Wolfgang Knöbl: Convergence


On the Future Convergence between Post-Colonial Thought and Main-Stream Macro-Sociology


Wolfgang Knöbl

Hamburg Institute for Social Research, Germany



There is some plausibility in the claim that sociology is and has always been a multi-paradigmatic discipline, something which will probably not change in the very next future. The stand-off between, let’s say, post-colonial theorists on the one side and rather traditional macro-sociologists on the other simply seems to confirm such a statement. And yet, is it really the case that such a divide will persist forever? The two different paradigms just mentioned will only be stable if neither of them is running into theoretical problems, i.e., if both research-programs will not lose their moments due to diminishing theoretical returns. If problems come to the fore, however, then one certainly should not be so sure any longer, that opposing positions will remain unchanged.

At least with respect to macro-sociology some of its central premises are increasingly put into doubt – by macro-sociologists themselves! It is my argument that, in theoretical terms, one of the most interesting recent debates within macro-sociology is focused on the phenomenon of contingency and that this very phenomenon will turn out to be the point where the two warring camps could meet and profit from each other. What do I mean by the “problem of contingency”?

It is probably not a secret that in the last few decades many of the most common processual terms used within the social sciences have been heavily criticized, be it “rationalization”, “modernization”, “individualization”, “individualization”, “globalization” etc.. Critics have pointed out that the direction of social change is not as robust and stable as most macro-sociologists tend to think and that therefore stories describing long term developments and necessary trajectories should be looked at with some skepticism. And skeptical looks have indeed been taken even at one of the most important stories of the discipline of sociology, the so-called Rise of the West. Here both influential historians and sociologists have made the point that this rise was anything but necessary and foreseeable but in fact dependent on contingent conditions. As, for example, Kenneth Pomeranz (“The Great Divergence. China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy”, 2000) has famously claimed, it was not Europe’s peculiar culture, not even its structural preconditions, which made industrialization possible in the 18th century. Instead, according to Pomeranz and others, rather contingent factors (the availability of coal and the existence of colonies that functioned as markets for industrially manufactured goods) allowed Europe’s (and not: China’s) rise to world dominance thus refuting or at least qualifying Weberian ideas concerning the peculiar form of Western rationality and its ensuing social dynamics. This, of course, does not mean that one has to accept Pomeranz’ explanation in all its details. But the arguments of Pomeranz and others in the debate on the Rise of the West should at least sensitize sociologists for taking contingency seriously.

The story of the Rise of the West is only one among many narratives which have been criticized because of their inherent deterministic tendencies. When sociology increasingly encounters difficulties in forecasting future trends, there are good reasons to be somewhat hesitant in painting a picture of the past that is full of robust processes leading to our present situation. There must be something wrong with such a picture which at the same time means that our present era most probably is the result of events and trends which are much more contingent than is commonly assumed. And this is the point where post-colonial theory comes in.

It is one of the strongest points of this paradigm that it took contingency seriously, that it always stayed away from all those grand narratives, which were so common within traditional “western” sociology and social theory. Theorists from different disciplines such as Raewyn Connell, Jean and John L. Comaroff, Boaventura de Sousa Santos and many others have not only criticized such narratives for their ethnocentric biases, their forgetfulness with respect to the colonial past, and their oftentimes elitist view of history. They have also put forward the more productive argument that the past and present of societies is not the outcome of linear trends but must better be interpreted as the (provisional) result of contingent conjunctures and colligations of power struggles between different (collective) actors. Due to these theoretical insights these theorists favor and propagate context-sensitive methods, whether they suggest a research-attitude of “critical estrangement” (Jean and John L. Comaroff) in order to be able to develop counter-narratives, or favor “mutual translations” between different cultures and the use of a “diatopical hermeneutics” (Santos) in order to get a better understanding of the complexity of the social world.

Although, at first sight, such methodologies look rather new and revolutionary, this is not necessarily the case. Without denying the fruitful methodological steps being taken by these authors, it might be helpful to point out that at least bits and pieces of these ideas can also be found in the writings of authors within the so-called classical tradition of sociology and thus should at least be accessible for main-stream macro-sociologists today. This is so because the methodological arguments just mentioned are indeed not too far away from positions to be found in the writings of Georg Simmel and Robert E. Park when these authors reflected on the peculiar insights of “strangers” and “marginal men” – the distance between the term “critical estrangement” and the equivalent terms proposed by Simmel and Park is certainly not unbridgeable. And the same is true with “diatopical hermeneutics” and “mutual translation” which at least partially could be translated in an idiom familiar to followers of Karl Mannheim and his sociology of knowledge.

My point here is that the insights brought forward by post-colonial theorists are too important to be neglected by main-stream macro-sociologists especially since these very insights might help to overcome macro-sociology’s increasing methodological and theoretical problems. Thus, there are indeed meeting points between these two competing paradigms, a constellation which – at the same time – should also allow post-colonial theorists to take more seriously those aspects of thought within classical social theory which are open to contingencies and thus are somewhat distant from macro-sociology’s more frequent reasoning with respect to presumable robust trends and processes. Max Weber, to be sure, can be interpreted as a theorist of rationalization, can and should be criticized for many of his rather ethnocentric arguments. But, on the other hand, Weber was also the brilliant analyst of power constellations with their oftentimes contingent outcomes, which means that his oeuvre can be used even by those authors who situate themselves within the orbit of post-colonial theorizing. If this is so, then there is indeed some hope that a kind of future convergence is underway between the two different paradigms discussed here. And such a convergence, to be sure, will certainly not hurt sociology as such because the current multi-paradigmatic shape of the discipline is not a good in itself.


Wolfgang Knöbl (Prof. Dr. Sociology) is director of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. He was fellow at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS) and the Max-Weber-Center for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies in Erfurt/Germany. His main research areas are political and historical sociology, social theory, and the history of sociology. Among his main publications are: Die Kontingenz der Moderne. Wege in Europa, Asien und Amerika. Frankfurt/M. and New York 2007: Campus Verlag; Social Theory: Twenty Introductory Lectures (written together with Hans Joas). Cambridge 2009: Cambridge UP; War in Social Thought: Hobbes to the Present (written together with Hans Joas). Princeton 2012: Princeton UP.


Banner Image:  Stylized social network structure, based on free software GUESS diagram (Editor).


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