Toward a Non-Hegemonic World Sociology (ToNHeWoSoc) :
Common Tools, Situated Knowledge and Productive Connections
Stéphane Dufoix, Professor of Sociology, University Paris-Nanterre
Eric Macé, Professor of Sociology, University of Bordeaux
For a World Discussion
This project of a world discussion between sociologists from various parts of the world intends to take up again the debate that had been engaged by sociologists from the South since the early 20th century : is sociology as it has been originally developed by Western sociologists a universal social science that makes it still today possible to describe any kind of social organization or social relations or is it only to be seen as the situated version of a Western-centric viewpoint about what the « social » and its actors are, a version that would have become hegemonic throughout most of the world ?
What is at stake : shifting from international sociology to world sociology
Everywhere around the world, each time the necessary preconditions for a sociological research are suitable, sociologists try to understand and explain the relations, the experiences and the logics of action that construct, institute and transform reality. In this respect, the internationalization of European and American sociology from the late 19th century onwards has led to the institution of an international sociology with a common base of references, concepts and methods. However, this internationalization has also paved the way to harsh criticism about the universality of a sociology that had been formed within Western societies and that had imposed itself to also describe Southern societies despite the fact that their historical trajectories, entangled as they may be with the Northern ones, have their own specificities.
Recent studies about the impact of postcolonial and decolonial controversies and critiques on the very way to write the history of sociology (among others, Ascione, 2016; Go, 2013; Bhambra, 2014) have convincingly shown that classical sociology (Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Parsons) confounded its situated viewpoint (that of an evolutionist, modern, diffusionist, androcentric, heterocentric and Western-centric relation to the world) with universality per se. Blinded by their methodological nationalism and ethnocentrism, most classical sociologists have for a long time considered that the object of sociology, “society”, was historically and ideal-typically represented by Western nation-states. This sociology cannot claim any universality whenever it projects its own norms, hegemonic standards and definitions of reality onto other social formations while blinding itself to its own situated relation to the world. This is all the more problematic as postcolonial critiques have offered a new reading of world history demonstrating that all contemporary societies in the world – Western societies included – have been shaped by the collision between the colonial relation and the postcolonial entanglements. The issue at stake therefore entails working on the theoretical, conceptual and methodological tools that would make it possible to non-Occidentalocentrically describe such a complex historical and sociological reality made of so many interdependencies between all the actors involved and their representations on all scales (locally, translocally, nationally, internationally…).
Consequently, the question is still topical: is sociology an intrinsically Western-situated (and therefore limited) science pertaining to the Western hegemony on the rest of the world or can it be a common language and resource for sociologists all over the world when they intend to report about both situated and connected realities in both a stituated and shareable manner ?
In the first case, according to the most radical decolonial critique, Western sociologists should 1) accept the situated – and thus limited – dimension of their knowledge that would only apply to Western societies ; 2) acknowledge that the vision of their own societies is biased by ethnocentrism and by such ideas as modernity, state, civil society, class… ; and 3) engage into a multi-disciplinary dialogue with those Southern sociologists who use different tools than the ones of classical sociology to describe the social reality of Southern societies.
In the second case, further informed by postcolonial and decolonial critiques, sociology would still be characterized by a common paradigm and a shared set of theoretical, conceptual and methodological tools (norms, good reasons, gender, relative frustration, path dependency…). It would not only allow for the making of non-hegemonic situated knowledge throughout the world but also to increase and transform this common set of tools by connecting these distinct situated sociological productions, to the point that some non-hierarchical comparison would seem conceivable.
More fundamentally, just as history (Subrahmanyam 1997 and 2014) and anthropology (Saillant and allii, 2011) have been confronted to the world pluralism of experiences and viewpoints, sociology has to reconsider its mission and future not through the universality of social forms but rather the universality of the object of sociology. In other words, if the object of sociology is not « society » (in the Eurocentric meaning of the term) but the whole set of relations between those actors who construct, institute and transform world reality, then sociology may have at its disposal a universal analytical set of tools that does not prejudice the multiplicity of combinations, of observable forms, of actors (Latour, 2007). It does indeed show – and isn’t it the nucleus of the sociological discipline ? – that any reality is socially constructed and reconstructed through the relations between actors in a contingent and relative manner. Sociology may thus promote the universality of its tools so as to describe, understand and explain the diversity of social “configurations” (in the Eliasian meaning of the term) and framings of reality, as well as their historicity, interdependence and interpenetration (Göle, 2005), their tensions, conflicts and transformations.
To put it shorter, the internationlization of sociology has led to three main problems. The first one is the universalization of such categories and reasonings that had been coined by a Western-centric conception of sociology that was characterized by its blindness to its own situated dimension and to its hegemonization of other situated contexts and perspectives. The second one conversely pertains to the limits of the indigenizing strivings by some Southern sociologists and to the aporias of a « multicultural » or « decolonial » sociology that would not share any more common method, knowledge, concepts with both Western or any other situated sociology. The third difficulty has to do with the original methodological nationalism of classical sociology that often impels a « national sociology » framework and almost makes it impossible to take into sufficient consideration the transnationalized entanglements of situated experiences and social relations.
In order to solve those difficulties it seems important to organize a discussion between sociologists from all over the world. Such a gathering should make it possible to determine whether there is a common sociological knowledge that allows to do sociological research wherever you are ; and whether sociology is able to deal with such a common knowledge non-hegemonically on the basis of references, concepts and methods that have been situatedly coined throughout the world.
Goal: what are the conditions for a non-hegemonic world sociology ?
