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The location of Theory

Reading Time: 8 minutes

In my first year as an undergrad student in Philosophy, I had to take a class on classical thinkers. This was a foundational class to understand the pillars of political science, anthropology, and sociology. The course was named “Marx, Weber, and Durkheim.” The approach to the authors was uncritical; we read them and tried to understand the theories without questioning the presupposed universality or the context/location where these theories were produced.

The problem with northern theories

Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell, in her book Southern theory: the global dynamics of knowledge in the social science, confronts the presumption of universality and objectivity of mainstream sociological theories. She criticizes traditional and modern general theories: these theories do not behold nor explain colonialism; this results in highly abstract and complex theories that presume universality and do not account for reality outside the metropoles.

Eloquently, Connell guides the reader through sociology’s history, decline, and resurgence as a professional practice and as a body of theories. It figures out – I didn’t know before – Sociology began as a practice of metropole countries/empires in the conquest and colonization of peripheral societies. Authors such as Durkheim regarded colonized humans as mere objects of study, never questioning the relationship between colonizer/colonized. These objects of study represented the past of European civilizations under a presumed theory of social evolution. They enabled these authors to elaborate abstract and universal ideas on human development and the origin of societies.

But, the project was torn apart when Europeans observed their own violence through the mirror of the Great War.

Battle of the Somm
Battle of the Somme. Cassowary Colorizations, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The conceptual vacuum created by lost faith in progress allowed the appearance of a new wave of sociologists that began to study the contradictions inside the metropoles. One of the most prominent schools of thought is the School of Chicago. Nonetheless, modern theorist as Coleman, Gidden, and Bordieu relapse into the sins of primitive sociologists: they intend to create general theories that are abstract and universal to explain all sociological configurations of humans around the globe.

So, Connell proposes that the northern general theory is characterized by the following traits:

  • Universality – of all societies. “As all societies are knowable in the same way and from the same point of view” (Connell, p. 44)
  • Exclusion – of the voices and knowledge of peripheral humans while talking about them.
  • Erasure – of context, of others, of the colonial violence.

Does this sound familiar? Connell’s description of Northern theories is similar to Law’s description of the Euro-American paradigm. As a crucial common point, we encounter the disappearance of the subjective (and the context of the individual constructing the theory) to present the theories as universal and objective. Nonetheless, there is a difference between Law and Connel. For Connel, the northern theory has an ethical implication:”… sociological texts that persistently underplay systemic violence”. (Connel, p. 63); perpetuating colonial dynamics in the creation of social science knowledge.

Another consequence of northern theories is treating the peripheries as data mines. In this sense, colonies export not only raw materials to the corporations of the metropoles but also facts and data to the intellectuals of the metropoles. There is a clear power relationship. Colonized humans are not totally human, as their subjectivity is not recognized; they are easily understood by researchers as a data set.

Connell’s proposal

Through the rest of the book, Connell maps the emergence and configuration of social science in diverse peripheral locations concerning their own contexts and the relationships between colonies and metropoles. In chapter 4, she maps three different moments of Australian sociology: during the colony, after the colony between 1950-1970, and current theories. Unsurprisingly, during the colonial days, Australian authors (such as W.E. Hearn) were trying to build on sociological progress theories (such as Spencer’s or Comte’s). For instance, this is a direct quote from Hearn:

I propose to describe the rise and the progress of the principal institutions that are common to the nations of the Aryan race. I shall endeavour to illustrate the social organization under which our remote forefathers lived. I shall, so far as I am able, trace the modes of thought and of feeling which, in their mutual relations, influenced their conduct. I shall indicate the germs of those institutions which have now attained so high a development; and I shall attempt to show the circumstances in which political society took its rise, and the steps by which, in Western Europe, it supplanted its ancient rival. (Hearn 1878, quoted in Connell, p. 75)

During the first half of the XX century, Australian sociologists undertook white cities as the object of study. They began creating polls and surveys around class, welfare, and other dimensions of social life. Connell points out that this trend is coherent with what is happening in metropolitan universities (think of the School of Chicago). As so, the southern researchers were just applying northern theories in their own context, filling voids in the theories and providing more empirical data to the metropoles. Concepts were imported from the metropole and used unproblematically. Though without metropole, there wouldn’t exist Australian sociology.

