accounts that re-
produce the imperial episteme. This book has begun thetask.
But is the task worth pursuing? The premise of this book is that the
postcolonial challenge to social theory is worth accepting, but this de-
pends upon the assumption that postcolonial thought itself is worth con-
sidering. Is it?13 Is postcolonial theory still relevant today? Earlier, Inoted
that the legacies of empire are pervasive in the Global North as well as the
South. This itself should warrant the importance of postcolonial thought.

F o r a T h i r d Wav e [197]

But not only do imperial legacies exist everywhere, there are also persis-
tent imperialisms in various guises. The forms of imperial exclusion, for
example, have not disappeared. In metropoles around the world, from
the sunny streets of Los Angeles to the arid lands of central Spain or the
damp recesses of London, immigrants from the metropoles former col-
onies remain in abject subjection. Full citizenship rights remain out of
their reach just as had been the case for many of their great-grandparents
when they were subjects, not citizens, of empire. Citizenship seems like
a new line of stratification:voting rights, health benefits, jobsso much
depends upon it. But this is the same line of stratification that consti-
tuted inequality within the colonial empires. Citizenship today is merely
the hierarchy of empire reinscribed onto the structures of an ostensibly
Nor has imperialistic aggression been chained; neoimperial formations
are forged and reproduced. The United States keeps Guantanamo open and
a military presence in the Middle East, even as its occupation of Iraq has
officially ended. France still reaches down into Mali when it feels compelled
to uproot terrorists. Putins Russia annexes Crimea and cultivates neoim-
perial client regimes. Chinas neighbors fearand sometimes welcome
the rise of China as a new empire in Asia. Our postcolonial era is rife with
colonial hauntings, even as former imperial states struggle to exorcise
them and rising states summon them. And these neoimperialists cannot
do without new ideological scaffolds. They might not represent Muslims
as racially inferior and, hence, demand that they be invaded because of
their race, but they nonetheless code Muslims as inferior because of their
presumed religious fundamentalism. They might assert that Afghanis are
not necessarily ignorant and backward, but they still will proclaim that
foreign control is necessary because Afghanistan lacks stable economic,
political, and social institutions. Today, decades after the apparent end of
empire and the historicist schemas that justified it, there are peoples who
are still consigned to historys waiting room. Because of their religion or
lower level of development, they are not yet worthy of full independence
within the global system. Meanwhile, separatist movements from the
Southern Philippines to Quebec, calls for regional autonomy from Hawaii
or Catalonia, and antiracist struggles in Copenhagen and Brooklyn persist,
fighting the legacies of colonial division. And everywhere indigenous peo-
ples proclaim rights upon postcolonial states, sharing an identity of prior
colonization and dispossession, even as the nativist stances they adopt are
partly legacies of colonial discourse.
All of this to highlight the continued power of empire upon our con-
temporary world, hence to suggest the continued fertility of postcolonial

[198] Postcolonial Thought


thought. Yet, we might accept this and still reject postcolonial social
theory. There is an important tradition within Marxism, for instance, that
has long criticized imperialism, one that goes back to Marxs own writings
and continues through thinkers like Lenin, Hilferding, and Luxemburg
among others. And while Marxisms approach to imperialism focuses nar-
rowly upon the economic aspects of imperialism, postcolonial theory em-
phasizes the cultures of colonialism and empire. Unlike Marxist thought,
to which it is surely indebted, postcolonial theory adopts a sustained in-
terest in matters such as racial difference and formations of knowledge.
To some, therefore, the very fact that postcolonial theory focuses upon
culture renders it meaningless for addressing more important material
issues of the contemporary world. What about starvation and poverty?
Evidently, all we need is a recognition that people need to eatand capi-
talism prevents them doing so (Ahmad 1994; Chibber 2013; Parry 2012).
As we have seen, however, postcolonial thought does not only address
culture, and at any rate its cultural critique is not just a critique of seem-
ingly superfluous forms such as novels. It is also about knowledgeabout
classification and categorization. It does not occur to self-appointed mate-
rialist critics of postcolonial theory that the very definition of capitalism,
the meaning of seemingly objective matters like food and what counts
as food, and the policies by which material issues are to be alleviated or
not alleviateda ll of these are questions of culture and knowledge (as
Marshall Sahlins demonstrated long ago).14 Which policies and plans
can solve these more fundamental matters? Neoliberalism? Socialism?
Keynesianism? Neoimperial intervention? These are based upon culture
rather than outside of it. They are articulated as meanings rather than ma-
terials. And so, too, is the very distinction between subjective and ob-
jective, the cultural and material, by which some critics would mount
their intellectual assault upon so-called culturalism.
There is something disconcerting, then, in the relentless insistence
among critics of postcolonial thought that materiality is not a matter of
culture. This is an impoverished notion, or at least it is highly questionable.
Apure materialism is impossible. So, too, then, is the reading of postco-
lonial theory as little else than an emphasis upon cultural particularism.
In this reading, postcolonial theory boils down to a romanticization of par-
ticularism and subjectivism that is opposed to universalism and objectiv-
ity; a useless theory of difference that overlooks sameness (Chibber 2013).
But this reading of postcolonial theory is in equal parts unfortunate and
violently reductive. As seen, postcolonial thought is not opposed to univer-
salism while naively promoting particularism. If anything, it questions the
opposition between the two, problematizing the form of universalism that

F o r a T h i r d Wav e [199]

is hostile to difference and that covers up the particularity of the seem-

ingly universal (Wilder 2015). It is true that certain readings of Marx allow
that Marx himself also critiqued the opposition between the two; that his
analysis of capitalism grounds particularism as a product of capitalist uni-
versalism; that his theory of capitalism theorizes difference and sameness
at once (Chakrabarty 2000; Postone 1996). But it does not follow from this
recognition that all other attempts to critique the opposition between uni-
versalism and particularism are in vainunless one is a dogmatic theo-
retical monist who ignores the insights of perspectival realism.15
Although there are those who insist that postcolonial thought is irrel-
evant on these grounds, there are also those who might insist on other
grounds that it is profoundly dangerous. This skepticism of postcolonial
thought points to how fundamentalist terrorist groups deploy anticolo-
nial and anti-Western discourse that seems to fit with the anticolonial and
putatively anti-Western bent of postcolonial thought. Proponents of this
view might illuminate, for instance, that the Islamic State (IS) espouses
an anticolonial/anti-Western rhetoric and ties it to a critique of scientific
knowledge and the Enlightenment. The rhetoric of IS calls for a reinscrip-
tion of religious (in this case, Islamic) identity as the basis for society; and
it does so by implicit reference to the postmodern-postcolonial critique of
Western rationalism. It would appear that the violence of Western impe-
rialism and the Enlightenment that produced it is to be countered with
religious fundamentalism. Does not the fact that such movements use
discourse that seems to resonate with postcolonial thought disclose how
hazardous postcolonial thought actuallyis?
The problem with this argument is that it gets postcolonial theory
wrong. Postcolonial thought does not critique Western rationalism in and
of itself. It critiques it for how it has been part of the imperial episteme
that binarizes, essentializes, and homogenizes identities. Postcolonial
thought is a critique of fundamentalist identities of all sorts, whether
originating from imperial metropoles or from others. In this sense, the
Islamic State or other similar movements do not, in fact, rely upon postco-
lonial thought. The Islamic State does not critique Western rationalism to
problematize essentialism; it does so to endorse essentialism. The Islamic
State selectively appropriates postcolonial thought, adopting its critique of
science but excluding the critique of binaries and essentialisms to which
postcolonial thought is necessarily tethered.
Postcolonial thinkers are not silent on this. Postcolonial thought is
as much against nativism and reverse ethnocentrism as it is against
western representations of natives (Moore-Gilbert 1997:8687). Edward
Said was unequivocal:he declared himself to be against essentialisms of

[200] Postcolonial Thought


all kinds, whether Orientalism or reverse Orientalism. Both are part of

the imperial episteme, which has been historically created through impe-
rialism and which has been internalized by fundamentalist movements
around the world. In Culture and Imperialism, Said (1993:xiii, 311)accord-
ingly wrote about the shared ground of Orientalist discourse of terrorism
in the West and varieties of religious and nationalist fundamentalism in
the formerly colonized world. He warned of the proliferation of essen-
tializations everywhere, not just in theWest:

Thus Muslims or Africans or Indians or Japanese, in their idioms and from

within their own threatened localities, attack the West, or Americanization,
or imperialism, with little more attention to detail, critical differentiation,
discrimination and distinction than has been lavished on them by the West.
[] Africanizing the African, Orientalizing the Oriental, Westernizing the
Western, Americanizing the American [this is] a pattern that has been held
over from the era of classical imperialism and its systems. (1993:311)

Said thus charges all forms of nativism, and the tremendous ressenti-
ment that fuels it, as dangerous legacies of the culture of empire that
must be critiqued. To accept nativism, he argues, is to accept the con-
sequences of imperialism too willingly. It merely reproduces the meta-
physics of essences like negritude, Irishness, Islam and Catholicism
(1993:22829). The fact that groups like the Islamic State continue to es-
pouse centrisms, nativisms, and fundamentalisms vindicates rather than
vitiates the postcolonial critique of essentialism (or substantivism) and
imperial binarism (or analytic bifurcation). Like the persistence of other
imperial legacies, it suggests how necessary postcolonial thought really
Still, there is a stronger version of the argument for postcolonial social
theory to be made; though it is less of an argument than a foreboding. As
the center of global gravity shifts away from the previous Anglo-European-
centered empires and toward other ones, and as voices from across the
Global South rightfully demand to be heard, social science must cast off
the legacies of the imperial episteme lest it crater under the oppressive
weight of its own provinciality. Social science neglects the postcolonial
challenge at its own peril. At the very least, if postcolonial thought is not
the only way to globalize social theory, rejecting it outright forces social
science to run afoul of its own self-stated mission to apprehend critically
the world that confronts us. This not only would bode ill for social science,
it might also be the death knell for postcolonial thought, whose future
vitality could very well depend upon the very social science that some of

F o r a T h i r d Wav e [201]

its proponents mistakenly have underestimated. Although postcolonial

thought and social theory emerge from distinct historical genealogies and
social contexts, their continued relevance today and into the future re-
quires not their persistent mutual opposition but rather their synthetic
elaboration: a rising third wave of critical post-colonial knowledge that
draws upon and elevatesboth.

