Review: Global Knowledge Production in the Social Sciences. Made in Circulation

Global-Knowledge-ProductionGlobal Knowledge Production in the Social Sciences. Made in Circulation.

Wiebke Keim, Ercüment Çelic, Christian Ersche, Veronika Wöhrer (Eds.).

University of Freiburg, Germany. Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Reviewed by Felipe Lagos, PhD (c) in Sociology

Goldsmiths College, University of London

Despite the success of the intellectual wave known as the ‘postcolonial turn’, or rather precisely because of its achievements, the question of how it is possible to go on making social sciences within an epistemological context in which those historical assumptions carried by modern scientific traditions have been challenged remains highly problematic. Rather, it seems like both postcolonial and social science scholars have opted for separating off waters in order to defend one of those sides’ values and practices. Few exceptions can be recalled into this picture, and the volume Global Knowledge Production in the Social Sciences. Made in Circulation is a refreshing and indeed necessary approach whose aim is precisely to build bridges for such an intellectual gap.

Global Knowledge Production is the output of the project “Universality and Acceptance Potential of Social Sciences Knowledges: On the Circulation of Knowledge between Europe and the Global South”, carried out between 2010 and 2014 and headed by the editors of the volume. The project’s main question was formulated in the following terms: “To what extent can social science knowledge become universal, or in other words, how should we assess the acceptance potential of different social theories beyond their relative context of origin? The delimitation of this field of tensions allows the editors, together with a vast number of collaborators, to reflect critically on the relationships between Europe and the ‘global South’ (understood as both a geographic and geopolitical category), as this relationship has been mirrored within and by the social sciences.

One of the main challenges carried by this field of tensions rests upon the engagement between modernity and social sciences (sociology in particular), as Gurminder Bhambra indicates in the volume (Chapter 12) and elsewhere (2009). From a postcolonial perspective, what is at odds in the idea of modernity hold by canonical social sciences lies in its Eurocentrism, that is, in the all-too-historically and geographically situated notion of ‘universality’ brought about by those scientific traditions. Yet this problematic does not bear a solution on its own. As Michael Burrawoy points out in the “Prologue” to this volume, to handily get rid of universalism runs the risk of falling in a plethora of particularisms (xvi). The works included in the book are well informed of such a danger; in fact, most of them opt for thinking beyond the binary opposition of universal and particular, searching instead for re-creating transnational perspectives which help rethink universal truths and values. In doing so, they crucially address those values to new grounds and expand their scope.

Throughout the book’s pages, the notion of ‘circulation’ reaches centrality so as to bring to the fore the fact that social knowledge is, and has indeed always been, made in and through worldly exchanges, displacements and transferences. Nonetheless, as Wiebke Keim correctly stresses, the terminology that deals with circulation has just recently arrived to social sciences, sociology of knowledge or history of sciences (88), and therefore theoretical work remains to be done in order to reach a proper conceptual framework for grasping the matter. The declared focus of the volume lies thus in the circulation of knowledge – of theories, concepts, methodologies, paradigms, and so on – across places that occupy different and unequal positions within the international scholarly community (2). Hence the following statement, which can be read as the core hypothesis of the book: “knowledge does not only circulate, but is also produced in circulation” (5). This formulation might be linked with Marx’s (1973) conception of the interweaving of production and circulation under the capitalist mode of production; however, it is something that none of the authors refers to.

In Chapter 4, entitled “Conceptualizing Circulation of Knowledge in the Social Sciences”, Wiebke Keim offers a useful analytical approach to start thinking circulation in new terms. On the one hand, she explains the ‘diffusionist’ model of knowledge production and distribution, that is, the customary approach to the issue. This diffusionist model implies the belief that what we know as ‘modern science’ is a Western-endogenous creation; conversely, the rest of the world appears to this Eurocentric perspective like mere producers of data – archives, ‘culture’, statistics, or natural (re)sources. Western knowledge would be exported to those ‘backward’ contexts – read ‘academic cultures’ –, in what constitutes the uneven development of the ‘import-export’ global structure of knowledge production (87-8). On the other hand, by settling accounts with this model, Keim proposes a conceptual typology of knowledge circulation based on the distinction between centres and peripheries in the international social sciences’ structure. The typological criteria are: material and institutional development/underdevelopment of the social sciences; autonomous/dependant conditions of existence and production; and central/marginal place in the international symbolic hierarchy of recognition and prestige (93-4).

The types of knowledge circulation accounted by Keim are reception, exchange, and the negotiation of theory and practice. Among them, the latter seems to be a particularly useful frame to rethink dynamics of interchanging between academic and extra-academic actors, in what constitutes a specific type of knowledge exchange beyond specialised institutions. Through negotiated circulation, what is brought to the fore is the question of ‘social relevance’ for sociology and social sciences, something particularly relevant in peripheral contexts – as the author herself has stressed in previous works (2008).

