Review:Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination, by Gurminder K. Bhambra

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Rethinking modernity: postcolonialism and the sociological imagination. By Gurminder K. Bhambra. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2007. Pp. vii – 200. $130.00 (Cloth).

In Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination (2007), sociologist, Gurminder K. Bhambra seeks to decenter Europe’s hegemony on sociology. Writing in the wake of postcolonialism, Bhambra admits that her goal no longer seems novel, but her criticisms of postcolonial theorists — for merely reifying the binary play between the “West and the rest” — reveals that Bhambra’s work is still vitally important for social theory.[*] The author claims to have found a way out of the binary interplay between the West the ‘other,’ by revising the history of modernity and the historiography of sociology through historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s theory of ‘connected histories.’ Using C. Wright Mills’ “sociological imagination,” Bhambra shows that revising the socio-historical narrative of modernity is imperative for understanding social theory in today’s globalized world.

In the introduction, titled “Postcolonialism, Sociology, and the Politics of Knowledge Production,” Bhambra states the problem of the book as such: theories of modernity lie at the heart of classical and contemporary sociology and social theory.   Europe lies at the heart of all theories of modernity. These theories, from Comte to postcolonialism, Bhambra asserts, rely on two fundamental assumptions – rupture and difference. Sociology, she continues, is predicated on historical narratives, these narratives have privileged Europe. Bhambra states the reasons for undertaking this project: “the way we understand the past has implications for the social theories we develop to deal with the situations we live with today. Through recognizing the constituted ‘other’ as always present in history, but written out of it, we can begin to conceptualize forms of theoretical discourse and political practice today” (Bhambra, 2009, p. 11).

Bhambra defines what she means by both modernity and Eurocentracism. First, by modernity, Bhambra refers to “the social, cultural, political, and economic changes that took place in Western Europe from the mid-sixteenth century onwards” (Bhambra, 2009, p. 2). Bhambra does not use Eurocentracism in a typical sense, but her “alternative” meaning is important for understanding how she plans on overcoming Eurocentracism through ‘connected histories.’ By Eurocentracism, Bhambra means “the belief, implicit, or otherwise, in the world historical significance of events believed to have developed endogenously within the cultural-geographical sphere of Europe” (Bhambra, 2009, p. 5). Bhambra does not argue that things like the French Revolution or the Industrial Revolution did not exist or that modernity does not exist, instead, she argues that modernity is not the sole property of Europe.

The book consists of two parts, with three chapters, totaling six chapters all together. Part I, titled “Sociology and Its Historiography,” addresses ways in which rupture and difference have surfaced and have been criticized in social theory. In chapter 1, “Modernity, Colonialism, and the Postcolonial Critique,” Bhambra focuses on Ranajit’s Subaltern Studies and other postcolonial theory, suggesting that subaltern studies reify differences between the West and the “rest,” by privileging narratives of the marginalized. “Any claim for unity among the oppressed,” Bhambra notes, “is perceived as potentially an essentialist position.” (Bhambra, 2009, p. 30).

At the end of Chapter 1, Bhambra introduces Subrahmanyam’s ‘connected histories,’ the full weight of which does not become apparent until the end of chapter 3. Using author Veena Das’ ‘subaltern as perspective,’ as an example of standpoint theory, Bhambra show how European modernity and subaltern studies privilege historical narratives from a singular standpoint and thus fail to understand interrelations and connections throughout history (Bhambra, 2009, pp. 27–28). According to Bhambra, scholars must get away from viewing history and social theory from individual standpoints. Bhambra, however, does not endorse a value free standpoint, such as objectivity. She agrees with postmodern and postcolonial cohorts, who challenged the notion of objectivity as a “view from nowhere,” but unlike her postmodern and postcolonial peers, she does not want to substitute the view from nowhere with a singular view, instead Bhambra emphasizes connections, hybridity.[†]

