Eurocentrism




Eurocentrism is a particular case of the more general phenomenon of ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism refers to the regard of one’s own ethnic group or society as superior to others. Other groups are assessed and judged in terms of the categories and standards of evaluation of one’s own group. Eurocentrism, therefore, is defined as a thought style in which the assessment and evaluation of non European societies is couched in terms of the cultural assumptions and biases of Europeans and, by extension, the West. Eurocentrism is a modern phenomenon and cannot be dissociated from the political, economic, and cultural domination of Europe and, later, the United States. It may be more accurate to refer to the phenomenon under consideration as Euro-americo-centrism. Euro centrism is an important dimension of the ideology of modern capitalism (Amin 1989) and is manifested in both the daily life of lay people and the professional lives and thought of sociologists and other social scientists. Furthermore, although Eurocentrism originates in Europe, as a thought style it is not confined to Europeans or those in the West.




Eurocentrism in sociology is defined as the assessment and evaluation of European and other societies from a decidedly European (read also American) point of view. The European point of view is founded on concepts derived from European philosophical traditions and popular discourse which were gradually applied to the empirical study of history, economy, and society, giving rise to the various social science disciplines including sociology. The empirical field of investigation is selected according to European criteria of relevance. Constructions of history and society are based on European derived categories and concepts, as well as ideal and material interests. Generally, the point of view of the Other is not presented (Tibawi 1963: 191, 196; Tibawi 1979: 5, 13, 16–17). There was concern with the phenomenon of Eurocentrism before the term itself came into usage in the nineteenth century among thinkers living in colonial societies. The Muslim thinker and reformer Sayyid Jamal al Din al Afghani (1838/9–1897) debated against western constructions of Islam and was conscious of the need to appropriate relevant western ideas without blindly imitating the West. Among the earliest of thinkers to critique Eurocentric perspectives was the Filipino Jose´ Rizal (1861–96), who attempted revisions of Filipino history from a Filipino point of view via his annotation of Antonio de Morga’s history of the Philippines (Morga 1962 [1890]). The first sociologist to critique the dominance of Eurocentric constructions  was probably the  Indian  Benoy Kumar Sarkar (1887–1949), who wrote against the prevailing Indology of his time, noting its one sided emphasis on the idealistic, mystical, and metaphysical aspects of Hinduism (Sarkar 1985 [1937]). One of the first among the Dutch in particular, and Europeans in general, to raise the problem of Eurocentrism in the social sciences was Jacob Cornelis van Leur (1937, 1940). He was critical of Eurocentric tendencies in Dutch scholarship on the Netherlands Indies and is well known for his critique of perspectives arrived at from ‘‘the deck of the ship, the ramparts of the fortress, the high gallery of the trading house’’ (1955: 261). For example, he questioned the appropriateness of the eighteenth century as a category in the history of the Netherlands Indies, as it was a category borrowed  from  western  history  (1940).

Van Leur, nevertheless, was himself Eurocentric in several of his pronouncements and remarks. Joseph Needham wrote on the basic fallacy of Europocentrism, namely, the view of the universality of European culture (Needham 1969 [1955]: 13–14). In 1956, Syed Hussein Alatas from Malaysia referred to the ‘‘wholesale importation of ideas from the Western world to eastern societies’’ without due consideration of their sociohistorical context as a fundamental problem of colonialism.

The traits of Eurocentrism as manifested in sociology and other social sciences include (1) the subject–object dichotomy; (2) the fore grounding of Europeans; (3) the view of Europeans as originators; (4) the imposition of European categories and concepts; and (5) the view of the objective superiority of European civilization.

The subject–object dichotomy: Europeans are the knowing subjects while non Europeans remain as unheard objects whose standpoints are conveyed only through the agency of Europeans. Non Europeans are passive, non participating, non active, non autonomous, and non sovereign (Abdel Malek 1963: 107–8). Non Europeans are like Flaubert’s Egyptian courtesan who never represented herself. Rather, it was Flaubert who spoke for her (Said 1979: 6). This ‘‘omniscience’’ resulted in problematic constructions of non European or ‘‘Oriental’’ history and society. These constructions had come under attack at three levels – they do not fit empirical reality; they overabstract, resulting in the erasure of empirical variety; and they are founded on European prejudices (Wallerstein 1996: 8).

