In recent years, sociology has begun a twin global and decolonial turn, marked by a series of high-profile publications that have sought to engage with sociology’s roots outside the Global Northwest, and to move the vocabulary of the discipline beyond its sometimes narrow Eurocentrism. So how effective have these efforts been?
Recently, in a keynote at an international conference at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, I attempted to summarise my thoughts on this question, considering currents in global higher education that may further or contest the decolonisation of sociological enquiry. Following a lively and thought-provoking discussion on the matter, I was left with the impression that conversations about decolonisation at the theoretical and methodological level are unproblematic, while talk about the institutional structures and processes of global higher education remains a little problematic.
A few days after my return from Shenzhen, I was invited to teach an introduction to sociology at a summer school in Shanghai in July. This summer school is hosted by a Chinese education company that works with universities from the USA and China to prepare Chinese students for degrees in the social sciences and the humanities in the United States. Universities in the US apparently provide syllabi and textbook recommendations, and students may use credits earned from classes taken as part of their degree programmes. A company representative got in touch to talk me through the organisation of the summer school and the syllabus for their introductory sociology class. I found this syllabus quite thought provoking. It had been provided by a small university in a rural part of the American Midwest, and it contained the standard sequence of themes one would expect. The class had been built around one of the big Western textbooks, written by one of Britain’s leading sociologists of the late 20th and early 21st century and adapted for an American audience. The syllabus stipulated that the class should contain case studies on subjects such as the American class system, US gun culture, the racial gap in health (in the USA), and the question whether Walmart is good for America.
I asked whether the textbook and the case study could be replaced to give the class a little more of an international outlook, and to incorporate materials on the Global South. This would be, I was told, impossible, as it might make it impossible for students to have the class accredited by their universities in the US. At this point, I should add that the syllabus is not likely to be taught by its American authors. Rather, the company is to a significant degree relying on Chinese academics – locally available, at substantially lower salaries than their American counterparts – to deliver its teaching portfolio. Thus, a quintessentially American introduction to sociology will probably be delivered to Chinese students by Chinese academics who are at least somewhat unlikely to be closely familiar with the US of guns and Walmart.
So what to make of all this? I believe that the preceding anecdotes mark a fundamental tension in contemporary sociology. At one end of the world of sociology, there are polite and stimulating conversations with academics from internationally leading universities, such as those I had the pleasure to be invited to last week. Here, a cosmopolitan understanding of our discipline is at least widespread and perhaps even prevalent. At the other end of the world of sociology, the discipline is packaged as a commodity and sold to consumers hoping to convert a substantial financial investment – in tuition fees, the expenses that come with studying abroad, and so on – into an improvement in their social mobility prospects. Here, sociology may remain robustly Eurocentric.
There is in this sense a fundamental contradiction between the intellectual life of sociology and the structures of global academic capitalism within which it operates. Academic capitalism operates by way of international hierarchies – of academic systems, universities, publishing houses, and individual scholars and their work – that reproduce longstanding intellectual and material hierarchies within sociology. Therefore, even years after the publication of seminal works such as Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory or Gurminder Bhambra’s Rethinking Modernity, students in China may be introduced to sociology by way of a narrative that does not look beyond the borders of the USA. On the one hand, if would be fascinating to teach sociology at an international summer school in China with a book such as Syed Farid Alatas and Vineeta Sinha’s Sociological Theory Beyond the Canon. On the other hand, a standard US textbook written a by a white male Western elite scholar may be the safer choices when it comes to marketing a summer school class to consumers starstruck by the prestige of Western academia. Little has changed.