[202] Postcolonial Thought



1. Idefine empire as a transnational political formation by which a state exerts
power and influence over weaker societies. It can be formal, as in colonial,
when the state declares direct sovereignty over territory; or it can be informal,
as when the state exerts power through a variety of other means besides direct
political control through usurpations of sovereignty. For these conceptualiza-
tions see Go (2011).
2. Hund (2014:2627) notes that although Comte has been typically taken to be
the first to coin the term sociology, an earlier usage can be found in the work of
Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes, who conceptualized sociology as the study of the col-
lective and contended that the lower social classes were inferior to the proper-
tied (and hence politically incapable).
3. On International Relations and political science, for example, see Vitalis (2015)
and Schmidt (2008).
4. Sociologys ontological moorings, categories, and modes of analysis, note
Kempel and Mawani (2009:238)have been fundamentally structured by im-
perial pursuits and formed within cultures of colonialism. Exploring exactly
how, to what extent, and to what lasting effect is a crucial nextstep.
5. On anticolonialism in the metropoles, there is a lot of work, but see especially
Howe (1993) and, for a direct line with postcolonial theory, Brennan (2001).
6. For formative discussions of the promises and pitfalls of the term postcolo-
nial within postcolonial studies, see Shohat (1992) and McClintok (1992).
7. Throughout this book Iwill speak of postcolonial thought to refer to the ideas
associated with this postcolonial project. I use the term postcolonial theory
sometimes interchangeably but more precisely to refer to those sets of abstract
concepts that formalize postcolonial thought; and postcolonial studies to refer
to the academic practice of using and developing postcolonial thought and theory.
8. As Bhambra (2007b) notes, postcolonial thought is yet another missing revolu-
tion in sociology.
9. For just some of many discussions, readers, and overviews on postcolonial
theory in the humanities, whether critical or affirmative, see Ahmad (1994),
Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin (1995), Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin (2000),
Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin (2002), Gandhi (1998), Lazarus (2011), Loomba
(1998), Moore-Gilbert (1997), Parry (1987), Williams and Chrisman (1994b),
and Young (1990,2001).
10. In the United Kingdom, Stuart Hall (1996b) and Paul Gilroy (1993), who have
been institutionally affiliated with sociology sporadically, could be said to be
strong early proponents of postcolonial thought within the social sciences.

11. The literature on Du Bois, his marginalization, and the history of sociology in
relation, is growing. Besides early statements by Katznelson (1999) and McKee
(1993), among others, see especially Morris (2007, 2015), whose work is de-
finitive. See also Bhambra (2014) and Magubane (2005, 2014). On Du Bois and
James, see Itzigsohn (2013).
12. The explicit rejection of postcolonial theory by some sociologists (e.g., Chibber
[2013]) is also indicative of the lack of a postcolonial sociology. Alternatively,
the study of colonialism and empire has become more prominent among his-
torical sociologists (e.g., see reviews in Go 2009 and Steinmetz 2013a). But even
then, postcolonial critiques of knowledge havenot.
13. For other helpful discussions of these positions, see Kempel and Mawani (2009)
and McLennan (2003,2013).
14. These literatures will be discussed throughout chapters to come, but for recent
work in sociology on postcolonial studies and sociology, see Bhambra (2007a),
Gutirrez Rodrguez, Boatc, and Costa (2010), Kempel and Mawani (2009) and
the essays in Go (2013c). On indigenous sociology, decolonial thought, Southern
theory, or alternative discourses, see Akiwowo (1999), Alatas (2006a), Alatas
(2006b), Connell (2007), Grosfoguel (2007), Grosfoguel (2008), and Patel
(2010a; 2010b). On Latin American parallels or precursors to postcolonial
thought, see the discussion by Bortoluci and Jansen (2013). There are also sug-
gestive developments in the field of International Relations (IR). See especially
Hobson (2012) for a critique of IR Eurocentrism and, for postcolonial IR, Darby
and Paolini (1994), Darby (2006), and Shilliam (2006).

1. It would be impossible to cover all thinkers who have contributed to postcolo-
nial thought. The ones listed and discussed here are those who are considered
most influential by most accounts. We might include, for example, revolution-
ary leaders like Mao Tse Tung (Zimmerman 2013b) or literary writers, scholars,
or diplomats like Octavio Paz (Kozlarek 2013). For other lists and overviews,
see Brennan (2014), Young (2001), and Kohn and McBride (2011). This chapter
will focus upon the more representative thinkers and discuss their overarching
shared themes.
2. Zahar (1974) argues that Fanons theory of racial identity was a Marxist-inspired
theory that drew heavily from Marxs theory of alienation.
3. On Fanon and Du Bois on double consciousness, see Black (2007).
4. Orig. from 1897, as the Strivings of the Negro People and then republished
in Du Bois (1994 [1903]). The concept double consciousness had been used in
the new field of psychology to refer to cases of split personality. It also had been
used by William James, who was Du Boiss mentor (Dickson 1992:300).
5. Before Fanon, W.E. B.Du Bois did much of the groundwork for theorizing race
as a social construction:see Morris (2015) on this especially.
6. Du Bois registers a similar point about mutual constitution and the colonial
construction of race in his Darkwater (1920). He declares that whiteness is
a very modern thinga nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed.
The ancient world would have laughed at such a distinction; a new religion of
whiteness that was a recent discovery of imperialism (30).
7. As Nandy (1983: 30) observes, it is thus due to Fanons work that we know
something about the interpersonal patterns which constituted the colonial
situation. But Memmis Colonizer and Colonized (1965 [1957]) must also be


mentioned. The colonizer and colonized are chained in an implacable depen-

dence. According to Le Sueur (2001:238), this was one of the most influential
theoretical contributions to the question of identity vis--v is colonialism and
8. For more on this, see Ciccariello-Maher (2008:146).
9. Pithouse (2003) offers an excellent analysis of Fanons humanism and his cri-
tique of European humanism.
10. On the emergence of racial psychiatry after World War II, see Bains (2005).
11. For Geuxs influence on Fanon, see Macey (2000:19598).
12. As Jamison (2010:185)observes:Fanons analysis and critiques of psychoana-
lytic thinkers considered to be pioneers in traditional psychology offer an early
intellectual assault on the assumed universality of psychological principles.
13. There is, of course, much work on Marxs relationship to the Enlightenment,
but for an early seminal discussion, see Hook (1968). Horkheimer and Adornos
Dialectic of Enlightenment (2002) stands as an exemplary critique of the
Enlightenment from a Marxist perspective, one that targeted fascism in a way
that is not entirely incompatible with the first-waves critique of colonialism.
14. For more on these aspects of Cabrals thinking, see Rabaka (2010:24653).
15. Contemporaries who might also be considered part of the first-wave, such as
C.L. R.James or Walter Rodney, were more equivocal about their Marxist theo-
retical loyalties. On James, see Martin (2006). For an overview of the Black
Marxism tradition, see Robinson (2000).
16. On the vexed relationship Csaire had with Communist Marxist thought, see
Rabaka (2010:12224).
17. Edward Said quoted in Jhally (1998).
18. For the second-wave, we might add Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall in the United
Kingdom, or Ashis Nandy in South Asia, other U.S.-based thinkers such as
Abdul JanMohamed or Gyan Prakash, and more recently Latin American-
oriented thinkers like Enrique Dussel or Walter Mignolo, among others. Many
of these writers mainly draw upon or write in response to the key ideas of Said,
Bhabha, Spivak, and the subaltern studies school. Ifocus upon the latter here
while bringing in the other thinkers when appropriate.
19. This is not to neglect the fact that some of the ideas in Orientalism had been
prefigured by other scholars, including Anouar Abdel-Malek (1963), whom Said
cites, and Turner (1978). Said also was influenced by Alatass Myth of the Lazy
Native (1977), but it was Orientalism that became the key text, deservedly ornot.
20. This passage was curiously removed from the later publication of the original
version of The Other Question (Bhabha 1994:74).
21. For an extended discussion of Gramscis reception by second-wave postcolonial
thinkers, see Brennan (2001).
22. See Howe (2007) for a nuanced approach to Saids complicated relationship to
Marxism; see also, Gandhi (1998), pp.7074.
23. The second- wave critique of Marxist thought prompted various counter-
critiques and defenses, along with a number of qualifiers, clarifications, and
synthetic elaborations. The literature is massive but for just some of the key
works and overviews, see Ahmad (1994), the essays in Bartolovich and Lazarus
(2002), and Lazarus (2011). Idiscuss more on Marx and postcolonial thought in
Chapter Two and in the Conclusion.
24. See Chakrabartys (2000:12)reference to Hobsbawms language here, including

Notes [205]

