Gurminder Bhambra: Connected Sociologies


A ‘Connected Sociologies’ Approach to Global Sociology

Gurminder K. Bhambra

University of Warwick, UK


The idea of ‘global sociology’ has been put forward to redress a previous neglect of those represented as ‘other’ in dominant ‘Eurocentric’ constructions of modernity within sociology. In this way, it points towards a rejuvenation of sociology for a newly global age. There are three main ways in which this has been claimed: (1) the shift to a multiple modernities paradigm; (2) a call for a multicultural global sociology; and (3) an argument in favour of a global cosmopolitan approach. While these approaches ostensibly take ‘the rest of the world’ into consideration, the terms under which they do so, I suggest, are not adequate.

In contrast, I argue for a different, ‘connected sociologies’ approach built on postcolonial and decolonial critiques of Eurocentrism as a better way of understanding a shared global present. The central concern of ‘connected sociologies’ is to rethink sociology from a perspective that puts histories of dispossession, colonialism, enslavement and appropriation at the heart of historical sociology and the discipline more generally. It is only by acknowledging the significance of the ‘colonial global’ in the constitution of sociology, I argue, that it is possible to understand and address the postcolonial and decolonial present that would be the terrain of a properly critical ‘global sociology’.

Sociology and modernity are typically represented as co-constitutive, with the emergence of the modern world – with its associated economic and political revolutions – requiring a new, ‘modern’, form of explanation. Alongside this understanding, which devolves modernity to Europe, is the idea that the rest of the world was external to these world-historical processes and that colonial connections and processes were insignificant to their development (either of modernity in its supposedly originating locations, or of its suppression and deformation elsewhere). While historical accounts of these revolutions—and, thus, of modernity itself—have not remained constant over time, what has remained in place has been the historiographical frame—of autonomous endogenous origins and subsequent global diffusion—within which these events are located. This is so, even where the claim is for a new ‘global sociology’.

Multiple modernities, for example, replaced modernization theory as a distinct research paradigm within historical sociology in the late 1990s. Modernization theory had come under serious criticism from Marxist approaches and also from theorists of dependency and underdevelopment. In arguing for multiple modernities, scholars suggested that two fallacies were to be avoided. The first is that there is only one modernity – that of the West to which others were developing and converging. The second is that looking from West to East necessarily constitutes a form of Eurocentrism. They argue that while asserting the idea of one modernity, especially one that has already been achieved in Europe, would be Eurocentric, theories of multiple modernities must nonetheless take Europe as the reference point in their examination of alternative modernities. In this way, they defend the dominant approach by suggesting that the ‘fact’ of the European origins of modernity cannot be denied. In contrast, I suggest that it is precisely this ‘fact’ that must be denied once global interconnections are properly recognized and understood.

More recent arguments for a ‘global multicultural sociology’ consolidate themes from earlier engagements with the ‘indigenization’ of the social sciences to develop autonomous or alternative social science traditions. These long-standing arguments for ‘global sociology’ have not always influenced mainstream sociological debates within the West, but have, nonetheless sparked much discussion. One of the key points has been a call for the development, or recovery, of autonomous sociological traditions that would be informed by local and regional experiences and practices. As with multiple modernities, however, there is little discussion of what the purchase of these autonomous traditions would be for a global sociology. The limitations of existing approaches are seen to reside in their failure to engage with scholars and thinkers from outside the West and the main problem is presented as one of marginalization and exclusion. The solution, then, is a putative equality, through recognition of difference, and redressing the ‘absence of non-European thinkers’ within the discipline. While this is unquestionably an important issue and may indeed enable the creation of a (more) multicultural sociology for the future, it does little to address the problematic disciplinary construction of sociology in the past and the continued ramifications of this in the present.

