Postcolonial feminisms and introducing sociology in the imperium.

Author:Puri, Jyoti

The first week of classes usually surfaces the problem of introductions--how to present myself to students and sociology to neophytes. (1) I have been teaching at a liberal arts and professional studies institution in northeastern United States for many years, but these issues seem more complex than ever in the introductory sociology class that I offer regularly. Mixed in with the excitement and adrenalin rush that usually quicken my walk toward the first class are confounding questions of what and how much to say about myself, how I came to know sociology, what I think sociology is and how it can be useful.

The problem of presenting the self in the classroom is fundamentally about locating it and, as Erving Goffman (1959) anticipated, managing its perception by students. In a setting marked by the imperatives of thinking, learning, and communicating, students' first impressions of the instructor are formed not just in terms of what is said but perhaps more so through expressions that one gives off--through name, race, linguistic accent. As someone born and raised in India, I am never more conscious of my non-Judeo-Christian name, brownness, accented English, and non-verbal self-expression than in the first few minutes of a new class, when it's not clear how best to navigate the differences of race, social class, gender expression, age, sexuality, nation, culture that swirl among us. Would it be more forthright to establish distance from a predominantly young, white, middle-class, U.S.-born, Judeo-Christian student body by noting that I migrated here as an adult and have not been through an undergraduate degree program here? Or, would it be more effective to establish common ground by noting that though my formative experiences were elsewhere, I have lived in this country for many years. Seeking to sidestep the anxious fretting self, elicited by the prospect of introduction, I usually choose to emphasize my affiliation to the institution, the department, and teaching and research interests.

More than these subjective aspects, though, it is the problem of introducing the discipline--what is sociology, how is it defined, what are its objects of study--that I find vexing. My first meaningful engagement with sociology was through the lens of cultural studies, especially the contributions of scholars such as Stuart Hall, foregrounding the importance of colonial legacies particularly in relation to race, representation, metropolitan and postcolonial nationalisms, and questions of belonging. And, it was when I encountered the glimmers of what would be later called postcolonial feminisms through the writings of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Inderpal Grewal, Ann Laura Stoler, M. Jacqui Alexander, and others that my relationship to sociology came to be further modulated through attention to the histories of modernity and their gendered, racialized, and sexualized dimensions. Surely, ambivalence can be generative, but it can also be difficult to communicate to students taking the introductory class in sociology, as they do typically at my institution, in order to either meet a general education requirement or because it looks generally interesting.

The vast majority of introductory sociology texts and readers in the United States resolve this problem of the discipline's presentation by gesturing to or providing excerpts from C. Wright Mills' (1959) concept of the sociological imagination--as the ability to connect the life of an individual with the history of a society or the quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay of man (sic) and society, of biography and history, of self and world (p. 4). Starting with the sociological imagination not only helps distill the discipline for the uninitiated, but it boldly presents sociology as a call to critical awareness and action. Seeking to rescue sociology from its tedium and depoliticization by the 1950s in the United States, Mills' attention to social structures and individual agency, the relevance of history, and analysis of social apathy and unease can be most useful. But, the sociological imagination can also track closely with a conservative, Euro-American-centric sociology, whereby the foundational concepts of self, individual, and the social present pedagogical barriers to fostering a more complex relational perception of the past and the present.

In what follows, I identify the ambivalences implicit in the sociological imagination, especially in the axiomatic weaving of self and society, from the perspective of teaching an introductory sociology course. Reading the sociological imagination from a postcolonial feminist perspective, I note how it can and does encourage an inherently bounded and ahistorical assessment of sociology. Grounding the discussion in a recent iteration of the introductory sociology course, I reflect on the strategies that I use--successfully and unsuccessfully-toward a different and more complex understanding of sociology and its concerns. Keeping focus on especially the first part of the course design rather than the students, my purpose here is to gesture toward the tensions that continue to grip sociology and, more to the point, reflect on the kind of pedagogical labor necessary to connect what I teach to what I write. The first section of this essay briefly reviews postcolonial theory and its tense relationship to sociology in anticipation of the following segment, which offers a close reading of the sociological imagination and concepts of self and society.

Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Sociology

Although multiple strands of postcolonial studies exist, its signature lies in unraveling histories and legacies of Euro-American colonialisms and imperialisms. For sure, colonial studies has a longer lineage, but setting postcolonial studies apart is a theoretical orientation concerned with the production of self and other--for example, colonizer and colonized, metropole and colony, white men and brown women--during and in the aftermath of colonial and imperial rule. Less concerned with periodizing or describing colonialism and post-colonialism, postcolonial theory is driven by a focus on the relational, if unequal, constitution of paradigmatic notions of selfhood as West and its others. Following Edward Said (1978), the emphasis has been on revealing the politics of knowledge production through which relations, practices, and legacies of colonial rule continue to endure (think here not only of ongoing representations of the West or, for instance, Christianity, but also questionable notions of emerging markets, Islam, yoga, etc.)

The singular contribution of postcolonial feminist scholars has been to disaggregate notions of the self and social (nation, society, colony, etc.) by emphasizing the constitutive effects of gender, sexuality, and race. (2) For instance, postcolonial feminists have routinely called attention to the ways in which the "woman question" powered colonial practices and mediated relations between colonial and native male elites. In her turn, Ann Laura Stoler (2002) has understood the household as social to reveal the interplay of race, gender, sexuality, and nationalism in such intimate spaces. And, not least, postcolonial feminists have questioned Western feminist dualisms of self and other, and "here" and "there"--for example, Chandra Talpade Mohanty's (1991) indictment of Western feminism's self-referential productions of "Third World Women."

Despite its considerable impact on a variety of other disciplines, postcolonial theory's impress on sociology has been less than encouraging. Mainstream U.S. sociology has remained untouched even as the discipline's relationship to postcolonial theory is more complicated than might appear at first glance. Julian Go (2013a) notes that from 2003 to 2011 not a single session included the word postcolonial in its title at the annual American Sociological Meetings, except that the assessment is predicated on disregarding the pockets of engagement with postcolonial theory that may not be named as such. (3) What is undeniable, though, is a lack of systematic engagement with postcolonial scholarship, leading Gurminder Bhambra (2007a) to lament the missing postcolonial revolution in sociology and provoking Stuart Hall (1996) to note the lack of global and non-European dimensions in the grand narrative of...

To continue reading