When the idea of ‘epistemologies of the Global South’ travels


By Sari Hanafi, American University of Beirut

In his book, The End of the Cognitive Empire: The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South, Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2018) offers a powerful political and epistemological proposal pointing out that, along with the oppressive practices of colonialism, patriarchy, and capitalism, there has been a massive epistemicide. This recognition is based on two premises: first, that knowledge of the world far exceeds the narrow confines of the Western understanding of the world; and, second, that the cognitive experiences of the world are extremely diverse. I begin this contribution with an explanation of what I find to be outstanding and inspiring about Santos’ work and follow up on this by highlighting some potential backfires when these thoughts travel into the Arab world.

Santos argues that global social justice cannot be achieved without global cognitive justice, and examines concrete propositions for theoretical, methodological, and pedagogical alternatives in our knowledge production. These explorations are continuations of his longstanding work regarding the exclusion along the abyssal line (i.e., the economic, social, cultural, political, and linguistic divisions between the Global North and the Global South), and include elaborations on the sociologies of absences and emergences, the ecologies of knowledge and intercultural translation, and the artisanship of sociological practices.

Santos unfolds some concepts that emerged in the struggles of resistance against Western-centric domination and formed in noncolonial languages and cultures such as ubuntu, Sumak Kawsay, Pachamama, chachawarmi, Swaraj, and ahimsa. For instance, Santos, along with the late British philosopher Roy Bhaskar, criticizes the Cartesian ethos that delineates a sharp difference between persons as subjects versus objects in the world (which includes other subjects). Both approach the ontology of persons in terms of the thought embodied in some southern African languages through the notion of ubuntu, which means roughly ‘I am because you are’ (Bhaskar, 2020). According to Santos, this concept exerted a decisive influence on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that dealt with the crimes of apartheid, and continues to serve as a topic of major debate in the field of African philosophy.

The concept of Pachamama, which is included in the Constitution of Ecuador, designates a non-Cartesian, non-Baconian conception of nature – one that considers nature not as a natural resource, but as a living being and source of life, to which rights are ascribed similarly as they are to humans.  

For Santos, the credibility and usefulness of such epistemologies of the South depend less on erudite theoretical elaborations, and more on the practices of the social groups and movements that utilize them in their struggles against capitalist, colonial, and patriarchal domination. This kind of theoretical extension is always sensitive to power structures, from wherever they may come, and raise questions such as ‘whose voice?’ and ‘whose silence?’ Santos brings the example of Gandhi who used Hindi to express key concepts in his struggle against British colonialism. Santos does not romanticize Gandhi and proposes his work should be read with Habermas and Chomsky rather than as an ‘either/or’ selection. This reminds me of the excellent book Sociological Theory Beyond the Canon by Alatas and Sinha (2017), which, through reading Ibn Khaldoun with Max Weber, Fatima Mernissi with Nancy Fraser, Karl Marx with W.E.B. Du Bois, and José Rizal with Frantz Fanon – rather than ‘either/or’ – mitigates some of sociology’s hegemonic and androcentric shortcomings. 

When ideas travel …

To tell the truth, I read this book with caution, as I know how it could be perceived in the Arab region. Needless as it may be, I remind you of the way many leftists and Islamists in this region have appropriated Edward Said’s Orientalism, using it to help establish a sharp dichotomy between North and South, and using it to make the validity of a given knowledge dependent on its genealogy. While the title of Santos’ book alone can be misleading, Epistemologies of the South rejects epistemological or political ghettos, and calls for a search for expanded commonalities on the basis of otherness: “[t]he epistemologies of the South do not aim to replace the epistemologies of the North and put the South in the place of the North. Their aim is to overcome the hierarchical dichotomy between North and South” (p. 7).

My worries about the perception of the book are based on my work in knowledge production where I observed two problems or abuses in the postcolonial discourse in the Arab world and beyond (Hanafi, 2020). First, this post-colonial discourse has established a binary logic of antagonistic categories, such as East/West and universalism/contextualism. Santos clearly does not reject universalism, but gives it some qualifications – notably, rather than abstract universality, he calls for pluriversality. His kind of thinking promotes decolonization or creolization through intercultural translation, where such diversity translates into an “ecology of knowledges, that is, the recognition of the copresence of different ways of knowing and the need to study the affinities, divergences, complementarities, and contradictions among them in order to maximize the effectiveness of the struggles of resistance against oppression” (p. 8). In fact, his call is similar to the proposition of Michel Agier (2013) to replace universalism tout court with cosmopolitan universalism as sort of a bottom-up, subaltern cosmopolitan conceptualization of universal concepts.

