Southern Theory – picking up the gauntlet

Raewyn Connell’s book Southern Theory has attracted a great deal of attention in the field of sociology. As an example of the use of ‘South’ within a particular discipline of knowledge, it is worth reflecting on the responses. It has won awards and been the subject of many conference sessions, but it has also engendered some interesting critical responses.

Kerry Carrington Journal of Sociology 2008; 44; 301

Carrington welcomes Connell’s book, but faults it for a perceived sense of pessimism about change, alleging a debt to Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. But the review also reveals problems in the way the concept of South is received. Despite the broad concept of South to include countries of the Global South such as India, Carrington reduces it to a question of hemisphere:

Southern Theory provides the next generation of social scientists from societies of the southern hemisphere the intellectual foundation to break with the self-deprecating dynamic of replicating he globalizing social science produced in the northern hemisphere.

Crain Soudien and Carlos Alberto Torre British Journal of Sociology of Education 2008; 29, Issue 6; 719-725

Soudien and Alberto are quite fulsome in their praise.They describe the text as ‘profoundly generative’ and claim that ‘Southern Theory is a key text for the period in which we are living.’ Within their own South African context, they use Connell’s text to highlight the neglected work of Ben Kies. They claim that his 1953 lecture ‘The Contribution of the Non-European Peoples to World Civilisation’ is now worth revisiting.

Saïd Amir Arjomand ‘Southern Theory: an Illusion’ European Journal of Sociology 2008; 49; 546-549

Arjomand’s review is the most critical. He takes Connell to task for claiming a commonality between heterogeneous forms of knowledge emerging from Africa, Middle East, South Asia and Latin America. He argues that such a commonality cannot exist without a shared community of scholars. In the end, he defers to a single global community of sociology to pursue these questions. Nonetheless, he does acknowledge the contribution of Southern Theory towards a more representative discipline.

The creation of this new republic of social knowledge could be the work of generations, and one would need to integrate Northern and Southern theory. Our concern should not be with the ethnic identity and geographical location of social scientists and public intellectuals, but with comparisons of the concepts used to understand the phenomena and developmental patterns of the metropolitan and peripheral regions of the world. And we would need an enormous growth in the institutional infrastructure for the production of social knowledge in the global South. Along this long road ahead, Southern Theory should be considered the first milestone.

Catrin Lundström Acta Sociologica 2009; 52; 85

Lundström’s review is positive, though laced with various concerns. She does question the position of the author herself, as the synoptic point of view that can made the connections between disparate voices, who themselves are caught in their own concerns. This challenge awaits alternative ‘southern theories’ emerging from the countries that Connell looks to. Despite the focus in Southern Theory on gender, Lundström makes the point that the theorists it includes are almost all men. And she sees a risk that the North/South division too easily inherits the previous division of First/Third World.

Robin Peace New Zealand Geographer 2009; 65 Issue 1, 84-85

While Peace makes certain criticisms:

  • too much focus on sociology rather than other social sciences
  • missing some important women scholars
  • lack of reference to the renaissance of indigenous knowledge in Aotearoa/New Zealand

…she recognises the difference it makes:

It stimulated me to recognize the elisions and gaps in the knowledge that I take for granted, and to think differently about the global constructions of sociological knowledge… It places ‘southern’ names on the ‘northern’ lectern…names that embody rich insight and people who make strong knowledge claims but whose voices are most often a whisper, an echo or a silence in contemporary social science…a challenging and necessary book. 

Nathan Hollier Australian Journal of Political Science 2008; 43 Issue 2, 368-9

Southern Theory is a breakthrough book – for Raewyn Connell and for Australian and international social science… This text could also be seen as the latest step in her career-long attempt to identify the social, political and intellectual conditions in which a genuine, that is, genuinely democratic, dialogue might take place. Southern Theory should revolutionise understandings of the history, function and proper practice of social theory.

Responses to Southern Theory include not only formal reviews. Where do you put a book like that? In the Carlton bookshop Readings it was placed in the Indigenous section, rather than Theory. At the University of Melbourne library, it is given the keyword ‘Social sciences – Southern Hemisphere’, for which it is the only entry. Will there come a time when ‘Southern’ can become a subject heading, like ‘Western civilization’?

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Generally, the reviews reflect a positive welcome for Southern Theory to the discipline of sociology. But there are issues to be dealt with. There is the question of balance, particularly in gender. But perhaps most challenging is the question of how ‘southern theory’ is to constitute itself as a field of discourse, so that it engages the very voices its seeks to ‘uncover’. That’s not just a challenge for Raewyn Connell, but for her readers as well.

Finally, as Lena Rodriquez from University of Newcastle remarks on the book’s Amazon page, Raewyn Connell ‘throws down the gauntlet.’

One thought on “Southern Theory – picking up the gauntlet”

  1. Yes, fascinating. This kind of new, focus area – springing from interdisciplinary research – will stump librarians forevermore. I do think the geographic spur (‘Southern’) helps the cause, in this respect.

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