Chapter 2, “European Modernity and the Sociological Imagination,” reveals the centrality of rupture and difference to sociology. Bhambra addresses the history of sociology from proto sociologists, Auguste Comte and Karl Marx to the first sociologists Emile Durkheim and Max Weber and beyond. The central theme of sociology, Bhambra states, was to understand how social relations in the modern era were organized. This approach, she argues, assumed a rupture between the modern era and the more traditional past. For instance, Bhambra notes in the beginning of the book that the French and Industrial Revolutions are often seen as the twin pillars of the origins of modernity (Bhambra, 2009, p. 1). In part II she pays more attention to the actual events, in Chapter 2, Bhambra is more concerned with theories built about how people have discussed certain events.

In “Modernization to Multiple Modernities: Eurocentracism,” chapter 3, Bhambra levels her strongest criticism on scholars purporting a system called ‘multiple modernities.’ Up to this point, Bhambra’s work offered new insights into old problems, but in chapter 3, the force of her argument becomes even more apparent and her solution becomes more urgent. Scholars, such as Shumel Eisenstadt and Wolfgang, Schluster, who advocate multiple modernities believe that different nations go through their own process of modernization and need not follow Europe’s model (Bhambra, 2009, p. 65ff). Through various forms of cultural or technological synthesis and hybridity, non-European nations can be brought into the modern globalized world. Bhambra, however, is quick to interject that even though these scholars try to avert blatant Eurocentracism, they also enforce Eurocentracism by using Europe as an ideal type for modernity (Bhambra, 2009, p. 72).

In part II, Bhambra applies the ‘connected history’ approach to three historical events, that have often served as quintessential moments in the rise of European modernity – the “Renaissance, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution. In chapter four, she critiques the view of the “Renaissance as the birth of the modern and the birth of Europe,” (Bhambra, 2009, p. 103) by challenging well renowned historian Jacob Burckhardt’s work on the Renaissance (Bhambra, 2009, p. 87). Chapter 5, Bhumbra deconstructs the origins of the nation-state as it supposedly emerged in the French Revolution and in Chapter 6, Bhambra challenges the traditional historiographies of the Industrial Revolution, which places Europe at the center of modern industry and capitalism – not an easy task. Bhambra shows that Europe was not unique when going through these events. By challenging these tokens of European exceptionalism, Bhambra hopes that new historical perspectives, which do not privilege Europe, can lead to a more inclusive narrative of social theory.

Working with the Global History and Cultural Centre at Warwick University in England, Bhambra is active in trying to connect sociology and history. Today, most, if not all, humanities and social science departments have turned their attention toward transnational and global matters. Bhambra work, not only achieves this end, but her knowledge of both sociology and history clearly shows that one discipline cannot continue in isolation from the other. Her breadth of knowledge of historiography, alone, is beyond impressive. For most historians, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution are treated as distinct fields with their own canons of literature. Not only has Bhambra become familiar with these separate branches of history, but she has also included historiographies from around other geographical locations e.g. India. Her knowledge of historiography, coupled with her understanding of both classical and modern sociology, makes Rethinking Modernity a canonical text for today and tomorrow’s sociologists and historians.

–Todd Burst

_______________________________________________________________

Bhambra, G. K. (2009). Rethinking modernity: postcolonialism and the sociological imagination. Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ferguson, Niall (2012). Civilization: The West and the Rest. Reprint edition. New York:      Penguin Books, 2012.

Nagel, Thomas (1989). The View From Nowhere. Reprint edition. New York: Oxford          University Press, USA

[*] The phrase ‘West and the ‘rest’” refers to historian Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest (2012).

[†] The phrase “view from nowhere,” refers to philosopher Thomas Nagel’s book The View from Nowhere (1989), where the author refers to the supposedly neutral standpoint of objectivity as “the view form nowhere.”

For more information:

Shadows of Tender Fury, interview with Bhambra by Alf Gunvald Nilsen

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