25. Key to it is the idea that some kind of entity, an individual or a whole, develops
over time. This does not necessarily imply teleology, but central to this idea is
that notion of development and the assumption that a certain amount of time
elapses in the very process of development (Chakrabarty 2000:23).
26. Critics dismiss Chakrabartys argument here by saying that Chakrabarty is him-
self Eurocentric for implying that Reason or modernity originates in and is
only for Europeans (e.g., Chibber 2013). But Europe for Chakrabarty is not just
a geographical entity, it is also a sign or idea; the hyperreal Europe or figure of
imagination (Chakrabarty 2000:27). To say that Europe imposed Reason onto
the world is merely to claim how colonizers classified themselves in a certain
way (European) and connected this sign with modernity and Reason in
opposition to those they classified as non-European and hence premodern or
27. Prakashs (1994:1485)characterization of one of the implications of subaltern
studies is fitting:the inescapable conclusion from such analyses is that his-
tory, authorized by European imperialism and the Indian nation-state, func-
tions as a discipline, empowering certain forms of knowledge while disempow-
ering others. The process of epistemic violence here is arguably what Sousa
Santos (2014) would later refer to as simply epistemicide.
28. Spivak began in academic philosophy; as many scholars have noted, her writings
are difficult, nondisciplinary, and often obtuse. Her contributions are wide and
multidimensional. Here Ihighlight just some of her main interventions.
29. This intervention partly goes back to one of her earlier notable pieces, French
Feminism in an International Frame (1981), wherein Spivak criticizes the study
of literature by feminists for overlooking colonialism and likewise First World
Feminism for occluding Third World women in their analyses. In later work
(Spivak 1986)she offers close readings of novels like Emily Brontes Jane Eyre
and Jean Rhys Wide Sargasso Sea (the prequel to Jane Eyre written by Jean Rhys)
to demonstrate how the agency of feminist protagonists often depends upon a
silent imperial backdrop.
30. See Chakrabarty (2002:17)for his analysis of Spivaks contributions to subal-
tern studies.
31. In her Rami of Sirmur, for instance, Spivak (1985: 147) reads colonial records
and finds evidence of a woman, Rani, but she then shows how this woman only
appears as she is in the space of imperial production. There is no real Rani to
be found; she is only the product of an interested colonial regime.
32. See Parry (1995: 43) who argues that Spivaks analysisand Bhabhasadmit
of no point outside of discourse from which opposition can be engendered. Lata
Manis (1998) work on sati does show the ability to recover, however partially, a
womans consciousness from the archive.
33. Another notable difference is that thinkers writing about the South Asian colo-
nial context were prominent in the second wave, whereas many thinkers of the
first wave were connected to the Francophone world and/or the Transatlantic.
On the second waves South Asian focus, see Krishnan (2009).
34. Williams and Chrisman (1994). For a critical review of this approach, see Parry
35. See especially Prakash (2000), pp.28788.
36. In an interview published in 1993, Spivak said that her two most misunderstood
ideas were Can the Subaltern Speak and strategic essentialism (Spivak,
Danius, and Jonsson1993).


37. In raising this issue of a strategic use of positive essentialism, one of her ref-
erences is Marxs notion of concrete labor and the money-form. See Spivak
(1988c), p.205.
38. Affirmative deconstruction in Derrida refers to deconstructive readings that
open up the possibility for new alternative understandings of that which is de-
constructed. Derrida, for instance, suggests using affirmative deconstruction
to a given concept of democracy so as to open up the possibility of a different
way of understanding democracy (see Roffe and Reynolds 2004: 33). Spivak
(1988b: 202) stated that part of her work has involved specifying aspects of
Derridas work that retain a long-term usefulness for people outside the First
39. On Bhabhas notion of resistance, see Moore-Gilbert (1997:13034).
40. In an interview, he says, all forms of culture are continually in a process of
hybridity; because the act of cultural translation (both as representation and
as reproduction) denies the essentialism of a prior given original or originary
culture (Bhabha and Rutherford 1990:211). It is exactly Bhabhas attempt to
formulate resistance without a subject that leads his model of resistance to sug-
gest that the colonizeds agency is only unconscious. This, according to critics
like Moore-Gilbert (1997:133)is problematic. But it does prevent a traditional
recourse to humanism.
41. See also, for a related formulation, Gyan Prakashs (1994, 1999, 2000)attempt to
work with the figure of the subaltern as marking the absolute limit of thought.

1. Cabral (1974:59).
2. For an excellent discussion of the various types of violences of knowledge see
Guhin and Wyrtzen (2013).
3. See Amster (2013:62).
4. For an excellent critical history of objectivity in science, see Daston and
Galison (2007).
5. On these points, see Abend (2008:180)and Jay (1996:169).
6. The very concept of society is meant to be universal. As Eric Wolf (1988:759)re-
veals, when it first emerged as a concept it was meant to be applicable to all
times and everywhere, as part of universal Enlightenment.
7. Kempel and Mawani (2009:238)claim that a postcolonial sociology must prob-
lematize assumptions concerning its [social sciences] abstract generalizability
and unsettle its universalizing claims. Mawani (2014) in another context im-
plies that a sociological analysis of the rise and fall of empires cannot qualify as
a postcolonial sociology on similar grounds:evidently, postcolonial thought is
opposed to comparative realist analysis identifying recurrent patterns.
8. From the outset, Fanon stresses that psychoanalysis may not in fact provide a
full explanation and insists that a theory of phylogeny and ontogeny must be
complemented by one of sociogeny:the black mans alienation is not an indi-
vidual question, and its causes are socially determined (Macy 2000:187).
9. If not disingenuous, they are at least contradictory. Hence, one cannot cri-
tique sociological identifications of recurrent patterns through comparative
analysis on the grounds of postcolonial thought, for the latter itself depends
upon identifying recurrent patterns through an implicit comparative analy-
sis (patterns of, say, colonial domination being dependent upon knowledge

Notes [207]

10. Seth (2009) draws upon postcolonial theory to criticize sociology on the grounds
that it does not recognize how knowledge constitutes the social; that it fails to
acknowledge that knowledge can create, not merely describe (337). But this is
a critique of traditional positivist sociology and does not refer to the multiple
ways in which sociology has indeed problematized and theorized knowledge.
Critical realism, for instance, is premised upon the idea that knowledge can
both describe and constitute the real (see Steinmetz1998).
11. Post-foundationalism does not mean abandoning abstract and generalized
thinking, systematic empirical research, or arguments about social truths. What
post-foundationalism suggests, rather, is that we theorize or do research from a
socially situated point of view, that social interests and values shape our ideas,
that our social understandings are also part of the shaping of social life. Thus
instead of hard and fast truths, post-foundationalism means credible or per-
suasive arguments; instead of speaking of research testing theory, they would
be apt to speak of how social analysis involves a multi-level argumentation that
moves between analytical reasoning, empirical data, and normative clarification,
while remaining reflective about its own practical social implications (Seidman
and Alexander 2001:2). Post-positivist projects include standpoint theory, which
Idiscuss in Chapter Four, realism and its variants like critical realism (Steinmetz
1998, 2004); and recent articulations of interpretative social science that align
with postcolonial theorys emphasis upon subjectivity and culture (Reed2008).
12. Though, for some, it does. McLennan (2003) intimates that because the
postmodernpostcolonial critique depends upon a baseline sociology, there is
very little sociology can learn from postcolonial theory.
13. This literature on the sociology of scientific knowledge is massive, but seminal
studies include Pickering (1984) and Shapin and Shaffer (1985). An early review
is Shapin (1998).
14. On Foucault and Smith, see Satka and Skehill (2012).
15. Postcolonial thought here is alive to the reciprocal relationship between knowl-
edge and power, but it brings Foucault and Nietzsche to where neither had gone:
the imperial stage.
16. For feminist scholars working in the Hegelian tradition, a standpoint is an ac-
complishment of historical struggle. In a later chapter we will see more on this.
When discussing sociologys standpoint here, Imean to refer first and foremost
to social theorys perspective or viewpoint that is shaped by its historical
and institutional position.
17. See also Farris (2010:26869).
18. Quoted in Chandra (1981:32)
19. Anderson (2010) argues that Marx did not completely occlude ethnicity or race
in his writings; nor did he condemn countries like India to backward stagna-
tion. Kurasawa (2004:2224) also defends classical thinkers and their portrayal
of non-Western societies, rightly pointing out that social theorists represen-
tations of non-Western peoples oscillated between condescension and admira-
tion. This, however, does not make them less Orientalist:it is not condescension
that characterizes Orientalism but the essentialism that characterizes even the
most approving celebration of, say, the noble savage.
20. For instance, Weber explained imperial expansion as resulting from national
prestige (Weber 1978:II,914).
21. We can find, in Durkheims corpus, other writings that addressed imperial-
ism, in the sense that he addressed German militarism, which he saw as an


aberration from an otherwise normal course of development (Durkheim 1986;

see also Seidman 2013: 41).
22. Some scholars have tried to reread a less externalist role for primitive accumula-
tion in Marxist theory. See Perelman (2000) and Harvey (2003).
23. It is true that scholars could derive powerful analyses of empire and colonialism
from Marxs categories, but this merely attests to the importance of the post-
colonial critique, which is the body of thought that prompts such efforts in the
24. If Marx was exceptional at all in his thinking, it is arguably because of his own
marginality to this elite, as Anderson (2010) implies.
25. See also Steinmetz (2013:4143).
26. Although more recent works have begun to explore empire (Go 2009; Steinmetz
2013a, 2013b), these are exceptions that prove the rule. And they do not often
show the constitutive role of empire in making modernity. Instead, they take
empire as an analytic object but have not yet let the analysis of it trouble social
theorys basic categories (Go 2009:10).
27. For an alternative sociological account of how the nation-state is borne from
empires, see Wimmer and Feinstein (2010).
28. And although Tilly places much emphasis on the role of war-making for state-
making, most of the wars he pinpoints as critical were imperial wars or wars of
conquest overseas, occurring thus either outside Europe or as wars for terri-
tory outside Europe (see Tilly 1990:16581).
29. Sociologists and social theorists are no strangers to questions of agency. The
agencystructure problematic discussed in Giddens (1986) or Bourdieu (1990)
and a host of related concepts have long been a part of the sociological theoreti-
cal apparatus. Pragmatism in sociology also grapples with agency (Emirbayer
and Mische 1998). But this approach to agency is specific to questions about how
social actors negotiate and reproduce structures in the abstractuniversalizing
theories meant to capture processes de-contextuallywhile the agency prob-
lematic raised in postcolonial thought is less about these theoretical abstrac-
tions and more about concretely analyzing how subject or marginalized popu-
lations specifically negotiate power relations and the intertwined histories of
metropolitan and subaltern actors. For a more context-specific discussion of
agency, see Adams (2011). Note, too, how the emphasis upon inner lives (habi-
tus, or consciousness) as the locus of agency almost automatically militates
against permitting subaltern agency, because as we know from subaltern stud-
ies, the archives, or data are biased against us recovering such deep subjectivi-
ties of colonized, poor, and often illiterate populations.
30. There are parallel concepts already in sociology. Bourdieu and Wacquant (1999),
for example, speak of the cunning of imperialist reason when discussing the
way in which the race concept spread from the United States to other countries
where race takes on a very different inflection (though it remains to be seen
whether Bourdieu would apply the critique to his own work:should we take his
concept of cultural capital studied in the context of France to the United States,
the Philippines, and South Africa?) We also can think of this as a sustained use
of European model systems, as Krause (forthcoming) usefully refers to them.
Another name might be conceptual stretching, while Steinmetz (2004:387
89) identifies it as incommensurability. But given the power differentials in-
volved, metrocentrism if not epistemic violence is probably the more apt way to
label it. Steinmetz recognizes that such incommensurability can produce bad

