Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Sociological Imagination and Africa

Without getting into the endless debate as to whose sociology and whose imagination, questions that take us into the validity and relevance of western sociology for Africa, let us begin this part of this reflection by recognising sociology’s role as a product of Western modernity and of course the complex and plural role that this modernity has played in shaping our contemporary condition through the various economic, cultural, social and ideological forces of empire creation, colonisation, slavery and current global society and economy. That modernity in all its malignant and benign expression was not an all dominant
and total hegemonic force that obliterated other histories, traditions and memories. It had to interact, shape and be shaped by the diverse cultures and civilisations it inter acted with, sat in, appropriate and was appropriated by. It is neither a pure, innocent nor singular modernity nor its strident claims and will to dominance and empire have only reinforced the existence and emergence of our own ‘modernities’ in relation to it and side by side with it. The recognition of our own modernity alongside Western modernity is a good place to begin to conceptualise and accept a sociology that is a vehicle, platform or tool of under standing and interpreting the human social conditions consisting of building blocks, foundations and elements that all go into making the building but which can be as different as mud, wattle, clay, cement, timber, bamboo, marble, steel and stones as building materials. Yet they all contribute to making a contemporary structure that can equally possess engineering resilience, ecological relevance, architectural elegance and artistic beauty. The point here is that just as it is possible to have houses across cultures with comparable aesthetics and functions, so it is possible to possess and recognise sociology as a practice wherever it may be located.

A second preliminary point here is that the socio logical imagination is not necessarily what sociologists do. Anybody familiar with contemporary sociology knows that we do many things, many of which lack creativity and imagination. Of course, this is not to deny the existence of significant contributions and explanations of our social realities from sociology but in the contemporary practice in Africa today these are not many. This challenge to the
sociologist’s relevance is of course not restricted to the socio logical enterprise in Africa, we find evidence of the periodic need to defend, promote and/or renew the discipline also in the West. C. Wright Mills’s book was one such effort and more recent attempts have included Peter Berger, Alvin Gouldner and Anthony Giddens (1987, 1996). Giddens (1987) in his 1986 inaugural lecture at Cambridge University has provided some key elements of ‘what sociologists do’ beginning with a broad recognition that ‘Sociology is concerned with the comparative study of social institutions, giving particular emphasis to those forms of society brought in to being by the advent of modern industrialism’. I must add that this refers to both coloniser societies and colonised societies.

Writing from the African context, Onigu Otite sees sociology as ‘the study of human interactions, and the organization of social institutions. It thus deals with social processes and social relation ships particularly in their institutional contexts’. Of course, within sociology itself the divisions are many and intense about how to and why do we do what sociologists do.

More significantly were the sectarian affiliations and identities based on ideology and theoretical positions that used to plague the socio logical enterprise of the middle and late 20th Century. All of these internal dissensions and the larger lay and scientific publics’ lack of under standing of how different the sociological enter prise is from conventional wisdom, common sense and folk literature have helped to raise questions about the discipline’s relevance. This is not even to speak of the association of the discipline with radical thinking and criticism and militant students and activists or with conservative pro-establishment functionalist explanations and position.

The discipline of sociology is therefore not only ridden with tremendous ambivalence in terms of identity and consciousness but also an intense sense of vocational and professional insecurity both within and without the academy. This has led to the assertion by sociologists that the discipline is approaching a crisis (Alvin Gouldner), is under strain, and is decomposing (Horovitz,) and the recognition of the need to defend it. In the conclusion to his spirited ‘In Defence of Sociology’, Giddens stated: ‘Sociology should rehone its cutting edge, as neo-liberalism disappears into the distance along with orthodox socialism. Some questions to which we need answers have a perennial quality, while others are dramatically new. Tackling both of these as in previous times, calls for a healthy dose of what C. Wright Mills famously called the socio logical imagination’. It is to this thing called sociological imagination and its usefulness and relevance for our conditions as sociologists operating in Africa that I now turn.

C. Wright Mills defined the socio logical imagination as enabling ‘its possessor to under stand the larger historical scene in terms of meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. It enables him to take into account how individuals in the welter of their daily experience, often become falsely conscious of their position’. My under standing of Mills’s use of the socio logical imagination is that it is an approach, a perspective, a way of looking at social facts and reality, and above all a ‘quality of mind’. It helps analysis, explanations and interpretations to begin from the position of the individual and locate her/him in the period and social milieu that such a person finds him/herself and how these three elements – the individual, history and social structure – interact and shape both personal and social outcomes.

