Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

Opening Sociology to the World and Universality

Issue 44: Opening Up Sociology Wed 5 Feb 2020 0

Stéphane Dufoix, University Paris-Nanterre, France
Sari Hanafi, American University of Beirut, Lebanon

Seventy years and quarter of century after, respectively, the foundation of the International Sociological Association (ISA) and the European Sociological Association (ESA), we must go even further in the opening-up of sociology, especially to that of non-Western countries. We were so glad to see the heavy presence of Eastern European and Turkish sociologists in the ESA Conference in Manchester in August 2019. Yet we believe that opening of sociology to the world and universality requires great effort, and not only from regional and international associations.

Sari Hanafi, speaker at the Closing Plenary of the 14th ESA Conference in Manchester 2019

In 1995, the report of the Gulbenkian Commission led by Immanuel Wallerstein – recently passed away on 31 August – called for the “opening-up of social sciences” by rethinking the conditions of interdisciplinarity, along with the classic distinction between social sciences and natural sciences. The call to accept the situated, i.e. “western” character, of the sociological heritage is to overcome the simplistic opposition between the universal and the particular, which remains largely incantatory. Since then, other presidents of the International Sociological Association (ISA), such as Michel Wieviorka or Michael Burawoy, have advocated a more global sociological thinking and support for various “national” sociologies. Exactly seventy years after the holding of the ISA congress in Oslo (September 1949), it appears possible and desirable to go even further in the direction of the opening-up of sociology, particularly in three specific directions:

First, it is more than necessary to open the eyes of a large number of sociologists in Western countries – and not only there too about the global dimension of a current of ideas and discipline which already at the turn of the twentieth century were by no means limited to the United States, United Kingdom, France or Germany. Influenced by Comte’s and/or Spencer’s works, courses, journals and authors claiming sociology were already present in Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Russia, Japan or China. Even today, our knowledge of what happened in “peripheral” places is very patchy, as is the way we account, as teachers, for the past and present of the discipline in Latin America, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, along with the Arab world, sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania.

The discipline’s curricula have generally been limited to the history of sociology, most often seen as the history of sociological theories. The historical links between the development of social sciences and the expansion of European and Northern American colonialism have imposed an international division of epistemic work in which theoretical work is the prerogative of the center, and therefore, of the Western world. The list of authors considered as “classical” and to be read or known by students of sociology is almost invariably the same in all countries, and only includes Westerners. The opening of the canon must concern both men and women sociologists from non-Western countries who have produced major theoretical, epistemological and/or empirical works, such as Alberto Guerreiro Ramos, Ari Sitas, Orlando Fals Borda, Irawati Karve, Akinsola Akiwowo, Fatima Mernissi, Fei Xiaotong, Anwar Abdel-Malek, Ali el-Kenz or Tsurumi Kazuko, to name but a few. It must also include those who, in Western countries, have undergone the law of a gendered and racial canonisation i.e., Harriet Martineau, W.E.B. DuBois, Marianne Weber or Jane Addams. This opening is not intended to replace a canon by a counter-canon, or even to create an inexhaustive list of male and female authors to be known by students. The aim is above all to offer a historically accurate image of the various beginnings of sociology, and also to reintroduce the dynamics of the power relations (geographic, racial, gendered) into the very core of the understanding of the constitutions and disciplinary developments of sociology.

Questioning the history of sociology and the constitution of its canon are intended to open up the meaning of how the term universal is understood. The search for general laws of social evolution, the desire to model sociology on the natural sciences, as well as the Eurocentrism of classical theorists have often led to the confusion of two forms of universalism: the positivist quest for largely trans-historical and trans-spatial concepts; and the postulate of a social science for which the production of knowledge would be disconnected from the cultural and social dispositions of the producers of knowledge. Just as if sociological knowledge could not be explained nor understood sociologically! For that reason, renouncing this form of overarching universalism in favor of the idea that the production of knowledge is always situated does not lead to the proclamation of absolute relativism, but to the transformation of the status of universality. The universal is not always already there: it is always the historical product of struggles in order to define “what” sociology is. It can therefore very well be conceived and conceptualised – perhaps more, in fact, under the term of universality than of universal – in the tension that exists between the general and the particular, between the global and the local. Universality is an ongoing construction, for it is an object of debate, of struggle, and of discussion, not only for today but also for tomorrow.

Just an example from the recent ESA Conference in Manchester: Sylvie Walby (prof. of sociology, City University of London) in her presentation in a semi-plenary session offered new ways to theorise violence, placing it at the centre of society, not the periphery, and rethinking the relationship between violence and security. I (Sari Hanafi) asked her in Q&A after her presentation how she did that beyond the European experience. She replied how she had many discussions from many parts of the world discussion about how to theorise and measure violence. I think her effort is definitely a way of providing a quasi cross-cultural consensus on a universal concept of violence. 

Note: An early version of this text was originally published in Libération, 5 September 2019. Translation by Lorijean Castine.

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