Notes [209]

social science and hence, that the problem poses a serious challenge to projects
of comparison. But he also claims it is not as much of a problem as it might
appear, because it is merely a problem of conceptual abstraction and there is no
intrinsic connection between the violence of abstraction and real violencein
imperialistic contexts or otherwise. In other words, because incommensurably
is not proven to be practically complicit with imperial violence, it is not prob-
lematic. But this defense will not appease skeptics. Even if epistemic violence
does not necessarily, in itself, lead to real violence, it is still problematic. It
yields, as Steinmetz (2004:389)says, bad social science. For a recent analysis
of the varied relations between epistemic and real violence, see Guhin and
Wyrtzen (2013).
31. Wallerstein (1997: 94) locates this Newtonian-Cartesian view of science as
the key assumption of Eurocentric universalism. It implies the persona of
the scholar was irrelevant, since scholars were operating as value-neutral ana-
lysts. And the locus of the empirical evidence could be essentially ignored, pro-
vided the data were handled correctly, since the processes were thought to be
32. Recall that, in Marxs view, Adam Smith carried out a form of fetishism because
he transposed the categories and theories specific to one society, capitalist
societysuch as those relating to rational actorhood and homo economicus or
supply and demandto all societies in the world, extending them back to pre-
capitalist societies. Yet, it is also telling that Marxs term fetishism derived
from Europeans colonial encounters with Africans.
33. As Reed (2013:165)usefully stresses, the power of Northern Theory in sociol-
ogy is not really located in the classical theorists, in canon construction, or in
reinterpretation of intellectual histories; it is, rather, encoded in the theories of
the middle range, the analytical schemas, and the well-honed, widely accepted
explanations that are used to construct sociological understandings of certain
well-established social phenomena.
34. It is ironic that sociologists of the state have leveled criticisms of Bourdieus
theory of the state nobility. Bourdieus theory of the state, in this critique, is
derived from the French experience and, therefore, not applicable to the United
States or other European countries. But we hear less from these critics about
how social science transposes state theory to the rest of theworld
35. See Jessops account of the theoretical interest in the state in Jessop
36. Historians were more likely to engage in studies of the state that took local
agency into account. See, for instance, Joseph and Nugent (1994). As for work
on slavery, one exception is Orlando Pattersons (1991) work on slavery, but too
often this work is not considered part of historical sociologys canon. Instead,
the key scholars behind historical sociology are taken to be Skocpol, Mann,

1. Bhabha and Rutherford (1990:218).
2. Steinmetzs illuminating analysis of German colonialism, for instance, takes
Bhabhas psychological theory of colonialism to see how much of it explains
variations in German colonial policy (Steinmetz 2007,2008).
3. Said (1993: 278) likewise impugns the Frankfurt School, Habermas, and
Foucault alike: all similarly blinded to the matter of imperialism. And lest that


silence be interpreted as an oversight, we have todays leading Frankfurt theo-

rist, Jurgen Habermas, explaining in an interview (originally published in The
New Left Review) that the silence is deliberate abstention: no, he says, we have
nothing to say to anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggles in the Third
World, even if, he adds, I am aware of the fact that this is a eurocentrically
limited view.
4. It is important to differentiate between world-systems theory that origi-
nated in the early work of Wallerstein (1974), and which lays out a set of logics
mounted upon a fundamental conceptual distinction among core, semiperiph-
ery, and periphery, and world-systems analysis, which uses multiple types of
theories and concepts for examining socioeconomic relations across the world.
Although the two overlap, they are not always the same. Ithank Beverly Silver
for pointing out this difference.
5. Arrighis [theory] is a core-centric (and inevitably Eurocentric) view of world
capitalism. He is not concerned in the trilogy either with the rest of the system,
except for China and East Asia and, more egregiously, in my view, with class and
social forces from below. It is the top layer of the world-system, and especially,
(national) finance capital and their corresponding core states, that concerns
Arrighi and that seems to be the only level where processes of historical deter-
mination are at work (Robinson 2011:269).
6. Arrighi (2002) looks at sub-Saharan Africa, for example; but the work is not
clearly articulated with the theory of financialization. See also Arrighi, Silver,
and Ahmad (1999).
7. Mann (2012 [1986]) rejects claims that colonies were important for metropoli-
tan development, but his rejection is based upon dubious statistical assump-
tions. For a further discussion of this point see Go (2014). Elsewhere he seems to
admit of analytic bifurcation, at least between the West and the East, when
he says in the preface to the new edition of Volume Iof The Sources of Social Power
that he overlooks critical technological contributions to Western development
imported from the East (Mann 2012 [1986]).
8. After all, the concept of connected histories that Bhambra (2007a) draws upon
to formulate a postcolonial approach in sociology comes from historians pre-
cisely (Subramanyam2005).
9. See Zimmerman (2013a) for such cautions against untheorized transnational
10. The related virtue of Franks conceptual apparatus was that it did not fall prey
to methodological nationalism. For Frank, metropoles and satellites could be
nations but also regions or subnational spaces like cities. Acity could func-
tion as a metropole in relation to satellites in the surrounding rural areas but
could also function as a satellite in relation to a foreign nation (1967:101 1,
11. If Arrighis analysis of financialization bifurcates relations, we could argue that
this is simply a contingent error rather than one endemic to the theory. Had he
followed the full tenets of Wallersteinian world-systems theory, his conceptual-
ization of the financial phase of capitalism would not have occluded the periph-
ery or the connections between the core and periphery.
12. On Marx, Mead, Althusser, and Foucaults relationalism, see Powell (2013).
13. In a fields approach, social relations are not merely connections between people.
They can become terrains of struggle. Once they do, they form a social field, and
dynamics specified by the theory can be expected to follow.

Notes [211]

14. For an early account, see Garrett (1916:5157); see also Dubois (2004b:8485).
15. Had it not been for the revolt that soon erupted in Saint-Domingue, the French
Revolution would probably have run its course, like the American Revolution,
without destroying the massive violation of human rights at the heart of the
nations existence (Dubois 2004a:89).
16. Recent work on colonialism and imperialism also has employed Bourdieus field
concept (e.g., Go 2008a; Steinmetz 2007, 2008). But whereas some of this work
uses field theory to incorporate the agency of colonized peoples and relations
between metropole and colony, others only use it to focus on colonizers them-
selves (e.g., the field of relations among colonial officials), thereby neglecting
how colonized peoples also should be incorporated into the analysis, namely, as
more than objects, indeed, as actors.
17. Latour (1993). For this point about subject-object divide and ANTs theory of
object agency, see also van Oenen (2011).
18. This also makes ANT different from social network theory, where ideas or mate-
rial elements do not play a part in the network.
19. Prakash (1999:12)accuses Latour of failing to take into account empires con-
stitutive role in the formation of the West, but this does not mean that the
conceptual apparatus of actor-network theory could not be useful for postcolo-
nial studies. Prakash here attacks the empirical account Latour offers, but this is
distinct from its theoretical potentiality.
20. For a different postcolonial approach to the industrial revolution, see Bhambra
(2007a), who refers to it to elaborate a connected histories approach. Mine dif-
fers by stressing relationalism and the added value ofANT.
21. This is curious given that Goldstone (2002: 376) states that the idea that
broad European civilizational traits were responsible for growth must
be discarded. But his point here is to argue that it was not culture that pro-
duced engine science, rather certain contingent political developments within
England (377). This argument remains internalist.
22. Throughout the early to late 1700s, the East India Company purchased Indian
cloth at consistent rates (Parthasarathi 2001:80).
23. Some have argued that import-substitution in England with tariffs against
Indian calicoes explains mechanization (OBrien, Griffiths, and Hunt 1991), but
this overlooks the wider network, which included the European and not just
English markets.
24. Parsthasaranthi (2001) and Frank (1998) are unique for not falling prey to the
same limited interpretation as Wallerstein (1980) about India. Part of my claim
is that their insights have been facilitated by an implicit relational approach,
which does not start from the substantialist categories like a world-economy
and instead starts from an analysis of economic networks.
25. Elsewhere I make the case for Bourdieus postcolonial thought. See Go
26. This is where the dependency approach to development articulated by Frank is
the exception that proves the rule. Unlike Wallersteins substantialist world-
systems theory, Franks conception of global economic relations as a chain of
metropole-satellite relations is a brilliant illustration of relational thought,
and it mobilizes relational thought to explore the reciprocal relations and in-
terdependence of metropole-colony. The only limitation is its focus upon eco-
nomic relations alone, so we are given no categories for analyzing noneconomic


