Global sociology and postcolonial critique: Notes on affinities, divergences and ways forward


By Marian Burchardt, Leipzig University

Many sociologists have begun to recognize the necessity to provincialize Western sociology. Some have done so mainly out of ethical and political reasons while others have begun to take seriously the epistemological constraints that Eurocentrism has imposed upon sociological research and theory. In this context, global sociology and postcolonial sociology have emerged as two agendas which partly overlap and converge but which also entail some divergent assumptions and emphases. The relationship of these scholarly agendas, however, requires some further clarification. Such a clarification, I suggest, is imperative with a view towards depicting more clearly how sociological research practice after Eurocentrism, as it were, can look like.

I am a sociologist and ethnographer of East German origin but I have regional concentrations in Africa and I carry out much of my fieldwork in South Africa and Ghana. In April 2022, I participated in the congress of the African Studies Association of Africa in Cape Town in South Africa. Given that this is the meeting where mostly African social scientists meet to discuss African societies, I thought that this was an appropriate place to present my own work, which adoptsas Julian Go (2016) has called ita Southern standpoint through its empirical focus and methodological orientation. What that means exactly, however, was not always clear to me. In one of my current projects, I am interested in the ways in which infrastructural innovations change healthcare provision in Ghana and Malawi. In particular, I am interested in far-flung digitization projects that are currently going on in healthcare systemsin Africa and elsewhere. We started with digitally driven logistics focusing on the use of drones for the delivery of vaccines, essential medicines and blood products used in medical emergencies (Umlauf & Burchardt, 2022).

Essential for the operations of medical drones are data: micro-weather data, GPS data, logistical data. Significantly, digitization projects in healthcare systems which have become pervasive on a global level, are often linked to one another: digital patient files, which construe people and populations as data, and digital supply chain management, which turn all transactions and uses of medicine as data have all led to a tremendous production of datato the datafication of health (Ruckenstein & Schüll, 2017), as it were. Such data play major roles in the digital economy feeding platforms of all sorts. And they are extremely valuable not only for insurance companies but also for all sorts of platform providers who not only seek to make their services available to national healthcare systems but who also aim to make these systems dependent on them. Hence in our project, we also to explore how exactly people’s bodily functions and the prescription practices of nurses and other health professional are turned into data that feeds platforms, what happen with these data and who benefits from them. In the project, we collaborate with research teams from the University of Ghana as well as a research consortium from Malawi.

As a qualitative cultural sociologist, I have been trained to let the field drive the conceptualization, to followas Alfred Schütz called itthe relevance structures of the actors I am interested in, instead of imposing a predefined set of concepts and categories upon the field. But of course, as Michael Burawoy (2000)among many otherssuggested: without any conceptual lens we cannot even find and see the field. So, what as sociologists we are called upon to do is to adopt conceptual lenses that are locally adapted and use concepts that emerge from or have proven to be useful in a given local setting.

Distribution center of the drone-delivery service Zipline in Ghana.
Photo: Courtesy of Dr. René Umlauf.

But what exactly was the local setting in my case? I was studying the work of a drone operator that had its headquarters in Silicon Valley, where much of the computing was done in Belgium; a business that worked through service agreements with the national governments of Rwanda, Ghana and Nigeria and that was variously serving rural health centers in these countries. All of these sites were connected through a specific object, namely a technology, and through data. So what exactly was the locality? What was the locally adapted concept I could use? What I am describing here is a problem that sociologists and anthropologists such as Arjun Appadurai (1996) encountered in the late 1980s and 1990s when they were first confronted with new ways in which the territorial boundaries of what they considered the field or the locality were blurred or even dissolving. The field was subjected to globalization as a form of spatialization, which left deep imprints on the “local.” And so, one of the questions that arises from this is this: is the relation of global sociology to sociology the same as globalization to locality or the nation-state? Is global sociology primarily a spatial disciplinary category, an orientation towards a spatial reality of social relationships that stretch the planet? Or is it, rather, a global conversation among sociologists from all parts of the world—such as those going on in the Global Qualitative Sociology Network—intent on working through concepts and universals? Or is it a kind of sociology that seeks to address this awareness of the multitude of forms of organization, and disorganization, of divergent forms of knowledge, local or regional epistemologies, and types of domination that have been absent from what, in many parts of the world, is considered “general sociology”? How can global sociology be a new way of building sociological theory?

