Europe seen from outside - Current challenges in general sociological theory
Dept. of Social Work and Social Policy Fribourg University Fribourg, Switzerland
In historical perspective, sociology as an academic discipline - as opposed to social thinking more broadly - has emerged in Western Europe. In many cases, sociology has then expanded into the other continents via colonialism and imperialism. This exogenous origin of sociology in the global South has created problems of unequal relationships within the discipline in general, and more precisely problems of dependency and marginality of the Southern countries in sociological theory building.
The consequences of these historical developments have been severely criticized in the course of, roughly, the past three decades. However, these criticisms have more often than not been taken for merely political ones, that is for arguments against academic colonialism, scientific imperialism, orientalism, eurocentrism and Western intellectual hegemony or domination. Maybe the strongly political and/or ideological side of the discussion has lead to a state of the debate where the epistemological challenge that these criticisms represent for our discipline has hardly been recognized as such. However, several recent publications have re-centred the debate and focussed more precisely on the theoretical and epistemological challenges of Southern theory production for sociology as a discipline (Alatas 2006, Connel 2008, Hountondji 2008, Keim 2008, Lander, 2000). Interestingly, the various approaches seem to be in communication via newly emerging academic South-South-connections. They thus lead to questionings about the possible emergence, or existence, of counter hegemonic intellectual spaces of communication and interaction.
In this paper, I will discuss some of the most important arguments put forward in the debate, relying on a selection of the most prominent ones among the mentioned recent publications. It seems more necessary than ever, today, to take into account these voices emerging from the South and their perspectives on European sociology as "seen from outside", as the debate around "internationalisation" or "globalisation" of the discipline has become a current feature in international encounters. I conclude on a provocative tone, stating that in a long term perspective, European theorists will need to take these arguments emerging from the global South seriously, if they want to avoid their own marginalisation and provincialisation.