Along with the former hypothesis on the making in circulation of knowledge, two further standpoints are explicitly or implicitly hold by most of the volume’s authors. First, there is the inadequacy of the nation state as central unity of analysis for comprehending knowledge production. In addition, there is the need to go beyond epistemological criticism in order to address concrete examples of the making in circulation for social sciences. The latter task is undertaken by chapters 2 and 3 in the first part of the volume, and by the whole second part. From these, particularly suggestive is Eduardo Devés-Valdés’ “Networks of Peripheral Intellectuals from 1920 to 1940: an attempt to map networks and construct a theoretical approach”, a survey on seven intellectual milieus emerged from peripheral regions along with their eventual connections and exchanges during this period. These instances are the Hispanic-American, the Islamic, the Sub-Saharian African and Afro-descendants, the second generation of Pan-Arabism, the Indian subcontinent, the Slavic-Balkan-Eurasian, and the Indonesian, each of them bearing its own organisational stories and intellectual arrangements.

Although the characterisation of those discrete intellectual networks is unequally developed throughout the chapter, the commitment shared by a myriad of peripheral intellectuals to engage in theoretical and practical forms of internationalism becomes evident. In this account, the most important crossing points of these networks were the Anti Imperialist Leagues, with the 1927 Brussels meeting as milestone in this respect. Other crucial organisations which brought together such efforts were the COMINTERN and the Prague-Vienna Circle; and some of the circulating means for those networks’ outcomes were journals such as Al Manar (Cairo, 1898-1935) and Repertorio Americano (San José, 1919-1958). The author concludes that “the socialist anti-imperialist thought is the first eidetic system allowing an envisioning of global intellectual and political networks” (132). What is yet to be done, however, is to accomplish the building of a theoretical approach on these matters, as it is promised in the chapter’s title.

A more contemporary account of intellectuals in peripheral conditions is set out by Nour Dados and Raewyn Connell in chapter 10, “Neoliberalism, Intellectuals and Southern Theory”. The authors make here the case for a new understanding of peripheral knowledge production, given the fact that what seems to be the ‘application’ of general (universal) concepts turns sometimes out to be a renewed approach of the phenomenon under scrutiny. This is the case of some works on neoliberalism undertaken by peripheral intellectuals: insofar as “intellectuals in the periphery have a different relationship to actually existing configurations of global power” (202), they do not merely repeat Northern ideas and categories. Egyptian sociologist and economist Samir Amin’s (1974) early understanding of Marx’s notion of ‘primitive accumulation’ is an instance of such shifting understanding; for whereas orthodox versions of Marxism considered primitive accumulation as being located at the pre-history of capitalism (and not as a constituent part of it), Amin envisaged a world-scale centre/peripheries structure where the former is ‘restructured’ while the latter are ‘adjusted’ – for instance, through ‘primitive’ accumulation of natural resources, living labour and/or social knowledge. Brazilian sociologist Armando Boito offers another case to the account. Entertaining the paradox of an economic order which at once gains widespread consent and increases social inequality, his research on class analysis in neoliberal Brazil highlights the fact that neoliberalism does not lack an active political dimension but, on the contrary, in Latin America is gripped on the political system from the outset.

The final is, conceptually speaking, the most stimulating part of the book. Boike Rehbein’s “Epistemology in a Multicentric World” (Chapter 11) addresses the knotty issue of universalism by means of a controversial non-postcolonial perspective, something that sets him in explicit dialogue with Gurminder Bhambra’s Chapter 12, “Towards a Postcolonial Global Sociology”. While acknowledging that the rise of the ‘global South’ has challenged epistemological universalism and Eurocentric perspectives, Rehbein declares nonetheless this is not a postcolonial situation any longer, for “peripheries have entered the centres (and vice versa), while dominant and dominated are not homogeneous groups” (217). The latter is his main criticism on postcolonial’s somehow fixed binary oppositions. Rehbein conceives “kaleidoscopic dialectic” (219) as an understanding of knowledge in terms of an open-ended process, which by means of learning from other realities, languages, customs and knowledges, constantly remains critical to its former presupposition. In doing so, social sciences are able to learn from non-European approaches to truth and societal organisation. Yet, as the author correctly recognises, an alternative epistemology cannot solve the structural symbolic violence displayed among worldviews and forms of knowledge by itself; therefore, any dialectical hermeneutic needs to be combined with a critical theory of society and power.

From a postcolonial standpoint, Bhambra looks in turn into the historical commitments between sociology and modernity. She shows that what Keim called ‘diffusionist’ model of knowledge circulation is something attached to the very idea of modernity, as an allegedly Western-endogenous product spread later on over the rest of the world in diverse doses and with dissimilar rates of success. On the contrary, and as her own previous work (2009) suggests, modernity is not an isolated phenomenon which comes out of nowhere but rather the product of powerful world-connections – such as the Renaissance and the influx of Middle- and Far-East knowledge and circulating goods, or the participation of black slavery in the growing wealth of the West. The concomitant processes of cotton production in slave plantations and the birth of the Industrial Revolution in the textile industries of England is an enormously powerful example about those connected histories which make modernity a phenomenon intimately engaged with coloniality.

