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Boaventura de Sousa Santos maps the abyss



Boaventura de Sousa Santos is a professor in the Sociology department University of Coimbra, Portugal. He specialises in issues of law and globalisation, particularly as they relate to the Lusophone South (Mozambique, Brazil, Angola, etc). de Sousa Santos combines his academic life with an active political engagement in World Social Forum.

His essay Beyond Abyssal Thinking offers a broad framework for southern perspectives. It begins with a critique of northern epistemology, which he characterises as a methodology for dividing the world between regions of order and chaos. He offers the example of Amity Lines, agreed on by the Spanish and French in the 16th century as distinguishing those areas where rule of law would apply from the realm beyond where each was free to pursue their interests unhindered. De Sousa Santos links cartography with law and colonisation as part of a fundamental distinction between civilised and savage, cultural and natural and legal and lawless.

As an alternative to this ‘’abyssal thinking’, de Sousa Santos offers an ‘epistemology of the South’ which practices knowledge that is ecologically linked to its context. This grounds thought in both its cultural context and its ethical dimension – as a form of intervention more than representation. de Sousa Santos locates within this epistemology a ‘subaltern cosmopolitanism’ reflecting the diversity of cultures on the periphery (this evokes the ‘world’ that is used to identify non-Western art forms like ‘world music.’)

While de Sousa Santos’ opposition between Northern and Southern epistemologies may seem melodramatic, he is at pains to us it  as a way of opening questions rather than proclaiming answers. His essay concludes with the following questions:

How can we identify the perspective of the oppressed in real-world interventions or in any resistance to them? How can we translate this perspective into knowledge practices? In the search for alternatives to domination and oppression, how can we distinguish between alternatives to the system of oppression and domination and alternatives within the system or, more specifically, how do we distinguish between alternatives to capitalism and alternatives within capitalism? In sum, how can we fight against the abyssal lines using conceptual and political instruments that don’t reproduce them? And finally, a question of special interest to educators: what would be the impact of a post-abyssal conception of knowledge (as an ecology of knowledges) upon our educational institutions and research centres?

Useful references

  • Boaventura de Sousa Santos ‘A Map of Misreading: Toward a Postmodern Conception of Law’ Journal of Law and Society (1987) 14: 3, pp. 279-302
  • Boaventura de Sousa Santos Law and globalization from below: towards a cosmopolitan legality Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005
  • Boaventura de Sousa Santos Beyond abyssal thinking: From global lines to ecologies of knowledges, 2006
  • Boaventura de Sousa Santos (ed) Another Knowledge Is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies London: Verso, 2007

Interview with Raewyn Connell

Professor Raewyn Connell explains the thinking behind her book Southern Theory.

What were your aims in writing "Southern Theory"?

Fourteen years ago, when I began this work, I aimed simply to correct a historical error – the textbook belief that sociology was invented to explain the new industrial society of Europe. I found that the creation of sociology was in fact closely bound up with the cultural problems of imperialism (sociology originally concerned "progress" and centred on a contrast between "primitive" and "advanced" societies). Without intending to, this piece of historical research opened up other questions about the relations between social science and world society.

By the time the book was written, I had two main aims and one subsidiary. First, I wanted to show how mainstream ideas and frameworks across the social sciences, which are usually taken as universally valid, actually embed the specific viewpoint of the global North. I wanted to show in some detail just how this viewpoint works, for instance in shaping concepts like "globalization" or in the ideas of celebrated theorists. I wanted to show how the uncritical importation of Northern perspectives gives a strange twist to the way social science operates in the global periphery, in countries like Australia.

Second, I wanted to show that there are real alternatives. Southern theory isn’t just a pipe-dream, it actually exists – though mainly in texts that are not widely read. So much of the text of Southern Theory is a matter of gathering up social analyses from different parts of the periphery, and thinking about them as social theory – that is, taking them as seriously as we usually take Foucault, Habermas, or Bourdieu. I wanted to get names such as Hountondji, Shariati, Das, Nandy, Garcia Canclini, Mamdani, and others into wider circulation, and persuade readers that the debates they are involved in are crucial for social science. I wanted to argue that the periphery generates important issues and ideas, it doesn’t just receive them. I tried to show that in another way too, by discussing the land as a key issue for understanding society – an issue highlighted by the history of settler colonialism and the land rights struggles of indigenous peoples.

