Interview with Gurminder Bhambra on Colonialism, Empire and Slavery

Photo: Gurminder K. Bhambra
Gurminder Bhambra speaks to Simon Dawes about the forthcoming conference, ‘Rethinking the Modern: Colonialism, Empire and Slavery’.
Read more to find out about the continued significance of imperialism, the importance of the idea of ‘connections’, and how to submit an abstract of your own.

Simon Dawes: Could you start by telling us about the organisation of the ‘Rethinking the Modern: Colonialism, Empire and Slavery’ conference that you’re co-convening? Who are the other organisers and who is likely to be giving papers?
Gurminder Bhambra: The idea for the Rethinking the Modern conference arose out of discussions held with colleagues involved in an ESRC-funded Network I convene on ‘Connected Histories, Connected Sociologies: Rethinking the Global’ (see: This Network brings together early career scholars including PhD students and postdoctoral fellows from across a range of disciplines – namely Sociology, History, Politics and International Relations, Literature, and Geography – and addresses a specific research problem – that of global interconnections – in light of postcolonial critiques of the ‘Eurocentrism’ of dominant approaches. The activities of the Network have included two workshops organised on ‘Translation and Interdisciplinarity’ and ‘International Interconnectedness’ and the conference is the culmination of 18 months of activity around these themes. Along with the members of the Network, Lucy Mayblin, Robbie Shilliam, Ipek Demir, Rolando Vazquez, Soren Rud and Ozan Zeybek, colleagues Vicky Margree, Peo Hansen, Stefan Jonsson, and Gary Hazeldine are also involved. They all bring specific expertise and research interests, as expressed in the substance of the conference streams they are coordinating, as well as a common engagement around the address of the broader questions that the conference is seeking to address.
We are already beginning to receive a significant number of abstracts from scholars across all disciplines and from all around the world. We worked hard to get the call for papers out as globally as possible and we’re really pleased with the response so far. The deadline for the submission of abstracts is February 25th and so there is still time to get an abstract in!
SD: The focus of the conference is on tackling head-on recent attempts to revise the significance of colonialism. Could you tell us about these attempts? What particular strands of thought or disciplines do you have in your sights? Are there any particular authors that you’re taking issue with?
GB: The conference is posed as an interdisciplinary and international examination of the place of colonialism, empire and slavery in contemporary understandings of the ‘modern’. In some disciplines, particularly in the Humanities, the colonial critique has made real headway, for example, in Atlantic Studies in History, English Literature, and Anthropology. The reception of the critique, however, has been unevenly distributed with some disciplines, particularly in the social sciences being more resistant to the arguments being made. Even where the critique has made headway, however, there are attempts to recuperate the challenges that have been put forward. In part, the conference is a response to these general shifts in academic culture as well as to local arguments, here in the UK. Over the last year or so, a number of academics and politicians have begun to suggest that postcolonial histories should be displaced in favour of celebratory narratives of ‘how Britain made the modern world’ or then ignored in favour of a focus on ‘our island story’. There is also concern that too much time has been spent ‘apologising’ for empire and what is needed now is a return to examining what it is that empire and slavery contributed to the modern world, such that aspects of colonialism could be recycled today as a means of ‘governance’ in the world’s trouble spots, such as Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia. Many others, however, would be surprised to hear such arguments because, in spite of calls for an apology, these have rarely been forthcoming and do not, for the most part, constitute any significant aspect of scholarship either. In fact, what is more common is for colonialism, empire and slavery to be displaced from narratives about the emergence of the modern. While there are particular scholars associated with these arguments, our concern is not with their work as individuals, but rather the general trend towards the silencing of histories that do not fit the prescribed grand narratives based on an idea of European exceptionalism. The idea of ‘the miracle of Europe’ might have lost ground, but what hasn’t lost ground is the idea of the miracle in Europe (that something specific occurred in Europe that requires explanation) and it is this exclusive focus on Europe as the ground of all that is innovative and modern that we seek to challenge in this conference.
SD: In what ways do you (and the other convenors of the conference) think that imperialism, colonialism and slavery continue to shape the contemporary world, and in what ways do they continue to be problematic?
GB: As Siba Grovogui argues, even where the processes of decolonization and liberation have transferred political power to the formerly colonized, the institutional, economic, and cultural contexts of Western hegemony have largely remained in place. This can be seen in part in the way the modern West deals with its religious and ethnic minorities – postcolonial minorities that exist as a consequence of colonial histories. It is not so easy to overcome the institutionalised hierarchies of five hundred years of systematised discrimination on a global scale. Independence does not equate to justice, nor emancipation to equality. The dismantling of colonial structures based on systems of imperialism and slavery is an urgent and ongoing task. Alongside this, we also need to be cognisant of the new imperialisms underway by formerly colonised countries; for example, addressing the role that the rising powers of China and India are playing in Africa and Latin America.
SD: Have there been any recent attempts to approach these issues from new theoretical perspectives, without falling into the trap of relativising them?
GB: I must take issue with the idea of the ‘trap’ being that of the relativism, rather than that of the false ‘universalism’ of old perspectives!  Moreover, if we now understand dominant approaches as Eurocentric it is in large part because of new voices emerging in wider political arenas and in the academy itself. The end of colonialism as an explicit political formation has given rise to understandings of postcoloniality and, perhaps ironically, an increased recognition of the role that colonialism played in the formation of modernity. The point, however, is not simply that different people(s) have different perspectives, but that these different perspectives also provide the basis for the systematic reconsideration of Eurocentric grand narratives. The postmodern turn was primarily about deconstruction. We would argue that after deconstruction there is the necessity of a decolonial reconstruction – one which we might add has a history prior to postmodernism and is part of a process of resistance to five hundred years of colonialism. One basis of reconstruction would be to shift, methodologically, from a focus on comparative history and sociology to a focus on connected histories and sociologies. This latter does not derive from a singular standpoint, be that a universal standpoint – which many theorists have demonstrated as being a particular standpoint linked to colonialism – or a standpoint of the generalized subaltern. To give up such positions, however, is neither to lapse into relativism nor into political impasse. Rather, it is to recognize that politics and intellectual engagement will always take place at specific ‘moments’; these ‘moments’ are open to systematic and rigorous reflection in terms of the connections they reveal. Further, as ’moments’, they are occasions where there will be different voices and dialogues, none of which need be privileged as a pre-condition of understanding or of progressive politics. Connected sociologies must operate from all directions across times and places in their construction and reconstruction of sociology’s objects, relations, and identities. The emphasis of the Network has been on connections precisely to address the issue of how connections newly found in the present often also require us to rethink the connections assumed in the past.
Gurminder K. Bhambra is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick, UK, and convenor of the British Sociological Association’s Theory Study Group. She co-organized the re-launch conference, 1968: Impact and Implications, held in 2008 in collaboration with the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research.

Simon Dawes is the Editor of the TCS Website, and Editorial Assistant of Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society.

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