Nowadays, Connell portrays new horizons for Australian sociologists. New horizons appear as sociologists can focus on “the specificity of Australia as a product of settler colonialism” (Connell, p. 85). Or from thinking “an Australian starting point about global structures and connections” (Connell, p. 85). And above all: the possibility to co-create theory with other peripheral researchers:

None of this defnes a distinctive Australian school of sociology. What it does mean is that Australian sociologists have recognised a wider spectrum of possibilities inherent in the geopolitical situation of a rich peripheral country and the history of settler colonialism. Recognising these possibilities, Australian sociology may contribute to much more important goals than the creation of a local ethos. For the frst time, as Bulbeck’s work clearly shows, it is possible to move beyond the traditional link with the metropole to link with the intellectual projects of other regions of the periphery. (Connell, p. 86).

Fostering social knowledge creation among peripheral researchers destabilizes northern theory. Nonetheless, she also states that, for now, metropole theories will continue to be the leading global theories.

As a concluding reflection, she states that theory must become dirty. Making a dirty theory involves combating universal-placeless-atemporal generalizations. It consists of more theories to maximize the wealth of analysis and explanations. Uttermost, it requires understanding generalizations as a way to clarify specific situations so we can problematize with others:

This suggests an argument against pure general theory, in favour of what we might call dirty theory—that is, theorising that is mixed up with specifc situations. The goal of dirty theory is not to subsume, but to clarify; not to classify from outside, but to illuminate a situation in its concreteness. (Connell, p. 205)

As a peripheral researcher, how do I position myself in this scenario?

My thoughts on this reading

The creation of social concepts

Connell criticizes the creation and use of social concepts. For example, colonial anthropologists and sociologists have used the concept of “clan” to describe “primitive” societies. As we have seen, the epistemological relation between anthropologists/sociologists and “clansmen” has been the between subject and object. In particular, the concept of “clan” can be opposed to the concept of “civilization,” as we can see in the following passage of Hearn (describing Australian aborigines):

In all its leading characteristics—political, legal, religious, economic—archaic society presents a complete contrast to that in which we live . . . no central government . . . no national church . . . few con- tracts . . . Men lived according to their customs . . . They were protected, or, if need were, avenged, by the help of their kinsmen. There was, in short, neither individual nor State. The clan, or some association founded upon the model of the clan, and its subdivisions, filled the whole of our forefathers’ social life (Hearn 1878: 4–5).

Thus, concepts such as “clan” talk more about the scientist’s political context and ethical mindset rather than the actual reality of said societies.

As my research is bounded to rural schools in Colombia, I have the potential trap of becoming Hearn. The concept of “campesino” is used in Colombia to refer to humans that live in rurality. It also denotes a cultural way of living, a historical-political social class, and an economical class: as we find the concept in the national campesino day, in the Colombian peace treaty, the concept is used to delimitate the social group that has been the victim of violence and forced displacement, and the concept is also used to describe people who live in the rural parts and suffer from the diverse structural gaps (economic, education, etc.).

So, it is essential to approach this concept critically and, in Connell’s words, in a messy way. I need to read more about the theoretical and ethical implications of such a category and learn more about its origin and the realities it tries to create.

Subaltern theories, metropole influences, and satyagrahi

Chapter nine, The silence of the land, portrays the creation of Subaltern Theories in India. Subaltern Theories work on the subaltern-elite dichotomy to portray India’s power relations through the revival of indigenous knowledge and the recognition of popular historical agency. The theory was so powerful that it penetrated metropole research centers and academic discourses. At the heart of the theory and practice, Indian researchers resisted a monopoly of truth while positioning themselves in the search for the ‘truth of the victim’.

