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Alatas Teaching Social Theory as Alternative Discourse

Alatas Teaching Social Theory as Alternative Discourse

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november 12, 2011 vol xlvi no 46
Economic & Political
Teaching Social Theory as Alternative Discourse
Syed Farid Alatas
The social sciences are taught in the developing world ina Eurocentric manner. This has contributed to thealienation of social scientists from local and regionalscholarly traditions. Further, courses in sociology and theother social sciences generally do not attempt to correctthe Orientalist bias by introducing non-western thinkers.This paper highlights the contributions of Filipinothinker and activist José Rizal and draws attention to acourse that used the theme of Eurocentrism to provide acritical stance from which to understand the disciplineof sociology.
Syed Farid Alatas (
) is at the National University of Singapore.
rientalism denes the content of education in such a way that the origins of the social sciences and the question of alternative points of view are not thematised. It is thislack of thematisation which makes it highly unlikely that the worksof non-European thinkers would be given the same attention asEuropean and American social theorists such as Karl Marx,Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and others. Orientalism is a thoughtstyle that is not restricted to Europeans. The social sciences aretaught in the third world in a Eurocentric manner. This hascontributed to the alienation of social scientists from local andregional scholarly traditions. Further, courses in sociology andthe other social sciences generally do not attempt to correct theOrientalist bias by introducing non-western thinkers.If we take the 19th century as an example, the impression given isthat during the period that Europeans such as Marx, Weber,Durkheim and others were thinking about the nature of society and its development, there were no thinkers in Asia and Africadoing the same. The absence of non-European thinkers in theseaccounts is particularly glaring in cases where non-Europeans didinuence the development of social thought. Typically, a history of social thought or a course on social thought and theory would covertheorists such as Montesquieu, Giovanni Battista Vico, AugusteComte, Herbert Spencer, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Georg Simmel,Ferdinand Toennies, Werner Sombart, Karl Mannheim, VilfredoPareto, William Graham Sumner, Lester Ward, Albion Woodbury Small, and others. Generally, non-western thinkers are excluded.Here it is necessary to make a distinction between Orientalismas the blatantly stereotypical portrayal of the “Orient” that wasso typical of 19th century scholarship, and the new Orientalismof today that is characterised by the neglect and silencing of non-western voices. If at all non-Europeans appear in the textsand courses, they are objects of study of European scholars andnot knowing subjects; that is, sources of sociological theories andideas. This is what is meant by the silencing or marginalisation of non-western thinkers.
Universalising the Canon
It seems tting, therefore, to provide examples of social theoristsof non-European backgrounds who wrote on topics and theorisedproblems that would be of interest to those studying the broad rangeof macro processes that have become the hallmark of classicalsociological thought and theory. In my own teaching, I have beenconcentrating on Ibn Khaldun and Jose Rizal (Alatas 2009). I would like to say a few words about the latter, as I believe thathis work is of particular interest to us in south-east Asia.Filipino thinker and activist Rizal (1861-1896) was probably therst systematic social thinker in south-east Asia. As a social thinker,
Economic & Political
november 12, 2011 vol xlvi no 46
he raised original problems and treated them in a creative way.He lived during the formative period of sociology but theorisedabout the nature of society in ways not done by western sociolo-gists. He provides us with a different perspective on the colonialdimension of the emerging modernity of the 19th century.Rizal was born into a wealthy family. His father ran a sugarplantation on land leased from the Dominican order. As a result,he was able to attend the best schools in Manila. He continued hishigher studies at the Ateneo de Manila University and then theUniversity of Santo Thomas. In 1882, he departed for Spain, where he studied medicine and the humanities at the UniversidadCentral in Madrid. Rizal returned to the Philippines in 1887. This was also the year that his rst novel,
 Noli Me Tangere
Touch Me Not
) was published. The novel was a reection of exploitativeconditions under Spanish colonial rule and enraged the Spanishfriars. It was a diagnosis of the problems of Filipino society and areection of the problems of exploitation in Filipino colonial society.His second novel,
 El Filibusterismo
The Revolution
), published in1891, examined the possibilities and consequences of revolution.If we were to construct a sociological theory from Rizal’s works,three broad aspects can be discerned. First, we have his theory of colonial society, a theory that explains the nature and conditionsof colonial society. Second, there is his critique of colonial know-ledge of the Philippines. Finally, there is his discourse on themeaning and requirements for emancipation. In Rizal’s thought,the corrupt Spanish colonial government and its ofcials oppressedand exploited Filipinos, while blaming their backwardness ontheir alleged laziness. His project was to show that the Filipinos were actually a relatively advanced society in precolonial times,and that their backwardness was a product of colonialism. Thisrequired a reinterpretation of Filipino history.During Rizal’s time, there was little critique of the state of knowledge about the Philippines among Spanish colonial andFilipino scholars. Being well acquainted with Orientalist scholar-ship in Europe, he was aware of what would today be referred toas Orientalist constructions. This can be seen from his annota-tion and republication of Antonio de Morga’s
Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas
 Historical Events of the Philippine Islands
), which rstappeared in 1609. De Morga, a Spaniard, served eight years inthe Philippines as lieutenant governor general and captaingeneral and was also a justice of the supreme court of Manila(Audiencia Real de Manila) (1890-1962: xxxv).Rizal republished this work with his own annotation to correct what he saw as false reports and slanderous statements found inmost Spanish works on the Philippines, as well as to bring to lightthe precolonial past that was wiped out from the memory of Filipinos by colonisation (1890-1962: vii). This included the destruc-tion of pre-Spanish records such as artefacts that would havethrown light on the nature of pre-colonial society (Zaide 1993: 5).Rizal found Morga’s work apt as it was, according to Ocampo, theonly civil history of the Philippines written during the Spanishcolonial period, other works being mainly ecclesiastical histories(1998: 192). The problem with ecclesiastical histories, apart fromfalsications and slander, was that they “abound in stories of devils,miracles, apparitions, etc, these forming the bulk of the volumi-nous histories of the Philippines” (de Morga, 1890-1962: 291 n 4).For Rizal, therefore, existing histories of the Philippines werefalse and biased as well as unscientic and irrational. What hisannotations accomplished were the following:
They provide examples of Filipino advances in agriculture andindustry in precolonial times.
