How Colonialism Has Shaped Social Scientific Knowledge

“…Decolonisation of knowledge is merely one site of cognitive justice within the broader emancipatory project of social justice..”

Social scientific knowledge and practice have been engineered and disseminated through a European lens of reality that is intrinsically entangled with colonial legacies. Such processes of enslavement, dispossession, and co-operations of local knowledge collide with the precedence of Eurocentric conceptions that function within the normative framework of global applicability. On its face, the monolithic nature of Western/ modern canons of thought has dominated and suppressed other existing subaltern trajectories that are ‘unspeakable things’ (Moreton-Robinson, 2002, p. 189) within social sciences. Knowledge cannot detach itself from the coloniality of power (Quijano, 2007, p. 169). It becomes a modernising tool through temporal and spatial contexts. In the case of sociology, its emergence coincided with revolutionary projects in Europe (Renaissance, French Revolution, Reformation, etc.), which situated emancipation within rationality whilst dismissing traditional understandings. Hence, this essay will deconstruct social scientific knowledge’s ontological and epistemological nature, suggesting that it cannot be devoid of the colonial gaze. Furthermore, methodological implications will be discussed in recent postcolonial scholarship that seeks to uncover imperialist elements within Eurocentric modernity and suggest alternative epistemologies.

From an ontological perspective, social scientific knowledge is an epiphenomenon of perceived binaries that have been imposed by Western logocentrism. The Cartesian ‘Cogito ergo sum’ (‘I think, therefore I am) is the foundation of European modernity/rationality as it encouraged modes of secularisation; thus, challenging previous ideals of theology (Christendom) (Grosfoguel, 2013, p. 75-76). The notion of ‘I’ ascribed Man as the sole producer of objective truth equivalent to a ‘God eye view’. Such ontological dualism asserted that the mind is separate from the body, which gave the mind the power to create un-situated knowledge within geopolitics). With the method of solipsism, the European mind became the epicentre and unbiased truth, replacing God in the process. Any knowledge in body-politics (Fanon, 2010) or ego-politics of knowledge (Mignolo, 2002, p. 59) is rendered ‘subjective’ and ‘inferior’. Such point zero epistemology (Castro-Gomez, 2003) leads to etymological divides between ‘subject’/’object’, ‘body’/‘non-body, ‘pre-modern/‘modern’, that informed European articulations towards ‘inferior’ subjects. All non-Europeans became objects of knowledge that could be empirically investigated or exploited. In this way, the identities of indigenous people followed the evolutionary trajectories from ‘primitive’ to ‘civilised’, from ‘irrational’ to ‘rational’, from ‘mythic’ to ‘scientific’. (Quijano, 2000, p. 221). Consequently, these powerful dichotomies influence how current discourses of scientific knowledge are prevalent. Suppose modern scientific knowledge is assumed to be a more neutral and objective source of authority. In that case, it contrasts with static and localised epistemologies, thus legitimising ‘epistemic idea that leads to the destruction of alternative pieces of knowledge (Grosfoguel, 2013, p. 74). Rightly so, Dussel (1994) rephrases Descartes’ phrase into ‘I conquer, therefore I am’, emulating the Imperial Being who enjoys such epistemic privilege. Western philosophers utilise ontological contradictions to delineate ‘superior’ forms of knowledge from ‘inferior’ ones constitutively shaped by colonial legacies.

Furthermore, the conception of contemporary modern knowledge as the apex of progressiveness relies on the colonisation of time and space to create narratives of colonial difference (Mignolo, 2002, p. 67) and cognitive categories (De Sousa Santos, p. 33). The classification of colonised populations into ‘barbarians’ can be traced back to the writings of Las Casas, who identified the ‘barbarie negativa’ (negative barbarism) (ibid). This meant that ‘barbarians’ were those who ‘lacked’ something – democratic structures, scholarly writings, and civilised lifestyles. Such primitive totalities were explained by the notion that they lived in a ‘state of nature, had a wrong religion, or had no religion at all (indigenous communities which worshipped nature) (ibid). Imminently, it became the Hobbesian goal for the West to domesticate this ‘state of nature’ through a civilising mission. Expanding on this, Hegel postulated a newer geopolitical classification, implying that philosophical knowledge was at the ‘heart’ of Germany, France, and England, whereas other nations were relegated to the past. Remnants of such constricted understandings are echoed in contemporary philosophy, such as Fukuyama’s conceptions of unipolarity and the ‘triumph of the west’ (1989, p. 3). Through this colonisation of territories, the radical omission of the ‘Other’ from dominant paradigms not only illustrates a mechanic image of social reality. Still, it denied the existence of multiple ‘totalities’ (Quijano, 2007 p. 220). This ‘othering’ reproduced itself in identities by equating external physiognomic traits with internal ‘racial’ nature, e.g., ‘Indians’, ‘Negroes’, ‘yellows’, etc. (ibid). In like manner, all-encompassing categories further alienated and objectified these distinct populations by locking them into uniform thinking patterns. For this reason, Westernised ideals of knowledge painted atomistic and closed realities by legislating diverse cultures into a global hegemony of social classes-all possible through the virtue of ‘Whiteness’. As a result, three historical figures still exist today: ‘the woman, the savage and nature’ (De Sousa Santos, 2007, p. 35).

