Interview with Raewyn Connell

Professor Raewyn Connell explains the thinking behind her book Southern Theory.

What were your aims in writing "Southern Theory"?

Fourteen years ago, when I began this work, I aimed simply to correct a historical error – the textbook belief that sociology was invented to explain the new industrial society of Europe. I found that the creation of sociology was in fact closely bound up with the cultural problems of imperialism (sociology originally concerned "progress" and centred on a contrast between "primitive" and "advanced" societies). Without intending to, this piece of historical research opened up other questions about the relations between social science and world society.

By the time the book was written, I had two main aims and one subsidiary. First, I wanted to show how mainstream ideas and frameworks across the social sciences, which are usually taken as universally valid, actually embed the specific viewpoint of the global North. I wanted to show in some detail just how this viewpoint works, for instance in shaping concepts like "globalization" or in the ideas of celebrated theorists. I wanted to show how the uncritical importation of Northern perspectives gives a strange twist to the way social science operates in the global periphery, in countries like Australia.

Second, I wanted to show that there are real alternatives. Southern theory isn’t just a pipe-dream, it actually exists – though mainly in texts that are not widely read. So much of the text of Southern Theory is a matter of gathering up social analyses from different parts of the periphery, and thinking about them as social theory – that is, taking them as seriously as we usually take Foucault, Habermas, or Bourdieu. I wanted to get names such as Hountondji, Shariati, Das, Nandy, Garcia Canclini, Mamdani, and others into wider circulation, and persuade readers that the debates they are involved in are crucial for social science. I wanted to argue that the periphery generates important issues and ideas, it doesn’t just receive them. I tried to show that in another way too, by discussing the land as a key issue for understanding society – an issue highlighted by the history of settler colonialism and the land rights struggles of indigenous peoples.

If I could make progress on those two aims, a third became relevant. I wanted to stir up a discussion about what a democratic social science would look like, if we thought about it on a world scale. Discussions about epistemology and the structure of knowledge usually happen in a separate box from discussions about globalization and world politics. But they have to be brought together, if the argument in Southern Theory is broadly correct. In the final chapter I have a go at that problem; it’s sketchy, but at least it’s there.

What has the response been, in the North and South?

It is early days yet, for reviews in academic journals; but the first that have appeared, a review symposium in a UK journal and a regular review in an Australian journal, are very positive. I have been invited to speak on these questions at conferences and departmental seminars – mostly in my own fields of sociology and gender studies – and people in the university world have responded with interest. The International Sociological Association is an important forum for me.

I can’t say that Southern Theory is a runaway best-seller, yet! There have been no reviews in Australian mass media, which disappoints me. But I think it is gradually getting known. A quotation from Southern Theory has been used by an artist as the theme for a poster, exhibited in Germany. The Australian Sociological Association has recently awarded it the Stephen Crook Memorial Prize for the best monograph in Australian sociology 2005-2007 – I shed some tears at the presentation. I have had supportive email messages from people in the periphery, who find the book helpful because it names problems that they also faced, i.e. it validates their experience. Some scholars, in the metropole as well as the periphery, are sending me papers in which they are already building on the ideas of Southern Theory in their own fields. That is particularly exciting for me, as I believe that the growth of knowledge is very much a collective work.

Of course there are criticisms. One is particularly interesting. When I gave a seminar on the ideas at a US university, there was criticism from one colleague who was disturbed at the risk involved. If graduate students were persuaded by Southern Theory to spend their time reading Shariati, Nandy, Hountondji and other exotic authors, they would be distracted from the business of learning the mainstream professional knowledge on which their careers depended. This is a real issue, I take it seriously. There are risks for social scientists in the metropole, in the kind of global re-shaping of social science that I think is necessary.

What do you think are some of the questions raised by the book?

