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Connected Sociologies: an interview with Professor Gurminder Bhambra

Interview with Professor Gurminder Bhambra on connected sociologies
Welcome, everyone. Today we’re joined by Professor Gurminder Bhambra, who is a professor of postcolonial and decolonial studies in the Department of international relations in the School of Global Studies University of Sussex. Gurminder’s work has been central to identifying the colonial foundation of the discipline of sociology and imagining ways of reconstructing the discipline. I’d like to ask you to explain a bit about the entanglements between sociology and colonialism both past and present. Thanks so much for inviting me. I think when we’re thinking about sociology’s entanglements with colonialism, we have to start with how sociology as a discipline itself emerged. And in a sense, sociology emerges to make sense of the modern world.
And the way in which it understands the modern world is specifically in relation to two events, the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution. And it’s these histories that come to be part of how the discipline itself comes to be configured. Now, as many people have argued, it’s not possible really to understand the modern world without thinking about the ways in which colonialism is constitutive of the modern world. And yet sociology’s understanding of the modern seems to have no place for colonialism within it.
So the critique that gets made is on two levels, firstly that the processes that sociology does recognise as central to the modern world, such as the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, were not straightforwardly endogenous events, that is internal events to Europe. They had broader conditions for their emergence. And that there are also other events that we could understand, as well as historical, and as contributing to the emergence and construction of the modern world, such as the slave trade, colonisation, dispossession, and appropriation. And so the relationship of sociology and colonialism is really one of the absence.
And that absence structure sociology, in such a way that it makes it ineffective as a discipline, to really deal with the issues that we’re currently facing, because it hasn’t understood its own history adequately. Thank you. So in your work you’ve actually advocated for a connected sociology. Can you explain what a connected sociology is and its relationship to decolonizing the discipline of sociology. So in a sense, what I wanted to argue is to think about the things that we acknowledge within their broader context, that is to recognise them in terms of their connections as opposed to their difference. So to say that the way in which sociology emerges as a discipline is around two fundamental distinctions.
A temporal rupture, or this idea that there’s a rupture in time between a premodern agrarian past and a modern industrial present, and that this rupture was located within Europe, which is seen to be distinct from the rest of the world. So instead of these ideas of rupture and difference, I’m advocating that we understand sociology and history in connected terms, so that we think about the connections across time and across space that actually provide the context for thinking about these things more rigorously. So if I can just give one example. When we think about the Industrial Revolution, we think about the Industrial Revolution in terms of the cotton industry in Manchester and Lancaster.
That’s the sort of classic way in which the Industrial Revolution gets taught. And so then we say that the Industrial Revolution emerged in Britain, and then from Britain it disseminated to the rest of the world. Now, I would argue that if we think about the Industrial Revolution and think about what it was really about, the cotton mills of Manchester and Lancaster, well cotton isn’t a plant that’s native to Europe, let alone to Britain. It comes from India, as does the technology of how to die and weave it. It’s grown in the southern states of the US and the Caribbean by Africans who are taken there as part of the European trade in human beings.
The raw material is brought back to Manchester, from where it’s turned into cloth. And that cloth is sold around the world, usually at the point of a gun, because it’s of inferior quality to cotton that’s produced in other parts of the world. So the Industrial Revolution in Britain couldn’t have happened without the global conditions that enable cotton to be produced in Manchester. And thinking about the Industrial Revolution in this way enables us to think about the ways in which the world was already connected, through processes of colonisation and the slave trade, in order to enable the Industrial Revolution to happen. So it’s not that the world came to be globalised after the Industrial Revolution.
It was globalised through colonialism, which then produced the Industrial Revolution. Thank you. These are such important analytic advancements for the field. And indeed, you’ve not only been at the forefront of decolonizing sociology in these methodological and theoretical ways, but you’ve also been meeting important practical interventions in the field. And I’d like to ask if you could tell us a bit about the global social theory project that you’re part of, as well as the connected sociology curriculum project. So a few years ago, when students began to advocate around the question of why is my curriculum white, and sort of call for a reconstruction of the curriculum.
