Building an Africana Sociology

As a sociologist-in-training and a grad student it is my job to eat, breath, and live sociology, the study of human interaction and social institutions. I spend most of my week either reading sociological pieces, listening to lectures and talks, or participating in class discussions with faculty and fellow students. Through all this we are supposed to be thoroughly indoctrinated in the sociological imagination which is the ability to see the connections between the macro and the micro, the individual and society. We assume that this imagination is universal and abiding and that terms such as society, institutions, the state, and others are also universal. What I have come to realize over time is that what I am really learning in graduate school is a European sociology and an European sociological imagination. As a person of African descent this sociology is stifling and at time hostile to my mind and humanity.

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There are some authors who have highlighted how sociology and other social sciences are rooted in the experiences of European people. This rootedness is problematic on its own but becomes deadly when we add in the experience of Europeans included eradicating Native Americans, enslaving Africans, dominating and colonizing Africa, Asia, and South America. These experiences of oppression have defined how we today understand the social world around us, which sadly is still dominated by white privilege and supremacy. Examples of work that shows us this picture of an oppressive European sociology is Thicker Than Blood by Tukufu Zuberi which highlights how social statistics are based on racist ideologies and White Logic, White Methods joining Zuberi with Eduardo Bonilla- Silva which takes a broader view of racist sociological methods. An old favorite written right when African-Americans were being first let into the university, The Death of White Sociology edited by Joyce Lander, shows how white supremacy entrenched itself not only in the structure of discipline but also the research and teaching of sociology. Through these works and a number of others we see how sociology is not neutral and privileges the perspectives of European people.

Above is the type of speech that you may hear from anyone that calls themselves a “critical” scholar of any kind. They fully understand that the social sciences are very much a colonized space and they all have racism aplenty. Their prescription is for scholars to undertake the process of decolonizing sociology and other social sciences. Anthropology, being in the past one of the worse perpetrators of Eurocentric science, is today at the forefront of decolonization through journals such as the Association of Black Anthropologists’ Transforming Anthropology and Decolonizing Anthropology: An Anthropology for Liberation edited by Faye Harrison. This decolonization is supposed to rid the social sciences of ideologies, practices, and biases that hinder an honest and objective understanding of any and all things that involve people of color and at the same time open up the work of the social sciences more fully to people of color. Although these goals are good, they are also only a partial solution to the problems of Eurocentric sociology.

In order to see how much deeper the problems created by Eurocentric sociology go we have to think back to the roots of social sciences. Most of the social sciences we know of today were born out of the European Enlightenment with the goal of understand human social behavior to quell social conflict. Later with the rising importance of the scientific method as a basis of doing all science the idea of doing science for social change was repressed and positivist perspectives on understanding social science took over. Because many of these disciplines were founded with this goal in mind there are themes and assumptions about human behavior that have become embedded in how we study the social world that are wholly alien to anyone that is not European. A list of these ideas could include:

  • Positivism
  • Materialism
  • A concept of “society” as a distinct entity from nature
  • Humans are inherently hedonistic or self-interested
  • The social contract

All of the above sociological/ social science concepts are concepts that are of European origin and are embedded in the European worldview. As an African who is seeking to understand the social world I have been born into as well as make it more hospitable for my people knowing that how I do my science is rooted in an exclusively European experience is very disturbing. It reminds me that all the perspectives and imaginations created by countless other societies, including my people’s, are systematically ignored and/or destroyed by the hegemony of European science. This is where decolonization often fails. It rids us of the racism of the European perspective but not of its basic worldview which is hidden in a cloud of objectivity. We need to move beyond a decolonization focused on grafting oppressed stories, ideas, and authors onto the dominate form of science and towards a decolonization that constructs alternate forms of science and inquiry, all coexisting, that draw on the worldviews of other peoples. In other words for my people we need an Africana Sociology.

What would an Africana Sociology look like? I have not had the time to do a ton of groundwork on this particular question but I give you an example of how valid sociological inquiry can be done without being anchored to the terms and worldview of European sociology. Let’s say we are doing a study where we would like to understand why race riots or race rebellions happen in general. For most of the mainstream sociological community any theory of race riots will be rooted in conflict theory or Marxist sociological thought. The theory will likely organize a narrative of white capitalist oppression through the police of poor black and brown neighborhoods which eventually reached a breaking point resulting in riots/ rebellions. Inherent in this narrative are ideas such as society and history being the story of conflict for resources and power among classes and that society then is always unbalanced with the dominate class trying to create a balance that secures their supremacy over society.

How would Africana Sociology approach this same question differently? If we draw on the philosophical and what can be understood as social theories of ancient Africans we will see a very different picture of race riots from what we see in the European context. African philosophies such as those of Egypt understood society as inseparable from nature and spiritual world/ world of ideas. The concept of Maat represented the connectedness of everything to everything (this idea is referenced in Lauryn Hill’s “Everything is Everything” a saying that sums up the Egyptian conception of creation) and how the natural state of the universe is balance. Isfet is the counterpart of Maat, which is imbalance, chaos, and evil. Racial domination in urban cities in the United States represents an immense destruction of Maat, creating inequality and Isfet. When this oppression and inequality reaches a tipping point where there is a severe lack of Maat people revolt and social change happens to restore Maat. Human history is here seen as the balancing and unbalancing of the world with balance being the natural state. Racial stratification which citing Douglass Massey’s Categorically Unequal entails the extraction of resources of an oppressed people and the hording of opportunities from those same people inevitably leads to contradictions and a rise in Isfet.

What we see here is that one can still collect data on social phenomenon, analyze it, and come to conclusions that are valid and useful to us as observers/participants of human society without being anchored to Eurocentric worldviews. If you think about it, sociology if it were born out of an ancient Egyptian/ African worldview would likely be called Maat/Isfet Studies versus Sociology which has its roots in Latin and Greek linguistics. It begs the question of how other social problems or processes would look though this African lens.

To conclude there are many more discussion to be had on this topic. We are seeing today coming out of Feminist, Black Feminist, Native American/First Nations, and other spaces forms of science not anchored to the Eurocentric, Patriarchal, Capitalist social sciences most of us have rooted ourselves in. Know this means that there can be a dialogue about how to create an more pluralistic scientific community free from both oppression and full of diversity of human imagination. For African social scientists in particular, one of the few peoples of the Earth almost completely stripped of all agency, history, and sense of self, we must do our part to contribute to this pluralistic social science world by reaching back into our legacy and reconnect to our African worldviews and bring them with us as we build a new understanding of our social world rooted in our rich perspectives and realities.

Is there space for non-European theories/practices of science? What can we do concretely to create spaces for these to emerge? What concepts would be included in an Africana Sociological Methodology or Imagination?

William Richardson is a 2nd year MA student in Sociology at the University at Buffalo (Department of Sociology. He is currently writing his Master’s thesis on how communities racially essencialize space and its contributes to continued residential segregation. Outside that he has interests in race/racism, intersectional stratification systems, and the integration of language into systems of domination.


Categories: Committing Sociology

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  1. There is a long tradition of black sociologists whose work implicitly and explicitly take up the issues you’ve outlined; W.E.B. DuBois, Anna Julia Cooper, Oliver Cromwell Cox, and Charles S. Johnson are just a few. If you’re interested in readings that provide context for the relationship between scholars of African descent and the social sciences, try Black Scholars on the Line (Holloway & Keppel 2007) and African American Pioneers of Sociology (Saint Arnaud 2009). Also, several works in African Diaspora studies have developed a strong line for understanding cultural and social processes among African descendants.

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