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Rethinking the Teaching of Sociology in the Context of
Syed Farid Alatas
Department of Sociology
National University of Singapore
Eurocentrism in the Sociology Curricula
A survey of course syllabi for the history of sociological theory as
well sociological theory will reveal a number of characteristics of Eurocentrism.
These are the subject-object dichotomy, the dominance of European categories
and concepts, and the representation of Europeans as the sole originators
In most sociological theory textbook or writings on the history of social
theory, the subject-object dichotomy is a dominant, albeit unarticulated
principle of organization. Europeans are the ones that do the thinking
and writing, they are the social theorists and social thinkers, what we
might call the knowing subject. If at all non-Europeans appear in the
texts they are objects of study of the European theorists featured and
not as knowing subjects, that is, as sources of sociological theories
and ideas. If we take the nineteenth century as an example, the impression
is given that during the period that Europeans such as Marx, Weber and
Durkheim were thinking about the nature of society and its development,
there were no thinkers in Asia and Africa doing the same. Therefore, the
only non-Europeans that appear in these works are those usually nameless,
anonymous ones mentioned or referred to by the European thinkers whose
ideas are being discussed.
The absence of non-European thinkers in these accounts is particularly
glaring in cases where non-Europeans had actually influenced the development
of social thought. Typically, a history of social thought or a course
on social thought and theory would cover theorists such as Montesquieu,
Vico, Comte, Spencer, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Toennies, Sombart,
Mannheim, Pareto, Sumner, Ward , Small, and others. Generally, non-Western
thinkers are excluded. Even when they are, they tend to be cited out of
historical interest rather than as sources of ideas. For example, Ibn
Khaldun is occasionally referred to in histories of social thought but
is rarely seen as a source of relevant sociological theories and concepts.
He is merely regarded as a precursor or proto-sociologist.
What the subject-object dichotomy does is to place Europeans and, later,
North American scholars in the foreground in the social sciences. One
interesting exception, as far as sociology is concerned, is the work of
Becker and Barnes in their Social Thought from Lore to Science. This was
first published in 1938 and contains many pages discussing the ideas of
Ibn Khaldun (Becker & Barnes, 1961, vol I: 266-279). They say that
the first writer after Polybius to apply modern-like ideas in historical
sociology was not a European but Ibn Khaldun (Becker & Barnes, 1961,
vol I: 266). A few scholars like Becker and Barnes in the nineteenth and
early twentieth century were responsible for making Ibn Khaldun known
in the West. Becker and Barnes also discussed the influence of Ibn Khaldun's
ideas on some Euroepan thinkers. Although these influences have been recognised
in a few early works, until today they are hardly discussed in mainstream
sociological theory textbooks and courses.
The consequence of this is that the West, particularly the Americans,
British, French and Germans, are seen as the sole originators of ideas
in the social sciences. The question of the multicultural origins of the
social sciences is not raised. Many social thinkers from India, China,
Japan, and Southeast Asia during the nineteenth and early twentieth century
who were contemporaneous with Marx, Weber and Durkheim are either only
briefly mentioned in works on the history of sociology or totally ignored.
Examples of such thinkers are José Rizal (Philippines, 1861-1896),
Benoy Kumar Sarkar (India, 1887-1949), and Kunio Yanagita (Japan,1875-1962).
A more serious consequence of all of this is that what dominates in the
social sciences are theories, concepts and categories in social sciences
that were developed in Europe and North America. This domination has been
at the expense of non-European ideas and concepts. Taking religion as
an example, it is astonishing that the social scientific study of religion
does not take into account the conceptual vocabulary of the various religions
in its presentation of concepts. Rather it draws for its concepts almost
exclusively from the Christian Western tradition with the belief that
these concepts are of universal value. While that may be true, it is equally
true that the concepts of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism have the same potential
to be universalized.
Reversing Eurocentrism via Teaching in the Social Sciences
Clearly, the task for those concerned with the problem of the neglect
of ideas emanating from non-Western societies, and for those concerned
with a more universalistic approach to knowledge, is to counteract Eurocentrism
in the social sciences by reversing the subject -object dichotomy, bringing
in non-Europeans into the foreground, recognizing non-Europeans as originators,
and turning attention to non-European concepts and categories. This should
be done not with the idea of displacing modern social science but to truly
universalize. The task should not be to develop a social scientific tradition
that is equally parochial as the one being critiqued here. I propose that
counteracting Eurocentrism can be carried out at a number of levels of
social science activities. Using the example of Ibn Khaldun, I would like
to suggest how this can be done.
