Higher Education Reform

Gurminder Bhambra on Three Challenges for Reparatory Social Science

July 14, 2022 1292

Sociology, and the broader social sciences, are shaped by the idea that the ‘modern’ world is their special domain of investigation. It is contrasted to a ‘non-modern’ world that is seen to be the concern of anthropology, and a ‘pre-modern’ world that is typically the concern of historians. However, this modern world is a colonial world, albeit that colonialism and empire are largely absent from the social sciences.

If standard accounts have elided the relationship between colonialism and modernity, then accounting for this relationship requires us also to transform sociology. Here, I draw out the key concerns of a reparatory sociology that follow once the role of colonialism in the shaping of the modern world is recognized. I do this by building on work both within and outside the academy.

LSE-impact-blog-logo
This article by Gurminder K. Bhambra originally appeared on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog as “3 Challenges for a reparatory social science” and is reposted under the Creative Commons license (CC BY 3.0).

Notably, a reparatory sociology must recognize the significant claims for reparations made by activists now and in the past. This includes the significant work of Hilary BecklesCARICOM, and Rastafari Movement UK, in the context of slavery and indigenous dispossession in the Caribbean; and that of Shashi Tharoor and earlier figures such as Dadabhai Naoroji in relation to colonial drain from the Indian subcontinent. It is activism such as this that has brought about academic engagement with the idea of reparations for colonialism.

The issue of slavery and Black experience, in particular, was the focus of a research symposium on “Reparative Histories” organized by Anita Rupprecht and Cathy Bergin and published in Race and Class in 2016. This was followed by articles by Colin Prescod and Catherine Hall addressing the relationship between calls for reparations, the archive, and the writing of history itself.

The question of reparative futures has been picked up Arathi Sriprakash and colleagues who seek to rethink the relationship between the past and futures oriented to questions of repair and justice. Olúfemi O. Táíwò similarly argues for reparations to be seen as a future-oriented project; one that develops a constructive view of reparations rooted in philosophical concerns of distributive justice.

Over the last couple of years, I have sought to examine these issues through and for the social sciences (see my May 2021 talk at the LSE and subsequent journal article). A reparatory sociology, I suggest, requires a reconsideration of the histories that are taken to be central to it as well as a reorientation of our conceptual understandings as a consequence. It further requires us to be committed to epistemological justice in our practices. Here I identify three crucial challenges:

Historical

European modernity, organized in terms of the industrial revolution and the French revolution, has long been argued to be the central defining frame for the social sciences. However, much research has argued for the necessity of addressing the global conditions of these events as well as acknowledging other world historical processes and, indeed, the interconnections between them.

Arguing for the histories of Europe to be understood as colonial histories is an inclusive move that seeks to account for the shape of Europe (and the world) today as a consequence of global practices of domination and appropriation. It is these histories that have produced the modern world and need to form the basis from which we rethink the social sciences, including sociology.

Conceptual

The nation state is proposed as a primary unit of analysis across the social sciences. The period that is seen to give rise to the modern nation state, however, is precisely a period of colonial expansion that saw some European states consolidate their domination over other parts of the world within imperial formations. Yet, what is seen as ‘external’ domination is rarely theorized as a constitutive aspect of the ‘modern state’.

The argument that we should move from using the nation as the unit of analysis to working with a broader approach that takes seriously colonial and imperial histories has implications for the way in which we understand political issues in the present. The political communities of European states extend beyond national boundaries with implications for how we should understand borders as functioning within practices of appropriation and exclusion. Once we acknowledge the broader histories that have shaped us, this has implications for the concepts that we develop on the basis of a proper consideration of those histories.

Epistemological

Epistemological justice, which I argue is central to any reparatory sociology, requires an address of the ways in which colonization, slavery, and indenture were integral to the project of modernity. Such processes structured knowledge claims within theories of development and ‘progress’ as well as its institutions, such as universities, but were rendered invisible in representations of its ‘civilizational’ project.

Epistemological justice, then, involves recognition of the knowledge claims of others in terms both of respect and (re)constructive response; whether in terms of disagreement or agreement. A central aspect of this would be an ethical practice of scholarship that acknowledges the work that has already gone on by those whose activism has forced our attention, as well as engaging productively with critiques and contestations around their implications for contemporary politics, including the politics of knowledge production.

As I argued in the inaugural issue of the Global Social Challenges Journal, a reparatory sociology requires both the repair of the social sciences as well as being invested in the collective address of the inequalities legitimated by standard social science. Recognizing the modern world as the colonial global world enables us more adequately to contextualize events and processes that are often presented as separate and to understand them within a connected frame of reference – one committed to repair and transformation, and a world that works for us all.


More on this topic

Gurminder K Bhambra is professor of postcolonial and decolonial studies at the University of Sussex. She is the author of the award-winning Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination; Connected Sociologies; and, with John Holmwood, of Colonialism and Modern Social Theory. She is president of the British Sociological Association

View all posts by Gurminder K. Bhambra

Related Articles

Universities Should Reimagine Governance Along Co-Operative Lines
Higher Education Reform
May 20, 2024

Universities Should Reimagine Governance Along Co-Operative Lines

Read Now
Striving for Linguistic Diversity in Scientific Research
Communication
May 1, 2024

Striving for Linguistic Diversity in Scientific Research

Read Now
Civilisation – and Some Discontents
Public Engagement
April 30, 2024

Civilisation – and Some Discontents

Read Now
The Long Arm of Criminality
Opinion
April 29, 2024

The Long Arm of Criminality

Read Now
Exploring ‘Lost Person Behavior’ and the Science of Search and Rescue

Exploring ‘Lost Person Behavior’ and the Science of Search and Rescue

What is the best strategy for finding someone missing in the wilderness? It’s complicated, but the method known as ‘Lost Person Behavior’ seems to offers some hope.

Read Now
The Power of Fuzzy Expectations: Enhancing Equity in Australian Higher Education

The Power of Fuzzy Expectations: Enhancing Equity in Australian Higher Education

Having experienced firsthand the transformational power of education, the authors wanted to shed light on the contemporary challenges faced by regional and remote university students.

Read Now
Using Translational Research as a Model for Long-Term Impact

Using Translational Research as a Model for Long-Term Impact

Drawing on the findings of a workshop on making translational research design principles the norm for European research, Gabi Lombardo, Jonathan Deer, Anne-Charlotte Fauvel, Vicky Gardner and Lan Murdock discuss the characteristics of translational research, ways of supporting cross disciplinary collaboration, and the challenges and opportunities of adopting translational principles in the social sciences and humanities.

Read Now
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments