The Pan-African Sociologist

​Understanding Eurocentrism as a Structural Problem of Undone Science

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(Derived from a course paper for Politics of Knowledge taught by Steven Epstein at Northwestern University)

The tiles of the landmark volumes The Death of White Sociology (Ladner, 1973) and White Logic, White Methods (Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva 2008) highlight a particular truth about sociology, its methods, and theories which is that they are heavily influenced by European and colonial social thought. This influence is evident in the presentation in most introductory sociology courses of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber as the founders of sociological inquiry. Their influence compounded with the influence of countless other white male scholars has led to the development of what Julian Go describes as the “imperial unconscious” of sociology that influences how sociologists carry out their research and construct theory (Go 2013).
The effects that sociology’s Eurocentrism has on its scholarship and institutions are well documented. Eurocentrism has largely rendered invisible in the discipline the sociological perspectives and work of both scholars of color and the societies they come from. In addition, Eurocentrism in the discipline also allows for intrinsically racist and colonial theory and findings to be developed and disseminated within academe and among the public (Hunter 2002). The sum total of these processes is that in many spaces sociology, like many other social science, perpetuate systems of inequality and the social logics that justify them.

Although powerful on its own, the Eurocentric critique of sociology by scholars does not often move beyond an analysis of the epistemic silencing of marginalized communities and knowledge to address the structural, non-epistemic relations that help maintain the current state of affairs. I argue that by understanding eurocentrism in sociology, at least partly, as a structural problem of “undone science” we can begin to see how phenomenon such as racism against academics of color and the norms of academic training and production help reproduce the epistemic problems identified by scholars working in postcolonial, decolonial, and ethnic studies spaces. This relation between the structural and epistemological will allow for a conception of intellectual decolonization that is both structural and epistemological in nature.

What is Undone Science

Most discussions of knowledge production and epistemic cultures focus on describing or analyzing questions of how particular pieces of knowledge are produced, used, and disseminated among scientific actors and non-scientists. What is not often talked about is all the other possible research projects, proposals, papers, and agendas that are not completed. Frickel et al defined this non-produced knowledge as “undone science” which can be defined as “areas of research identified by social movements and other civil society organizations as having potentially broad social benefit that are left unfunded, incomplete, or generally ignored” (Frickel et al. 2010). I would add to Frickel et al’s definition for the purpose of this paper that the “identifiers” can also be other scholars and academics. Undone science is understood to be a systematic occurrence that is embedded within relationships of power and influence within and around academia. On a theoretical level we can argue that for every scientific project or research paper that is supported and funded there is another project or paper that is not being funded or given attention by scholars and those that support them i.e. a zero sum game. The concept of undone science also highlights the importance of agenda setting as a political process that determines what science is done and what science is undone. Here the importance is on how actors both within and outside academia influence which agendas, among a number of alternatives, are taken up or marginalized.

The concept of undone science allows scholars to speak about marginalization outside of a narrative of simply higher quality projects winning out over lower quality projects and instead focus on the power relationships that determines what quality is and what scientific pursuits is important or not important. These qualities make the concept of undone science valuable to discussions of eurocentrism in academia. Eurocentrism in sociology is not only about how the focus of academic work tend to be on European societal phenomena but also about how this focus on European social life leave the social life and thought of other communities and nations understudied.

Eurocentrism in Sociology/Social Sciences
Eurocentrism describes the intellectual bias that exists within the social sciences that privileges studying European societal development over other societies and/or privileging European social thought in theory and analysis of social phenomena over those from non-European societies. Eurocentric critiques have been levied at mainstream sociology primarily by scholars of color and those coming from the Global South (Maia 2014). The most prominent perspective in this space is postcolonial sociology which argues that sociology is a product of the intersection of science and European imperialism. As mentioned above, one example of this critique is Julian Go’s descriptions of the “imperial unconscious” of sociology (Go 2012) that underpins the epistemology of mainstream sociology. Raewyn Connell alternatively describes the field as “metropolitan sociology” (Connell 2007). These descriptions of sociology recognize the field as an epistemology that produces imperialist or Eurocentric knowledge based on positivist and orientalist scientific principles.

