Abdul Rahman Embong: Sociology South

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Ideas, Idealism, and Passion: The Heart of Struggles for a Better World


Abdul Rahman Embong

The National University of Malaysia



I quite like the intellectual challenge posed by the theme of the ISA’s Forum and the related online WebForum on “The Futures We Want: Global Sociology and the Struggles for a Better World”.  It pushes us to overcome presentism and narrow nationalism, and adopt a long view of history as well as utilize our sociological imagination. It also inspires us to define the historic mission and chart the way forward to realize the future(s) we want, to usher in a better world. As I see it, the theme suggests that a better world (however defined) would not emerge by itself; nor would it be given on a silver platter. Rather it would come only through persistent struggles and sacrifices. And for the struggles to be encompassing and broad, they cannot be solitary or isolationist, but must be based on solidarity by cutting across nation-states and regions, and be linked to a global movement or a global civil society. To define a clear vision of the future(s) and the means to achieve such a future(s), we need to be informed by and to use advanced scientific knowledge, viz. global sociology.

Thus stated, it appears neat and fine.  But what is ‘global sociology’?  How inclusive is such sociology? How does it link to the study of the community and the nation-state, which are still the main concerns of sociologists in the global South? While some sociologists in the South may have ‘scaled up’ their sociological practice to global sociology, sociology as a whole in the South has not even ‘graduated’ to go beyond the nation-state to address regional society – not to say global society and global sociology.

Figure 1: History in the present: Dutch colonial heritage in Java in the form of the old railway line crossing a hilly terrain. (Chai Ming Hock, 2016).

Figure 1: History in the present: Dutch colonial heritage in Java in the form of the old railway line crossing a hilly terrain. (Chai Ming Hock, 2016).

But this should not deter anyone especially leading thinkers in the field of sociology and the International Sociological Association (ISA) to raise a new clarion call and enjoin sociologists to embrace the agenda as they have done here. I refer in particular to the intriguing article “Global Sociology, Live!” by Laleh Behbehanian and Michael Burawoy. In it they argue that “global sociology is the scaling up of sociological practice”; it is the third stage, following the focus on communities in the first stage to sociology of nation-states in the second. To reassure those in the South, they rightly point out that while “reaching out for global forces, global connections and global imaginations”, those who champion global sociology are not “discounting the local or the national.”

While I share the sentiments of our illustrious colleagues, I humbly submit that we need to be cautious of any tendency of homogenization. The agenda and the conception of a “better world” and “the future(s) we want” espoused by global sociology cannot and should not be anything near or akin to homogenizing. We should be more differentiated and nuanced given the diversity of societies, cultures, histories and knowledge development.

The agenda for sociology in the global South should ultimately be defined by the practitioners in the region and others working on it.  Sociology of the South is still very much focused on the community and on the nation-state because this is the demand of their societies and nations under present historical conditions. They need to understand and interpret their community and the nation-state within the context of a globalized world not simply for the sake of understanding and enriching the corpus of knowledge but to change it.

It is here that some kind of productive and harmonious interconnection and intersections between the local, the national, and the global be established. While sociology of the South should take note of the enterprise of global sociology and its perspectives and occasionally engage in it, it should consciously adopt the perspective of “from below”, i.e. looking at the local and the national, and from these lenses, they ‘gaze’ at global sociology. While ‘scaling up’ is necessary for global sociology, ‘scaling down’ and remaining rooted in the study of communities and nation-states is also a necessity. Scaling up and scaling down are not binary opposites; rather they are part of the same process and support each other.

In this respect, we should also take note of another important conceptual space beyond the nation-state, i.e., the regional, and with it, the regional forces, regional connections and regional imaginations.  While there is an increasingly globalized society emerging as shown by an emergent global civil society, the formation of a regional community and regional consciousness should not be overlooked. In this regard, we should promote works with a big frame that goes beyond the nation-state and attempts to capture and analyze the region. Here I have in mind such works as The Sociology of Southeast Asia (2008) by Victor T. King, which is a piece of work that analyses the evolution of various aspects of the sociological enterprise in the region as a whole and the various countries within it.

Figure 2: Malay warriors traditional costume: Invention of tradition in face of commodification of culture under market-driven globalization (Chai Ming Hock, 2016).

Figure 2: Malay warriors traditional costume: Invention of tradition in face of commodification of culture under market-driven globalization (Chai Ming Hock, 2016).

Another concern is the asymmetry between the three nodes—the local, the national, the global– which should be consciously addressed. What is stated by Behbehanian and Burawoy in their article is very crucial. In their words, the “Northern approaches – with their universalizing mission – have … often dominated Southern sociology” and that “There is a profound imbalance … between … the sociologies of the North backed up by enormous academic capital and … (the) emergent, indigenous sociologies of the South.”  Addressing this asymmetry, in particular by building capacities and providing a conducive environment for the flowering of indigenous sociologies is a priority in order to give a richer meaning and content to global sociology.

In our struggles for a better world, the knowledge vehicle and approaches need not be subsumed only under the rubric of global sociology. It would be richer and more nuanced if it also adopts the local, the national and the regional as long as it aspires towards improving the human conditions. And what matters most here—as rightly argued oftentimes by Michael Burawoy—is that our sociology should not remain merely as instrumental knowledge which addresses the professional academic community and the policy circles. Rather it has to be reflexive and critical sociology, which addresses the body of knowledge in a critical way and its stance, is for the public.

Finally, while ideas as articulated above matter tremendously, idealism and passion equally matter. The agenda for a better world would be lifeless and sterile if passion and idealism are missing. To me progress is propelled by idealism and passion, and the courage of conviction and belief that what is right can and should be done. This is the heart of the struggles for a better world.

Embong_AbdulRahman - portraitAbdul Rahman Embong
is Emeritus Professor in Sociology of Development at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (The National University of Malaysia), 43600 UKM Bangi, Selangor, Malaysia. He was President of the Malaysian Social Science Association between 2000 and 2010, and currently serves as its advisor. He can be contacted at rahmanhe@ukm.edu.my.

Banner Image
: Street art in Penang, Malaysia: Art at the margin by local artists expressing local identity versus global homogenization. Photo by courtesy of Chai Ming Hock, a lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia (Chai, 2016).

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