SPAIS annual lecture: the fictions of modern social theory

25 May 2021, 5.00 PM - 25 May 2021, 6.30 PM

Professor Gurminder K Bhambra, University of Sussex

This year's annual lecture is given by guest speaker Gurminder K Bhambra.

Gurminder K Bhambra is Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies in the Department of International Relations at the University of Sussex and a Fellow of the British Academy. She is author of Connected Sociologies (2014) and the award-winning Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination (2007). She is also co-editor of Decolonising the University (2018) and her most recent book is the co-authored, Colonialism and Modern Social Theory (2021). She runs the Global Social Theory site, is editor of Discover Society, and directs the Connected Sociologies Curriculum Project.


The consolidation of modern social theory, in the writings of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, coincided with the height of European empires and global war between them. Yet, empire lay outside the purview of mainstream social theory except as a phenomenon associated with earlier historical periods and civilisations. Even in the work of Du Bois – a theorist excluded from the canon until recently – the issue of colonialism was not immediately evident, but something worked towards from an initial address of the seeming particularities of race relations in the US. By the mid-twentieth century, most European countries were confronted by anti-colonial movements and challenges to their global dominance. However, these challenges to the political structures of European modernity seemed not to impinge on the organization of the social sciences. The issue is not simply to add colonialism to the repertoire of topics, but to show how that repertoire must change and the concepts and methodologies with which it is associated be transformed. What does it mean to ‘decolonise’ a curriculum in which colonialism is unrecognised? My argument is for a renewal of social and political theory, not their rejection. Central to this renewal is to recognise and address five fictions that currently organise conceptual frameworks in the social sciences: the fiction of stages of social development; the fiction of modern subjectivity; the fiction of the nation-state; the fiction of class and formally free labour; and, finally, the fiction of sociological reason.

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