They provide the colonised’s point of view on various issues.
They point out the cruelties perpetrated by the colonisers.
They furnish instances of hypocrisy of the colonisers, parti-cularly the Catholic church.
They expose the irrationalities of the church’s discourse oncolonial topics.Rizal noted that the “‘miseries of a people without freedomshould not be imputed to the people but to their rulers” (1963b: 31).His novels, political writings and letters provide examples suchas the conscation of lands, appropriation of labour of farmers,high taxes, forced labour without payment, and so on (1963c).Colonial policy was exploitative despite the claims or intentionsof the colonial government and the Catholic church. Rizal wasextremely critical of the “boasted ministers of God [the friars]and
 propagators of light
(!) [who] have not sowed nor do they sowChristian morals, they have not taught religion, but rituals andsuperstitions” (1963b: 38). This position required him to critiquecolonial knowledge of the Filipinos. He went into history toaddress the colonial allegation concerning Filipino indolence.This led to an understanding of the conditions for emancipationand the possibilities of revolution.
Lazy Myths
Bearing in mind the reinterpreted account of Filipino history,Rizal undertakes a critique of the discourse on the lazy Filipinothat was perpetuated by the Spaniards. The theme of indolence incolonial scholarship is an important one that formed a vital partof the ideology of colonial capitalism. Rizal was probably the rstto deal with it systematically. This concern was later taken up by Syed Hussein Alatas in his seminal work 
The Myth of the Lazy Native
(1977), which contains a chapter entitled “The Indolence of the Filipinos”, in honour of Rizal’s essay of the same title (1963a).The basis of Rizal’s sociology is his critique of the myth of the indolent Filipino. It is this critique and the rejection of theidea that the backwardness of Filipino society was due to theFilipinos themselves that provide the proper background forunderstanding his criticisms of the clerical establishment andcolonial administration. In his “The Indolence of the Filipinos”he denes indolence as “little love for work, lack of activity”(1963a: 111). He then refers to indolence in two senses. First, thereis indolence in the sense of the lack of activity caused by the warm tropical climate of the Philippines that “requires quiet andrest for the individual, just as cold incites him to work and toaction” (1963a: 113). His argument is as follows:
The fact is that in the tropical countries severe work is not a goodthing as in cold countries, for there it is annihilation, it is death, it isdestruction. Nature, as a just mother knowing this, has thereforemade the land more fertile, more productive, as a compensation. Anhour’s work under that burning sun and in the midst of perniciousinuences coming out of an active nature is equivalent to a day’s work in a temperate climate; it is proper then that the land yield a hundred-fold! Moreover, don’t we see the active European who has gained
november 12, 2011 vol xlvi no 46
Economic & Political
strength during winter, who feels the fresh blood of spring boil in his veins, don’t we see him abandon his work during the few days of hischangeable summer, close his ofce, where the work after all is nothard – for many, consisting of talking and gesticulating in the shadebeside a desk – run to watering places, sit down at the cafes, strollabout, etc? What wonder then that the inhabitant of tropical coun-tries, worn out and with his blood thinned by the prolonged and exces-sive heat, is reduced to inaction? (1963a: 113)
What Rizal is referring to here is the physiological reaction tothe heat of a tropical climate, which strictly speaking, as S H Alatasnoted, is not consistent with his own denition of indolence; that is,“little love for work”. The adjustment of working habits to a tropicalclimate should not be understood to be a result of laziness or littlelove for work (Alatas 1977: 100). There is a second aspect to Rizal’sconcept of indolence (1963a: 114) that is more signicant, socio-logically speaking. This is indolence in the real sense of the term;that is, little love for work or the lack of motivation to work.