1. Bhambra goes on to claim that connected histories are histories that do not
derive from a singular standpoint, be that a universal standpointwhich post-
colonial theorists have demonstrated as being a particular standpoint linked
to colonialismor a standpoint of the generalized subaltern. (2007b:3031).
But it is unclear how this can be reconciled with the post-positivist recognition
of situated knowledge and hence the recognition that all knowledge represents
one standpoint or another. If one does not acknowledge that, then connected
histories become another metrocentric approach.
2. On the other hand, as noted in the previous chapter, contrapuntal analysis
emerges from Fernando Ortiz in Cuba. I discuss this relative to standpoint
theory in the concluding chapter.
3. For recent overviews or examples of what Iam covering under the term indig-
enous sociology, besides those discussed below, include Chilisa (2012), Connell
(2006, 2007), Keim (2008, 2011), Patel (2006, 2010a). The Comaroffs offer a dif-
ferent notion of Southern Theory, which they call Theory from the South, but
this is not so much theory that comes from the South as it is theorized about the
South (Comaroff and Comaroff2012).
4. For an excellent debate on Connells Southern Theory, see the book forum in
Political Power and Social Theory, Volume 25 (2013), with commentary by Patricia
Hill Collins, Raka Ray, Isaac Reed, and Mustafa Emirbayer.
5. See also Joshi (1986). For a discussion of an Indian sociologist in the interwar
years, Benoy Kumar Sarkar, whose thought prefigures later postcolonial theory,
see Goswami (2013).
6. For these sorts of criticisms against Akiwowos sociology, see Albrow and King
(1990) and Patel (2010b). Reed (2013) makes the important point that Southern
Theory has yet to generate transportable middle-range concepts and theories.
7. Arjomand (2008: 549) likewise responds to the challenge from Southern
theory:Our concern should not be with the ethnic identity and geographical
location of social scientists and public intellectuals but with comparisons of the
concepts used to understand the phenomena and developmental patterns of the
metropolitan and peripheral regions of the world.
8. On worldly warrant as opposed to the aperspectival warrant, see Kukla and
Ruetsche (2002).
9. The same criticism is found in Chibbers (2013) reading of postcolonial theory as
represented by subaltern studies:The problem, he says, is that subaltern studies
rests upon the very essentialization of difference that it supposedly criticizes.
10. One might retort that the analogy between Sarraut or Fanon on the one hand
and social science on the other is unfounded because Sarraut and Fanon were
operating in the realm of normative political discourse while social scientists
are positioned differently: they are objective. But this retort itself nonethe-
less relies upon a notion of standpoint: it asserts that because of their social
location, Sarraut and Fanon saw things in determinant ways (i.e., because of
their position as political actors) while social scientists, because of their differ-
ent social location as scientists, see things in other determinantways.
11. For these and other critiques of feminist epistemology for its failure to adjudi-
cate truth, see Gross and Levitt (1994), Holmwood (1995), Haack (1993), and
Pinnick, Koertge, and Almeder (2003). Longino (1993:107)points out some of
the contradictory tendencies within feminist epistemology that push it toward
relativism and subjectivism.

Notes [213]

12. Istress post-positivist standpoint theory to differentiate it from conventional

or positivist feminist standpoint theory, which rested upon claims of biological
essentialism and epistemic privilege. Post-positivist standpoint theory eschews
these. See Harding (1993) and Wylie (2003).
13. Note, too, the logical implication for men and knowledge production in modern
society:if there is a male standpoint, it is because men have traditionally stood
at the apex of institutional hierarchies. The knowledge produced by men in such
positions, therefore, is of and for power. This includes the knowledge associated
with the statewhat Foucault captured in his notion of governmentality. But
it also includes social scientific knowledge. The social sciences are systemati-
cally developed forms of knowledge, Smith (1997b) points out, that are in and
of the ruling relations and conform to its objectifying order (1997b:119).
14. In other words, the question of how many? is an empirical question, not an
ontological or theoretical claim that somehow upends standpoint theory. And
the answer varies historically and societally, depending upon how many identi-
ties are rendered salient in that time and place by the extant power relations.
15. Standpoint theory thus no longer aligns with a thesis of automatic epistemic
16. Hardings notion of strong objectivity implies that if we adopt the standpoint
of subordinated groups we can be more objective, which, in turn, seems to
imply epistemic privilege (Harding 1995). But Harding also suggests that domi-
nant positions provide important insights into social reality, albeit different
ones. This is because each social position offers particular insights and leads to
specific questions that differ from others. For more on this, see Hirsh, Olson,
and Harding (1995:2058). Elsewhere, Harding (1993:58)forthrightly rejects
the claim that feminist standpoint theory is ethnocentrict hat it claims that
its knowledge is superior. Here she tends toward perspectival realism.
17. This also relates to the complicated question of theory in ethnographic and
qualitative research. Burawoys global ethnography already presumes the valid-
ity of theoretical categories and treats ethnography as a demonstration of causal
mechanisms already specified by a theory (Burawoy 1998, 2000). Instead, the
standpoint approach here is more akin to what Timmermans and Tavory (2012)
call abduction, wherein the important element is the surprise of the empiri-
cal. See, for another helpful statement on ethnography and theory, Wilson and
Chaddha (2009).
18. Here, the women under analysis are not the real object of investigation at all;
the real object is the larger networks, structures, systems, or institutions that
determine and shape womens experience.
19. The complex relationship between feminist theory and postcolonial theory goes
back to Spivaks critique of Western feminism (Spivak 1981). There is a huge
literature, but for one among many recent discussions of their convergences and
divergences, see Ali (2007). On feminist theory, postcolonial theory, and science
studies together, see Harding (1998).
20. Obviously, in the context of gendered global capitalism today, and given the
long-standing articulation of patriarchy with capitalism and colonialism,
women would be part of, if not constitutive of, the subaltern standpoint. So
might certain racial or ethnic identities. The key point here is that the subaltern
standpoint is a relational status, such that we cannot fix, prior to any social
analysis, exactly which identities (class, race, gender, etc.) matter; they matter
only relationally; that is, given specific contexts.


21. Subalternity, after all, is a relational and relative concept itself (see Coronil1997).
22. For a recent exploration of this longstanding concept of intersectionality, see
the special issue of the journal Signs Intersectionality: Theorizing Power,
Empowering Theory (Summer 2013; Volume 38, No.4).
23. For systematic exposition of perspectivism, see the essays in Kellert et al.
(2006). Giere (2006) offers one of the clearest and generative statements. Gieres
articulation can be traced in part to Nietzsches insistence that knowledge is
always a view from somewhere as opposed to the view from nowhere. It could
also be related to Foucaults phrase perspectival knowledge, which Foucault
(1991) gets from Nietzsche and which is one of the premises of Foucaults genea-
logical method. See Foucault (1991). Longinos (2002) pluralist epistemology
offers a similar approach.
24. Hardings articulation of standpoint theory conjures the same idea:the stick in
the pond appears to be bent from one position but not from another. Similarly,
distinctive gender, class, race or cultural positions in social orders provide dif-
ferent opportunities and limitations for seeing how the social order works.
Societies provide a kind of natural experiment enabling accounts of how
knowledge claims are always socially situated (Harding 1997:384).
25. Even so-called scientific advances are not necessarily the same thing as get-
ting a more objective truth. Giere (2006) summons Galileo:Before the sev-
enteenth century, the Milky Way, as part of a commonsense perspective on the
world, was perceived using human eyes simply as a broad band of light extend-
ing across the night sky. From the perspective of Galileos roughly thirty power
telescopes, it was perceived as being made up of a very large number of individ-
ual stars. But this was a change in perspective, not a move from a mere perspec-
tive to objective truth (2006:58).
26. Is it self-defeating to try to critique the parochialism and Eurocentrism of
conventional social theory and ground an alternative theory with two Euro-
American theories:feminist standpoint theory and perspectival realism? No,
because these two theories are epistemological theories about Euro-A merican
social science, whereas the postcolonial critique of Eurocentric theories is of
Euro-A merican theories being unproblematically and unreflexively trans-
posed to other historical and sociospatial contexts. In short, this is not
27. Harding (1993:6162, 1997:384, 1998:16263) has been the most ardent de-
fender of standpoint theory against such charges of relativism.
28. Furthermore, Marxs own theory about the dynamics of capitalism relies upon
and indeed assumes that Smiths theory that the market price of a product is
determined by the ratio of supply and effective demand is correct, at least when
the ratio is in disequilibrium (Harvey 2010: 24, 166, 183). The price of labor
power on the market (i.e., its exchange value), Marx says, is dependent not only
upon the labor time it takes to reproduce labor power but also upon effective
supply. According to The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation, when new
industries emerge, the demand for labor rises, and so wages rise, toohowever
temporarily (Marx 1977:67180). Marx did differ from Smith wildly, of course,
in his views about other aspects of Smiths approach to supply and demand.
Although Smith believed that supply and demand tends toward equilibrium
and that the equilibrium can be stabilized indefinitely, Marx saw a tendency
toward crisis. And Marx pointed out that once there is an equilibrium between
supply and demand, the ratio of supply and demand cannot explain value (Marx

Notes [215]

