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Professor Gurminder Bhambra: “Sociological Theory for a Global Age”

Professor Gurminder Bhambra presented a provocative paper at the BSA Postgraduate Forum Conference in April 2014. In it, she drew attention to the structures of ‘race’, gender and class involved in the dominance of particular theories and theorists. Here, Gurminder reflects on what brought her to this research and its importance to social theory:

“The paper that I presented to the BSA Postgraduate Forum in April 2014, titled Sociological Theory for a Global Age, came out of long-standing questions that I have been interested in:

  1. How are ‘others’ accounted for, or not, within standard sociological theories?
  2. How does the structure of sociology as a discipline facilitate or inhibit the necessary research to be done?
  3. How does the particular context of the university, together with the changes that have been happening over the last few years, affect the ways in which it is possible to think through related theoretical issues?

To start with the last question first: the changes to the system of public higher education, being implemented by the Tory-LibDem coalition government since 2010, are effectively destroying what has been widely regarded to be one of the best systems of public higher education. This is a system that took its modern shape in the 1960s with the move towards mass higher education that opened up educational and other opportunities for increasing numbers of people who had not traditionally gone to university – people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, women, and migrants and diasporic people from black and minority ethnic communities. This demographic shift, in time, also had an impact on the knowledge produced within universities.

It’s no accident that, from the 1970s onwards, there was a proliferation of critical positions and a concerted, although by no means coordinated, challenge to the dominant positions within academic debates. This was a period that saw the rise of subaltern studies, histories from below, of women’s studies, of queer and feminist theory and critical race theory. Edward Said’s Orientalism was published in 1978 and the work of scholars such as Stuart Hall, Hazel Carby, and Paul Gilroy was beginning to make waves through the collaborative work that was characteristic of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.

The demographic shifts, as well as the emergence of new forms of critique, had varying degrees of success in reformulating knowledge production along more egalitarian lines, but their radical potential is precisely what is at risk with the new forms of privatisation being foisted upon us. This immediate threat to the very possibility of democratising the forms and modes of knowledge production was an important context to the paper I gave at the Forum. This is especially so as a consequence of my involvement with the Campaign for the Public University that I co-founded along with John Holmwood and others in autumn 2010. While being involved politically in defence of public higher education I was also concerned to think through the implications of these changes for the very possibilities of knowledge production itself.

The other issue that was significant for me, and that I have been thinking about for a number of years, is the structure of sociology as a discipline and what it does, and does not, enable to be known, investigated, and considered. In previous work, I have looked specifically at the way in which the idea of the modern comes both to define sociology’s object of study and the very idea of sociology as a ‘modern’ discipline. Indeed, the division between anthropology and sociology rests on the understanding of such a divide between the non-modern and the modern. What I have also been addressing through my work has been how that divide is itself structured on a racial division that makes address of exclusion harder to overcome through simple inclusion. To include the non-modern requires the reconstitution of the very idea of what we had understood the modern to be; how we had understood it; and who we had included in it. It requires a fundamental reconfiguring of our understanding of the modern to understand it instead in terms of the connected histories of the colonial modern.

It is the ‘colonial modern’ that I suggest should be the central category and organising principle for sociology and if we were to take it as such it would also dissolve the disciplinary differences between sociology and anthropology. This would then enable a reconstructive move that opened up space for a more adequate consideration of the global and the associated issues of inequality and social justice which are the centre of why I do academic work.”

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