The issue to be debated could then be the following : how would it be possible to construct some sociological universality without its being the mere universal diffusion of situated knowledges, selected methods or largely Western theories, also of epistemic reactions based on the idea of a Southern theory or finally of indigenizing experiences in the name of the only cultural, linguistic, religious, civilizational proximity of the populations concerned ?
To be really fruitful such a questioning implies a better knowledge than we do have now of the history of two concomitant processes : the internationalization and universalization of sociology on the one hand ; the rise of more particularist claims on the other, in a rather dispersed way in the first place before it became a more coordinated trend from the late 1970s onwards. This history is still embryonic and it would deserve being investigated much deeper. Knowing this history is compulsory if one wants to reach a better knowledge of the various forms that the different counter-hegemonic movements in non-Western countries have known. The second process is even more crucial to the project since it entails the very possibility to consider the global future of sociology less as a simple consequence of universalization than as the possibility shared by sociologists to build non-hegemonic world frames for the discipline.
Within the last decade numerous books and articles have contributed to this debate though in different ways. Besides a number of panoramas displaying the diversity of sociology as it is practiced in the various parts of the world (Burawoy, Chang and Hsieh, 2010; Patel, 2010; Kuhn and Weidemann, 2010), some have emphasized the world geo-epistemic inequalities (Hanafi and Arvanitis, 2016; Wiebke and allii, 2014; Costa, 2014 and 2013) or the necessary decolonization of social sciences (Ascione, 2016; Gutierrez Rodriguez, Boatca and Costa, 2010; Cairo and Grosfoguel, 2010), while others have focused on the rise of a Southern thought or theory on its way to epistemic autonomy (Kuhn and Vessuri, 2016; Ortiz, 2016; Lütfi, 2016; Vessuri, 2015; Beigel, 2013; Randeria, Conrad, and Römhild, 2013 ; Connell, 2007; Alatas S.F., 2006), even on the peculiarities of certain regional sociologies (Wieviorka, 2017; Kim, Li and Yazawa, 2016); other ones have insisted on the possibility of a global sociology (Connell et allii, 2017; Burawoy, 2016; Roulleau-Berger, 2016; Patel, 2014; Bhambra, 2014; Vessuri, 2014; Alatas S.H, 2006). The latter has a different shape according to authors. For instance Michael Kuhn defends the need for an objective science, even claiming that the positivist universality thereof should not be challenged by situated knowledges (Kuhn, 2016), while other scholars among which the decolonial ones conversely insist on the irreducible specificity of indigenous sociologies. Caught betwixt and between are those scholars who share a common determination to both maintain the unity of the discipline and allow for distinct practical or theoretical – a same language spoken with different accents as Renato Ortiz would put it – : their commitment has either appealed to the construction of global sociology from below through the consolidation of national sociologies (Burawoy, 2016), to opening the discipline to non-academic audiences and establishing horizontal networks instead of merely vertical ones (Patel, 2014), to building transnational collaborations (Okamoto, 2016), to producing empirical works about current academic practices of hybridizing different traditions (Connell, Collyer, Maia and Morrell, 2017), even when it has to deal with Southern resistances to Southern epistemological formulations (on this, see Omobowale and Akanle, 2017), be it in order to « weave » world sociology (Connell, 2010), to establish epistemological models founded on perspectivist realism (Go, 2016) or to organize bi- or multi-lateral academic programmes that give European and Asian researchers the opportunity to meet and discuss (Roulleau-Berger, 2016).
Question : what connections do to sociology ?
In spite of the issues and debates we have just mentioned, sociologist from all over the world do research and produce sociological knowledge about social relations, social experiences and logics of action.
Acknowledging the existence of this common – though often not connected – research practice should be the basis of a collective work aiming at finding answers to several big questions :
– is it possible to universally define the own theoretical object of sociology without necessarily linking it to a peculiar time or space (like the late XIXth century in Europe or the 1950s in the United States) ?
– when sociologists from all over the world try to understand social and cultural practices, their transformations and their transnationalization in a situated way, do they all work on the same kind of social object (be it family, sexuality, inequalities, science, environment, gender, migration etc.) ? Or are the sociological constructions of problems, of domains and of objects the proper results of every situated reality?
– when diversely situated sociologists connect the results of their work, does it enhance the capacity of common sociology to explain and understand reality ?
– under these circumstances, are international comparisons and comparative typologies still possible and desirable ?
– finally, toward which kind of sociological language should we be heading ? Toward a meta-language aiming at neutralizing the consequences of situated knowledge ? Toward a simplification of existing concepts and categories ? Toward a grounded multiplication of the latter under the guise of derivative concepts understood as different possible forms of a single generic category ?
How ? A localized world gathering.
The project could be organized as follows. We will first identify some twenty to thirty sociologists (ideally as many males and females) coming from all over the world as well as from different situated experiences, and having already thought about, debated and written about the topics aforementioned. We will then invite them to take part together to a closed 3-days seminary in order to really talk about it, to imagine processes, protocols, methods, experiments, gatherings that could in the future allow the advancement of the discipline in the direction of a global sharing that would be something distinct from the earlier top-down hegemonic imposition or the mere juxtaposition of situated viewpoints.
The project would be led by Stéphane Dufoix (Université Paris Ouest Nanterre) and Eric Macé (Université de Bordeaux) within the framework of the Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme (Paris). It has already received a priori supports from Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme (Paris, France).
The project would be organized along several phases :
Phase 1 : sending of a set of questions to the participants so as to organize reflection
Phase 2 : reception, compiling and sending to everyone of the original texts written by the participants
Phase 3 : holding of a 3-days closed seminar with about 20 scholars in Bordeaux (France) in the Spring 2019
Phase 4 : rewriting of the texts or writing of collaborative new texts taking the issues and results of the seminar into consideration
Phase 5 : publication of the texts in various languages
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