1977:678; Harvey 2010:166). But none of this contradicts Smiths initial theory
that market prices are shaped by the ratio of supply to demand.
29. Hage (2010) shows how Fanons analysis also was grounded in affect.
30. For an excellent analysis of how dominant social science thought of race in
highly abstract terms, which Du Bois criticized and to which he offered an alter-
native, see Morris (2014, especially pp.2225).
31. Thus, starting from a site could also mean starting from the investigators own
perceptions of that site. The analysis might not begin by only tracing the interi-
ors of subalterns but also by observing the site, examining all of the actors, their
actions and interactions, and larger patterns and practices.
32. If this is true for Bourdieu, we might also say the same for thinkers like Foucault
or Derrida who also spent time in the colonies. Ahluwalia (2010) thus argues
that post-structuralism itself originates in the colonialsite.
33. This also means that just because an analyst is of a particular identity (gender,
racial, ethnic), they do not necessarily have privileged social knowledge based
upon their experiences. The analyst might have individual experiences that can
serve as the opening for further exploration to see if, in fact, those individual
experiences are also general (i.e., are not only idiosyncratic). But, in themselves,
those experiences form individual knowledge, not social knowledge. In other
words, analysts must always move from the individual to the social in order to
craft social knowledge, and so any single analysts experiences serve only as a
beginning for further exploration.
34. As Muller (2015:411)notes in his review of Morris (2015):Morris is undoubt-
edly correct, for instance, that Du Bois before many other scholars adopted a
theory of race that stressed its historical and political rather than its biological
foundation. But so did the framers of the Haitian revolutionary constitution
of 1805. [] More recently, before many of us were writing about mass incar-
ceration, groups like Critical Resistance were organizing not just protests but
conferences on topics we are still debating today.
35. As noted, the point of a subaltern standpoint approach is to suspect theory as
much as possible; or at the very least, by the same token, not to presume that a
given theory should be applicable. Yet none of this gets around the problem of
representing experience identified by Joan Scott (1991) that reiterates Spivaks
question about representing the subaltern and which thereby opts instead to
analyze the discursive construction of identities (not how identity is experi-
enced). But Spivaks solution of strategic essentialism offers an alternative to
Scotts dilemma, which Scott does not entertain.
36. This is partly the Weberian interpretive project reinscribed, but stronger for-
mulations of interpretation, meaning, and explanation can be found in Reed
37. Sahlins (1981). This approach can be related to other important work, such as
Iletos (1979) research into the Philippine peasantry, which, in turn, influenced
and was concomitant with subaltern studies whose attempts to reconstruct
peasant consciousness was also, as noted, a standpoint project ofsorts.
38. Obeyeskeres (1992) critique of Sahlins raised the issue most forcefully. Whereas
Sahlins explained the Hawaiians actions by reference to a cultural system,
Obeyeskere accused Sahlins of essentializing natives and instead tried to show
that the Hawaiians were perfectly rational: They killed Cook as part of a local
power play. As Sahlins (1995) retorted, though, Obeyeskeres alternative ac-
count depended upon a dangerous theoretical imperialism: in saying that the


natives killed Cook to realize their political interests, Obeyeskere imposed upon
them the image of homo economicus, thereby universalizing the theory of inter-
est maximization. Sahlins also notes that Obeyeskeres account is the one that is
Orientalist: it depends upon an opposition between rationality and culture.
39. This was different from Balandiers (1966 [1951]) theory because it emphasized
violence and racism.
40. We might posit that a subaltern standpoint approach facilitates this theory-
construction by defamiliarizing both the observers common sense and the
theories derived from the metropolitanimperial standpoint with which the ob-
server might be most comfortable. In this case a subaltern standpoint approach
works by abduction rather than induction: generating theory by surprise
(see Timmermans and Tavory 2012). This is where it differs from the famous
grounded theory of Glaser and Strauss (1967).
41. See, for example, Winant (2004:2538), England and Warner (2013:96364),
Kane (2007), and Gilroy (2010a).
42. I use dispossession only as an example. Things have changed since Connell
(2007) asserted that dispossession is understudied. By now, it has become
an object of analysis indeed. And recently theorists have tried to read Marxs
theory as allowing for primitive accumulation to occur even today, and at the
center of the system (e.g., Perelman 2000). This is a very generous reading, and
in any case is it not precipitated and required not by Marxs theory but by a
subaltern standpoint approach that has shown to us that dispossession is an
ongoing important process? For an excellent articulation of something like a
standpoint approach and Marxist world-systems theory that would be informa-
tive here, see Gellert and Shefner (2009).
43. It is true that an exploration of dispossession might, indeed, eventually bring
us back to questions of other preexisting theories or concerns, like structure
and agency or the state (as in state policies of dispossession). Or it might not.
It might rather lead to other existing theories, such as Marxs primitive accu-
mulation. In either case, even if the problem of metrocentrism is at least tem-
pered, the original concept is grounded in local experience. Furthermore, the
new insights would likely reconfigure those existing theories. If, for instance,
we are led back to the state, we approach it with a fresh viewpointf rom below.
We might then problematize the states role in dispossession, how states end
up enacting it or resisting it, or what causal configurations compel states to
not pursue it. All of these outcomes are possible. The point is that without first
attending to the voices and experiences of subaltern subjects, we might never
come to it.
44. To take one example, Decoteaus (2013a, 2013b) research on the lived experi-
ences of AIDS patients in South Africa finds that the healing practices of those
patients constitute a form of hybriditya concept Decoteau draws from
Bhabha, who originally developed the concept to capture the cultural practices
of Indian colonial subjects. Although Decoteau ends up using that concept, she
does not start with it; she gets there through a careful examination of the prac-
tices and subjectivities of South African patients.
45. If, for instance, our study of colonized subjects unearths concerns among them
about dispossession, we can move upward to Marxs theories of accumulation
of dispossession or perhaps even back to the state. But in this case we are led
to it from below, not above, and this might yield alternative insights. We might
then problematize the states role in dispossession, how states end up enacting

Notes [217]

it or resisting it, or what causal configurations compel states to not pursue it. All
of these outcomes are possible. The point is that without first attending to the
voices and experiences of subaltern subjects, we might never come to it.

1. We should not be misled by the rising wealth of a postcolonial country like
India, or by the wealth of China. On how China and Asia in the eighteenth cen-
tury were actually on par with Europe before the advent of modern colonialism,
making the nineteenth century the period of the great divergence, see Buzan
and Lawson (2014). On the persistence of this global inequality from the colo-
nial era, there is a large literature, but see Mahoney (2010) and Acemoglu etal.
(2001). Settler colonies like the United States or Canada one hundred years ago
were already comparably better off, even if they started as colonies much earlier.
2. Bhambras (2014) proposal for connected sociologies might be seen as a useful
corollary here. But it is different. The connected sociologies approach does not
articulate a theory in itself; it is largely a critique of separated sociologies. It is
not, for instance, grounded in relationalism, standpoint theory, or perspectival
realism, and more or less abjures questions of epistemology, methodology, and
theory. It usefully calls for sociologies around the world to connect, and in a
way that makes a difference to theory rather than serving as a multiplicity,
but how and from what standpoint are questions that are left open. It is very
similar to Santoss (2014) pluriverse, which is also a useful corollary, and while
Santoss pluriverse is meant to address epistemic issues, it does not clarify the
epistemic warrant for the diverse perspectives it calls for and, therefore, does
not circumvent charges of reverse essentialism.
3. This real is not the same as the order of the real which Lacan (1977) theo-
rizes and upon which Bhabha draws (and which includes the Symbolic). This is
perhaps why it is difficult to pin down the status of the real or the realism in
4. For some, Edward Said was too realist, insisting that Orientalist representations
are mis-characterizations that could be remedied with accurate representations.
There really is an Orient that can be known properly?
5. On explanation in post-positivist social science, see Reed (2008; 2011) and
Steinmetz (1998); on description see Abbott (1995), Go (2014), and Savage
6. See Gorski (2013) and for an early adoption, Steinmetz (1998).
7. The question of standpoint is one left unaddressed in critical realism. Yes, there
might be different theories necessary for explaining an event, but what is the
standpoint or perspective of any one of those theories that made them possible
and intelligible in the firstplace?
8. Longino (2006), resting her claims upon a perspectival realism, argues precisely
for a theoretical pluralism in science more generally. For more on theoretical
pluralism versus monism in science, see Kellert etal. (2006).
9. One way to think of Chibbers (2013) Marxist-influenced critique of postcolo-
nial theory, and the similar and much earlier Marxist critique by Ahmad (1994),
is in terms of scientific monism versus pluralism, with this the Marxist cri-
tique of postcolonialism resting upon an implicit and arguably fraught theoreti-
cal monism. For this distinction in the philosophy of science, see Kellert etal.


10. If this sounds banal it is nonetheless insurrectionary, at least in regards to me-

trocentrism. Indeed, the critique of metrocentrism discussed in Chapters Two
and Four thus finds it ontological moorings in perspectival realism, too. As em-
pires do, metrocentrism assumes universality and the perfect transparency of
the world. It denies the situatedness of knowledge and instead adopts the (false)
position of the disembodied unsituated (perfectly objective or aperspectival)
knower. Perspectival realism cannot abide by this. Instead, it posits that all
theories are partial in that they capture only one dimension or fragment of the
infinite complexity of the social world. What they capturet he content of their
partialityis partly dependent upon the perspective, or the standpoint, of the
theory. What we see depends upon where we stand. Assuming the universality
of a parochial theory or set of concepts, such that we can unproblematically
transpose that theory or concepts to the rest of the world, is the fatal flaw of
imperial social theory.
11. For Pratt (1992:4), the contact zone is a social space where cultures meet, clash,
and grapple with each other, often in context of highly asymmetrical relation-
ship of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived
out in many parts of the world today.
12. Here there may be parallels with Sousa Santoss (2014) pluriverse.
13. For a recent discussion of this question in relation to literary studies, see the
forum in New Literary History 43(1) and 43(2), 2012, on The State of Postcolonial
14. See Sahlins (1976).
15. Chakrabartys use of Marx to distinguish between History1 and History2 is
a telling example of how postcolonial thought recognizes that capitalism can
generate difference; how the particular emerges from the universal (cf. Chibber
2014). The question is not whether capitalism can generate difference but
whether a theory that encompasses the logic of capitalism also can analytically
exhaust the particularities that capitalism engenders.