Epistemologically, ethnocentric knowledge utilises the strategies of power to subjugate colonial knowledge in academic discourses relating to world theories, also referred to as ‘artificial bifurcations’ (Go, 2013, p. 36). In regards to which, classical sociology’s omission of imperial history overlooks more holistic understandings of society by analytically separating relations that might not be divided at all. Theorists have, thus, erased colonialism from their accounts of modernity whilst asserting Western-centric worldviews. Such forms of intellectual domination suggest that power and knowledge are inextricable concepts that operationalise the production of ‘truth’, specifying the norm and the deviant (Foucault, 1983, pp. 208-226). For instance, Giddens’s typology of society covers tribal, class-divided, and capitalist class societies. Still, it does not mention a colonial society that had historically been the case since the fifteenth century (Mamdani, 1996). Weber depicted the Orient as incompetent but never considered the role of imperialist powers on colonised territories (Magubane, 1994, pp. 94-97). Durkheim hypothesised transitions based upon types of solidarity but never mapped the imperialist consolidation of indigenous populations (ibid). These trends were prevalent with the Left, with Marx categorising colonialism as a mere tool for expanding capitalism but not being a constitutive element in its composition (Turner, 1978).

Similarly, Foucault postulated that the concept of punishment in the ancien regieme ‘disappears’ and is replaced by a panopticon (1979, pp. 7-8). In contrast, reality suggests that the British empire did not counter the Indian Mutiny with prison but with public spectacles of executions (Connell, 2006, p. 261). These theories have something in common – they remain oblivious to the histories experienced by non-Western territories and separate Europe from its colonies, thus, rendering sociological conjectures incomplete. In this way, modernity is replicated through colonialism, but epistemic violence veiled imperialist agendas, reserving modernity for westerners (Go, 2013, p. 31).

The epistemological monopolisation by the European knowledge paradigms inculcated the West/Rest rhetoric is deeply ingrained today. The modernity/rationality ideal is the foundation of modern sociology – a universal parameter to define what ‘modern’ is (Hall, 1997, p. 233). This typically rests on conflated ideas of the modern world emerging out of economic and political revolutions situated in Europe, such as the Renaissance, Reformation, and Scientific Revolution (Bhambra, 2011, p. 657). The glorification of Western culture did not factor in that different ‘temporalities and historicities’ are ‘violently interconnected’ (Hall, 1997, p. 233). Hence, the ‘internationalisation of class structures’ that has furnished asymmetrical categories of power between the First World (former colonisers) and Third World (colonised states) is increasingly antiquated (Berger, 1994, p. 258). By equating these nations with a lack of development, dependency theory has emerged as a new way of ‘contesting representations’ of traditional societies within ‘sociological explanations’, synonymising development to the emergence of capitalism and underdevelopment to ‘dependency’ (Bhambra, 2014, p. 25). Therefore, the asymmetries between North and South are expressed today in a wide range of dialectics within the global discourse: ‘donor/recipient’; ‘teaching/learning’, recommending/following’, etc. (De Sousa Santos, 2007, pg. 38). In this way, current world theories rehearse the same prehistoric logic of ‘imitation’ during ‘diffusion’ as explained by Tarde (1903). For him, ideals spread across space as interlocutors blindly imitated others. His examples included native children imitating white children (ibid). Expanding on this, Meyer claimed that modernity originated in the ‘core’ states and diffused throughout the world system (Meyer, 1999, p. 138). International agencies still operate on the premise of the South being problematic and the North rectifying these issues, evidenced by humanitarian interventions, structural adjustment programs, and other developmental measures. The argument of ‘development’ legitimises these interventions and confers the right to restructuring life upon the North. The North is deemed to possess ‘good’ knowledge, whilst Southern expertise is riddled with superstition and ignorance (Crewe and Harrison, 2002). At the same time, epistemological knowledge is still constructed around the framework of coloniality/modernity reproduced within developmental theory today.