In many ways, Mills, long ago like Max Weber, avoided the distracting
dichotomy between structure and agency, micro and macro, and synchrony and diachrony. Thus, when the socio logical imagination is deployed, analyses and interpretation move across all these divides, and attempt to express both human and social complexity and more simple direct relation ships. For Mills, the sociological imagination is also a promise and an approach that ‘enables us to grasp the history and biography and the relations between the two within society’. According to Mills, it is the distinctive factor that provides the much more profound illumination and depth to the works of all great social theorists and analysts ranging from the founding fathers such as Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Josef Schumpeter and Max Weber. In Africa we find this very quality of mind reflected in the works of social scientists such as Claude Ake, Archie Mafeje, Ben Magubane and Mahmood Mamdani. Indeed, C. Wright Mills has posed this quality of mind as something found also in works of social analysis carried out by other social scientists and historians. The socio logical imagination thus provides the handle for posing significant questions of social analysis such as:

(1) ‘What is the structure of the particular society as a whole? What are its essential components and how are they related to one another? How does it differ from other varieties of social order? Without it, what is the meaning of any particular feature for its continuance and for its change?
(2) Where does the society stand in human history? What are the mechanics by which it is changing? What are its characteristic ways of history making?
(3) What varieties of men and women now prevail in this society and in this period? And what varieties are coming to prevail?’

With these and other questions that the socio logical imagination enables, comes ‘... the capacity to shift from one perspective to another – from the political to the psycho logical; from an examination of a single family to comparative assessment of the national budgets of the world; from theological school to the military establishment; from consideration of an oil industry to studies of contemporary poetry. It is the capacity to range from the most impersonal and remote transformations to the most intimate features of the human self – and to see the relations between the two.’

I have quoted extensively from C. Wright Mills to under score the contemporary relevance and appropriateness of what we attempt to do when we do sociology well. It is also to point out that sociology cannot be reduced to works of fragmented, disjointed and often abstracted empiricism or the stringing together of vacuous notions and concepts that are devoid of historical anchor and yet attempt to explain all aspects of our contemporary African condition. Several such attempts have reduced serious theoretical and empirical problems to sensational labels such as ‘failed states’, ‘predatory politics’, ‘the politics of the belly’, ‘economies of affection’ or other similar uni-dimensional explanations. C. Wright Mills’s work teaches the importance of the demands of complexity, depth, holistic and historical analyses and the overlapping effect and inter action of structure and agency in the under standing of contemporary African societies. Indeed we see the socio logical imagination in the works of a wide range of contemporary scholarship such as in the works of Edward Said, Archie Mafeje, Mahmood Mamdani, Claude Ake and Peter Ekeh.

Of course, all these scholars cannot be said to be sociologists in the professional sense of the word, a situation recognised by Mills when he ascribed the socio logical imagination as a social science ‘quality of mind’. Perhaps an important point for many of us who operate under the umbrella of sociologist today is that we scarcely do sociology anymore; we claim to do development, gender studies, identity politics, migration studies and several other new sub-disciplinary specialisations. We increasingly are lacking in the fundamentals of a solid disciplinary home base capable of providing us with the theoretical, epistemological and methodological rigours necessary for tackling the difficult questions of social analyses and skirt the realm of ‘troubles’ and ‘issues’ as identified by Mills and in the process litter the world with materials that possess neither quality nor depth. We lose ourselves in the fragmentation of disciplines operating with splintered lenses and in our confusion turn our splintered and fragmented visions of social realities into complete explanations and interpretations. Furthermore, we lack any substantive or clear relationship with other disciplines such as philosophy, jurisprudence, biology, mathematics, linguistics, anthropology, economics, history and psychology. In many cases, we do not know them, read them or care about the knowledge and insights that they produce that can enrich or transform our own engagement with our social realities. Mudimbe, Houtondji, Appiah, Mafeje, Mamdani, Ekeh, Zeleza and many more such distinguished thinkers of African origin and diverse interpreters of our conditions mean little or nothing to many people in the common rooms and departments of the universities across the continent. Thus we are scarcely provoked, stimulated or inspired. How then do we reclaim the promises of socio logical imagination in the context of our practices and vocation as sociologists in today’s Africa? How do we frame the challenges and context of sociology in Africa today?

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