Rethinking the Teaching of Sociology in the Context of Eurocentrism

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Syed Farid Alatas Department of Sociology
National University of Singapore
February 2005

Si les textes de critique et de résistance aux diverses formes de colonialisme et de néocolonialisme fournissent à la réflexion une matière abondante du point de vue économique, social et politique, il est plus rare d’en trouver qui s’attaquent à la dimension culturelle -idéologique, dirait-on auparavant- de la domination occidentale sur le Tiers-monde. L’article publié en février 2005 dans le numéro 173/174 du mensuel Resurgence (Third World Network) par Syed Farid Alatas, professeur au département de sociologie de l’Université nationale de Singapour (Malaisie), est de ceux-là, assez rares pour mériter une large diffusion. C’est pourquoi le Gresea a jugé utile et nécessaire de le traduire en français. (Titre Titre Morceau de papier qui représente un avoir, soit de propriété (actions), soit de créance à long terme (obligations) ; le titre est échangeable sur un marché financier, comme une Bourse, à un cours boursier déterminé par l’offre et la demande ; il donne droit à un revenu (dividende ou intérêt).
(en anglais : financial security)
original : "Eurocentrism and the need to rethink the teaching of the social sciences", téléchargeable ici.)

Eurocentrism in the Sociology Curricula

A survey of course syllabi for the history of sociological theory as well sociological theory will reveal a number of characteristics of Eurocentrism. These are the subject-object dichotomy, Europeans in the foreground, Europeans as originators, and the dominance of European categories and concepts.

In most sociological theory textbook or writings on the history of social theory, the subject-object dichotomy is a dominant, albeit unarticulated principle of organization. Europeans are the ones that do the thinking and writing, they are the social theorists and social thinkers, what we might call the knowing subject. If at all non-Europeans appear in the texts they are objects of study of the European theorists featured and not as knowing subjects, that is, as sources of sociological theories and ideas. If we take the nineteenth century as an example, the impression is given during the period that Europeans such as Marx, Weber and Durkheim were thinking about the nature of society and its development, there were no thinkers in Asia and Africa doing the same. Therefore, the only non-Euroepans that appear in these works are those usually nameless ones, anonymous ones mentioned or referred to by the European thinkers whose ideas are being discussed.

The absence of non-European thinkers in these accounts is particularly glaring in cases where non-Europeans had actually influenced the development of social thought. Typically, a history of social thought text or a course on social thought and theory would cover theorists such as Montesquieu, Vico, Comte, Spencer, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Toennies, Sombart, Mannheim, Pareto, Sumner, Ward , Small, and others. Generally, non-Western thinkers are excluded. Even when they are, they tend to be cited out of historical interest rather than as sources of ideas. For example, Ibn Khaldun is occasionally referred to in histories of social thought but is rarely seen as a source of relevant sociological theories and concepts. He is merely regarded as a precursor or proto-sociologist.

What the subject-object dichotomy does is to place Europeans and later, North American scholars in the foreground in the social sciences. One interesting exception, as far as sociology is concerned, is the work of Becker and Barnes in their Social Thought from Lore to Science. This was first published in 1938 and contains many pages discussing the ideas of Ibn Khaldun (Becker & Barnes, 1961, vol I : 266-279). They say that the first writer after Polybius to apply modern-like ideas in historical sociology was not a European but Ibn Khaldun (Becker & Barnes, 1961, vol I : 266). A few scholars like Becker and Barnes in the nineteenth and early twentieth century were responsible for making Ibn Khaldun known in the West. Becker and Barnes also discussed the influence of Ibn Khaldun’s ideas on some European thinkers. Although these influences have been recognised in some early until today they are hardly discussed in mainstream sociological theory textbooks and courses.

The consequence of this is that the West, particularly the Americans, British, French and Germans, are seen as the sole originators of ideas in the social sciences. The question of the multicultural origins of the social sciences is not raised. Many social thinkers from India, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia during the nineteenth and early twentieth century who were contemporaneous with Marx, Weber and Durkheim are either only briefly mentioned in works on the history of sociology or totally ignored. Examples of such thinkers are José Rizal (Philippines, 1861-1896), Benoy Kumar Sarkar (India, 1887-1949), and Yanagita, Kunio (Japan,1875-1962).

A more serious consequence of all of this is that what dominates in the social sciences are theories, concepts and categories in social sciences that were developed in Europe and North America. This domination has been at the expense of non-European ideas and concepts. Taking religion as an example, it is astonishing to me that the social scientific study of religion does not take into account the conceptual vocabulary of the various religions in its presentation of concepts. Rather it draws for its concepts almost exclusively from the Christian Western tradition with the belief that these concepts are of universal value. While that may be true, it is equally true that the concepts of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism have the same potential to be universalized.