Europeans in the foreground: Europeans are foregrounded, resulting in the distortion of the role of non Europeans. For example, modernity is seen as a specifically European creation and encounters with non Europeans are not viewed to have brought about significant changes relevant to the emergence of European modernity.

Europeans as originators: Europeans are generally seen as originators of modern civilization where in fact there should be the consideration of its multicultural origins. In texts, Muslim philosophers are often seen as having simply transmitted Greek thought to the European world of the Renaissance. Alfred Weber, the younger brother of Max Weber and author of a history of philosophy, notes that the Arabs were ‘‘apt pupils of the Greeks, Persians, and Hindoos in science. Their philosophy … is more learned than original, and consists mainly of exegesis, particulary of the exegesis of Aristotle’s system’’ (Weber 1925: 164).

The imposition of European categories and concepts: Tibawi brought attention to the ‘‘persistence in studying Islam and the Arabs through the application of Western European categories’’ (1979: 37). To the extent that the process of modernization in Europe was universal and replicable elsewhere, so too were the social sciences that explained modernization. Non European societies are regarded as worthy objects of analysis but rarely as sources of concepts and ideas.

Belief in the objective superiority of European civilization: Modern civilization as modernity is a European creation and is due to European superiority whether this is viewed in biological, cultural, or sociological terms.

While the Eurocentric nature of sociology and other social sciences has been noted, efforts to address the problem in the teaching of sociology and in research has not been forthcoming. In the teaching of both the history of sociological theory and sociological theory itself, the five traits of Eurocentrism are present.

In most sociological theory textbooks or works on the history of social thought and theory, Europeans are the knowing subjects, that is, the social theorists and social thinkers. To the extent that non Europeans figure in these accounts, they are objects of the observations and analyses of the European theorists, such as the Indians and Algerians in Marx’s writings or  Turks,  Chinese, and  Jews in Weber’s works. They do not appear as sources of sociological concepts and ideas. In works on the history of social thought, the focus is on European thinkers at the expense of thematizing intercivilizational encounters that possibly influenced social theory in Europe. For example, Maus does not refer to any non European in his chapter on the antecedents of sociology (Maus 1962 [1956]: ch. 1). This absence can also be seen in teaching. The Resource Book for Teaching Sociological Theory published by the American Sociological Association contains a number of course descriptions for sociological theory. The range of classical theorists whose works are taught are Montesquieu, Vico, Comte, Spencer, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Tonnies, Sombart, Mannheim, Pareto, Sumner, Ward, Small, Wollstonecraft, and several others. No non European thinkers are included.

European (and by extension, western) sociologists continue to be foregrounded in works on the history of the discipline, although there are exceptions. Becker and Barnes in their Social Thought from Lore to Science, first published in 1938, devote many pages to the social thought of Ibn Khaldun. While non western sources of sociology have been acknowledged by some in the West in a few early works, they are not discussed in mainstream theory textbooks and other works.

Europeans, therefore, tend to be seen as the sole originators of sociology. There were a host of other thinkers in India, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who would qualify as modern social thinkers but who are only briefly mentioned in the early histories of sociology (e.g., Maus, Becker & Barnes) or totally ignored in more recent works. Not all European thinkers,  however, ignored  their  non European counterparts. For example, Becker and Barnes discuss the  influence of Ibn  Khaldun  on Gumplowicz (1928 [1899]) and Oppenheimer (1922–35), a theme that was never taken up in later accounts of the history of social thought. The generations after Gumplowicz, Oppenheimer, and Becker and Barnes have erased non European thinkers from the history books.

Connected with the above is the dominance of European concepts and categories in sociology at the expense of non European ones. This dominance also translates into research. In the study of religion, for example, the bulk of concepts originate from Christianity. Concepts in the philosophical and sociological study of religion such as church, sect, denomination, and even religion itself are not devoid of Christian connotations and do influence the social scientific reconstruction of non Christian religions. The field of the sociology of religion has yet to enrich itself by developing concepts and categories derived from other ‘‘religions’’ such as Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and so on. Underlying this is an assumption of the greater suitability of categories and concepts developed in the social sciences in Europe and North America.