A similar critique of sociology as Eurocentric come from the body of work know as Black sociology. Black sociology, as both a political movement within sociology and a theoretical perspective driven by mostly black scholars during the Civil Rights/ Black Power era developed a conceptualization of sociology based on its relationship to the American racial system. Black sociological writings argued that American sociology is really a “White sociology” that constitutes the scientific reflection of American racism. This description of American sociology also understood the field as an institution within itself which held an ideology, stratification structure, culture, as well as an epistemology (Aikalimat 1969; Hunter 2002; Joyce Lander 1973; Wright and Calhoun 2006). Similar descriptions of social science as a white/European space in general come from scholars within the North American indigenous community and other places in the global south (Akiwowo 1999; Foley 2003; Keskin 2012; Manigault-Bryant 2012; Olutayo 2014; Waitere-Ang 1999).

Both of the above framings of sociology reflect the arguments seen from scholars working in the new political sociology of science (NPSS) perspective (Anon n.d.) that one can’t understand the production of knowledge and science independent of its relationship to societal interests and structures of power. What makes these discussions of eurocentrism interesting is the way in which they extend arguments about “the relationships embedding scientific knowledge systems within and across economic, legal, political, and civil society institutions” to argue that these scientific perspectives are constructers of whole societies, namely modern Euroamerican society. The history of the social sciences reflects this in the birth of national sociological spaces reflecting the angst and interests of the dominate powers of those societies. European sociology for instance was primarily concerned with the birth and growing pains of “modernity” and how it was different from their previous “primitive” state (Connell 2007). American sociology on the other hand, especially if you include WEB DuBois as part of the first wave of American scholars, was primarily concerned with inequality and (racial) difference (Magubane 2016; Morris 2015). The national/civilization level relationship between Eurocentric scientific enterprise and the societies that produced and are produced by them changes somewhat how we understand thing such as undone science, as I will go into below.

Undone science as a concept takes on new importance when coupled with an analysis of eurocentrism. Edward Said argued that European social thought, which laid the basis for anthropology and sociology, constructed Europeans as the dialectic opposite of “Orientals” whereby Europeans produce logic and science while all others produce myths and superstition (Said 1978). This racist conception of European’s relationship to the world both justified colonialism, and within academia, determined what people and whose societies are allowed to produce legitimate science. He goes on to argue how European scholars systematically ignored any and all contributions and concepts that weren’t derived from European social thought, particularly those of the Enlightenment. The space for undone science here is quite large in that whole societies and the possible scientific agendas they may possess are rejected from consideration leaving, at least within western academe, a lack of work and thought coming from the Global South. Eurocentrism here is maintained specifically by making sure certain lines of thought remain undone. Another, related concept is what Knorr-Cetina calls “negative knowledge,” unknown knowledge that is deemed insignificant and/or dangerous to actors (Cetina 2009). Eurocentrism from the Knorr-Cetina perspective can be thought of as an ongoing negative knowledge productions process that relies on not knowing enough about the “other” to challenge dominant knowledge within academic disciplines as well as the societies they support.

A great example of how undone science (and negative knowledge) is important to epistemic conceptions of Eurocentrism is in mainstream sociological accounts of the rise of modernity. Gurminder Bhambra argues that European modernity, and its scientific partner sociology, is contingent on an understanding of European society separate and unique among all other societies (Bhambra 2011). Her particular definition of Eurocentrism is “the belief, implicit or otherwise, in the world historical significance of events believed to have developed endogenously within the cultural-geographical sphere of Europe.” What’s important here is the agenda setting power of the idea of modernity as a uniquely European phenomenon. Karl Marx, for instance, developed his stages of history from a European perspective that ignored the historical developments of other societies, while arguing that these stages were universal in nature (Marx 1978). When he did address non-European societies, Asia for instance, he created a category called the “Asiatic mode of production” that set Asia apart from “normal” trajectories of class conflict (Fogel 1988). The agenda setting power of the European modernity literature and Marxist historical materialism produced conditions in which research on the 3rd world class conflict seemed both useless and/or a threat to orthodox Marxism, an example of negative knowledge (Abdo-Zubi 1996; Bhambra, Shilliam, and Orrells 2014). Examples such as Marxist theory show us epistemically how eurocentrism established itself within the social sciences over time by systematically privileging one research agenda and perspective over all others.