Reversing Eurocentrism via Teaching in the Social Sciences

Clearly, the task for those concerned with the problem of the neglect of ideas emanating from non-Western societies, and for those concerned with a more universalistic approach to knowledge, is to counteract Eurocentrism in the social sciences by reversing the subject –object dichotomy, bringing in non-Europeans into the foreground, recognizing non-Europeans as originators, and turning attention to the non-European concepts and categories. This should be done not with the idea of displacing modern social science but to truly universalize. The task should not be to develop a social scientific tradition that is equally parochial as the one being critiqued here. I propose that counteracting Eurocentrism can be carried out at a number of levels of social science activities. Using the example of Ibn Khaldun, I would like to suggest how this can be done.

One level is that of metatheory, the study of the underlying structure of theory. The study of the underlying structure of theory would include an examination of its methodological and logical underpinnings. Such studies are necessary if the contributions of a particular scholar are to be kept alive and regarded as relevant. Ibn Khaldun’s theory of state formation must continuously be discussed in terms of its method, its logical underpinnings, and the social context in which it emerged.

Apart from that, there has to be more theoretical work undertaken. These works have to be more than descriptive. There are many works that describe Ibn Khaldun’s theory, But there has been a negligible amount of theory building that would result in what we may call neo-Khaldunian social theory, that is, work that goes beyond the mere comparison of some ideas and concepts in ibn Khaldun with those of Western theorists toward the theoretical integration of his theory into a framework that employs some of the tools of modern social science. (Laroui, 1980 ; Gellner, 1981 ; Michaud, 1981 ; Lacoste, 1984 ; Carre, 1988 ; Alatas, 1993). The stress here should be on drawing upon hitherto marginalized and untapped sources of knowledge.

There also has to be critical assessments of existing attempts to generate alternatives or counter-Eurocentric discourse. For example, Gellner attempted to take non-European ideas seriously by building a theory of Muslim reform based on a fusion Fusion Opération consistant à mettre ensemble deux firmes de sorte qu’elles n’en forment plus qu’une.
(en anglais : merger)
of the ideas of Ibn Khaldun and David Hume. This was not taken up and gone into by others.

Essential to counteracting Eurocentric discourse is bringing in non-European ideas into teaching in mainstream social science courses and into mainstream social science textbooks. Due to the relatively greater autonomy that university teachers have, as compared to teachers in the schools, we would be able to inject more non-European content into the courses that we teach. There is no reason why social thinkers such as Rizal, Sarkar and Yanagita cannot be introduced into course of social thought and theory, for example. This is something that I and a colleague at the National University of Singapore, Vineeta Sinha, have been doing for some years. We departed from the conventional classical sociological theory course that is usually confined to teaching Comte, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, de Tocqueville and other Europeans of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. We introduced Ibn Khaldun, Jose Rizal, Sarkar and other non-Western social thinkers and teach their ideas systematically. At the same time, we do not neglect Western thinkers. Still, when it comes to Western thinkers such as Marx and Weber, the focus is on those topics generally neglected in similar course taught in Europe and North America, such as Marx’s concept of the Asiatic mode of production, his views on colonialism in India or Weber’s work on Islam and Confucianism. The details of how the course was revamped were reported in the journal, Teaching Sociology (Alatas and Sinha, 2001).

Counteracting Eurocentrism in the social sciences also requires our being active in terms of popularizing non-European ideas by regularly organizing panels or presenting papers on these ideas or their founders at mainstream social science conferences. This is a matter of organization and funding but also requires a lot of will on our part.

Finally, I would like to suggest that we ought to spread awareness of the need for alternative, counter-Eurocentric discourses in the social sciences by simply making it a point to cite the works of like-minded scholars around the world. This would increase the visibility of the more universal perspectives in the social sciences.


Alatas, Syed Farid. 1993. “A Khaldunian Perspective on the Dynamics of Asiatic Societies”, Comparative Civilizations Review 29 : 29-51.
Alatas, Syed Farid & Vineeta Sinha. 2001. “Teaching Classical Sociological Theory in Singapore : The Context of Eurocentrism, Teaching Sociology 29, 3 : 316-331.
Becker, Howard & Barnes, Harry Elmer. 1961. Social Thought from Lore to Science, 3 Vols., New York : Dover Publications.
Carre, Olivier. 1988. “A propos de vues Neo-Khalduniennes sur quelques systemes politiques Arabes actueles”, Arabica 35(3) : 368-87.
Gellner, Ernest. 1981. Muslim Society, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
Lacoste, Yves (1984) Ibn Khaldun : The Birth of History and the Past of the Third World, London : Verso.
Laroui, Abdallah (1987) Islam et modernité, Paris : Éditions la Découverte.
Michaud, Gerard. 1981. “Caste, confession et societe en Syrie : Ibn Khaldoun au chevet du ‘Progessisme Arabe’”, Peuples Mediterraneens 16 : 119-30.