Review of Laurence Roulleau Berger, Post-Western Revolution in Sociology (Brill, 2016), 235 pages, €104.00
Reviewed by Aurélien Boucher
This book discusses the necessity to revise the paradigms and concepts traditionally used in Sociology. By following Saïd idea, it postulates that Chinese sociologists are victim of an epistemic injustice. The author aims at showing that western ethnocentrism can be overcome by paying more attention to Chinese sociologist’s conceptual inventions and methods. Unfortunately, the cases shown to support this thesis failed at proving the assumption of epistemic injustice, and the revolutionizing characters of Chinese sociologist’s findings. However, this essay is still helpful to understand how the Chinese sociologists are heuristically refining and reusing some of methods and concepts invented on other fieldworks.
Epistemology – Orientalism – Revolution – China
In her 2015 book entitled “De-westernizing Sociology” (Roulleau Berger 2011), Laurence Roulleau Berger expressed the conviction that Sociology should be “de-westernized” and a “post-western” Sociology developed in its stead. The book under review is intended as a further step towards making that conviction a reality.
This second book is, then, indicative of a long-term process of engagement and reflection on this project. Indeed the project seems to have gained in ambition, for the author now calls for a “revolution” in Sociology.
If “de-westernization” means freeing western Sociology from its “western” ethnocentric postulates, “post-western revolution” might indicate an attempt to overthrow the order imposed by westerners. However, the author states that “the construction of a de-centred perspective enables us to gain access to: a plurality of social worlds; a diversity of narratives told by societies about themselves; and the analysis of modes of legitimization and/or disqualification of narratives”(p.2). And “the awareness of hegemonism serves to reveal transnational knowledge spaces in which the diversity of situated knowledge and shared or joint knowledge is rendered visible” (p.x). Given this tempered language, one might well conclude that the real objective is less a revolution in Sociology and a more a qualified “reform” of it. Perhaps the book is more an invitation to establish a dialogue between different forms of geographically-situated sociological production, rather than a complete redefinition of Sociology.
The dialogue is composed of three parts. The first has two first chapters that offer an overview of how “western” theoretical frameworks were re-used and hybridized in China. Adopting a socio-historical perspective, the author shows how Chinese sociologists become “familiar with the various schools of sociology in western Europe and America” (p.27), and then moves on, in chapter 3, to show that Western and Chinese scholars encountered similar challenges during fieldwork.
The second part of the book addresses a range of “classical” sociological topics: Urban Studies (chapter 4), Economic Institutions (chapter 5), Migration, Inequalities and Individuation (chapter 6), State and Social Conflict (chapter 7), and Environmental Risks (chapter 8). The author’s extensive, impressive survey shows that the heuristic aspects of western theory are re-used and hybridized to produce knowledge about Chinese society. This part, like the first part before it, offers an interesting panorama of Chinese researchers, and contributes to their visibility.
The third part of the dialogue is where one would expect the author to excavate and elaborate her overall intellectual project. At this point in the text, the project seems to be one of making sociology post-Western by showing the “continuities and discontinuities of theoretical knowledge”. In particular, chapter 10 “discontinuities of knowledge and singular concept”, purports to prove that Chinese researchers created unique and heuristic concepts that are ignored in Western countries. This is presented as a form of “epistemic injustice” – one which must be presumably overthrown, per the call to revolution in the book’s title.
Unfortunately, this key part falls short. It has inconsistencies and oversights to the point that it potentially undermines the credibility of the whole project of a “post-Western revolution”. More particularly, the author fails to convince that there has been epistemic injustice. Also, her discussion of concepts in Chinese research is too superficial to build a case for how this injustice can be combatted, let alone revolutionized.
One the one hand, Roulleau Berger successfully shows how Chinese researchers re-use and re-adapt some Western concepts. But she does not then go on to elaborate how their findings advance the goal of rethinking so-called Western ethnocentric theories. For example, in Chapter 9, entitled “Continuities of Knowledge and Common Concepts”, the reader is guided to know how Chinese researchers – particularly those concerned with social stratification and mobility – re-use Scott’s concept of “resistance” or Bourdieu’s ideas of “capital” and “reproduction”. However, the discussion is incomplete in that it doesn’t ask why Chinese researchers use the term “resource” (ziyuan) instead of the term of capital (ziben). Likewise, the author misses the opportunity to explain the originality of the concept of “organizational resources” (zuzhi ziyuan), a concept that could potentially be extended to the study of other so-called socialist countries (as Pierre Bourdieu intuited before he fully conceptualized the notion of “political capital”)(Bourdieu 1994: 31-35).
Other Chinese concepts are spoken of but, again, without showing how they are completing or challenging or revisiting western theory. Berger defines “suku” as “the practice of confessing individual suffering in a political context and in a collective public forum.” (p.162). However she fails to note that this concept was invented by researchers at Tsinghua in order to produce a sociology of socialist civilization. Indeed, as Aurore Merle has noted, understanding socialist civilization was the primary aim of Sun Liping and Guo Yuhua who were at that time fiercely fighting against those who wanted to provincialize the production of knowledge by arguing for the unique aspects of Chinese society (Merle 2004 : 1).