One level is that of metatheory, the study of the underlying structure
of theory. The study of the underlying structure of theory would include
an examination of its methodological and logical underpinnings. Such studies
are necessary if the contributions of a particular scholar are to be kept
alive and regarded as relevant. Ibn Khaldun's theory of state formation
must continuously be discussed in terms of its method, its logical underpinnings,
and the social context in which it emerged.
Apart from that, there has to be more theoretical work undertaken. These
works have to be more than descriptive. There are many works that describe
Ibn Khaldun's theory. But there has been a negligible amount of theory
building that would result in what we may call neo-Khaldunian social theory,
that is, work that goes beyond the mere comparison of some ideas and concepts
in ibn Khaldun with those of Western theorists toward the theoretical
integration of his theory into a framework that employs some of the tools
of modern social science. (Laroui, 1980; Cheddadi, 1980; Gellner, 1981;
Michaud, 1981; Lacoste, 1984; Carre, 1988; Alatas, 1993). The stress here
should be on drawing upon hitherto marginalized and untapped sources of
There also has to be critical assessments of existing attempts to generate
alternatives or counter-Eurocentric discourse. For example, Gellner attempted
to take non-European ideas seriously by building a theory of Muslim reform
based on a fusion of the ideas of Ibn Khaldun and David Hume. This was
not taken up and gone into by others.
Essential to counteracting Eurocentric discourse is bringing in non-European
ideas into teaching in mainstream social science courses and into mainstream
social science textbooks. Due to the relatively greater autonomy that
university teachers have, as compared to teachers in the schools, we would
be able to inject more non-European content into the courses that we teach.
There is no reason why, for example, social thinkers such as Rizal, Sarkar
and Yanagita cannot be introduced into course of social thought and theory.
This is something that I and a colleague at the National University of
Singapore, Vineeta Sinha, have been doing for some years. We departed
from the conventional classical sociological theory course that is usually
confined to teaching Comte, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, de Tocqueville and
other Europeans of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. We introduced
Ibn Khaldun, Jose Rizal, Sarkar and other non-Western social thinkers
and teach their ideas systematically. At the same time, we do not neglect
Western thinkers. Still, when it comes to Western thinkers such as Marx
and Weber, the focus is on those topics generally neglected in similar
courses taught in Europe and North America, such as Marx's concept of
the Asiatic mode of production, his views on colonialism in India or Weber's
work on Islam and Confucianism. The details of how the course was revamped
were reported in the journal, Teaching Sociology (Alatas and Sinha, 2001).
Counteracting Eurocentrism in the social sciences also requires our being
active in terms of popularizing non-European ideas by regularly organizing
panels or presenting papers on these ideas or their founders at mainstream
social science conferences. This is a matter of organization and funding
but also requires a lot of will on our part.
Finally, I would like to suggest that we ought to spread awareness of
the need for alternative, counter-Eurocentric discourses in the social
sciences by simply making it a point to cite the works of like-minded
scholars around the world. This would increase the visibility of the more
universal perspectives in the social sciences.
Alatas, Syed Farid. 1993. "A Khaldunian Perspective on the Dynamics
of Asiatic Societies", Comparative Civilizations Review 29: 29-51.
Alatas, Syed Farid & Vineeta Sinha. 2001. "Teaching Classical
Sociological Theory in Singapore: The Context of Eurocentrism, Teaching
Sociology 29, 3: 316-331.
Becker, Howard & Barnes, Harry Elmer. 1961. Social Thought from Lore
to Science, 3 Vols., New York: Dover Publications.
Carre, Olivier. 1988. "A propos de vues Neo-Khalduniennes sur quelques
systemes politiques Arabes actueles", Arabica 35(3) : 368-87.
Gellner, Ernest. 1981. Muslim Society, Cambridge: Cambridge University
Lacoste, Yves (1984) Ibn Khaldun: The Birth of History and the Past of
the Third World, London: Verso.
Laroui, Abdallah (1987) Islam et modernité, Paris: Éditions
Michaud, Gerard. 1981. "Caste, confession et societe en Syrie: Ibn
Khaldoun au chevet du 'Progessisme Arabe'", Peuples Mediterraneens
16 : 119-30.