Now, I wish to turn briefly to the third approach; that based upon the claim for a new universalism centred upon a globally cosmopolitan sociology. Cosmopolitanism, in this context, is presented as a normative imperative, in terms of how a vision of a cosmopolitan future could have an impact on the politics of the present. This, in turn, is supplemented by a concern to reconstruct sociology through a cosmopolitan paradigm based on potential global inclusivity. The issue of inclusivity remains ‘potential’ as, for most theorists of cosmopolitanism, it is dependent on ‘them’ being included on ‘our’ terms. Universalism is argued to be necessary to avoid the relativism of local knowledges, including that of Western sociology. However, there is no discussion of how cosmopolitanism could be used as a perspective to take into consideration the cosmopolitan connections effaced in standard histories of the discipline. Acknowledging such a history would enable a rethinking of sociology’s concepts and categories starting from a consideration of the other, rather than the other being seen as a problem to be accommodated.

One of the common issues raised by the approaches discussed above is that they all conceptualise the global through an additive approach that celebrates a contemporary plurality of cultures and voices, but without addressing the historical roots (and routes) of the present configuration of the globe. All three regard the global as constituted through contemporary connections between what are presented as previously historically separate civilizational contexts. None of them take into consideration the histories of colonialism and enslavement as central to the development of the ‘global’. As they approach the global only as a phenomenon of recent salience, the sociological reconstruction that they urge is to be applied to future endeavours while maintaining the adequacy of past interpretations and conceptual understandings. This, I suggest, maintains existing hierarchies of the discipline. Simple calls for voices from the periphery to enter into debates with the centre, are based on the idea that sociology could be different in the future with little acknowledgement that, in order for this to happen, sociology would also need to relate differently to its own past (and the pasts it considers significant for an understanding of the discipline).

The perspective of ‘connected sociologies’, with which I wish to conclude, starts from a recognition that events are constituted by processes that are always broader than the selections that otherwise bind events as particular and specific to theoretical constructs. It recognises a plurality of possible interpretations and selections, not as a ‘description’ of events and processes, but as an opportunity for reconsidering what we previously thought we had known. The different sociologies in need of connection are themselves located in time and space, including the time and space of colonialism, empire, and (post)colonialism. These new sociologies will frequently arise as discordant and challenging voices and may even be resisted on that basis (a resistance made easier by the geo-spatial stratification of the academy). The consequence of different perspectives, however, must be to open up examination of events and processes such that they are understood differently in light of that engagement. Put another way, engaging with different voices must move us beyond simple pluralism to make a difference to what was initially thought; not so that we all come to think the same, but that we think differently from how we had previously thought before our engagement.

‘Connected sociologies’ requires starting from the perspective of the world by locating oneself within the processes that facilitated the emergence of that world. By starting from a location in the world, necessarily means starting from a history that enabled that location to be part of the world; identifying and explicating the connections that enable understandings always to be more expansive than the identities or events they are seeking to explain. The three approaches discussed here sidestep the issue of the historical global and only regard as significant those connections that are believed to have brought European modernity to other societies. A ‘connected sociologies’ approach enables us to locate Europe within wider processes, address the ways in which Europe created and then benefitted from the legacies of colonialism and enslavement, and examine what Europe needs to learn from those it dispossessed in order to address the problems we currently face.

‘Connected sociologies’ points to the work needed in common to make good on the promise of a reinvigorated sociological imagination in service of social justice in a global world.

Note: The arguments of this article are further developed in Connected Sociologies (Bloomsbury Academic, Theory for a Global Age series, 2014). A version of this article appeared in Global Dialogue (2015, vol. 5, no. 2), edited by Michael Burawoy.



Gurminder-portraitvertGurminder K. Bhambra  Gurminder K Bhambra is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. For the academic year 2014-15, she was Visiting Fellow in the Department of Sociology, Princeton University and Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. She is author of Connected Sociologies (Bloomsbury, 2014) and Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination (Palgrave, 2007) which won the 2008 Philip Abrams Memorial Prize for best first book in sociology. She also set up the Global Social Theory website to support students and academics interested in social theory in global perspective. She tweets in a personal capacity @gkbhambra



Banner Image: Travel, artwork based on cover image (Bloomsbury 2014).

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