If I could make progress on those two aims, a third became relevant. I wanted to stir up a discussion about what a democratic social science would look like, if we thought about it on a world scale. Discussions about epistemology and the structure of knowledge usually happen in a separate box from discussions about globalization and world politics. But they have to be brought together, if the argument in Southern Theory is broadly correct. In the final chapter I have a go at that problem; it’s sketchy, but at least it’s there.

What has the response been, in the North and South?

It is early days yet, for reviews in academic journals; but the first that have appeared, a review symposium in a UK journal and a regular review in an Australian journal, are very positive. I have been invited to speak on these questions at conferences and departmental seminars – mostly in my own fields of sociology and gender studies – and people in the university world have responded with interest. The International Sociological Association is an important forum for me.

I can’t say that Southern Theory is a runaway best-seller, yet! There have been no reviews in Australian mass media, which disappoints me. But I think it is gradually getting known. A quotation from Southern Theory has been used by an artist as the theme for a poster, exhibited in Germany. The Australian Sociological Association has recently awarded it the Stephen Crook Memorial Prize for the best monograph in Australian sociology 2005-2007 – I shed some tears at the presentation. I have had supportive email messages from people in the periphery, who find the book helpful because it names problems that they also faced, i.e. it validates their experience. Some scholars, in the metropole as well as the periphery, are sending me papers in which they are already building on the ideas of Southern Theory in their own fields. That is particularly exciting for me, as I believe that the growth of knowledge is very much a collective work.

Of course there are criticisms. One is particularly interesting. When I gave a seminar on the ideas at a US university, there was criticism from one colleague who was disturbed at the risk involved. If graduate students were persuaded by Southern Theory to spend their time reading Shariati, Nandy, Hountondji and other exotic authors, they would be distracted from the business of learning the mainstream professional knowledge on which their careers depended. This is a real issue, I take it seriously. There are risks for social scientists in the metropole, in the kind of global re-shaping of social science that I think is necessary.

What do you think are some of the questions raised by the book?

One of the most difficult, constantly raised in critical discussions and reviews, is what is meant by the "South". I say several times in the book that there is no single Southern perspective, and in fact show that in great detail. But it is still a nagging question. The geographer’s "South" is not exactly the same as the "South" in UN trade debates, or the "third world", or the "less developed countries", or the economists’ "periphery", or the cultural theorists’ "post-colonial" world, or the biologists’ "southern world", or the geologists’ former Gondwana – though there is some overlapping along this spectrum. I mainly talk of "metropole" and "periphery", but there is enormous social diversity within each; recognizing the polarity is only the beginning of analysis, not the end.

It seems particularly difficult to think of Australia as "South" – though the name actually means South-ia – probably because it is a rich country in world terms, and likes to think of itself politically or culturally as part of the "West", heaven help us. Partly because of the dominance of the misleading concept of "globalization", which I dissect in the book, we don’t have well-developed concepts for understanding the power of periphery-metropole relations or the complexities of the periphery. So there is work to be done, understanding the economics of primary-exporting economies such as Australia’s, the culture of post-settler-colonialism, and the ways ethnicity, class and gender are shaped in the different societies of the periphery.

Another question raised by the book, at a very practical level, is how knowledge circulates in the periphery. Southern Theory is published in Australia and the UK, in English; and there will be a small edition published in India. There has been some discussion of translations into other languages, but no publisher has undertaken that yet. How would its arguments get known in Latin America, in Africa, or in China? Mainly, by the book being discussed by scholars in the USA and Europe! In fact, the best chance I have of the book becoming known in the global periphery, is if it gets used as a textbook in social theory courses in the metropole. The fact that we still rely on the metropole to circulate ideas around the periphery is a problem discussed in the book, and I don’t know what solutions there may be.

How are you following this line of thought?

Firstly, by discussing the ideas of Southern Theory in as many forums as I can, and trying to get social scientists to read the theorists introduced in it. That would be a success in itself.

Next, I’m trying to apply the perspective in other fields of my work. For instance in 2009 the second edition of my book Gender is being published, which makes more use of Southern research and theoretical work than most of the English-language literature in this field. I have been working on a global sociology of intellectuals, some of which lies behind Southern Theory in fact, and which I hope to sharpen up in the light of the book and responses to it.

