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Social sciences and law in the history of empire: an interview with Boaventura de Sousa Santos

Interview with Professor Boaventura de Sousa Santos
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We’re very pleased to have with us Professor Boaventura de Sousa Santos. I wonder if I might start by asking you how you see the social sciences and law as having been implicated in colonialism? As far as this question is concerned, I think that’s very important to distinguish– and probably this should have been laid out in the first part of our conversation– is that the contexts count in this field. That is to say, one thing is to decolonize knowledge at universities in Europe, in the metropolitan society, former colonisers. The other thing is to decolonize in the former colonies. There are different tasks. There are different reasons. There are different struggles.
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In what concerns social sciences and law, we have to understand that the implication with the colonial project on both areas was absolute, was almost unconditional, like how you’d say, because in terms of law, it was precisely the idea that only written law and state law is the law that is going to govern, not only metropolitan societies but also colonial societies. Of course, this is also preposterous, so almost impossible, that particular non-European societies would be run by European law– that the colonisers developed an idea which, in the British colonialism, came to be known as indirect rule.
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That meant, basically, that for the minor conflicts among the native people, family issues and neighbour issues and small property issues, they could abide by their own traditional laws, what we call the traditional– the native laws– the laws of the natives. And this was only not allowed if these laws contradicted any fundamental belief of the Western-centric law, which in the case of the British colonialism, it would be brought to an appeal in London, so to say, right? But other than that, there was a wide space for the application of traditional law in the colonies. But the knowledge that, in fact, meant power and distribution of power– economic, political, and cultural power in society– was the Eurocentric law, the official law.
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So the metrics of the state as the colonial state is basically a modern Eurocentric matrix, a structure and a culture. For instance, the monocultural– we talk about monocultures. Well, the monocultures of the state– the monolithic structure of the state– one law, one administrative law, one structure of the functionaries and civil servants for the country, the idea that there is no accommodation of broody nationality. It very often very repressed these ideas. All these metrics of the colonial state comes from law, of course.
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So that’s why to such an extent that after– that’s when it was a struggle today, and that’s why it was appealing to the different contexts because now in Africa, for instance, or in Latin America, the idea is the struggle against the colonial state today. That is to say, the people that inherited the state after the liberation struggles, after the independence, in fact, the state was a colonial state. And not just by the influence of the former colonisers but by the structure of the state itself, it reproduced colonialism. I think that Kwame Nkrumah, in Ghana, was probably the first to mention this in 1965 with his book of Neo-Colonialism.
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Of course, Gandhi– Mahatma Gandhi was very much aware of that since 1904 when he wrote the Indian Swaraj. And in the Indian Swaraj, he wanted another different– another type of state, a non-Western-centric type of state because he knew that this would be detrimental. So this idea of law is a law that represses legal pluralism– what we call legal pluralism, the idea that in the same geopolitical space, there is more than one law. There were, as I said, that the confines were the confines of the direct rule, but nothing of that. So they were not on the same foot. There was an hierarchic among the law.
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The social sciences– well, here you can even consider if we take a longer duration from the 17th century, we should also include the human science. That is to say, the humanities, philosophy, theology, and so on– ethics. All these were part of the same package as the social science from the 19th century onwards, and they, in fact, are totally implicated, so much so that when we designed the disciplines, the disciplines are abyssal. That is to say we really established for the first time a strict abyssal line dividing humans from subhumans. Sociology is for the full humans. Ethnology, ethnography, anthropology is for the subhumans. I’m not saying that all the anthropologists were colonialists.
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On the contrary, many of them were fighting against colonialism, but the instruments, the concepts, the theories that were developed in anthropology was to make clear that these societies were very different from our societies. And not they were just different, they were inferior in many respects. In all the concepts established because of the monoculture of the linear time, as I explained, the sociology and anthropology were subsidiaries of the same linear time of conception, and therefore, anthropology was dealing with societies that were behind, so to say, in the linear arrow of time. So this was the main idea in the social sciences by all of them being prepped, in a sense, in the five monocultures that I mentioned.
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They were the ones that sort of produced and legitimated all the hierarchics of contemporary world. So the coloureds were inferior knowledge, inferior people, ignorant people, lazy people, local people. That is to say, what was the opposite of the monoculture was considered inferior, was considered ignorant, non-valued, lazy, and local, all the adjectives that we invented to establish a hierarchy among forms of sociability. So these forms of socialabilities hierarchies, in a sense, were, of course, established by social sciences in itself. And these happened in different ways in the Global North, and then in Global South, in the former colonies.
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But the idea for many attempts, as you can see in the– when we proceed in our conversation, the attempt to have to do this work of decolonize, not just in Europe but also in the former colonies, shows the extent to which social sciences were present in both contexts.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Professor of Sociology, University of Coimbra (Portugal), and Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin. Here he draws on his background in both law and sociology to reflect on the relationship between these areas of scholarship and colonialism.

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