Notes [219]



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Abdel-Malek, Anouar, 20,205 Arab-Israeli War,39,56

aborigines, Australian,180 Arjomand, Said, 152,213n7
Achebe, Chinua,23 Arrighi, Giovanni, 107110, 116, 133,
actor-network theory, 123, 131141, 144, 138139,211n5
146, 212n17, 212n19, 212n20 Atlanta Sociological Laboratory,13
Adler, Alfred,33,95 Atlanta University,1213
African-Americans, 22, 27, 147, 168,
170, 179180 Baudrillard, Jean,49
agency Beck, Ulrich,15
and actor-network theory, 131, 133137 Bhabha, Homi, 7, 12, 39, 39, 4245,
occlusion of, 83, 8788, 91, 9394,104 5265, 7174, 94, 98, 103,
in postcolonial theory, 911, 26, 105106, 113114, 123124, 128,
28, 31, 35, 38, 41, 4249, 5462, 140, 182, 186, 190191, 194, 196,
9194, 112113, 128131, 133134, 205n18, 206n32, 207n39, 207n40,
137, 140141,144 217n44,218n3
See also structure andagency Bhambra, Gurminder, 15, 86, 109,
Akiwowo, Akinsola, 147148, 114115, 146, 151, 152, 204n8,
204n14,213n6 211n8, 212n20, 213n1,218n2
Alatas, Syed F., 148149, 177, 204n14 binarism, 112113, 123, 143, 146, 187,
Alatas, Syed H., 148, 205n19 188, 193, 201. See also law of
Algerian war, 7, 91, 170171 division
American Journal of Sociology,3 black feminist knowledge, 157. See also
American Sociological Association, 4, Hill Collins, Patricia
12,15,78 Blackman, W.F.,4
American Sociological Society. See Bloom, Harold,18,20
American Sociological Association Boatc, Manuela,79,84
analytic bifurcation, 83, 8992, Boer War,3,27
104110, 116118, 122123, 125, Bolivar, Simon,149
138, 144, 201,211n7 Bourdieu, Pierre, 67, 82, 8788, 98, 118,
Anderson, Kevin, 47, 82, 8485, 120, 123, 125, 125130, 139140,
208n19, 209n24 144, 146, 171172, 185, 209n30,
anticolonialism 210n34, 212n25, 216n32
anticolonial resistance, 23, 56, 20, Brubaker, Rogers,124
43, 8788, 170,203n5 Buck-Morss, Susan,196
and postcolonial thought, 78, 1011, Burawoy, Michael, 15, 77, 78, 151, 158,
2021, 56, 61, 149,200 214n17
See also decolonization Burgess, Ernest,13

Cabral, Amilcar, 7, 8, 11, 12, 20, 28, 29, Commonwealth studies, 23, 60,150
31, 32, 35, 36, 3839, 56, 64, 96, Communist Party, 3537, 205n16
140, 205n14 Comte, Auguste, 2, 67, 69, 189,203n2
Calhoun, Craig,2,70 Conference of the Organization of the
Callon, Michel,131 Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa,
Cameron, David, 175176 Asia, and Latin America. See
capitalism, 13, 14, 19, 37, 48, 70, 8386, Tricontinental Conference
96, 107108, 110, 121, 133, 164165, connected histories, 28, 114116, 126,
174, 181, 186, 194, 197, 199, 200, 141, 146, 211n8, 212n20,213n1
211n5, 214n20, 215n28, 219n15 Connell, R.W., 78, 82, 87, 9798,
Carmichael, Stokely,7 148149, 152, 160, 171, 179180,
Cartesian thought, 29, 31, 33, 52, 69, 181, 182, 217n42
95, 98, 145146, 152, 182, 192, 196, Conrad, Joseph,59
210n31 constructivism, 162163, 189190,
causation. See explanation,causal 192193
Csaire, Aim, 712, 20, 2427, 3031, contrapuntality, 105, 110115, 117118,
3537, 47, 52, 56, 65, 86, 96, 111, 122123, 131, 141, 143, 188,
117, 149, 150, 174, 183184, 194, 195196,213n2
196, 205n16 Cooley, Charles,4
Chakrabarty, Dipesh, 7, 11, 4552, 60, Cornell University,3,4
62, 63, 65, 69, 75, 8081, 92, 94, critical race theory,11,58
96, 103, 143, 146, 174, 186, 194, critical realism, 192, 208n10, 218n7.
205n24, 206n25, 206n26, 206n30, Seealso realism
219n15 Cuba, 3, 111, 196,213n2
Chi Minh,Ho,6 culture, 4, 812, 16, 1920, 24, 33,
Chicago School of Sociology, 3, 13, 78, 4044, 4749, 54, 57, 6166, 73,
121,169 75, 78, 83, 86, 92, 105, 109, 111115,
citizenship,198 117119, 134, 177, 178, 186, 187,
civil society, 51, 62, 77,101 197201, 203n4, 207n40, 208n11,
civilizational analysis, 80, 107109, 212n21, 216n38, 219n11
civilizing mission, 54,170 Darwin, Charles. See Social Darwinism
Coleman, James,82 Descartes, Ren. See Cartesian thought
colonial discourse, 3942, 44, 4547, decoloniality of knowledge, 11, 145, 147,
52, 55, 6162, 65, 71, 7374, 123, 204n14
140, 190,198 decolonization, 6, 7, 9, 5659, 60, 100,
colonialism 185,304n7
British, 3,81,83 deconstruction, 56, 58, 61, 62, 69, 103,
and capitalism, 37, 48, 8386, 108, 146, 189, 207n38. See also Derrida,
117,181 Jacques
French, 3, 7, 24, 6667, 8791, 114, dependency theory, 1314, 116, 117, 188,
124131, 153154, 166, 170,171 132, 149, 212n26. See also Frank,
and modernity, 1215, 19, 38, 48, 64, AndreGunder
73, 84, 86, 88, 104, 113, 128,146 Depestre, Ren,37
Portuguese, 6,38,95 Derrida, Jacques, 10, 44, 49, 54, 61, 69,
sociological study of,104 74, 189, 207n38, 216n32
United States, 3, 176177 diffusion, 88, 92, 93, 124, 130131,
theories of, 22, 2427, 3440, 178179 133,140
color line, 27, 28, 135, 168,171 double-consciousness, 13, 22, 180, 194,
Columbia University,3,38 203n3,203n4


Du Bois, W.E. B., 78, 1113, 20, 22, 161, 166, 167169, 170172, 178179,
2728, 32, 35, 56, 67, 72, 76, 82, 182183, 188, 194, 204n2, 204n3,
84, 86, 97, 101, 140, 168171, 204n5, 204n7, 205n9, 205n11,
179180, 183, 194, 204n11, n3, 205nb12, 213n10, 216n29
n4, n5, n6, 216n30. See also fascism, 5, 27, 30, 205n13
double-consciousness;veil feminist thought, 11, 19, 58, 76, 147,
Dubois, Laurent, 125, 129,131 153160, 162, 164, 168, 197,
Durkheim, Emile, 4, 66, 80, 84, 87, 89, 206n29, 208n16, 213n11, 214n12,
91, 144, 180, 208n21 214n16, 204n19, 215n26
Ferry, Jules,67
Eisenstadt, S.N., 87, 108109 field theory, 125131
Emirbayer, Mustafa,213n4 financialization, 107108
empire First World War, 3, 5, 6,28,32
and knowledge, 1923, 2630, 38, Fitzhugh, George,2
4041, 45, 64, 95, 101103,145 Foucault, Michel, 33, 49, 54, 58, 76,
and modernity (see colonialism, and 89, 91, 106, 107, 1, 215n2311, 118,
modernity) 122, 124, 128, 144, 149, 208n14,
in postcolonial thought, 89, 208n15, 210n3, 211n12, 214n13,
111 2, 15, 1923, 2630, 38, 216n32
5152,65 68 Frank, Andre Gunder, 116, 117,139
and social theory, 15, 10, 16, 6668, French empire, 2122, 67, 90, 111,
7281, 83, 8792, 103106, 128129, 167, 172, 178,182
110112,142 French Revolution, 123131
and sociology (see social theory and Freud, Sigmund, 33, 43, 74, 95,167
empire) Front de Libration Nationale (FLN),7
Enlightenment, the, 21, 2935, 38,
4953, 56, 6162, 65, 687 1, Gandhi, Leela, 9, 30, 60, 65, 95,
7375, 7980, 105, 130, 144, 113,143
186187, 200, 205,207n6 Gandhi, Mahatma,20
entangled history. See connected Garca Canclini, Nestor,149
histories Gellner, Ernest, 1516, 178,185
essentialism, 57, 58, 6061, 109, gender, 13, 14, 44, 46, 47, 53, 70, 76,
113, 118, 122123, 140, 151152, 85, 86, 88, 111, 117, 118, 145,
156157, 160, 185, 200201, 157, 159161, 164, 171, 186, 197,
206n36, 207n37, 208n19, 124n12, 206n32, 214n20, 215n24, 216n33,
216n35, 218n2. See also strategic 219n15
essentialism Geux, Germain, 33, 205n11
ethnocentrism,200 Giddens, Anthony, 82, 87, 89, 98, 100,
explanation 119, 167, 209n29. See also
causal, 69, 7374, 8384, 104, 116, structure andagency
119, 137, 178, 179, 192, 197, 214n17 Giddings, Franklin,3
social, 2, 34, 69, 71, 73, 76, 86, 121, Giere, Ronald, 162164, 215n25
147, 192,197 Goswami, Manu, 15,69,71
eurocentrism, 149. See also metrocentrism Gramsci, Antonio, 46, 205n21
evolutionary thought, 4, 82, 168,179 Grosfoguel, Ramn,145
Guha, Ranajit, 7, 4546,48
Fanon, Frantz, 78, 1012, 2022, 2425, Guinea-Bissau, 3, 7,29,38
3035, 36, 41, 43, 47, 48, 56, 60, 70,
7273, 76, 86, 94, 95, 98, 101, 107, Habermas, Jurgen,210n3
111, 114, 117, 123, 140, 153155, 160, habitus, 72,87,99