With regard to the concept of “Diffused Religion” which was developed and promoted in the U.S in a time during which Sociology was banned in P.R.China, the author seems to ignore that it has been further developed by researchers such as Roberto Cipriani (Cipriani 1984), on his European fieldwork. Moreover, the criticism targeting Durkheimian ideas about religion aren’t specific to China. In France, since the beginning of the 1990s, researchers working on popular religion, such as Isambert considered Durkheimian approaches to religion to be obsolete (Isambert 1992 : 443). From this perspective, the revision of Durkheimian studies of religion does not need to be found in Western ethnocentrism. The model is, itself, flawed enough.
It is also regrettable that the author did not speak of Cai Hua’s study of the Naxi, entitled “A Society Without Fathers and Husbands.” This study challenged Claude Levi-Strauss’s idea that marriage is universal. Cai Hua’s argument have found more success in France (Elisseedd D & Cartier 1998 :48) and in the U.S.A (Blake 2003: 103) than in China (where he was accused of plagiarism), and this is counter to the claim of “epistemic injustice”. But that fact doesn’t undermine that Hua is a highly relevant model of a Chinese researcher challenging social scientific orthodoxy.
Hua is also relevant to the book’s argument in that he was trained in France and acknowledged being inspired by Françoise L’Héritier. This leads one to question if a dichotomy between “Western” and “Chinese” is viable, or if it leads to over-generalization and even, perhaps, essentialism. In fact Cai himself has been quite critical of attempts to “sinicize” social science on the pretext that western theory and methods are not adaptable to China. From this perspective, Cai Hua’s study of the Naxi challenges social science, but without necessarily reinforcing a Western/Chinese dichotomy. As Cai Hua said, the Naxi study invites one to reconsider existing theory, in the same way that any study can challenge that theory. Hua’s epistemology is within social science, not against it.
There are other reasons to doubt the claim of “epistemic injustice” and, accordingly, how innovative Berger’s project of a “post-western sociology” is. Many efforts have been made to promote works of Chinese Sociology in Western countries since the 1980’s. Immediately after the re-establishment of the Sociology department in China, Martin Whyte & Burton Pasternak published an overview of the existing research and researcher in China (Whyte & Pasternak 1980). In their publications, White and Pasternak mentioned the first research done in the 1920-1930s by sociologists such as Fei Xiaotong, Wu Jingchao and Chen Da, three sociologists which are presented as ignored in Western countries by Roulleau-Berger (p.19). In France, in the same city where Roulleau Berger is working today, a thesis was defended in 2008 about the “re-birth of sociology in China” showing that the French, too, gave significant attention to the development of sociology in China (Merle 2008).
The thesis of epistemic injustice is also fragile in that many researchers and their research projects were sustained by the support of Western friend and allies, in the face of China’s prohibitions. These friends are unlikely to appreciate being described as unable to perceive what “is on the other side of the boundaries of knowledge” (p.4). The ban of books on the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, or of concepts such as “totalitarianism” and “authoritarianism” suggest that Chinese sociologists, in their quest for knowledge, are probably more restricted by political control than by their western colleagues.
To conclude, the first two parts of the book offer a helpful survey of Chinese Sociology. However, as most clearly evinced in part three, the myriad elements of the argument do not ultimately convince that a “revolution” in sociology is on its way – which may be seen as unfortunate since, according to Kuhn, the progress of knowledge is tied to shifts at the paradigmatic level.
Blake C.F (2003) A society without Fathers or Husbands: The Na of China (Review). China Review International 10(1) : 103-106
Bourdieu P (1994) Raisons pratiques. Paris : Seuil.
Cipriani R (1984) Religion and Politics. The Italian Case: Diffused Religion. Archives de sciences sociales des religions, 58 (1) : 29-51..
Elisseedd D & Cartier M (1998) Oustide the mainstream: The Na Family structure. China Perspectives (16): 47-49.
Hua C (2001) A society without Fathers and Husbands. New-York : Zone books.
Isambert F-A. (1992). Une religion de l’Homme ? Sur trois interprétations de la religion dans la pensée de Durkheim. Revue Française de Sociologie 33(3) : 443-462.
Merle A (2004) Toward a Chinese Sociology for « Communist Civilization ». China Perspectives (52) : 1-16.
Merle A. (2008) La sociologie chinoise à l’épreuve de la société : du bannissement à la mobilisation : les défis d’une science sociale, PhD thesis, Université Lyon 2, Lyon.
Roulleau Berger L (2011) Désoccidentaliser la sociologie. L’Europe au miroir de la Chine. La Tour D’aigues : Editions de l’Aube.
Whyte MK and Pasternak B (1980) Sociology and Anthropology. In: Thurston A.F and Parker J.F (eds) Humanities and Social Science Research in China: Recent History and Future Prospects. New York : Social Science Research Council, pp. 140-162.
 The first review published on this book in France by Elisseedd and Cartier states that Cai Hua “is right to insist on the theoretical importance of his discovery”.
 As an example in his review, C.Fred Blake says that « Future studies on human social organization will be obliged to take Cai Hua’s work on Na kinship ».
Dr. Aurélien Boucher is currently lecturer at the department of Humanities and Social sciences, Chinese University of Hong-Kong (Shenzhen). His own research deal with the organization of sport elite system in China. After having investigate through archival analysis, participant observation and quantitative methods, the transformation of the everyday life of Chinese athletes in China, he published two articles dealing with social science methodology in China (Histoire Sociale/Social History May 2017) (China Perspectives – forthcoming – December 2018). He is also coordinating the translation of “Sociological Reasoning: a Non-popperian Space of Argumentation” written by Jean-Claude Passeron, from French to Chinese.