Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Tyranny of Received Sociological Knowledge

As a discipline, sociology carries a great deal of historical baggage based on its origins and the key concerns and intellectual projects of its founders. But the discourses are not monolithic. Sociology traces its roots as a discipline from its engagement with issues around the Western Enlightenment and modernity. The discipline sought to constitute the basis of Western interpretation of the process of capitalist industrialisation and the making of Western bourgeois society. Embedded within the discipline’s dominant epistemologies were
the tensions between the different variants of Western rationality and conceptions of civilisation and social and historical change. In most cases the analyses were completely embedded in western thought, beliefs, values and ideas leading often to ethnocentric, teleological and almost unilineal conception of the world and human development. Even the core concepts of Western sociology, in spite of efforts to universalise them, proceeded in many cases with definitions based on elements of Western modernity. Examples are such supposedly simple concepts such as society, civil society, social values and social institutions.

An elementary reading of the formulations of the founding fathers of
Sociology such as Auguste Comte, Max Weber, Ferdinand Tonnies, Emile Durkheim and even more recently Talcott Parsons, will show this bias. Those social systems that were not located within mainstream Western modernity were studied not as part of sociology but rather as part of anthropology or ethnography. They were primitive, non-industrial or traditional systems. Most sociologists were socialised into these worlds, values, thoughts and imagination, and were trapped by the very limitations of its incompleteness and inadequacy at interpreting the multiplicity of historical and contemporary humanity. These became not only dominant knowledge in Western sociology but were transferred and received by generations of sociologists outside the Western academy. Of course, there were critical traditions in Western sociology that rejected this bondage but it was not till recently with the proliferation of heresies in socio logical discourses and the emergence of the post-modern and anti-meta narrative discourses that greater diversity and plurality have been accepted as legitimate parts of interpreting human social experiences. This has given new life to the under standing and study of indigenous cultures and non-Western social systems as they make and remake themselves in their encounters with Western modernity and define their own modernity. The methodological acceptance of the plurality and diversity of human experiences and their co-equal authenticity has re-valued and trans-valued differences in such a way that there is no longer a surrender to weighting and hierarchy that locates certain human societies or experiences as essentially superior to others. Taken to its logical conclusion, this approach presupposes the psychic and social unity of humankind as a concrete analytical starting point.

Thus, as sociologists, without going into the details of different studies and analyses, we can liberate ourselves from the tyranny of received knowledge embodied in the position of a monolithic epistemology, and consequently one dominant rationality, human civilisation and development trajectory. This remains very much an issue in contemporary sociology and in concerns with the study of globalisation, poverty, ethnicity and development – indeed with most aspects of socio logical studies concerned with non-Western social systems. Sociology in Africa will only begin to contribute to the larger tasks of African development and social transformation when African sociologists interpret and re-engage the narratives, grammar and idioms of the African contexts and conditions on their own terms. Sociologists in Africa must confront modernity as it unfolds in Africa and the struggles, tensions and opportunities that emerge from this. Sociology in Africa must interpret African societies and processes through and with African lenses. This process of course cannot be monolithic and uncontested but it must be reclaimed, encouraged and supported.

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