Julian Go: Southern Solution


The Southern Solution: Perspectival Realism and Postcolonial Sociology


Julian Go

Sociology is provincial. As a disciplinary formation institutionalized in North America and Europe, it is particularistic and parochial while masquerading as universal. It is provincial in the sense that it originates in and was meant for the Anglo-European empires. It embeds the concerns and interests of white male metropolitan elites. The very notion of the “social” – as a space between nature and the spiritual realm – resonated among 19th century European elites because it was a way to make sense, and to try to manage, resistance to social order from workers, women and natives. Even critical founding thinkers like Marx, Weber or Durkheim based their critiques of modernity upon the European experience: wage-labor in modern industrial factories rather than on plantations or mines in the Americas, the discipline of the Protestant ethic rather than the discipline of the slave master’s whip, or the experience of anomie in modern urban centers rather than the racial alienation of colonialism. Meanwhile, those who did not base their sociologies upon the concerns and interests of white male metropolitan elites, such as W.E.B. DuBois, were marginalized (Morris 2015).

Today, as critical scholars note, the social theories and concepts that sociologists deploy bear the imprint of this provincial history (Connell 2007; Go 2013a, 2013b). But what can be done about it? Recognition of the provincial character of sociology have led many to call for more “global” or “postcolonial” sociologies. A number of strategies have emerged. One of the more vocal and arguably controversial attempts is the call for “Southern” sociology or “Southern Theory.” Though this is a diverse movement, all of its different strands share a desire to overcome the provinciality and Anglo-European provenance of social thought and instead start our social research and theorizing with the voices, experiences and concerns of subjugated populations in the post-colonial world and Global South. It attempts to overcome the “Northern” and Eurocentric character of knowledge by going native; cultivating “epistemologies of the south” and seeking out new analytic frames. As Connell (2013: 177) declares that “the periphery does produce theory, lots of it” – the Southern solution suggests that a truly global sociology only requires that we listen. And more than just recovering repressed sociological thinkers in the Global South, it also suggests that we should base our new theories upon the experiences of marginalized populations living in the Global South (Connell 2007; Patel 2010).

The pitfalls and promises of this approach are worth exploring.

First, the pitfalls. It is notable that the Southern solution is not entirely new. It goes back to work since the 1980s to “indigenize” sociology and seek “alternative discourses” (Akiwowo 1986; Alatas 2006; Sousa Santos 2014). This should make us wonder: why has the Southern solution not resonated sufficiently to transform the theoretical landscape? Surely, part of the problem is institutional: Southern theory challenges mainstream sociology, which will always fend off barbarians at its gates, and which has the resources to do so. But it is also the case that there are substantive intellectual barriers that have yet to be confronted and surmounted. Skeptics rightfully wonder, for instance, whether indigenous sociology and Southern theory inscribe a reverse essentialism or promote epistemic relativism. Such critiques have long plagued the movement, and in as much as they have not yet been tackled or absorbed, the movement cannot advance. These must be confronted head-on.

To be more precise, there are at least two lingering criticisms. The first is that the call for Southern or indigenous knowledge reverts to a dangerous essentialism and particularism. What, after all, counts as “indigenous” or “Southern” sociology? Or as Burawoy (2010: 14) asks: “If there is a Southern sociology then what makes it Southern and sociological?” Too often, proponents of these approaches are silent on this issue, and so the matter appears to boil down to identity: if a thinker or sociologist comes from the Global South, then their sociology is “Southern.” But does not the idea of a “Southern” or “indigenous” thinker presume a cultural essentialism? Or, in regards to Sousa Santos’ (2014) attempt to locate “alternative epistemologies” in the Global South, is an epistemology “alternative” just because it comes from Brazil? Does Portugal count as “Southern” too? Heralding “Southern” as opposed to “Northern” or “metropolitan” theory thus reproduces a dangerous binary while threatening to essentialize the postcolonial world, just as does Orientalism (Burawoy 2010: 13-15; Sitas 2006: 363). As Hanafi (2016) warns, a sociology in this vein would simply “reify cultural difference.”

The second criticism is related: epistemic relativism. What, after all, is the criteria for deciding that Southern sociology is preferable? One of the only answers available to us is culture and identity: if it can be established that a thought comes from the South, it is inherently better. The problem is that rooting knowledge claims in identity simply reverts back to essentialism. Bhambra (2007: 60-62) thus criticizes standpoint theories on the grounds that they insinuate “epistemic privilege” which in turn runs into the problem of essentialism problem noted above.(1) Arjomand (2008: 549) adds: “ Our concern should not be with the ethnic identity and geographical location of social scientists and public intellectuals, but with comparisons of the concepts used to understand the phenomena and developmental patterns of the metropolitan and peripheral regions of the world.”

If not grounded in essentialism, what is an alternative epistemic warrant for Southern theory? A remaining response would be that Southern theory is preferable due to our need for diversity – or what Santos (2014) calls a “pluriverse.” But then we run into subjectivism and epistemic relativism. If we refuse identity-based essentialist warrants for knowledge, and are left only with normative claims, there is no rebuke to charges of relativism. Objectivity is impossible; scientific truth is impossible. All we are left with are multiple perspectives from various Southern locations. Turning South does not yield reliable knowledge, only relativist theoretical assertions or claims that cannot be validated (McLennan 2013).