Parochial arguments about modernity from European scholars and subsequently from those that took on their work have been challenged by numerous camps within and outside of academia. Dipesh Chakrabarty has for instance challenged the idea of Europe itself as a self-evident socio-political entity and argues that the fiction of Europe is what allows for this conception of modernity to even hold credibility (Chakrabarty 2000). Multiple modernity theory on the other hand argues that European modernity is not alone in its form or existence. This body of scholars argue that through encounters with Europe, societies outside of Europe have indeed developed their own flavors of modernity distinct from Europe’s that deserve to be studied by scholars (Schmidt 2006; Tambiah 2000). Decoloniality literature argues for an understanding of modernity tied directly to understandings of colonialism. Within the decoloniality framework modernity is a misnomer the obscures what is really an ongoing colonial relationship between Europe and its colonial subjects, hence the use of modernity/coloniality vs modernity within the literature (Lugones 2010; Mignolo 2009; Quijano 2007; Wynter 2003). In all of these perspectives, some justification or premise on which mainstream understandings of European modernity is questioned or challenged.

Although we can identify the epistemic trajectories that produce eurocentrism, what is not as clear is the structural, power relationships, and networks that perpetuate eurocentrism well beyond the times of 19th century scholars. This turn toward a not-strictly epistemic understanding of how science is conduced is one of the major contributions of science and technology studies. What it shares with the abovementioned literature on eurocentrism is an understanding of science as a social activity that is not strictly driven by logic and methods, but also driven by the interactions of scientists with each other and with the public. This is extremely relevant to the worked mentioned above challenging eurocentrism in understandings of modernity. If we can identify eurocentrism as an ongoing problem within sociology and the social sciences in general, there should be individuals, groups, and institutions that perpetuate the logic across space and time. The next section of the paper will explore possible avenues where we can see eurocentrism perpetuated both in a positive, active sense as well as through the undone science of alternative perspectives that leave Eurocentric perspectives as the default framework. The three major mechanisms that I will talk about is generalized colonial and racial violence, racial bias within academic organizations and cultures, and structures of global knowledge transmission. There are indeed other mechanisms that one can identify that influence the development of eurocentrism, but I focus on these because I see these as the key mechanisms without which others may not be able to exist.

Embodied Knowledge

Before discussing the actual mechanisms that maintain eurocentrism, I would like the discuss the importance of bodies to understanding the structures of knowledge production and exclusion. Early feminist and standpoint theory scholars argued that women, because of their unique social experience, have a particular way of understanding the world separate from men (Wood 2009). This perspective is not a natural occurrence but a consequence of one’s social conditioning and position within the gender hierarchy. Donna Haraway for instance argued that scholars should embrace their “partial perspective” and engage scientific knowledge coming from humans as always be situated in their partial perspective of the world versus assuming that there is some overarching objectivity that one can obtain with sufficient training (Haraway 1988).

Black feminist scholarship and postcolonial scholarship racialized this standpoint perspective. Patricia Hill Collins in her work Black Feminist Thought argued that Black women have a social and historical experience that allows them to see the world in a way that people of other social positions may not (Collins 2002). One example that is often cited is the concept of intersectionality. Intersectionality is defined as an understanding of oppression that acknowledges that people don’t experience multiple systems of oppression in an additive way but in a synthetic way. For Black women this would mean experiencing not just racial and gender oppressions as two separate experiences but as a combined experience that can’t be reduced to any understanding of race or gender separately.

Both lines of scholarship push us to understand that knowledge is not simply something that is created by individuals but something that is embodied in the experience and social positions of individuals. Colonial structures have always been invested in the control of bodies and people and this investment can be argued to carry over to academia. If we are to identify instances of undone science that perpetuate eurocentrism we must acknowledge that the alternatives to eurocentrism mentioned above are most likely to come not from privileged white scholars, but scholars who are connected to colonized and racialized communities. Where colonized bodies reside within academic structures is an important, but by no means perfect, approximation of what kinds of knowledge might be produced, promoted, and engaged with. This line of thinking applies especially to discussions of generalized violence as well as racism within academia.

