Theories of the South: Limits and perspectives of an emergent movement in social sciences

Theories of the South: Limits and perspectives of an emergent movement in social sciences.

Brazilian sociologist Marcelo Rosa has published an important critique of social theory (download), comparing the approaches of Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Jean and John Comaroff and Raewyn Connell. Though he singles out Connell as an approach that allows for alternative southern voices, he concludes from their differing uses of theories an inconsistency in the notion of ‘southern theory’. In reference to the French sociologists Boltanski and Chiapello, he describes this use of south as a ‘circumstantial project’. As such, Rosa is vulnerable to the same critique he has levelled at others in marginalising southern perspectives by contrast to northern theory. Diversity of approaches does not necessarily imply contradictions in the field. They can indicate a dynamic argument that is activating an alternative field of inquiry.

7 thoughts on “Theories of the South: Limits and perspectives of an emergent movement in social sciences”

  1. Thanks for the comment on my paper, your initiative is a good project to connect our different perspectives.

    Maybe I was not clear around the “inconsistency” of the Southern Theorist/Theories. My aim was to show that this can maybe be the future . A good one where we don’t praise singularities and homogeneities. Unfortunately in established journals you must always present the new in comparison with the traditional (yes I had to buy it). The point (after publishing and reading comments It is getting clear) is not to USE the South in the same way as the north has done with modernities and other labels (as a panacea) and recognize it is a circumstantial and partial project (among other projects) to open the discipline.
    This is part of larger project called “Sociologia não-exemplar” (non-exemplary sociology).

    Thanks again for your critical comments.

  2. I hope you get the chance to elaborate more on the “Sociologia nao-exemplar”. I wonder how that would relate to the work of Guattari in Brazil. Of course, it could be argued that the localised knowledges still need a broader framework to situate them in relation to the dominant discipline. It seems all the authors that you write about contest the notion of a single universal social theory. As a base line, there perhaps needs to be a set of protocols for working across the South, which save us from both the slippery slope of developmentalism and the morass of relativism.
    Your own writing is a good example of that. From your research on the Landless movements in Brazil and South Africa, do you think there is much basis for solidarity between the two phenomena?

  3. My feeling is that we have a long way to go, even among social movements. Most of my critique on Boaventura Santos optimism in Theories of the South is inspired by the obstacles I have faced during my research with these movements.

    In my research website there is an English version of paper comparing both movements and difficulties they had to share a common perspective.

  4. Just read this article and i had the same critique of the author. His response here is useful for context. However i wish he had been clearer in the article about that position. For me personally as someone located in academia in the Caribbean it came across more as a hatchet job of the South than supportive of Southern Theory (although of course im sure many others read it differently)

  5. three other quick comments. sorry if they sound harsh…

    Why does Dr Rosa exclude, ignore and make invisible the Caribbean in the Global South?

    why does he call Sherry Ortner a man (you refer to her as “his”) unless, 1) its a typo, or 2) he pulled the source as a support without knowing the author?

    Also, what is with the unsubstantiated claims, such as the majority of social scientists in the South have little contact with local or endogenous forms of social knowledge?

    The piece for me is a total black skin, white mask effort, and a form of misidentification. Just because Rosa cannot step outside the North and its thinking, and has personal experiences in his own work, it does not follow others are all in the same position. Anecdote and personal review of texts should not be held up as sociological knowledge production, not without proper self-reflection and reflexivity.

  6. Dylan,

    Of course some of your comments are harsh specially the one on S. Ortner. Instead of pointing out the problem (in this case a typo) you prefer to give it an over interpretation that says more about your style than anything else. This sounds a very colonial otherness, sorry.
    I don’t know about your own experience with academics around the world. I have had many opportunities to discuss such issues with colleagues who teach social sciences all over the south that share the same opinion (the concept of captive mind forged by Alatas is a good starting point). Actually it was the paper of Francys Nyamnjoh on the potted plants that inspired this idea. He knows enough about endogenous knowledge in Africa to criticise the ways mainstream social scientists deal with it. The ones who can really deal with an endogenous and indigenous knowledge’s in the south are few because the system is not even black skin white mask, in several cases it is just white male skins and black/indigenous subjects. Regarding the kind of response you gave, you are fortunately, I have to suppose, among the “few” but it doesn’t mean my point is not incorrect. The academic world in the social sciences is detached from these forms of knowledge (where do you see it sociology?) and even those who auspiciously make their way from decolonised experiences are at many occasions forced to forget their own forms of experiencing the world to be “held up” as a “real” sociologist as you like. Of course you are an exception… I am not! I still have a long way to go to decolonise my mind due to such processes.
    Personally I don’t praise sociology or social anthropology and those who defend these colonial forms of knowledge, I teach sociology to try to change it from the dominant forms because I have learnt it on my (white) skin. It made me and many of my students suffer!
    The same happens with the South, I don’t think the terms of the debate are ok in their actual form. The paper (a review!) is pessimistic, full of positionality and self-reflexivity and it comes out of more than years teaching and researching in the south and for the south. My positions around the books were debated with many colleagues and students before the paper came out. This is probably the reason why you can legitimately criticise it, my position and perspectives are partial and limited and will always be. But they are not anecdotal as you say. We should not be afraid our limits. It is great you have a more positive reading of this literature, people like me would learn from colleagues like you.
    What I would never accept, although, is the arrogance in determining what should be “a” good sociological knowledge. This has been the kind of argument used to exclude indigenous and endogenous knowledge from the academic debates on theory and to make them “subjects of knowledge”. We need sharp critiques and more diversity instead of a sudden defense of correctness.
    By the way, as you noted, one of the problems with the specific pieces reviewed is the silence/erasure around the Caribbean (that is obviously part of the south), this is the only reason I don’t mentioned it and just briefly quote Cesaire and Fanon in the introduction.

    All the best

  7. Rosa’s paper is important not just for this debate that has ensued but also the dialectical framework he has developed for critically engaging with Southern approaches. It may be worth considering whether the South is a space that should aspire to think in its own terms, rather than relationally as a projection of other discourses. This argument has a lot further to go. You can see the published version of Rosa’s piece here:

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