One of the most difficult, constantly raised in critical discussions and reviews, is what is meant by the "South". I say several times in the book that there is no single Southern perspective, and in fact show that in great detail. But it is still a nagging question. The geographer’s "South" is not exactly the same as the "South" in UN trade debates, or the "third world", or the "less developed countries", or the economists’ "periphery", or the cultural theorists’ "post-colonial" world, or the biologists’ "southern world", or the geologists’ former Gondwana – though there is some overlapping along this spectrum. I mainly talk of "metropole" and "periphery", but there is enormous social diversity within each; recognizing the polarity is only the beginning of analysis, not the end.

It seems particularly difficult to think of Australia as "South" – though the name actually means South-ia – probably because it is a rich country in world terms, and likes to think of itself politically or culturally as part of the "West", heaven help us. Partly because of the dominance of the misleading concept of "globalization", which I dissect in the book, we don’t have well-developed concepts for understanding the power of periphery-metropole relations or the complexities of the periphery. So there is work to be done, understanding the economics of primary-exporting economies such as Australia’s, the culture of post-settler-colonialism, and the ways ethnicity, class and gender are shaped in the different societies of the periphery.

Another question raised by the book, at a very practical level, is how knowledge circulates in the periphery. Southern Theory is published in Australia and the UK, in English; and there will be a small edition published in India. There has been some discussion of translations into other languages, but no publisher has undertaken that yet. How would its arguments get known in Latin America, in Africa, or in China? Mainly, by the book being discussed by scholars in the USA and Europe! In fact, the best chance I have of the book becoming known in the global periphery, is if it gets used as a textbook in social theory courses in the metropole. The fact that we still rely on the metropole to circulate ideas around the periphery is a problem discussed in the book, and I don’t know what solutions there may be.

How are you following this line of thought?

Firstly, by discussing the ideas of Southern Theory in as many forums as I can, and trying to get social scientists to read the theorists introduced in it. That would be a success in itself.

Next, I’m trying to apply the perspective in other fields of my work. For instance in 2009 the second edition of my book Gender is being published, which makes more use of Southern research and theoretical work than most of the English-language literature in this field. I have been working on a global sociology of intellectuals, some of which lies behind Southern Theory in fact, and which I hope to sharpen up in the light of the book and responses to it.

Finally, I’m doing what I can to encourage other people, including students, to work on these problems. I don’t think Southern Theory is more than a beginning – a rank beginning in some of the areas it touches, given the problems of language. And of course it’s not the only thing in its field! There have been discussions of these and related issues in Latin America, in Africa and in Asia; so in the papers I write, I try to spread awareness of other texts and debates. The broader the process that unfolds, the better.

Raewyn Connell is University Professor at University of Sydney

5 thoughts on “Interview with Raewyn Connell”

  1. It’s interesting to learn that Connell’s book is getting such positive response, though ironically much of it seem to be in the North. Is that specifically from a northern perspective, or reflecting composition of the discipline as a whole? The comment from the American colleague was very interesting about problems for students in specialising themselves out of the mainstream by pursuing this line of thought. Perhaps that won’t be so in the future. Change has to come from somewhere.

  2. Good day ,Im an Honours student at UJ and find the Southern Theory VERY EXCITING BUT IN YOUR VIEW HOW WOULD YOU EXPLAIN IT USING THE EXPERIENCES OF PEOPLE LIVING IN LESS DEVELOPED WORLDS like us here in South Africa?

  3. That’s an interesting question Busisiwe. I think at a basic level countries like Australia and South Africa share similar challenges in our distance from the metropolitan centres. Of course, there are large differences in our societies, but our universities are both modelled on the notion that we engage with major theories by collecting data, rather than contesting those ideas at the centre. We both have reason to do that, as societies that must negotiate the divided society which is the aftermath of colonisation. This is a condition that is not typical of transatlantic centres. We must not only consider knowledge for its own sake, but also for the social conditions of its production.
    So what’s the situation like in South Africa. What are you studying?

  4. Im studying Industrial Sociology-Honours.Thank you for attending one of our lectures the Southern Theory gave us an amazing perspective as upcoming academics if you do return please engage with us again.

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