The coloniality/modernity divide is imperative to the conception of ‘ideal types’ as the methodological grounding for social scientific knowledge. It is argued that ideal types (Weber, 1949, p. 60) equip researchers to make heuristic hypotheses regarding empirical knowledge by comparing with existing connections. However, as other references belonging to the nature of local realities are omitted from Western understandings, they are rendered external to the processes abstracted from them (Bhambra, 2016, p. 963). At the same time, these abstractions represent a degree of ‘internal coherence’, irrespective of broader connections (ibid). In this way, an overarching Eurocentric focus on sociological analysis is entrenched within the knowledge and is seen as ‘methodologically neutral’, while downgrading other forms of local knowledge. It perpetuates the prioritisation of positivist understandings of totality within the social sciences whilst other forms are seen as ‘subjective’, ‘biased’ and ’empirically false’. In brief, intellectual and methodological colonisation remains in place as long as we engage with Western philosophy. It reproduces blind and monolithic epistemic Eurocentrism and exclusionary philosophical practices, discounting alternative forms of methods and knowledge.

Moreover, another type of misrecognition occurs when researchers claim that indigenous methodologies are ‘no different’ from non-indigenous methods (Moreton-Robinson, 2002, p. 60). This happens when indigenous bits of knowledge are decontextualised and reinterpreted using non-indigenous paradigms, leading to such conclusions (ibid). Thus, knowledge production is a historical, social practice that requires a critical dialogue between diverse epistemic projects to achieve a universal trans-modern way of knowledge. This requires sociology and anthropology to actively detach from the tradition/modernity divide (Bhambra, 2011, p.656).

Postcolonial scholars are committed to decolonising conceptual architectures while producing indigenous ones. Succinctly put, the postcolonial scholarship seeks to emphasise ‘theoretical structures that contest the previous dominant western ways of seeing things’ (Young, 2003, p. 4). Methodologically, it encourages participatory methods that produce knowledge and the participants involved, thus, granting them more outstanding agency and representation. One plan proposed by Mignolo calls for ‘critical border thinking’, which aims to redefine emancipatory rhetorics (human rights, democracy, etc.) of modernity from the cosmologies of the subaltern (2002). For him, epistemological decolonisation is required to interchange shared meanings to replace rationality and universality (ibid). Likewise, Dussel’s ‘transmodernity’ project involves many decolonial responses to ethnocentric modernity from subaltern locations – this recognises epistemic diversity without epistemic relativism (Dussel, 2001). De Sousa Santos (2007, p. 21) elaborates upon the importance of self-reflexivity as the tool for uncovering these hidden alternative epistemologies that reshape the context of such practices. At the same time, he suggests that ‘post-abyssal thinking’ is necessary for confronting the monolithic culture of modern science with the heterogenous ‘ecology of knowledge’ (De Sousa Santos, 2007, p. 78). Mignolo’s ‘delinking’ expedition promotes acknowledging geopolitical locations of knowledge as he believes that epistemology needs to be ‘geographical in its historicity’ (2000, p. 67). These histories need to be developed and connected to counter the colonial matrix of power (ibid). However, Bhambra takes a more reconciliatory approach and explains that ‘connected sociologies’ are imperative to allow the ‘deconstruction of dominant narratives’ whilst being ‘open to different perspectives (2007, p. 12). Overall, these methods may differ; only through such active debate regarding the Eurocentrism of knowledge that our colonial past can be dismantled and reconstructed along subaltern lines.

In conclusion, social scientific knowledge and practice have been inundated with restrictive ethnocentric understandings of society rooted in colonial legacies. In this way, Western knowledge becomes an arbitrative tool of power, dictating historical chronologies that are valuable and redundant. Ontologically, colonialism has produced normative binaries and cognitive categories that simultaneously asserted Western ideas’ supremacy and erased any indigenous knowledge of the past. Epistemologically, European knowledge has become synonymous with rationality and modernity. In contrast, alternative knowledge has been subjugated by the constrictive postulations of classical sociologists and the West/Rest rhetoric, resulting in the linear perception of political world theories, i.e., core and periphery states. Methodologically speaking, the hierarchization of ethnocentric knowledge has led to postcolonial scholarship, seeking to eliminate the ‘colonial’ in knowledge production by questioning the ‘Eurocentric’ and is present within knowledge structures. These studies do not constitute a unified matrix but represent an array of proposals that present a joint effort towards outlining and reconsidering dominant epistemologies. Overall, decolonisation of knowledge is merely one site of cognitive justice within the broader emancipatory project of social justice, which is beyond the scope of this essay.


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Samiya Usmani is a Sociology and Social Policy undergraduate student at the University of Bath. Born and raised in New Delhi, Samiya migrated to the UK in 2017, achieving academic success at A level before progressing to university. Having moved around the globe, Samiya understands the importance of multiculturalism. With a keen passion for social research work, Samiya has hopes of influencing policymaking after she graduates – possibly within the civil service sector. Her curiosity for understanding the world in which she lives in is what drives her love for academia. Her research interests include human rights, race relations, social activism and political participation. In her free time, Samiya enjoys listening to podcasts, reading books, and playing the ukulele.

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