Internationalizing Sociology

Like the world generally and all academic disciplines, sociology is structured globally in terms of a distinction very roughly, between a core and a periphery, with a semi-periphery lying between them. Often the core-periphery distinction will also be termed the North-South division. The origins of social science lie in the colonial powers of Europe, Great Britain and the United States and its concerns and points of reference remain there today.

The south – Asia, Australia, Latin America – has  been incorporated only as sources of exotic data or as adjuncts to northern knowledge.  Raewyn Connell, for example, observes that contemporary social theory ‘embeds the viewpoints, perspectives and problems of metropolitan society while presenting itself as universal knowledge’ (2007:vii–viii).  

The Singaporean sociologist Sayed Farid Alatas identifies the core countries as the United Kingdom, the United States and France in their domination of social science production and prestige, although historically one would also have to include Germany and Spain (Alatas 2003: 602). There are enormous differences in total research and publication output, the response to sociological theory and research, the provision of PhD training. Certainly all theoretical development is seen as coming from sociologists in the North, with a special emphasis placed on those located at what are perceived as the most prestigious universities. A central observation by the sociologists concerned with this issue (Alatas 2000a, 2000b; 2006; Keim 2011; Sinha 2000) is that most collaboration between sociologists from the global North and South consists of Northern sociologists appropriating the production of knowledge about other parts of the world, while Southern sociologists continue to seek publication in British, European or North American journals and pursue degrees from Cambridgee, Princeton or Harvard.

Alatas (2003: 604-5) highlights a number of ways in which social scientists working in the periphery are dependent on those in the core:

  1. The production of theory and ideas.
  2. The distribution of ideas and research results through journals, books and conferences.
  3. The domination of the technology surrounding the circulation of social science scholarship.
  4. The funds available to support research activity – research grants, the purchase of books and journals, the support of visiting scholars.
  5. Direct investment in higher education institutions.
  6. The greater provision of research opportunities in the West, facilitating a ‘brain drain’

 

All these forms of global intellectual dependency constitues, argues Alatas, a serious obstacle to the development of a genuinely international sociology capable of coming to an adequate understanding of the structure and dynamics of a globalized social world.

The problem raised by the critique of the Eurocentrism, or North Atlantic domination of sociological theory and research is the question of how sociological thought can or should be modified to address this problem. The next step in addressing this problem is the development of local forms of sociology in the periphery that are connected with local problems. Weibke Keim gives the example of the sociology of work and industry in South Africa, which has produced analyses of problems and issues in the sociological analysis of labour relations which in turn have generated a number of important theoretical innonvations. Raewyn Connell (2011) adds another step, the development of conceptual concerns that are by definition ‘trans-local’. She gives the example of feminist analyses of gender relations (p. 289), but this category would include any form of sociological thought characterized by an explicit awareness of the role of colonialism and post-colonialism in the formation of the modern world.

A important challenge for sociological theory and research now and in the future, then, is how to move beyond the marginalization of the thinking and research of sociologists outside the current core centres of social science production, towards the inclusion of insights developed in all sociological research wherever it is produced and a genuine international dialogue that recognizes and respects the contributions to sociological thought being made in all parts of the world.