Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Southern Theory by Raewyn Connell

I have just finished reading Southern Theory (2007) by Professor Raewyn Connell. I found it an excellent introduction to what Connell terms 'southern theory', theories related to the social sciences that are formulated outside the metropole. The metropole is the centres of knowledge production in the hegemonic sense, Europe and North America. Connell writes:

"I use the term 'Southern Theory' for several reasons. First, the phrase calls attention to the periphery-center relations in the realm of knowledge. The editors of the Indian periodical Subaltern Studies used the term 'subaltern' not so much to name a social category as to highlight relations of power (See Chapter 8). Similarly, I use the term 'Southern' not to name a sharply bounded category of states and societies, but to emphasise relations - authority, exclusion, inclusion, hegemony, partnership, sponsorship,appropriation - between intellectuals and institutions in the metropole and those in the world periphery." (ix)

As an Australian living in Europe I understand the distance between the periphery and the metropole. While I consider this a potentially useful concept, the region I live in Europe I would consider a periphery within the metropole, so while the general sense of the center-periphery concept is clear it is more complex than it appears as well. I think Connell is aware of this, and it does not prevent what I consider the strongest point of Southern Theory being established. As a survey of academic, activist, theorist and research from outside the globally dominant nodes of knowledge production.

The chapter headings of Southern Theory are:

Table of Contents



Part I: Northern Theory
Empire and the creation of a social science
Modern general theory and its hidden assumptions
Imagining globalisation

Part II: Looking South
The discovery of Australia

Part III: Southern Theory
Indigenous knowledge and African Renaissance
Islam and Western dominance
Dependency, autonomy and culture
Power, violence and the pain of colonialism

Part IV: Antipodean Reflections

The silence of the land
Social science on a world scale


As a academic (approaching the end of initial training) one of the more concise and sharp paragraphs which made an impression on me in Southern Theory is

"Corporations are not the only institutions that allow the rich countries to exercise control and accumulate resources. There is also the metropolitan state, changing from its days of plump imperial pride to its scarecrow neoliberal present, thinning its commitment to citizen's well-being while growing its capacity for external destruction. There are museums and research institutions that have been key players in the centralisation of data from the colonial world. There are new sciences and technologies that, as Al-e Ahmad (1962) observed, lie behind the machine civilization that is the vehicle of Westoxification [Farsi: gharbzadegi]. Since his day computer technology has made the point even more forcibly. And there is the problem of tracing the changing locus of power in a system where now, as Garcia Canclini (1999:13) puts it the main decisions that shape everyday life 'are taken in places that are inaccessible and difficult to identify" (216)

Connell states elsewhere that Al-e Ahmad's suspicion of the machinist West was a not a resistance to technological change but rather a desire for the machines to be within the control of the fellahin.

"Only the society that makes machines, rather than always importing them, can control their power and use them in a labour-intensive, more appropriate agriculture that would reduce imports and support the population." (123)

Granted Connell is no economist. Being able to produce a good, be it a high-end manufactured one, does not guarantee an equitable society. But I believe the point regrading access to and use of technology in a global perspective is a good one. Witness the travesty that is internet access in sub-Saharan Africa today:

It is all going East-West!!!!

I would recommend Southern Theory to just about anyone who wanted to gain a broader picture of how "the global dynamics of knowledge" (the subtitle of the book) is organised today. With both integration of global economies and inequity and exploitation working in an unholy triad and many people being aware of this and acting out of desperation, it is very necessary that the issues addressed by Connell gain a broader scope of consideration. If they do not it will be bad for everyone.

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