Therefore, the conflation of Europe and modernity remains a misleading assumption in sociology, something which Bhambra considers has not been adequately addressed by contemporary attempts to build theories of ‘multiple modernities’, ‘global multicultural sociology’ or ‘global cosmopolitanism’. All those approaches still remain trapped into the idea of an ‘original’ modernity, that of the West; whereas other ‘alternative’ modernities seem ready to be added up, by contrast or supplement, into the global picture. In conceiving so, it seems to be possible to discuss present implications of sociological theorising without confronting past legacies of colonialism. Bhambra strongly rejects both the standpoint and conclusion of such approaches, and her main argument holds that sociology must reconstruct its own historicity in order to better understand present global conditions. Arguments against Eurocentrism, Bhambra concludes, are not simply normative but points to “the adequacy of the historical understanding that underpin our conceptual constructions” (231).

Martin Savransky’s “In Praise of Hesitation: ‘Global’ Knowledge as a Cosmopolitical Adventure”, the final chapter, is a more radical attempt to mobilise the problematic addressed through the volume. The kind of hesitation the author introduces in the title refers to the capacity of social science for interrogating the adequacy and expertises of its own concepts, tools and presuppositions, whenever it faces disquieting events or ways of reasoning and knowing. When dealing with hesitations, he argues, social science rapidly replaces them by ‘interpretations’. Conversely, what critiques of Eurocentrism share with their Eurocentric opponents lies in what Whitehead (1920) called the ‘bifurcation of nature’ – namely, the rigid distinction between representation and reality, epistemology and ontology – as the cornerstone of modern metaphysics. On the basis of this metaphysics rests the idea of knowledge as ‘representation’ of reality; instead, the author proposes a conception of knowledge as actual practice, a specific type of practice which participates in its own right of the world’s becoming, that is, in the opening up and closing off of worldly realities and possibilities. In consequence, what the experience of hesitation may offer to social science is to take the worlds entangled to ‘other’ knowledges seriously, not from the pure realm of representations, since “no mode of thought can be dissociated from the modes of existence to which it relates”; therefore, “any politics of knowledge involves a politics of reality” (240, original emphasis).

Under this frame, the progressive articulation of a ‘global’ social science cannot be reduced to an epistemological (read cultural) problem of diversity. The latter would imply that the world ‘they’ (the ‘others’) represent in a different fashion than ‘we’ (Westerns or Western-trained) could be easily embraceable as part of ‘the same’ world which we already know what is made of. What the author refers to as hesitation is, in consequence, the very questioning of such an assumption (one world, many knowledges), something which in turn could open up the possibility for other worlds (and their constitutive understandings) to be brought to the forefront of social sciences. Hence the call for a ‘cosmopolitics’ committed to a politics of reality implies to entertain the question of ‘how to exist together’ posited by other modes of habitation, different from Western traditions. In order to achieve so, Savransky argues that what is required is not an overarching general theory but rather piecemeal transitions, experimentations and practical risks derived from hesitations. The assumption of ‘many knowledges, one single world’ then turns into the question of how many worlds are contained in and carried through diverse representations, which modes of worlds’ unification they make possible or prevent, and with what consequences.

Despite leaving some topics underdeveloped, Global Knowledge Production is a remarkable collective endeavor coming to refresh and stimulate the dialogue between social sciences and contemporary perspectives on knowledge production such as science history, sociology of knowledge and postcolonial studies. As the same editors recognise in the “Conclusion”, the need to move towards non-hegemonic forms of cooperation between academic realms and forms of knowledge is a practical-material as well as an intellectual task, and no success can be achieved without relentless criticisms on inhered spurious certainties. The volume’s goal (and its strongest achievement) dwells, in any case, in the opening up of a debate rather than the offering of conclusive solutions. That is precisely the value of Global Knowledge Production, a venture which should be taken seriously in its questionings, extending and delving deeper by social scientists.

Further Readings

Amin, Samir (1974) Accumulation on a World Scale: A Critique of the Theory of Underdevelopment; translated [from the French] by Brian Pearce. Hassocks: Harvester Press.

Bhambra, Gurminder (2009) Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Keim, Wiebke (2008) “Social sciences internationally – the problem of marginalisation and its consequences for the discipline of sociology”, in: African Sociological Review 12 (2): 22-48.

Marx, Karl (1973) Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (rough draft); translated with a foreword by Martin Nicolaus. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review  

Whitehead, Alfred North (1920) The Concept of Nature: Tarner Lectures delivered in Trinity College [Cambridge], November 1919. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Readers may also be interested in the Theory, Culture & Society Special Issue on “Problematizing Global Knowledge” (May 2006; 23.2-3), Edited by: Mike Featherstone, Couze Venn, Ryan Bishop and John Phillips.