Finally, I’m doing what I can to encourage other people, including students, to work on these problems. I don’t think Southern Theory is more than a beginning – a rank beginning in some of the areas it touches, given the problems of language. And of course it’s not the only thing in its field! There have been discussions of these and related issues in Latin America, in Africa and in Asia; so in the papers I write, I try to spread awareness of other texts and debates. The broader the process that unfolds, the better.

Raewyn Connell is University Professor at University of Sydney

Epeli Hau’ofa (1939-2009)



Tongan writer and cultural theorist Epeli Hau’ofa passed away on Sunday 11 January 2009.

Hau’ofa was born in Papua New Guinea in 1939 of Tongan missionary parents. He was educated in a variety of countries, eventually receiving his PhD at the Department of Anthropology, Australian National University. His positions included Keeper of Palace Records in Tonga, Head of Sociology Department and Head of the School of Social and Economic Development of the University of the South Pacific.

In 1997, he was the founding Director of the Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture in Suva. This became an important cultural base for exchange and expression in the Pacific.

Hau’ofa was a novelist of satiric fiction, such Tales of the Tikongs and Kisses in the Nederlands. His most recent publication, We are the Ocean, included essays about the nature of the Oceanic, and how the sea connects Pacific peoples together, from the east coast of Australia to California.

In 2004, he visited Melbourne to give a presentation at South 1, the inaugural meeting of writers and artists from across the South. His expansive notion of the Oceanic provided an important platform for connecting together the island people participating, particularly from Rapa Nui.

His conversation with ABC radio host Philip Adams at the time dwelt on his pride in cabbages. The fruits of Epeli Hau’ofa will be enjoys for many years to come.

Indian Ocean themes

Workshop themes have been released for Intercolonial Networks; Oceanic Circulations: Re-Thinking The Indian Ocean, University Of Technology Sydney
11 – 13 March 2009

  • Subaltern and creole connections across imperial boundaries
  • Islands in the ocean as sites of heightened connectivity
  • The dissemination of knowledges, especially via printing presses using vernacular languages
  • Comparisons and insights from Atlantic studies
  • The validity of terracentric models and themes for oceanic studies
  • Subaltern people at sea and on land: stokers, sailors, wharfies, bar owners, prostitutes
  • The adoption, adaptation and transfer of technologies
  • Patterns of religious connections, and ties to Mecca and Rome
  • New epistemologies for Indian Ocean studies and the ambivalent promise of Cultural Studies
  • Indigenous groups flourishing in the entrails of the ‘British lake’ in the nineteenth century
  • Imperial and indigenous literatures: e.g. Joseph Conrad v. Amitav Ghosh; Wilber Smith v. Abdulrazak Gurnah; Ibn Battuta v. Vasco da Gama

Papers for Southern Connection Congress

Information about papers for the upcoming VI Southern Connection Congress have been released. The conference will be held in Bariloche, Argentina form 15-19 February 2010. Confirmed speakers include:

  • William Bond, University of Cape Town, South Africa
    “Reinterpreting plant traits and the geography of vegetation with fire”
  • Richard Hobbs, School of Environmental Science, Murdoch University, Australia “Invasive species and global change: novel ecosystems and their implications for conservation and restoration”
  • Peter Lockhart, Allan Wilson Center for Molecular Ecology and Evolution,
    Massey University, New Zealand
    "Using new sequencing technologies to investigate species radiations in the New Zealand alpine flora" 
  • Jérôme Munzinger, Laboratoire de Botanique et d’Ecologie Appliquées, Herbarium Nou, New Caledonia
  • “New Caledonia flora, and talk about questions about the gondwanian origin”
  • Imanuel Noy-Meir, Hebrew University, Jerusalem
    "Southern semi-arid lands: management and conservation"
  • Victor Ramos, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina 
    "Late Cenozoic uplift of the Patagonian Andes and the beginning of the glaciation"
  • Ricardo Villalba, IANIGLA-CONICET, Argentina
    “The Antarctic Oscillation: A common forcing of climate variations in temperate regions of the Southern Hemisphere”
  • Rory Wilson, Swansea University, Wales UK
    “Surfing southern ocean currents; a perspective on seabird tracks through 3-d space”