Index [245]

Haiti. See Haitian Revolution knowledge

Haitian Revolution, 88, 124131, 141, partial, 158, 163165, 168, 192194
196, 216n34 and power, 64, 106,117
Hall, Catherine,26 See also imperial episteme;theory
Hall, Stuart, 203n10, 205n18 Kuhn, Thomas, 76,157
Harding, Sandra, 145, 153, 213n12,
213n16, 213n19, 215n24, Lacan, Jacques, 33, 43, 65, 74,218n3
215n27 Latour, Bruno, 131133, 139, 141, 144,
Hawaii, 3, 4, 176177, 198, 216n38 146, 212n17
Hegel, G.W. F., 34, 35, 48, 131, 153, 155, Law, John,131
157, 184, 196, 208n16 League Against Imperialism,5
Hilferding, Rudolf,199 League of Nations,5
Hill Collins, Patricia, 157,213n4 Lenin, Vladimir, 28,199
historicism, 47, 5052, 62, 72, 8082, linguistics, 11, 44, 120,189
92, 94, 96,198 Longino, Helen, 162, 193, 213n11,
history from below,4648 215n215,2188
Hitler, Adolf,27,30 Luxemburg, Rosa,199
Hobbes, Thomas,78 Lyotard, Jean-Franois,49
Hobsbawm, Eric, 46, 48, 133,
205n24 Magubane, Zine, 114,125
Hobson, JohnA.,67 Mann, Michael, 9798,
humanism, 2931, 34, 49, 52, 112, 144, 1091 10,211n7
186, 189, 205n9, 207n40 Mannoni, Octave, 24,172
humanities, 1014, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20, Maoism, 35, 36,204n1
23, 49, 65, 66, 72, 95, 103, 147, Mart, Jose,149
150, 188, 190, 203n9. See also Marx, Karl, 13, 19, 28, 3438, 4650,
humanism 70, 7986, 96, 99, 100, 107, 108,
hybridity, 11, 4445, 61, 62, 71, 73, 113, 117118, 121, 144, 149, 155, 157,
114, 196, 207n40, 217n44 164165, 167168, 174, 178, 180,
181, 194195, 197, 199200,
Ibn Khaldu n , Abd al-R ahma n
, 148, 204n2, 205n13, n15, n16, n22,
149,177 n23, 207n37, 208n19, 209n22,
immigration, 57, 78, 105, 157, n23, n24, 210n32, 211n12, 215n27,
111,198 n28, 217n42, n43, n45, 218n9,
imperial episteme, 4, 5, 911, 16, 20, 29, 219n15
37, 4041, 45, 48, 53, 55, 59, 61, 62, Marxism. See Marx,Karl
64, 66, 7072, 7879, 81, 88, 92, master-slave dialectic, 34,196
94, 101, 117, 140, 186187, 193, 195, materialism, 199200
197, 200201 Mbembe, Achille,19
imperialism. Seeempire McLennan, Gregor, 72, 73, 208n12
India, historiography of, 4450, 8083, Memmi, Albert, 20,204n7
94, 138141 Merton, Robert, 99. See also social
industrialization, 131139 theory, middle-range
interdisciplinarity, 16,188 methodological nationalism, 106, 109,
interpretivism. See constructivism 120, 123, 126, 211n10
Islamic State,200 metrocentrism, 9498, 102, 144,
145146, 149150, 160, 173175,
James, C.L. R., 7, 12, 20, 31, 124126, 181183, 187188, 209n30, 213n1,
129130, 204n11, 205n15 215n26, 217n43, 219n10
Jung, Carl, 33,34,95 migration. See immigration


mimicry, 4445, 61, 74, 93,176 postmodernism, 33, 49, 5255, 58, 65,
Minnesota, Universityof,3 6875, 102, 103, 189190, 193, 200,
modernity, 1213, 15, 19, 38, 48, 208n12
5051, 63, 64, 65, 73, 838 4, 86, post-positivism, 75, 76, 146, 153,
88, 8992, 100, 104, 105, 109, 113, 156157, 162, 190, 192, 208n11,
114, 124, 128, 130134, 139140, 213n1, 214n12, 218n4. See also
146, 152, 180, 186, 206n26, positivism
209n26 poststructuralism, 11, 18, 49, 50, 52, 54,
Morris, Aldon, 22, 204n11,n5 55, 58,62,71
Morris, Rosalind,89 Prakash, Gyan, 50, 60, 175, 205n18,
206n27, 207n41, 212n19
Nandy, Ashis, 149, 204n7, 205n18 primitive accumulation, 8486, 108,
Nasser, Gamal Abdel,6 114, 178, 217n42
National Association for the Protestant ethic,73
Advancement of Colored provincialization, 62, 146, 173175
People,7,8 psychiatry, 3234, 76, 205n10. See also
nativism, 113, 200,201 psychoanalysis
Nehru, Jawarharlal,6 psychoanalysis, 11, 34, 43, 48, 74, 95,
Nkrumah, Kwame,6,20 167168, 172,207n8
Puerto Rico, 3,4,27
Orientalism, 10, 16, 394 4, 47, 49,
54, 5657, 59, 65, 70, 72, 7983, Qayum, Seemin, 174175
9192, 102, 103105, 113, 122123, queer studies, 58,197
136, 144, 185189, 201, 205n19,
208n19 race
Ortiz, Fernando, 11, 196,213n2 race struggle,4
racism, 5, 12, 13, 22, 25, 30, 31, 34, 37,
Palestine,47 47, 57, 67, 79, 86, 128, 167, 179, 185,
Pan-A frican Conference,7 194, 217n39
Pan-A frican Congress,7 as social, 25, 34,207n8
Park, Robert,13 See also color line; critical racetheory
particularism, 151, 181, 184, 199200 racism. Seerace
Patel, Sujata, 15, 114,149 Ray, Raka, 174175, 182,213n4
Patterson, Orlando, 210n36 realism, 73, 189, 190196. See also critical
Paz, Octavio, 149,204n1 realism; perspectival realism
Pennsylvania, Universityof,12 Reed, Isaac, 74, 169, 210n33, 213n4, n6,
perspectival realism, 158, 162165, 182, 216n36,218n5
188, 192196, 200, 214n16, 215n23, relationalism
218n2, 219n10 in existing social theory, 118121
Philippines, 3, 4, 27, 148, 149, 177, postcolonial, 123, 139142
198,209 religion, 68, 69, 79, 84, 99,198
positivism, 29, 49, 5153, 67, 69, 7475, Rizal, Jos, 148, 149,172
postcolonial, definitionof,9 Sahlins, Marshall, 176, 199, 216n37
postcolonial studies, 67, 9, 1112, Said, Edward, 7, 1012, 36, 3843,
1820, 23, 57, 150, 187. See also 45, 4749, 52, 54, 5659, 63, 66,
postcolonial thought 707 1, 79, 8182, 88, 91, 104107,
postcolonial thought 110112, 117118, 122, 131, 143,
epistemology of, 189192 171, 174, 182, 185191, 193195,
history of, 1, 510,2049 200, 201, 210n3,218n4

Index [247]

Sarkar, Benoy Kumar, 20, 149, strategic essentialism, 60, 160, 206n36,
172,213n5 297n37, 216n35
Sarraut, Albert-Pierre, 153155, structuralism, 120,167
160161, 213n10 structure and agency, 98100, 167, 171,
Sartre, Jean-Paul, 30, 34, 36,167 179180. See also structuralism
Saussure, Ferdinand de,120 subaltern
scientific perspectivism. See Gayatri Spivak on, 6061, 93,123
perspectival realism subaltern studies, 7, 11, 4547,
Seidman, Steven, 12, 80, 208n11 5965, 77,140
Senghor, Lopold, 8, 20, 23,184 See also standpoint theory, subaltern
sexuality, 4243, 88, 145,197 Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, 114,211n8
Sino-JapaneseWar,3 Sung, KimII,7
Sitas, Ari, 102,151
Skocpol, Theda, 88, 99, 100, 123, 124, terrorism,200
210n36 Thomas, W.I.,4
slavery, 13, 85, 101, 112, 117, 124, Thompson, E.P.,46
127129, 210n36, 219n11 Tilly, Charles, 8991, 142, 209n28,
Smith, Adam, 96, 164, 210n32 210n36
Smith, Dorothy, 76, 158159,168 Tricontinental Conference,6
Social Darwinism, 4, 32,106 Turner, Bryan, 80, 82, 205n19
social science. See social theory;
sociology Universal Races Congress, First,7
social theory universalism, 2934, 4749, 52, 94, 144,
definition of,1,69 174175, 181182, 193199. Seealso
and empire, 26,75102 metrocentrism
history of, 25,7679
as incompatible with postcolonial veil, concept of, 13, 77, 179171,
theory, 14,6675 179180,183
middle-range, 99, 181, 210n33,210n6 Venn, Couze,59
See also postcolonialtheory Vietnam War,87
Sousa Santos, Boaventura de, 147, 151, Wallerstein, Immanuel, 15, 116,
153, 206n27, 219n12 133134, 138, 144, 210n31, 211n4,
Spencer, Herbert,4,81 212n24
Spivak, Gayatri, 7, 10, 39, 45, 5362, Ward, Lester,4,81
70, 93, 123, 140, 160, 186, 190191, Weber, Max, 4, 13, 79, 80, 83, 84, 100,
205n18, 206n28, 27n37, 207n38, 149, 177, 208n20
214n19, 216n35 world society theory, 9293,124
standpoint theory World War One. See First WorldWar
feminist, 78, 147, 153164
subaltern, 159184 Young, Robert, 20, 52, 59,150
state, the, 99101, 105, 177180, 203n1,
210n34, 214n13, 217n43 Zimmerman, Andrew, 79, 211n9