Mechanism #1: Generalized Colonial Violence

Implied in every discussion of eurocentrism is its historical relationship to European colonialism. As argued above, much of the epistemological grounding that allowed for things like Marx’s Eurocentric historical materialism and Eurocentric conceptions of modernity to thrive was based on the idea that people in the global south had nothing to contribute empirically or intellectually to understanding human development. As much was said by Hegel when he argued that “Africa is no historical part of the world.” This idea of non-European inferiority contributed to justifying one of the mechanism that took Global South knowledges off the sociological agenda which is generalized colonial violence. Here I argue that the actual imposition of colonialism, including the actual killing of people, destruction of records and texts, and imposition of metropolitan culture ensured that much of the already existing knowledge structures, cultures, and agendas of colonized people would be destroyed, leaving Eurocentric explanations of the world unchallenged. What makes this explanation fit within an undone science framework is the hypothetical of what kinds of scientific or intellectual development would colonized societies engage with has colonialism not change their societal trajectories. These are cases of undone science that are the result of literally killing scientific/intellectual agendas and the people who embodied them.

One of the clearest examples of how generalized violence encouraged and ensured the supremacy of eurocentrism is settler colonialism in the western hemisphere. Settler colonialism can be best defined by its difference from classical colonialism. Where classical or resource colonialism seeks to simply extract resources and/or labor from the dominated nation or people, settler colonialism is typified by the establishment of a permanent presence that usually involves displacing or eradicating the dominated population. Lorenzo Veracini (2013a, 2013b) argues that the necessity to define settler colonialism in relation to resource colonialism is driven by the conflation of the two in both imperial histories and postcolonial investigations of colonial regimes.. Whereas resource colonialism seeks to make its formation permanent as to perpetually extracting resources from the colony, settler colonialism instead seeks to eliminate itself by eradicating fully the indigenous population. Although resource and settler colonialism may happen within the same physical and political spaces, the logics of settler colonialism is distinct and often contradictory to the logics of resource colonialism.

Patrick Wolfe (2006) in his theorization of settler colonial logics coined the idea of the logic of elimination. Wolfe argues that in any settler colonial society there exist a contradiction whereby the settler seeks to claim sovereignty over the space while dealing with the fact that the original inhabitants of the land still exist, challenging their sovereignty. The logic of elimination is the manifestation of the need to rectify this contradiction by eradicating the indigenous population from the land in various ways. Wolfe states “elimination is an organizing principal of settler-colonial society rather than a one-off (and superseded) occurrence. The positive outcomes of the logic of elimination can include officially encouraged miscegenation, the breaking down of native title into alienable individual freeholds, native citizenship, child abduction, religious conversion, resocialization in total institutions such as missions or boarding schools, and a whole range of cognate biocultural assimilations.” The general idea is that any process that leads to the invisibility or disappearance of indigenous peoples is a positive for the settler regime.

When we consider an embodied knowledge perspective on settler colonialism, it is easy to see how indigenous knowledge agendas become marginalized. The most primary of these is the genocide of indigenous people themselves. Considering the majority of the population was eliminated, in the United States at least, over 500 years it is safe to assume that much of the knowledge, scientific or otherwise, held by indigenous people died with them. Today one of the manifestation of this genocide is the dying out of indigenous languages worldwide as the survivors of genocide fail to maintain numbers that allow for the transmission of language from one generation to the next (Alfred and Corntassel 2005). Another means by which indigenous people were prevented from maintain their knowledge based, scientific or otherwise, was residential school. In both Canada and the United States residential schools were established that took indigenous children from their families to be taught how to think and act like white Americans/Canadians (Castellano, Archibald, and DeGagne 2008; Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) 1996). These residential schools aside from having obscenely high mortality rates that further reduced the indigenous populations also ensured that those that’s survived wouldn’t engage in any of their traditional culture or lifeways. If any of these people came into academia, it was likely that any possible indigenous challenge to mainstream sociological discourse would be stunted because people literally lost the knowledge necessary to challenge the mainstream agenda (acknowledging being indigenous independent of knowledge retention might produce a unique perspective that may be useful in this situation.) Similar arguments, minus genocide, can be made of African Americans in regards to the impact of chattel slavery on the lack of knowledge transmission from one generation to the next.