Journal of Alternative Perspectives in the Social Sciences

JAPSS Press, a branch of the Journal of Alternative Perspectives in the Social Sciences is calling for chapter proposals for an Edited Volume dealing with Regionalism and Development in the Asia Pacific Region. Some possible topics are the following:
– South to South Cooperation
– International Norms and Regionalism in the Asia Pacific Region
– Globalization and Regionalism
– Development
– Human Rights and Regionalism
– Cultural Change and Regionalism
The book will be published under the name of the Journal and will be distributed in the United States and the World. The expenses for this project will be covered by the Journal and its supporting organizations. Editorial work will be undertaken by qualified scholars affiliated with the Journal. This is a wonderful opportunity for junior scholars and scholars from the developing world to share their research with the wider academic community.
If interested please submit a short abstract of the proposed chapter in addition to a brief resume to the Editor in Chief of the Journal.
Otto F. von Feigenblatt,
Editor in Chief, Journal of Alternative Perspectives in the Social Sciences
Email: [email protected]
Visit the website at

Re-thinking the Indian Ocean


11th – 13th March 2009

This workshop will mark the inauguration of a new Indian Ocean research network supported by the University of Technology Sydney. It will aim to work collaboratively with the major Indian Ocean centres of research based in India and South Africa, but it will be innovative in two ways.

  • Firstly it will seek to strengthen the active interdisciplinarity of the field, drawing not only on cultural studies, history, economics and politics but on environmental studies, ecology, geography and the material studies of archaeology and the heritage fields.
  • Secondly it will seek to strengthen an active awareness of the eastern and southern quadrant of the Indian Ocean, namely South East Asia, Indonesia and Australia, tracing these lands’ myriad connections with each other and with the peoples on the African and South Asian shores of the Ocean.

This conference follows on from two conferences already initiated by the Indian Ocean researchers at UTS-“Culture and Commerce in the Indian Ocean” (Leiden, The Netherlands, 25th – 27th September 2006) and “Oceans of Story” (Perth, Australia, 5th to 7th February 2008).

This workshop is the first to emerge from our ARC-funded project that seeks to reassess relationships between colonies in the Indian Ocean area. These relationships were far more important than previous imperial (and anti-imperial) studies have suggested.

We hope that this perspective will lead to a significant new field of research, Intercolonial Studies, based not just on a comparison of settler-colonial experience, but also on the sharing of cultural inventions among colonised peoples. We hope to trace the circulation of people, plants and animals, of commodities, technologies and ideas around the Indian Ocean in a way that was relatively autonomous from imperial centres.

Nor is it only imperial-colonial interactions which interest us, for there were also important sub-imperial connections involving more margjnal European peoples. For example, in the early nineteenth century merchants from the vestigial Portuguese areas in India operated in the interstices of the British framework, enabling them to participate fully in the opium trade to China.

We will focus particularly on sea connections between the land masses of the Indian Ocean, and the cultures and histories of seafaring life, particularly those of the subaltern crews and the lower deck passengers, the cargoes, the stowaways and especially the ideas which travelled with them all.

The themes of this workshop may include

  • Subaltern and creole connections across imperial boundaries
  • Islands in the ocean as sites of heightened connectivity
  • The dissemination of knowledges, especially via printing presses using vernacular languages
  • Comparisons and insights from Atlantic studies
  • The validity of terracentric models and themes for oceanic studies
  • Subaltern people at sea and on land:  stokers, sailors, wharfies, bar owners, prostitutes
  • The adoption, adaptation and transfer of technologies
  • Patterns of religious connections, and ties to Mecca and Rome
  • New epistemologies for Indian Ocean studies and the ambivalent promise of Cultural Studies
  • Indigenous groups flourishing in the entrails of the ‘British lake’ in the nineteenth century
  • Imperial and indigenous literatures:  e.g. Joseph Conrad v. Amitav Ghosh; Wilber Smith v. Abdulrazak Gurnah; Ibn Battuta v. Vasco da Gama

More information here.

What this site attempts to do

The aim of this site is to promote ways of thinking that emerge outside trans-Atlantic metropolitan centres. It profiles individuals and organisations that explore a southern perspective on a broad range of disciplines, including creative arts, humanities, professions, social and physical sciences.

The nature of this ‘south’ initially reflects an alternative to hegemonic ideas. It is a contested space for broad, engaged, informed and bold thinking from the other side.

This site is principally focused on a growing network of Australian and New Zealand academics who are interested to open their disciplines up to these perspectives. It is hoped that the resources it contains will also be of benefit to alternative voices both across the South and in the North.