Sari Hanafi: Postcolonial Global Sociology

Yazeed Al Harthi2014 SaudiCartoonist whom met in Beirut - Comumnity Awareness

Postcolonial Global Sociology: Alternative and Limitation


Sari Hanafi

American University of Beirut, Lebanon


In Global Knowledge Production in the Social Sciences: Made in Circulation, Wiebke Keim, Ercüment Çelik, Christian Ersche and Veronika Wöhrer (2014) who edited this volume provide some compiling thought about  the emergence and the development the global regime of knowledge production and circulation of social science within it.  They call for rearrangements of the social sciences after criticizing Eurocentrism.

I found particularly interesting the contribution of Martin Savransky. (chapter 13) He calls for an experimentation “with the possibility that the speculative construction of a ‘global’ social science might perhaps not begin from a solid, critical, politico-epistemological foundation capable of guaranteeing the relevance of our practices beyond those parts of the world within which the former have been cultivated, but from an activity which, by entertaining experiences of hesitation, may put our own metaphysical foundations at risk”. This endeavor will encourage establishing a modest global social science with less universalist pretension. Boike Rehbein (Chapter 11) was suspicious of universalist social science which necessarily drew him towards multiple epistemologies as an alternative and to different locations such as the Global South for their instantiation. He refuse thus to undertake singlehanded general theory, including postcolonialism, but rather “piecemeal transitions, experimentation and practical risks”.

Gurminder Bhambra (Chapter 12) criticizes Rehbein from moving from universalism to multiplicity as a panacea, neglecting the fact that they are closely intertwined. The perceived limit on what was previously claimed to be universal is the occasion to re-present it as particular and merely one of a number of possible particularities. In contrast, Bhambra argues for a reconstruction of categories in which transformed understandings create new ways of understanding connections. These are not to be understood as transcendent categories, but as categories with particular histories of recognition and learning from others. In this way, learning from others makes a difference to what was previously understood and in so doing involves the transformation of previously constituted universals and particulars. Simply presenting ‘new’ arguments is to offer a variety of alternatives that leaves the existing paradigm intact. Bhambra argues, instead, for a reconstruction to follow any deconstruction of what was previously understood as deficient and an accounting of how the deficiency was previously unnoticed. Bhambra quotes Seidman that sociology’s emergence coincided with the high point of Western imperialism, and yet ‘the dynamics of empire were not incorporated into the basic categories, models of explanation, and narratives of social development of the classical sociologists’ (1994: 314). This is why she calls for “Postcolonial Global Sociology”. She goes further in her recent book, Connected Sociologies (Bhambra 2014) to develop an approach built on postcolonial and decolonial critiques of Eurocentrism as a better way of understanding a shared global present.

However, this intersection between sociology and post-colonial studies does not go without problems. After a half of century of authoritarianism in the Arab World, post-colonial scholars has been unable to comprehend or pay attention to the local power dynamics. These scholars read for instance the Arab uprisings (with all its ramification: political changes, civil strife and violence) simply as a geo-political game in which former colonial and imperial masters are omnipresent and sole to be blamed. Portraying the current transformation of the Arab societies in this line makes many of these scholars simply defending so called progressive Arab dictators. The quasi-conspiratorial apologetic and defensive claims become tools to justify local repression. Postcolonial scholars rarely articulate a set of internal and external influences that shaped the political landscape of the Arab region. The Hamid Dabashi’ The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism (2012) is the best criticism of the regime of knowledge production that ignore the development and the social and intellectual changes inside of the Arab world.

More generally, postcolonial criticism has been unable to see the current crises in Africa, in East Timor, Myanmar, Peru and other societies suffering from neocolonial structures. (San Juan 1998) The post-colonial attempts to reify cultural difference and to generate cultural compassion failed to resolve specific historical contradictions in the ongoing crisis of late, transnational capitalism and repressive regimes in many Southern countries.


Bhambra, Gurminder K. 2014. Connected Sociologies. UK: Bloomsbury.
Dabashi, Hamid. 2012. The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism Makes a Contribution. London: Zed Books.
Keim, W, E Çelik, and V Wöhrer, eds. 2014. Global Knowledge Production in the Social Sciences. Made in Circulation. Ashgate.
San Juan, E. 1998. “The Limits of Postcolonial Criticism: The Discourse of Edward Said.” Solidarity.
Seidman, G. 1994. Manufacturing Militance: Workers’ Movements in Brazil and South Africa, 1970–1985. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Sari_low resolution700kbSari Hanafi is currently a Professor of Sociology and chair of the department of sociology, anthropology and media studies at the American University of Beirut. He is also the editor of Idafat: the Arab Journal of Sociology (Arabic).  He is the Vice President of both the International Sociological Association and the Arab Council of Social Science.  He is the author of numerous journal articles and book chapters on the political and economic sociology of the Palestinian diaspora and refugees; sociology of migration; transnationalism; politics of scientific research; civil society and elite formation and transitional justice. Among his recent books are: From Relief and Works to Human Development: UNRWA and Palestinian Refugees after 60 Years (edited with L. Takkenberg and L. Hilal.  Routledge); Palestinian Refugees: Identity, Space and Place in the Levant (with A. Knudsen, Routledge); The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in The Occupied Palestinian Territories (edited in English and Arabic with A. Ophir and M. Givoni. New York: Zone Book; Beirut: CAUS, 2009), The Emergence of a Palestinian Globalized Elite: Donors, International Organizations and Local NGOs (with L. Taber. Arabic and English, 2005) and Pouvoir et associations dans le monde arabe (ed. with S. Bennéfissa. Paris: CNRS, 2002). His last book is Knowledge Production in the Arab World: The Impossible Promise (with R. Arvanitis, in Arabic, Beirut: CAUS and in English with Routledge, 2016). He is the winner of 2014 Abdelhamid Shouman Award and 2015 Kuwait Award for social science.



Yazeed Al Harthi PORTRAIT_Lib096_Beirut_YazeedAlharthi+Banner Image: “Community Awareness” by the internationally renowned Saudi Arabian cartoonist Yazeed Al Harthi,  (Cartoon published here with kind permission by the artist).






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