Mechanism #2: Racism within Academia

Since the advent of desegregation more scholars of color have been entering the academy. With the inclusion of more people of color the assumption is that the academic and intellectual agendas ought to reflect the increasing diversity of people in the institution. Unfortunately, as I will discuss below, academia embodies the same kinds of prejudices towards people of color that exist outside in the rest of society. Structures of racism within academia ensure that scholars of color don’t survive within academia, have the social power to set research agendas, or challenge their more privileged peers. As with the last mechanism, this one is contingent on understanding that eliminating bodies also likely eliminates the intellectual perspectives that are embodied. People of color in academia have to contend with white peers who were raised within the same racial system that led to the violence mentioned in the previous section of this paper. By this token we can identify a number of ways in which scholars of color, particularly women of color are made to feel unwelcomed, unappreciated, and marginalized.

One of the base mechanisms of racial exclusion within academia is through hiring. Lauren Rivera’s concept of cultural matching is a concept that embodies much of what happens on the job market and in other kinds of evaluations of scholars of color. Cultural matching refers to the ideas that evaluators often increase their opinion of interviewees when they share hobbies, institutional memberships, or cultural habits (Rivera 2012). Scholars of color, especially those that come from low income communities often lack the same kinds of networks and relationships that their white and middle class counterparts may have. The result is that people of color in any professional setting is less advocated for than their white counterparts and therefore less likely to get hired.

Another related mechanism of marginalization is the culture of silence and politeness within academia. Scholars of color are often scared of challenging their white counterparts on racist or exclusionary activity because of a norm of collegiality that exist within many academic spaces.  As Christine Stanley observed when trying to recruit scholars of color to discuss biases in journal review processes:

“…As a result, there are many faculty members of color who remain fearful about publicly sharing their narratives concerning their academic lives on university campuses. Many declined to participate in this study for several reasons. Some said that their narratives were too painful to share, while others expressed that they could be targeted because they were among a few or the only ones in their departments. Still others in the junior faculty ranks declined because they felt that their untenured status would be at risk. A continued sanction on silence and politeness, with the result that the master narrative norms are not troubled, obscures open and frank dialogue about diversity issues and, in particular, about racism in the editorial- review process.” (Stanley 2007)

This silencing of scholars of color due to fear of marginalization is a theme that is nearly universal within narratives of marginalization (Ward Randolph and Weems 2010). As Stanley noted, this silence enables other forms of marginalization to go unnamed and unchallenged.

Lastly we can look at graduate training as another place where scholars of color are marginalized with two major results: their assimilation into mainstream (i.e. Eurocentric) patterns of behavior and scholarship or being filtered out of academia all together. Relationship with faculty and other students are a primarily mechanism by which graduate students are shaped. One scholar describing their political science education noted that fellow students would question her with “how is your work political?” (Brown 2007). Alternatively, we can see how African women graduate students are denied professional courtesy as advanced graduate students and faculty alike (Beoku-Betts 2004). These two examples are indicative of situations where scholars of color are forced to alter their behavior or research agendas to fit into the mainstream culture of their departments or disciplines or see themselves in a position where they may be pushed out or denied tenure and other accolades.

What we see through this mechanism is how routine racism (and misogyny) within academia can lead to the marginalization of scholars of color. What is important to note here is that as students and scholars are pushed to the margins or pushed out, the knowledge that they have or intend to produce is marginalized along with them. When considering undone science, we can easily see how racial stress within academia would make sure that one does not have the power or influence to change the trajectory of fields, departments, or committees.

