Self-centered Social Theory

Overcoming European Ethno-history and the Crisis of Sociological


Brent Cooper (201016147)
Londons School of Economics: MSc Political Sociology
SO463: Contemporary Social Thought
December 10th, 2010
Is social theory doomed to be little more than European ethno-history? The simple
answer, I argue, is no. But what is being asked here is to what extent the particular contemporary
worldview or zeitgeist of modern Europe is shaped its own hegemonic history, as well as a
biased view of that history. Moreover, our difficulties are compounded by a crisis in sociological
knowledge. The question posed is a troublesome one because it forces us to look at the grave
misconduct justified by social theory in the past, which in turn causes us to be overly skeptical of
the very social science we practice. Through globalization, ways of knowing become pluralised
across time and space, for better and for worse. In order address the root causes of today's
problems we must first overcome the eurocentric ethno-historical worldview, and second,
extricate violent tendencies from international politics. In this paper I address the two issues
raised in the question: how to defend social theory against manipulation by hegemonic interests


and how we might put the crisis of sociology in perspective. Social theory is not doomed in any
way, but certainly has its challenges, and social scientists must be methodologically determined
to overcome its limitations.
According to Mike Savage, contemporary social theory has been co-opted by
corporations. Savage explains the weakening of academic sociology and the concurrent rise of
"commercial sociology." The once innovative research methods of sociology have been
surpassed by the private-data collection capabilities of modern corporations (Savage, 2007; 887).
To this effect, Savage argues that academic sociology has become "peripheral to the multifarious
research circuits which are implicated in the constitution of a knowing capitalism" (888).
Furthermore, due to shifts in values of people, surveys and other conventional data collection
methods of sociologists are viewed as major inconveniences (890). Perhaps this 'knowing
capitalism' supplants European ethno-history as a way of moving forward? Or does it simply
reinforce ethnohistory in a sense?
Savage argues that while it is a compelling type of sociology, it is little more than a
revival of the neo-evolutionist thought from Spencer et al in the early 20th century (Savage,
895). It has this tendency to become an overarching narrative, which history tells us is
dangerous. Savage makes a fascinating observation with commercial sociology, but for those like
him who would decry "teleology" as if it was a trump card, they are not yet informed on the most
cutting edge debates in self-organization theory and International Relations (cf. Wendt), which
there is not time to address here. In terms of the abuse of social theory, it is not the state and
academia that have such a close tie as they once did, nor is academic sociology necessarily
corrupted by corporations, but rather the corporations simply employ sociological tools to apply


to their advanced data sets. Not only that, but those in "commercial sociology" have better tools
than academics. Thus, it seems unlikely that academic sociologists can even fully understand
what is going on; that is to say, we can not quantify the extent that corporations use and abuse
their knowledge.
The implication is that social theory (and science in general) has always been
compromised by the power that produces it. The question might be not whether social theory will
still be European ethno-history, but whether social theory will continue to be co-opted by power
groups and special-interests for a particular agenda or certain goals. This is what occurred in
colonialism; there was a dialectic relationship between science and political (foreign) policy
institutions whereby the perceived need for political conquest led to the creation of scientific
theories which then in turn justified imperialism. Perhaps we may ask whether social theory is
doomed to be social theory; that is, does theory become a social cognition rather than a particular
consensus between social scientists? Do these ethno-historical tendencies manifest when we
move from theory to practice in the social domain? Yes, but we are not doomed to be
ethnocentric or eurocentric, but rather are fated to face these challenges until we overcome them.
Clifford Geertz cites Levi-Strauss who said ethnocentrism was not bad in itself, as it
promotes multiculturalism in the sense of sensitivity to the Other (Geertz, 1985; 255). But LeviStrauss argues that this does not authorize the destruction of other cultures in the name of ones
own. Levi-Strauss fears that extreme multiculturalism could be dangerous as well, as it negates
the purity of culture or ethnicity that delineates it as such. But this view does not account for
ethnic or cultural change very well. A proper secular social theory must appreciate the organic
nature of these notions and concordantly how osmosis occurs between distinct identities. Enrique