As subaltern theory developed, it began to include concepts and generalizations from metropole theories. Examples range from the incorporation of Marxist, postmodern, and feminist categories. For instance, we find Vandana Shiva, an activist and environmental feminist that incorporated northern third-wave feminism into her analysis of Indian gender violence.

These texts bring to a head a major problem about theory in the global South. No intellectuals working outside the metropole can ignore the intellectual production of the metropole… For many purposes, it is feasible and labour-saving to import metropolitan theory and simply give it a local gloss. That is understandable where an activist movement faces huge practical problems, which is true for the Indian women’s movement. It is also understandable—though the dynamics are different—where a large part of the audience is located in the metropole, which is true for the later Subaltern Studies and for Shiva’s environmentalism (Connell, p. 176).

Ashis Nandy in a library

Finally, Connell elaborates on the academic work of Ashis Nandy. Nandy caught my particular interest as he works with northern theory in a particular manner. Using Gandhi’s satyagrahi, Nandy does not intend to combat colonialism with colonialism. To explain this, I will quote Connell’s interpretation of Nandy’s interpretation of satyagrahi – please feel free to use my interpretation of her interpretation of his interpretation:

To Nandy, Gandhi’s originality lay in his realisation that to fght colonialism on the terms colonialism had created was to be defeated from the start…Refusing the norms of colonial culture, refusing hegemonic masculinity, modernisation and scientifc rationality as well as wealth and office, Gandhi permanently delegitimised the imperial system. India became, to use a more recent term, ungovernable by the British… 

Far from rejecting the colonising people, religion and culture, Gandhi searched in them for supportive themes and indeed found some. They included the principle of non-violence itself, which he claimed to have found not in the Hindu scriptures but in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. (Connell, p.187).

As we can see, Gandhi used a foreign concept (Christian compassion) to empower his actions toward social justice. Nandy uses the same principle when approaching northern theories. He borrows and uses loosely and misplaces concepts in his work to describe particular realities of India. His aim is not to have a coherent theory that adheres to metropole theories. Also, his approach to postcolonialism is not to combat northern theories (as Fanon proposes). His stance is non-combat, where colonizers are not the enemy, whereas northern theories are not the enemy. I will adopt this stance toward northern theory in my research.

The problem of the audience

Finally, Connell has an interesting point when she highlights that the audience for periphery theory is usually metropole researchers. This is a critical issue for me, as I must ask myself:

  • Who is my audience?
  • For whom am I researching?
  • How can I make connections to peripheral researchers?


2 responses to “The location of Theory”

  1. Hi, Nicolás!Shall I recommend other readings?  I recommend you reviewing Walter Mignolo body of work given your interest in colonialism theories. Additionally, you might want to check Angel Rama’s “La ciudad Letrada”, where he approached the dichotomy between metropolis/rural in Latin America.  I read it a long time ago, but you might find a few interesting points.  Also, just a few questions inspired by your post:1) Why not write a post in Spanish? Aren’t you perpetuating a type of colonization by writing only in English (the coloniality of knowledge)? Is not Academia also deeply embed into the logic of “metropole” theories? 2) You mention how an a-critical approach to social sciences knowledge perpetuates colonial dynamics, will you cover this issue in relation to education in future posts? 

    • Hey, poet!

      Thank you for sharing these readings with me.

      I am writing this blog in English as my primary audience are my thesis supervisors, and they speak English. But you are right; there are colonial dynamics in my choice of language. Furthermore, as you say, academia IS embedded in Metropole dynamics; that is Connell’s main point. Maybe I wasn’t successful in highlighting this idea through my post.

      Regarding your second question, yes, my next post will elaborate on the connection between the theories I have been describing and education in a Colombian context.

      Thanks for your thoughtful questions.

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