Mechanism #3: Structures of Global Knowledge Transmission

The last major mechanism that prevents marginalized people from shaping academic agenda and research trajectories is the relationship between scholars of color, especially those in the Global South and academic institutions and norms in the Global North. This mechanism is primarily driven by the inertial legacy of eurocentrism of the social sciences manifesting itself in academia today. Arguments in this space are primarily concerned with the ways in which former colonial powers influence the research and structure of academic spaces in the Global South.

The central framework that discusses this North-South academic relationship is work on what’s call academic dependency or alternatively intellectual imperialism. Academic dependency is the dependence of academic spaces in the global south on the resources of global northern institutions for academic and financial support while intellectual imperialism is defined as the colonization of the intellectual life of a colonized people by European social thought (Alatas 2000). Scholars in this space saw academic dependency as a kind of neo-colonial form of intellectual imperialism. The most fleshed out explanation of this space is seen in the work of Syed Farid Alatas. In his work on academic dependency he identified a number of mechanisms that impacted the way research in the global south was conducted (Alatas 2003). He identifies 4 major ways in which the global south is dependent on the global north academically: 1 Dependence on ideas and the media of ideas; 2 Dependence on the technology of education; 3 Dependence on aid for research as well as teaching; 4 Dependence on investment in education.

Dependence on ideas and media of idea is a reference to both the domination of already existing Eurocentric ideas within the social sciences as well as the domination of journal publication outlets by global north nations and academics. In sociology for example, the top two journals, The American Journal of Sociology and the American Sociological Review are both American journals, one of which is owned by the American Sociological Association. Alatas argues that the dominance of these outlets and the ideas they contain creates a situation where western scholars have well established publishers and distributors while the global south largely imports foreign journals from these publishers versus having their own publishing houses and journals. Due to the realities of publishing in academic journals, the expectations of the type of language used as well as the style of writing and selection of article topics are shaped in the global south to model those in the global north.

The next three are all more explicitly tied to the realities of global economic inequalities. In all three cases we see a situation where the ability to do scientific work and educate those that can engage in scientific work is hinged upon the support of institutions and governments of the West. Particularly when it comes to education, many parts of the world inherited the education systems set up by their colonial masters. In addition, many scholars in the global south go to European or American universities to get advanced training, taking that training and the ideas they entail back to their home nations. Because the money and resources for these educational and scientific endeavors come from the global north, they are able to determine what does and doesn’t get funding, who get an education, and what knowledge looks like on a global scale. The possibilities for scholars in the global south to reject this agenda setting process likely means they will be cut off from networks of scholarship and funding that will make sure their work is marginalized.

Conclusions

In this paper I have argued for an expansion of our conception of eurocentrism within the social sciences from being largely epistemic to include a concept of structure that influences the creation and ongoing dominance of eurocentrism. Central to this link between the epistemic and structural is the Frickel et al’s concept of undone science. Undone science calls attention to the scientific agendas and projects that are ignored, unfunded, or suppressed. Looking at the science that isn’t done in this case allow us to theorize eurocentrism as both an assertion of the universality of European concepts/empirical cases but also its converse which is negative knowledge about the global south. As long as negative knowledge about the global south is maintained within the social sciences there will exist little challenge to the mainstream narrative. I further argue that this maintenance of negative knowledge is structurally maintained via the mechanisms of generalized colonial and racial violence, racial bias within academic organizations and cultures, and structures of global knowledge transmission.

Much of the scholarship around eurocentrism is contingent on the normative goal of dismantling the dominance of European thought in global academic discussions. As I argued in the beginning, most of these discussions either critique Eurocentric ideas and/or argue for alternative ways of understanding the world that doesn’t center Europe. One of problems with so much focus being put on the epistemic is that it ignores how even with “superior” ideas or concepts that if the scholars pushing them are not present within the academy or their work isn’t being read then its effectively nonexistent. If we are going to engage in projects of epistemic decolonization or similar projects, we have to give attention to the structural forces that prevent these new perspectives from ever being heard. NPSS is one space within STS I would argue has much to contribute to this discussion. By understanding science as being made of institutions, networks, and power relationships, we can map, as I’ve tried to do in this piece, the structures that determine what eventually ended up in academic journals and on the tables of policy makers. By doing this we may be better positioned to actually institute change in how we do sociology and social science in general.

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