One of the things that emerged in conversations with colleagues was often that even if they were keen to support such initiatives, they didn’t necessarily have the resources to hand. And given all the competing pressures upon the time of academics, it was sort of easier to reproduce what already existed than to revise and create something that was new. So the idea for the global social theory website came out of the fact that I teach theory. And I’ve spoken to a number of colleagues who teach theory, and we often teach it in exactly the same way. And then the question is always, well I don’t know who else to include. I don’t know what they bring. I don’t know.
And so I thought, well, why not bring all these resources into a common place, so we can provide sort of introductions to the thought of people from different places in different locations, and also include people who aren’t often thought of as theorists, but who through their work have theorised the conditions of the world within which they’re living. And so it was established as a collaborative project. It was set up initially together with my colleagues Lucy Mayblin and Lisa Tilly. And now Angela Last is also involved in this. And we sort of, in a sense, crowdsource. So it’s collaboratively produced. People write to me and say, oh, why don’t you have an entry on x.
And I’m like, great, write it, and I’ll put it up. So in that sense, it’s been going for about five years now. And we’ve built up a nice collection of thinkers and topics and concepts. And we’re always happy to have more contributions to it. That’s fantastic. And you’ve got a more recent project on the connected sociology curriculum. So that came out of a similar sort of sense that, again, that the move towards decolonizing the curriculum has been very much advocated across a number of institutions and public spaces, and so on.
So it was thinking about, well, what resources could I provide that would enable colleagues to begin to address some of these issues, because again it’s that issue of time and resources that people have. And so if you can make things available for people, then it’s easier to include them and slowly over time to think about how one would transform the curriculum in relation to this. And just as a point, I mean, I guess this sort of concern around decolonizing the curriculum. For me, it’s really about the concepts and the categories that we use.
It’s both about looking backwards historically about what histories have been included and which have not been included, as well as thinking about how that transforms the disciplines that we’re a part of. So the site is specifically for social scientists, and what it’s trying to do is to bring attention to histories that have often not been thought of as constituting the basis of the social sciences, and then how those categories are then developed. And so, in that sense, it’s providing these other sorts of resources to support the teaching of social science in a more rigorous way. So I’m also wondering how effective you think the language of decolonizing is, when it comes to the sorts of projects you’ve been involved in.
So I think it’s been effective in terms of mobilising interest and support, in the sorts of things that people wish to do under that banner, but it also has the danger of becoming a term that can be used too easily, without thinking through what it is that needs to be done. So for example, the projects that I’m involved in around global social theory, the connected sociology curriculum project, and also in a different sort of way, the Discover Society, the online magazine that I coedit. These are all contributions to a more rigorous social science. These are contributions to an expansive social science, and to a public social science.
And I think in that sense, that what’s important is the work that’s done to change the parameters of what tends to be understood as knowledge and who comes to be understood as knowledge produces. And that that’s an important part of this overall– the direction of travel that we’re going in. But it’s not straightforwardly, to me, something that would constitute decolonization, because I think decolonization has to be related to political movements in the world beyond the University. Although, of course, those of us who are within universities ought to think about what contribution we can make to this larger project that exists beyond reading lists, beyond curricula, beyond the demographics of the University, as important as those aspects also are.
And I’d like to close by asking if you had any reflections on the future of sociology. What challenges might lie ahead for the project of decolonizing the discipline?
I think sociology has been invested in a process of transformation over the last few years. And that transformation is something that requires it to look at the histories it acknowledges in the construction of the discipline, as well as then looking forwards. So that reconstruction has to be backwards as well as forwards. We have to acknowledge these broader histories that have produced what we understand to be the modern world, and then think about the ways in which that modern world, now newly understood, enables us to think differently about concepts, categories, and political strategies that would be needed to address those sorts of inequalities.
So ultimately I would argue for a reparatory social science, something that enables us both to recognise the injustices of the past, how they configure inequalities in the present, and what we need to do to repair the wounds that have been created through the processes of colonialism to create a better future for all of us. Thank you so much.

In this video Professor Gurminder Bhambra discusses the colonial foundations of the discipline of sociology and how we might work towards new concepts, categories and political strategies for a reparative social sciences.

Listen to the interview and visit the websites below on ‘Global Social Theory’ and ‘Connected Sociologies Curriculum Project’ to consider the conceptual and practical work required to decolonise sociology.

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