The second problem or abuse in postcolonial discourse is the over-emphasis on external factors with a simultaneous neglect of local ones. Santos himself emphasizes the oppressive practices of colonialism, patriarchy, and capitalism, without giving much attention to authoritarianism – as if it comes as a sub-phenomenon of these three oppressive practices. Living in a revolutionary moment in the Arab world, and thereby witnessing history unfold, I often wonder why some left-wing forces have viewed the “revolution” (against authoritarianism) and “resistance” (against imperialism) as opposing, and even contradictory, concepts, rather than complementary ones. And this question does not only concern the Arab region. Participating in the Latin American Sociological Association (ALAS) conference in Lima (Peru) in December 2019, I saw some similarities between the pathologies of a trend among the Arab left and their colleagues in Latin America. This is why I call to take seriously the conceptualization of authoritarianism, and to supplement the postcolonial approach with an anti-authoritarian one. In Lebanon, in this revolutionary moment, there is a heated debate between two sides. One believes that the current youth uprising – which is calling for the end of the sectarian political regime and replacing the corrupted politicians – is simply a secondary contradiction that is negatively impacting the principal contradiction – which is the current struggle against imperialism in the region, particularly the one from 1948, when Israel was created and 900,000 Palestinians were expelled. The other side, which I belong to, believes that the demands of the uprising are urgent, and that the ‘resistance’ to imperialism and Israeli colonial practices is simply important (generally speaking but not urgent) at this time in Lebanon only. In the same vein, the side in favor of ‘resisting imperialism’ allies itself with the Syrian regime (ignoring its brutalizing, authoritarian nature and systematic deployment of torture) merely because this regime has been supportive of the Lebanese resistance (Hezbollah).

I found the debate in Latin America followed many of the same lines. The extraordinary congress of ALAS, attended by 3,300 participants, was one of the sites of such a debate, specifically regarding Venezuela and Bolivia. Some (rightly) argue that one needs to denounce the military coup in Bolivia, but also denounce Juan Evo Morales, who had previously acted against the Constitution (which does not allow more than one re-election). This topic was confirmed by a referendum that was called by the former government itself. Along the same lines, they argue one should denounce the personal power monopoly of President Nicholas Maduro in Venezuela, and raise the same question regarding both Bolivia and Venezuela: why did the two leaders, Morales and Maduro, not properly institutionalize their political parties in ways that would have created the possibility for other leaders to emerge? Why are there no second leaders in many leftist (but not only leftist) political parties that can run for office at the end of the original leader’s term? The same question can be asked in relation to other “progressive” regimes, such as those in Syria and Yemen, along with other republican regimes that have paved the way for the succession to power by their sons. Is there no possibility of resistance under democratic regimes?

The denomination of authoritarian regimes also impacts knowledge production. They stifle the imagination by seeking grey automations that follow their commands and outsource the task of censoring critical voices to the mob. The problem of social research in authoritarian settings is that it is impacted more by working conditions, which marginalize questions of epistemology (Hanafi & Arvanitis, 2019). 

Having said that, I do agree with Santos that the hierarchy of knowledge and the invisibility of Southern knowledge persists in the North. The most telling and heated recent debate was about the way French (Christian) laicité frames the rituals (such as female veiling) in a religion like Islam in France. On 2 October 2020, President Emmanuel Macron delivered a speech to present his strategy for fighting separatism. He clearly targeted (and stigmatized) the Muslim community in the country (including 52 mentions of the words Islam and Islamism) insofar as members of this community have refused to be assimilated (to cultural majoritarianism). He thus repeated the framing of Islam that was typical of French colonial power: that Islam was a religion which presumably was experiencing a crisis today, all over the world.

Cite this article as: Hanafi, S. (2023, January 23). When the idea of epistemologies of Global South travels. Global Qualitative Sociology Network. https://global-qualitative-sociology.net/2023/01/24/when-the-idea-of-epistemologies-of-global-south-travels/

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