Session 9 | 18 Jan 2024 | Decolonising the Social Sciences, Decolonising Universities: What it Might Mean and how it Could Work

A conversation between Tobias Werron and Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka, moderated by Minh Nguyen (Bielefeld University)

Lizenz: CC BY-NC-ND

This session brings a social anthropologist, Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka, and a sociological theorist, Tobias Werron, into dialogue on the question of what decolonisation means for them in teaching and practicing social theories and in the production of knowledge within anthropology and the university.

According to Tobias Werron, the Western tradition of sociological theories resolves around two main abstract questions. First, how is social order possible? And, second, what are the main characteristics and historical forces shaping modern society? Given these abstract and seemingly universal questions, he wishes to reflect on the critique of the tradition as being “colonial” through what Julian Go terms “imperial episteme” and what Dipesh Chakrabarty refers to as “false universalism.” A common theme of such critique is to describe the sociological tradition as “eurocentric”, given that sociology was first institutionalised in European and North American universities at the time of “high imperialism” between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries. In his contribution to the conversation, Werron plans to highlight two major issues. First, recent findings in the history of the social sciences which show how perspectives of major sociological theories (as well as sociology’s ways of remembering or forgetting its own history) reflect sociology’s entanglement with colonial and imperial history. Second, he will discuss what could be done to account for these insights in our own practice and teaching of social theory, arguing that this implies two major tasks: (1) expanding the Western canon and discovering new – particularly non-Western or non-Northern – authors and theories (see suggested reading by Go, 2023; see also Alatas/Sinha 2017); (2) readjusting the focus on topics – such as imperialism, colonialism, racism, violence, nationalism – which have played only minor roles in Western/Northern theories’ conceptualisations of social order and modernity.

Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka wishes to discuss similar issues from the perspective of knowledge production as a global hierarchy dominated by the Western canon that shapes our universities and the differentiated sense of academic belonging within them. Pointing out the alienation of those operating from within what she calls “academic provinces” and from undervalued positions within the hierarchy, she emphasises the need to decentre academia, to recognise the co-construction of knowledge between academics and ‘informants’, and to take notice of how academic hierarchies are reinforced in the materiality of the university and its social rules. According to her, processes of de-colonising need to be traced in three different dimensions: a) the socio-political constellations of knowledge production; b) pluralising knowledge; and c) the modalities of transmitting and exchanging knowledge.

The conversation is moderated by Minh Nguyen, another social anthropologist in Bielefeld.

Prof. Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka conducts anthropological research in the Himalayan region and in other parts of South Asia. Another ‘region’ of her inquiries are the social spaces of universities in different parts of Asia and Europe. Her most recent projects centre upon ‘Knowledge Production and Circulation’ in the framework of the ‘Shaping Asia’-program and on ‘Navigating University Spaces’ (both projects founded by the DFG).

Prof. Tobias Werron’s research focuses on globalization, nationalism, competition and practices of theorizing in the social sciences. Trained in the Western canon of sociological theory, he has become increasingly interested in recent years as to how this canon has been questioned, particularly from postcolonial perspectives, and how it might be expanded and redefined. In other words, he is interested in this debate not just for its own sake but also to reconsider and change his own understanding of social theory.

Prof. Minh Nguyen’s research examines the different facets of the relationship between labor, care, and mobility in Vietnam, China and Southeast Asia. She is the Principal Investigator of the ERC Starting-Grant project WelfareStruggles and author of Vietnam’s Socialist Servants (Routledge, 2014) and Waste and Wealth (OUP, 2018). Increasingly, she is interested in the implications of financialization for working lives in the region.

Further reading

Alatas, Syed/Vineeta Sinha (2017): Sociological Theory Beyond the Canon, London: Palgrave

Brosius C., Derichs C., Pfaff-Czarnecka J, Rao U. (2021). Shaping Asia: Connectivities, Comparisons, Collaborations. IIAS: The Newsletter 90 Autumn 2021.

Boatcă, Manuela (2013): “From the Standpoint of Germanism”. A Postcolonial Critique of Weber’s Theory of Race and Ethnicity. Political Power and Social Theory 24: 55–80.

Burman, A. (2018): Are anthropologists monsters? An Andean dystopian critique of extractivist ethnography and anglophone-centric anthropology. Journal of Ethnographic Theory 8(1/2): 48-64.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2000): The Idea of Provincializing Europe. pp. 3-23 In: Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Collins, F. L. & Ho K.C. (2018): Discrepant knowledge and interAsian mobilities: unlikely movements, uncertain futures. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 39(5): 679-693.

Connell, Raewyn W. (1997): Why Is Classical Theory Classical?. American Journal of Sociology 102: 1511-57.

Connell, Raewyn W. (2007): Southern Theory. The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. Cambridge: Polity.

Ge, R.Y. & Ho, K. C. (2020): Intra-Asia Higher Education Mobilities. In: Routledge Handbook of Asian Migrations. Routledge.

Go, Julian (2016): Postcolonial Thought and Social Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Go, Julian (2023): Thinking against empire: Anticolonial thought as social theory. British Journal of Sociology 74(1): 1–15.

Jansen, J.D. (2019): Making Sense of Decolonisation in Universities. In: Decolonisation in Universities. The Politics of Knowledge. WITS University Press.

Le Grange, L. (2019): The Curriculum Case of Decolonisation. In: Decolonisation in Universities. The Politics of Knowledge. WITS University Press.

Pfaff-Czarnecka, J. (2020): Shaping Asia through Student Mobilities. American Behavioural Scientist 64(10): 1400-1414.

Pfaff-Czarnecka J, Kruckenberg LJ (2017) On the Margins of World Society: Working with Impoverished, Excluded and Marginalised People. In: Understanding Global Development Research. Crawford G, Kruckenberg LJ, Loubere N, Morgan R (Eds); London: Sage: 89-108.

Pfaff-Czarnecka J., Kölbel A., Thieme S. (2022, eds.) Universities as Transformative Social Spaces: Mobilities and Mobilizations from South Asian Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schmahmann, B. (2019): Public Art and/as Curricula: Seeking a New Role for Monuments Associated with Oppression. In: Decolonisation in Universities. The Politics of Knowledge. WITS University Press.

Shahjahan, R.A. & Morgan, C. (2017): Global competition, coloniality, and the geopolitics of knowledge in higher education. British Journal of Sociology of Education 37(1): 92-109.

Smith, Antony D. (1983): Nationalism and classical social theory. The British Journal of Sociology 34: 19–38.

Wallerstein, Immanuel (1997): Eurocentrism and its Avatars: The Dilemmas of Social Science. Sociological Bulletin 46: 21-