There is a danger that the critique of Euro centrism in sociology may lead to nativism, that is, the trend of going native among western and local scholars alike, in which the native’s point of view is elevated to the status of the criterion by which descriptions and analyses are to be judged. This involves an intolerant stance with regard to western knowledge. Nativism is founded on an essentialist approach. For example, there is a tradition in Japanese sociology that is defined by nihonjinron (theories of Japanese people), which are informed by essentialized views on Japanese society, with the stress on cultural homogeneity and historical continuity. This remains squarely in the tradition of western scholarship on Japan with the difference that the knowing subjects are Japanese. Hence the term auto Orientalism as discussed by Lie (1996: 5). The challenge, therefore, is to correct the Eurocentric bias in sociology.

A more universalistic approach to the teaching of sociology as well as research in sociology would have to raise the question of whether it is possible to identify examples of sociological theorizing and concept formation outside the western/European cultural milieu. This would in turn imply radical changes in sociology theory curricula (Alatas & Sinha 2001). This does not require that western sociological content be removed from the sociology syllabi. Rather, more and more sociologists are recognizing the need to look to additional sources of concept formation and theory building from outside the usual corpus of knowledge that is confined to one civilization.

References:

  1. Abdel-Malek, A. (1963) Orientalism  in   Diogenes 44: 103 40.
  2. Alatas, F. & Sinha, V. (2001) Teaching Classical Sociological Theory in Singapore: The Context of Eurocentrism. Teaching Sociology 29(3): 316 31.
  3. Alatas, H. (1956) Some Fundamental Problems of Colonialism. Eastern World (November).
  4. Amin, (1989) Eurocentrism. Zed, London. Gumplowicz, L. (1928 [1899]) Soziologische Essays: Soziologie und Politik. Universitats-Verlag Wagner, Innsbruck.
  5. Lie, J. (1996) Sociology of Contemporary Current Sociology 44(1): 1 95.
  6. Maus, (1962 [1956]) A Short History of Sociology. Philosophical Library, New York.
  7. Morga, de (1962 [1890]) Historical Events of the Philippine Islands by Dr. Antonio de Morga, Published in Mexico in 1609, recently brought to light and annotated by Jose´ Rizal, preceded by a prologue by Dr. Ferdinand Blumentritt. Writings of Jose´ Rizal Volume 6. National Historical Institute, Manila.
  8. Needham, (1969 [1955]) The Dialogue of East and West. In: Needham, J., Within the Four Seas: The Dialogue of East and West. George Allen & Unwin, London. Adapted from the Presidential Address to the Britain China Friendship Association, 1955.
  9. Oppenheimer, F. (1922 35) System der Soziologie.
  10. Said, (1979) Orientalism. Vintage, New York.
  11. Sarkar, K. (1985 [1937]) The Positive Background of Hindu Sociology. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi.
  12. Tibawi, L. (1963) English-Speaking Orientalists. Muslim World 53: 185 204, 298 313.
  13. Tibawi, L. (1979) Second Critique of English- Speaking Orientalists and Their Approach to Islam and the Arabs. Islamic Quarterly 23(1): 3 54.
  14. Van Leur, C. (1937) Enkele aanteekeningen met betrekking tot de beoefening der Indische geschie- denis (Some Notes Concerning the Study of the History of the Indies). Koloniale Studie¨n 21: 651 66.
  15. Van Leur, C. (1940) Eenige aanteekeningen betreffende de mogelijkheid der 18e eeuw als categorie in de Indische geschiedschrijving (Some Notes on the Possibility of the 18th Century as a Category in the Writing of the History of the Indies). Tijdschrift voor Indische Taal , Land en Volken kunde uitgegeven door het (Koninklijk) Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen 80: 544 67.
  16. Van Leur, C. (1955) Indonesian Trade and Society: Essays in Asian Social and Economic History. W. van Hoeve, The Hague.
  17. Wallerstein, (1996) Eurocentrism and its Avatars: The Dilemmas of Social Science. Paper read at the KSA ISA Joint East Asian Regional Colloquium on ‘‘The Future of Sociology in East Asia,’’ organized by the Korea Sociological Association, November 22 3.
  18. Weber, (1925) History of Philosophy. Trans. F. Thilly. Scribner, New York.

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