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Toward post-Western theory: China and transnationalism

Chinese Social Sciences Today

In our tradition, the social sciences, particularly sociology, have long been almost entirely monopolized by Western cultures. They were born in Europe for the most part. However, the Western world has lost its hegemony over the production of their paradigms, organized around two central narratives: the superiority of Western civilization and the belief in the continuous growth of capitalism. So we offer a glimpse beyond the “East” and the “West” by opening the horizons to a wealth of self-directed narratives by societies worldwide, thus laying the foundation for a post-Western space. This is a place where “Western” and “non-Western” sociologies can intersect and interact, forming shared, divergent understanding of a myriad of theoretical and empirical ethnoscapes.

From the production of an epistemology shared with my Chinese colleagues for 15 years with Professors Li Peilin, Xie Lizhong, Li Youmei, etc., we proposed a post-Western sociology based on an ecology of sociological knowledge from China to Europe. I would like to introduce the first part about Western hegemony and a reimagined West. 

Deconstructing Western hegemony

The first Eurocentric standpoint is characterized by the two principles: Orientalism and bifurcation. It means the West is seen as being different from “the rest” of the world. It also means a diversity of Eurocentric and Americano-centric Westernism. Western and imperialist hegemonies are criticized by non-Western and Westernized intellectuals living and working in the heart of the West. We have to consider post-colonial studies and subaltern studies have contributed to displacing Eurocentrism to deconstruct binaries between East and West, and appending a third space. We can also consider the formation of a global south and consider epistemic discrimination and resistance in Africa and Latin America to a Germanic Western thought are very clear. 

At the same time, we have non-Western West. In the non-Western West, we are focused on interconnectedness, assemblages and dis-assemblages between Western and non-Western sociologies through methodological cosmopolitanism.

Meanwhile, if we have considered a non-Western West, we have to consider the pluralization of epistemic archenemies in different parts of the world, especially in Asia and in China. 

Indigenization of Chinese sociology

In China, it means Sinicization; in Chinese sociology, the question of indigenization of Chinese sociology. We now have still caught scientific controversies about indigenization of Chinese sociology. 

It’s not a new topic, because Sun Benwen introduced this topic very early. But we have different positions between Xie Yu, who defends an academicism dependent on American-centrism to qualify “world sociology,” and He Feng’s approach focusing on the construction of a methodological nationalism. Zhou Xiaohong and Wang Canglong argue for an intermediate position. 

I have distinguished three forms of epistemic autonomies in Chinese sociology. For example, historic epistemic autonomy with Li Peilin and Qu Jingdong through the re-establishment of continuities with sociology before 1949, and then forgotten. We also have a distinguished alternative epistemic autonomy with He Yijin. And local epistemic autonomy is different, we search for example, Zhou Feizhou who is a sociologist of action and so on. According to Xie Lizhong, discursive pluralism appears to be linked to a form of universalism, and it means also a typology of indigenization of knowledge. Xie Lizhong proposed different forms of indigenization. We can discuss plural epistemic autonomy in China, which will become central in the construction of post-Western sociology. 

Post-Western sociology

How to invent the post-Western sociology? An ecology of knowledge between the “Western West,” the “non-Western West,” the “Western East,” the “Eastern East,” and the “re-Easternized East,” is situated on an epistemological continuum. We can observe simultaneous processes in the post-Western space: the first one, the multiplication and hierarchization of epistemic autonomies vis-à-vis Western hegemonies and the epistemic assemblages between European and Chinese sociologies. 

Post-Western sociology proceeds from the de-centering and the renewing of universalisms that originated in different Eastern and Western spaces. Post-Western sociology is co-produced in a “cross-pollination” process, based on continuities and discontinuities, conjunctions and disjunctions between local knowledge on the gaps between “Western” and “non-Western” sociologies. 

I have distinguished different steps into the production of post-Western sociologies. The first one is the identification of theoretical traditions, legacies, and controversies in Europe, in different sociologies in the world. The second one is the capacity to define “knowledge niches” and located spaces. The third one is related to the circulation of knowledge and new universalism, sociological transnationalism, and global common space. The last one is the co-production of creolized sociological knowledge. Post-Western sociology utilize the gaps/intervals between the perspectives, practices, and concepts of Chinese and European sociologies. Post-Western methodology leads to a multi-situated sociology, co-doing fieldwork in a plurality of spaces, situations, contexts, and temporality.

European and Chinese sociologists are working together to define common field situations in various contexts. They are doing fieldwork together, they are sharing fieldwork, they are discussing how to use which concept and so on. They can co-produce “creolized” concepts. We have shown in a constructed dialogue of how “Western” and “non-Western” theories meet; how shared sociological knowledge and situated knowledge cohabit and become embedded. 

Laurence Roulleau-Berger is a professor from the École Normale Supérieure of Lyon. This article was edited from her video speech submitted to the forum.