Dussel points out that enthnocentrism is present in all cultures, but it is the European form that
claims exclusive universality for itself, because of its self-appointed "position as center" in the
world (Dussel, 2000; 471). He defines a confusion, that I am inclined to call a 'cognitive
dissonance', "between abstract universality and the concrete world hegemony" of Europe's past
Dussel's main point is that the apparent continuity between Greece-Rome-Europe is an
ideological construct, which was an invention of "late-eighteenth-century German romanticism"
(Dussel, 465). Moreover, the West has this notion of a particular unified will of modern Europe
dating back to the late 15th century (472). The view that Europe is exclusively descended from
ancient Greece is so entrenched in Western culture that it is almost impossible to revise this
narrative. It was more or less this philosophy of right that permitted a European imperial race to
conquer the globe. Dussel stresses that while modernity is an enlightenment project, we must
recognize its inherent violence. War can still be fully rationalized in modern society, and thus the
West continues to ensnare itself in quagmires such as the Iraq War. And history repeats itself.
Modern reason can be transcended, Dussel writes, not as denial of reason but as "denial of the
violent" (473). Perhaps the privileging of soft power is a means to this end. Dussel wishes to
realize the alterity of the other; to acknowledge the senseless sacrifice of the innocent indigenous
peoples (473). We must emphasize a "Transmodernity" (474), a mutually fulfilling creative
process (475) uniting North and South, man and women, oppressor and oppressed.
If what Dussel is pleading for is a kind of Foucauldian 'parrhesia' (uninhibited truthtelling), then his proposal is a bit utopian. Because it is not merely modern Europe that is an
ideological construct, but all nations and history are imagined concepts as well. We cannot


expect such honest intellectuals to maintain political positions of power, since so much of
politics regrettably depends on compromise, pandering, and satisficing. Donna Haraway seems
to take it a step further than Dussel by emphasizing the "preferred" nature of subjugated view
points. She does however acknowledge that the oppressed are not "innocent" positions, but rather
they are more likely to critically object to 'absolute' forms of knowledge which historically tend
to included denial, repression, and forgetting of subaltern viewpoints (Haraway, 1988; 584). In
retort Haraway and Dussel, the realist will say that of course some violence is necessary as a last
resort of conflict resolution. Moreover, it is assumed in politics some lying is necessary in order
to appease the masses and achieve national political goals. We say there is a crisis in
sociological knowledge, but in the aforementioned sense, when has the pursuit of truth ever not
been controversial or under threat?
Bruno Latour laments that the Critical (Frankfurt) school of thought, of which he is a
part, may have inadvertently undermined its own goals (Latour, 2004; 227). Latour explains how
he spent much of his career challenging the way in which facts are constructed, in order to
emancipate them from various forms of power. Critiquing, unpacking, and deconstructing 'Truth'
(capital T) became a noble exercise. Despite his well intentions, a side-effect has been that the
mass public is still vulnerable to ideology and demagoguery, and instead has turned its critical
gaze back at science itself. As Latour puts it, the real danger is not overconfidence in ideology
disguised as fact but rather "excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad
ideological biases!" (Latour, 227).
I see this as symptomatic of Savage's commercialization of sociology as well. The public
has been benefitted from insights from academic sociology, but only marginally. There are two


factors to consider: First, the advances of commercial sociology serve to counter the public's
enlightenment, not because of any malicious intent, but rather strictly due to the profit motive in
capitalism. Second, the insights of sociology challenge peoples' commonly held beliefs. The
social construction of reality can be a turbulent realization for some. Latour explains that we
loathe even the "mere suggestion" of having our sacred (or even scientific) objects socially
explained, as if we lose something personal in the process. A concrete way we might
conceptualize the stagnation and refutation of social science, or more specifically the path
dependence of parochial practices of science and public thought, is in Ulrich Beck's critique of
"methodological nationalism" (Beck 2004). He defines it as when the 'national outlook' defines
perspective of the scientific observer. There is a naturalized and historical connection between
the concurrent rise of the nation-state and sociology, but it is not a necessary or logical
connection. Global problems, created by automatic processes, truly require global solutions, and
thus "methodological cosmopolitanism," as opposed to the national paradigm.

In brief conclusion of this short essay, social theory is not doomed to repeat its vicious
past. On the contrary, we might view it as the only key to a final global enlightenment. There has
not been room here to address all the dimensions of this current crisis but hopefully the main
concerns - the "justification of an irrational praxis of violence" (Dussel, 472), and inversion of
the critical project by the masses - have been treated adequately. The provisional answer is to
practice small gestures and thought experiments that emphasize recognition of the Other, and not
simply as other, but as same. Moreover, social scientists must seek unity with alterity, consilience
across disciplines, and at the same time universality without centricity.


Beck, Ulrich. The Cosmopolitan Vision. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2006. Print.

Dussel, Enrique. “Europe, Modernity, and Eurocentrism” Nepantla: Views from South 1.3, 2000;
and “Globalization, Organization and the Ethics of Liberation” Organization 2006, 13, 4.


Geertz, Clifford. “The Uses Of Diversity” in Available Light: Anthropological reflections on
philosophical topics.
Bourdieu, P. “Algerian Landing” Ethnography December 2004 vol. 5 no. 4 415-443.

Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question In Feminism and the privileges
of a partial perspective” Feminist Studies 14, 3, 1988 reprinted in Simians, cyborgs, and women:
the re-invention of nature

Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of
Concern” Critical Inquiry 30 Winter 2004.

Savage, Mike, and Roger Burrows. “The Coming Crisis of Empirical Sociology”
Sociology 2007; 41; 885