It seems safe to assume that, unfortunately, the Caribbean is not at the forefront of international developments in sociology. I recently communicated with a colleague at a European university about a collaborative publication project I am looking to develop. The revelation that I work at the University of the West Indies led to the response that this did not sound like serious work at all. Just an anecdote – but surely it stands for broader assumptions about academic life in the Caribbean?
Be this as it may, the Caribbean does certainly receive a lot of attention from the metropole when the commercialisation of academic life and the propagation of British and US models of higher education administration are concerned. Every time I read the online edition of one of the local newspapers, I am invited to pursue a degree programme at the University of Liverpool. Leaving to study in the colder parts of the world and returning for work or further studies – or not – is in fact very common here. Likewise, there seems to be a sustained drive to export educational models from the ‘first world’ to the Caribbean, regardless of the consequences of these models in their places of origin. For example, recently an ethical review board was created at the University of the West Indies, to provide oversight in matters of research ethics. Ethical review boards are certainly de rigueur at centres of academic ‘excellence’ these days. However, they have also been reported to occasion significant constraints for sociological research. Some forms of qualitative research seem prone to falling afoul of assessments built according to models of ‘scientific’ research, ethics reviews have been instrumentalised to constrain politically sensitive research, and so forth. At one of my previous universities, I even witnessed the chairmanship of an ethics committee being utilised to impede research purely due to personal jealousies.
When the chair of the institutional review board of a super-elite university in the USA arrived a few months ago to offer workshops and teach the locals how to run an ethics committee, I thus had high hopes for some sort of reflexive and critical discussion. Instead, I was surprised to find that this international expert claimed to have no knowledge of any controversies concerning ethics committees and social research. Even major controversies, such as the infamous Ward Churchill scandal, were apparently unknown to her. In her view, ethics committees are simply part and parcel of doing sound scientific research, and they are by and large unproblematically applicable throughout the world. (And she did really state it just like that.) Locally grounded forms of knowledge and institutional practices, she argued, were details that did nothing to affect the universal need for US-style ethics committees.
From here, I could continue with a straightforward argument about academic neo-colonialism, in terms of the persistent drive towards the imposition of the metropole’s forms of knowledge and institutional practice, offered up as universal truths, on social researchers in the world’s periphery. However, such a straightforward argument would entail the risk of obscuring the many forms of genuine collaboration and intellectual exchange between academics worldwide. Hence, I will only consider one particular trend that imperils such collaboration.
For there to be some sort of global sociology, in terms of general agreement about some fundamental aspects of social life, or in terms of a well-articulated network of sociologies that are culturally or nationally specific in some way, there would need to a recognition of socio-culturally disparate forms of knowledge and institutional settings in which such knowledge is generated as equally significant and worthy of further articulation. Many sociologists today share such a recognition, and they work together across cultural and institutional boundaries. However, assertions that university X in place Y outside the metropole surely can’t be a serious institution runs counter to such recognition. Efforts by metropolitan universities to set up lucrative colonies in the global periphery, thus propagating ‘superior’ metropolitan models of higher education, run counter to such recognition. Assertions by super-elite experts that there is one universally valid model of doing science run counter to such recognition (and, by the by, to social research about science since at least the times of Thomas Kuhn).
All these counter-trends are bundled by the commercialisation of academic life in the metropole. Universities in countries like the USA and the UK are run according to the logic of the market. The businesspeople or business-minded academics increasingly in charge of universities have created an academic marketplace in which universities compete with each other for student-customers, research funding, and talented scholars. Crucially, this academic marketplace tends to operate according to the logic of self-interested competition and not to the logic of cooperation and other-interested exchange that could sustain a global sociology of the sort I outlined above. Image is crucial. Universities are brands that must seek to outclass and outmanoeuvre other brands in global university rankings and customer satisfaction surveys. Sociologists are entrepreneurs who must polish their esteem indicators, publish in the highest-ranking journals, get the best scores in teaching satisfaction surveys, and get the largest research grants. Within this system, there just seem to be few incentives for a truly global, truly plurivocal sociology.