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Southern Theory

The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science

By Raewyn Connell
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Southern Theory by Raewyn Connell

In Southern Theory (2007), sociologist Raewyn Connell investigates the emergence of the social sciences in the context of Western imperialism. She explains how sociological knowledge and theory was and is primarily produced from the perspective of the colonizers, and not the colonized.

Key idea 1 of 8

Sociology was created in the late nineteenth century at the height of Western imperialism.

Any sociology major will tell you that sociology as a discipline began with three thinkers: Max Weber, Karl Marx and Émile Durkheim. But this isn’t the whole story. What often goes unmentioned is that the social sciences emerged during a very specific period in history.

In the decades leading up to World War One, the empires of European countries and the US grew dramatically. The German, British and French empires expanded into Africa and Asia while the United States conquered parts of the American west and overseas territories such as Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

At this time, colonizers justified their actions by claiming they were modernizing and civilizing so-called “primitive” peoples. Asserting their position of white superiority, colonizers took it upon themselves to spread progress, as they believed other societies were inferior and unable to develop independently.

It was in this period that sociology was created in order for the empires to study the people they had colonized. Not only were colonizers claiming “new” land by violently obliterating resistance, but they also began observing the culture of the people there. For example, between 1898 and 1913 in the sociological journal L’Année Sociologique, over two-thirds of the reviews were about colonized territories. Durkheim, who founded the journal, was therefore only able to write about Algeria’s Kabyle people because the French had conquered the country not long before.

Later in the early twentieth century, sociology was reinvented in American universities and became established as an academic discipline. It was only then that the works of Weber, Marx and Durkheim were prescribed for all sociologists. The new discipline required a curriculum, so the first sociology professors narrowed it down to these three academics. Consequently, any wider sociological perspectives were ignored and the violent and exploitative origin of sociology was covered up.

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