The focus of the Global Qualitative Sociology Network is indeed on these questionsand it is on the kind of operations we use in qualitative social science to build theory, to construct the kind of sociological theory that brings the social worlds of the Global South more powerfully into the picture of general sociology than before. In other words, the main question is really, not only—as we have learnt to do—how to start from the ground, from the local, how to start from specific concepts developed from the material as suggested by the grounded theory approach for instance, but also: how do we generalize from there? How do we go further from specific cases to slightly more abstract real types, or even more abstract ideal types, a methodology that Max Weber had used in very fruitful ways in his comparative sociology of religion and of forms of authority? There is a need to engage in dialectical forms theorizing in which new findings are always used for the respecification of earlier hypotheses, dialectical forms of analysis in which the concrete leaves echoes in the more general concept and the concept echoes in the interpretation of new material.

But what are the implications of these methodological principles for understanding the drone distribution centers in Ghana where we do our fieldwork, and the people working there? In general, it became clear that the kind of problems with which people in charge of moving medicine from stores to clinics are faced are not entirely different between, say, the rural South or mid-West of the US and central Ghana. Challenges to logistics involve weather contingencies, hurricanes that flood roads and decaying or underdeveloped road infrastructure. On that level there was no need to develop concepts that are somehow uniquely focused on what happened in Ghana.

However, there is more to the story once we shift our attention to the question what drives the datafication of health and healthcare. It is clear that data are harvested primarily by Western companiesespecially the big five platforms (Amazon Webservices, Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft and Facebook’s Meta Platforms) or some subsidiary, in collaboration with governments in Africa and elsewhere, and these data are then used to develop AI driven medicine of all kinds, for instance what is called precision medicine and other types of medical therapies based on big data and algorithms. And in this context, we clearly see the ways in which a global order of health governance and medical capitalism is made of regional concentrations of capital and expertise, of a distribution of labor which assigns different tasks to different regions and which yield highly unequal economic outputs for these regions. We see new forms of data extractivism that operate not least by putting the burden of data production, for instance, on the shoulders of nurses in rural Malawi. With their enrolment in the national electronic health record program that is part of the country’s e-health agenda, they have to hammer into their tablet not only the usual data collected in regular maternal health check-ups but also lots of other data on the habits of mothers and children. AI research companies need these data for their business model. Big data is not only traces in the internet, it is also labor provided by health workers. We can call this division of labor “colonial” and conceptualize it through the lens of the “coloniality of power” as Aníbal Quijano (2000) suggested, and we ask the question of what is gained by calling it that way.

Such kinds of analysis, however, seems to suggest that social life in the Global South only matters for sociological theory, or general sociology, if it is located at the receiving end of global commodity chains, if it consists of labor supplied for global health science, as medical anthropologist Johanna T. Crane (2013) called it. It seems to suggest that in global sociology we would only need to pay attention to structural features in the Global South and the social practices that produce them if, and to the extent, they are linked to, and sustain, structural features elsewhere, within the framework of global orders of different types.

The merit of postcolonial sociology is precisely to call attention to these global orders of colonial power, who are themselves central components of global capitalism in its financialized and digital iteration. In doing so, postcolonial sociology appears to privilege narratives of continuity, the continuity of global power relationships from the period of formal colonialism into the present, and it privileges genealogical critique over ethnography and interpretation. Yet in some of its presently dominant forms, it is mainly interested in unsettling certain visions of the metropole, and thus also cements inherited understandings of what metropole and colony, or center and periphery are. It is therefore sometimes more about confirming, elaborating and commenting on existing theory instead of creating new theory.

The relationship between postcolonial sociology and global sociology may thus perhaps be construed in matters of emphasis. Both are closely related but surely not. Both agendas share concerns regarding the critique of Eurocentrism, of Eurocentric theories of modernization, urbanization and industrialization and of modernity at large, and both share the notion that Eurocentrism is primarily an epistemological problem. Postcolonial critical sociology reminds us of the fact that under the global condition, no social relationship unfolds outside of power relationships that are global in scope. Global sociology, by contrast, reminds us of the pitfalls entailed in the idea that this global power relationship always needs to be the central subject of our studies. Such a focus reduces actors in the social worlds of the Global South to passive subjects of global capital whose everyday life is determined by that subject position. And it thereby reiterates the aporia of earlier structuralist determinisms of divergent theoretical shades. In contrast, I suggest that the social worlds of healthcare workers and those who run logistics centers in Ghana matter to general sociology not only to the extent we can trace the colonial power relations that shape their lives but also as objects of study and theorization in their own right.

Cite this article as: Burchardt, M. (2022, June 17). Global sociology and postcolonial critique: Notes on affinities, divergences and ways forward. Global Qualitative Sociology Network.

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