The evil is not that a more or less latent indolence [in the rst sense,that is, the lack of activity] exists, but that it is fostered and magnied. Among men, as well as among nations, there exist not only aptitudesbut also tendencies toward good and evil. To foster the good ones andaid them, as well as correct the bad ones and repress them would bethe duty of society or of governments, if less noble thoughts did notabsorb their attention. The evil is that indolence in the Philippines is amagnied indolence, a snowball indolence, if we may be permittedthe expression, an evil which increases in direct proportion to thesquare of the periods of time, an effect of misgovernment and back- wardness, as we said and not a cause of them.
 A similar point was made by Gilberto Freyre (1956: 48) in thecontext of Brazil.
 And when all this practically useless population of 
and light-skinned mulattoes, worth more as clinical material than they are as aneconomic force, is discovered in the state of economic wretchednessand non-productive inertia in which Miguel Pereira and BelisárioPenna found them living – in such a case those who lament our lack of racial purity and the fact that Brazil is not a temperate climate at oncesee in this wretchedness and inertia the result of intercourse, foreverdamned, between white men and black women, between Portuguesemales and Indian women. In other words, the inertia and indolenceare a matter of race ... All of which means little to this particularschool of sociology. Which is more alarmed by the stigmata of misce-genation than it is by those of syphilis, which is more concerned withthe effects of climate than it is with social causes that are susceptibleto control or rectication; nor does it take into account the inuenceexerted upon mestizo populations – above all, the free ones – by thescarcity of foodstuffs resulting from monoculture and a system of slave labour, it disregards likewise the chemical poverty of the tradi-tional foods that these peoples, or rather all Brazilians, with a regionalexception here and there, have for more than three centuries con-sumed; it overlooks the irregularity of food supply and the prevailinglack of hygiene in the conservation and distribution of such products.
Rizal’s important sociological contribution was his raising theproblem of indolence to begin with as well as his treatment of thesubject, particularly his view that indolence was not a cause of the backwardness of Filipino society. Rather it was the back- wardness and disorder of Filipino colonial society that causedindolence. For Rizal, indolence was a result of the social andhistorical experience of the Filipinos under Spanish rule. We may again take issue with him as to whether this actually constitutesindolence as opposed to a reluctance to work under exploitativeconditions. What is important, however, is his attempt to deal with the theme systematically. He examined historical accountsby Europeans from centuries earlier which showed Filipinos to beindustrious. This included de Morga’s writings. Therefore, indo-lence must have social causes and these were to be found in thenature of colonial rule. Rizal would have agreed with Freyre.
It was not the “inferior race” that was the source of corruption, but theabuse of one race by another, an abuse that demanded a servile con-formity on the part of the Negro to the appetites of the all-powerfullords of the land. Those appetites were stimulated by idleness, by a“wealth acquired without labour ...” (1956: 329)
Freyre suggested that it was the masters rather than the slaves who were idle and lazy. He referred to the slave being “at theservice of his idle master’s economic interests and voluptuouspleasure” (1956: 329).
Correcting the Biases
 A course on social theory that corrects the Eurocentric bias shouldnot just focus on non-western thinkers. It should also critically deal with western thinkers that make up the canon. This is whata colleague and I have done in our course on “Social Thought andSocial Theory”, a discussion of which was carried out in the journal
Teaching Sociology
(Alatas and Sinha 2001). The discussion in therest of this section is drawn from that paper.Given that sociological theory is of western origin, we decidedthat the theme of Eurocentrism was an appropriate, if not sole,point of orientation that could provide a critical stance from whichto understand the discipline of sociology. We were very careful indening Eurocentrism. We made it clear to the students that Euro-centrism was not conned to Europeans and Americans and thatnot all western scholars were necessarily Eurocentric. Further,Eurocentrism was commonly an attribute of non-western scholars.Eurocentrism refers to a particular position or perspective that isfounded on a number of problematic claims and assumptions. We were also careful to point out that the various theorists discussedin the course were Eurocentric in different ways. For example,Marx and Weber made explicitly Eurocentric statements aboutthe so-called Orient. Much of Durkheim’s Eurocentrism, on theother hand, has to do with his silence on non-western questions.It is also necessary to state that the recognition of Eurocentrismin the writings of western social thinkers such as Marx, Weberand Durkheim is neither surprising nor a recent discovery. Whatis surprising, however, is that the critique of Eurocentrism has tillnow failed to reshape or revolutionise the way we think aboutsociological theory and its history. Although many have claimedfor some decades now that there are aspects of Marx’s, Weber’sand Durkheim’s writings that are Eurocentric, this awarenesshas not yet translated into new readings of social theory and thehistory of sociology. As a starting point for dealing with these issues, the students were required to read an essay by Immanuel Wallerstein onEurocentrism (1996). While there is no new conceptualisation of Eurocentrism in this essay, it provides a concise and readableaccount of the ways in which the social sciences are Eurocentric.Eurocentric historiography yielded accounts according to which whatever Europe was dominant in (bureaucratisation, capitalism,democracy, and so on) was good and superior and that such

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