Yet, these criticisms need not spell the demise of the Southern solution. They can be absorbed; if only we recognize Southern theory as a form of standpoint theory and thereby ground it in an ontology and epistemology of perspectival realism. In short, we must think of Southern theory in terms of a Southern standpoint. Here is the promise of the Southern solution.

What do I mean by this? Standpoint theory highlights the social situatedness of knowledge and feminist standpoint theory in particular theorizes the gendered position of the knower. By Southern standpoint, therefore, I mean a social position of knowing akin to a feminist standpoint but one that is rooted not necessarily in gender but rather in geo-social position. It is captures the position – and hence the activities, experiences, concerns and perspectives – of globally peripheral populations (e.g. the colonized and postcolonized). A Southern standpoint approach for global postcolonial sociology would thus overcome Eurocentric sociology’s false universalism by starting its social theories from the perspective of those marginalized groups whose experiences and voices have been too long suppressed by conventional social scientific categories. Rather than start from the standpoint of the white male factory worker, as Marx did, why not start our theorizing from the standpoint of the colonized Algerian or Martinican, as Fanon did?

To propose a Southern standpoint sociology is not to reinsert cultural essentialism. Feminist standpoint theory was correct to point out that the “woman” standpoint does not summon an essential identity but a gendered social position: a social location based upon experiences rather than biology or culture. “Groups who share common placement in hierarchical power relations,” Hill Collins (1997: 377) avers, “also share common experiences in such power relations.” A Southern standpoint is thus not an essence but a relational social position that lies at the lower runs of a global social hierarchy. To assume that the Southern solution requires essentialism is to overlook its fundamental sociology – and (mis)read it for a traditional anthropology.

If the charge of essentialism can be dispatched, so can the charges of epistemic relativism. A sociology based upon a southern standpoint does not impede scientific truth, it facilitates it because all truths are perspectival. Enter perspectival realism. This is the notion that there is indeed a “world” out there that is knowable, but (a) knowledge is always socially-situated, and hence perspectival, and (b) no single perspective (or theory, concept, or discipline) can represent everything we might want to know about the world. “Objective” truth can indeed be had. But those truths must always be recognized as partial– precisely because all knowledge is perspectival (Go 2016).

A good example is mapping. A map of the bus system in Manila is meant to allow someone to take the bus. It will thus be different from a road map of Manila, which is meant for someone to walk or drive through the city. And both will be different from a map of Manila’s main buildings, which is meant for tourists to visit Manila’s sites. Yet, each map would be equally true. They are just coming at the same thing from different locations and purposes – i.e. different standpoints. They each offer partial truths. The bus system map does not show us the electrical lines running underneath the city; and a map laying out the electrical lines does not show us the streets above. None of these maps are more “true” than another.

Of course, it is not the case that just any map is always true. A map of the bus system can be wrong; and we can verify maps through empirical analysis (i.e. “scientific” procedure). But even if the map is proven to be correct (i.e. “validated”), this is not the same thing as saying it fully exhausts the reality of the bus system, much less of Manila. It is merely to say it offers partial knowledge of Manila. And necessarily so. You cannot put everything about Manila on a single map. If you were to do so, it would not be a map (Giere 2006: 73).

Even the so-called “hard sciences” acknowledge perspectivalism. In modern astronomy, for instance, astronomers use different instruments, and each instrument generates a different image of the same thing, such as the Milky Way. The Oriented Scintillation Spectrometer Experiment (OSSE) produces a different image of the center of the Milky Way than does the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (CGRO). But neither image is more true or false: they each offer partial truths about the Milky Way, and there is “no ‘objectively’ correct choice” (Giere 2006: 56).

M claim is that social scientific knowledge is the same: all knowledge comes from particular perspectives and hence standpoints. And each standpoint offers partial truths. This applies even to those European-based Northern theories that we have for so long taken to be universal: i.e. Marx’s or Durkheim’s theories. The key, then, is to recognize the parochiality – ie the situatedness – of all social knowledge, and therefore to expand our epistemic horizons by excavating multiple standpoints. Hence the virtue of a Southern standpoint for crafting a truly global postcolonial sociology: we need more maps, and a Southern standpoint approach helps us find those maps that have been too long buried under the false universalism of Eurocentric sociology.


This essay is partially excerpted from my book, Postcolonial Thought and Social Theory (Oxford University Press, 2016).
(1) Bhambra’s (2007) preferred alternative, therefore, is not Southern theory but “connected histories.”


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Go_Julian - portraitJulian Go is Professor of Sociology at Boston University and Faculty Affiliate in Asian Studies and American Studies. His books include: Postcolonial Theory & Social Thought (Oxford, 2016), Patterns of Empire: the British and American Empires, 1688-present (Cambridge, 2011), American Empire & the Politics of Meaning: Elite Political Cultures in Puerto and the Philippines under US Rule (Duke, 2008), and Fielding Transnationalism (co-edited with Monika Krause, Wiley & Sons).



Banner Image: Composite based on parts of the historic world map “Nova totius terrarum orbis tabula Amstelodami” produced by Gerrit van Schagen in Amsterdam 1689, using copper engraving and hand-coloring (original size: 48.3 x 56.0 cm), and a South up Eckert IV projection, an equal-area, pseudo-cylindrical map projection, in which the length of the polar lines is half that of the equator, and lines of longitude are semi-ellipses, or portions of ellipses, described by the cartographer Max Eckert in 1906 (Editor).



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