Decolonizing Sociology - Ali Meghji - E-Book

Decolonizing Sociology E-Book

Ali Meghji

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Sociology, as a discipline, was born at the height of global colonialism and imperialism. Over a century later, it is yet to shake off its commitment to colonial ways of thinking. This book explores why, and how, sociology needs to be decolonized. It analyses how sociology was integral in reproducing the colonial order, as dominant sociologists constructed theories either assuming or proving the supposed barbarity and backwardness of colonized people. Ali Meghji reveals how colonialism continues to shape the discipline today, dominating both social theory and the practice of sociology, how exporting the Eurocentric sociological canon erased social theories from the Global South, and how sociologists continue to ignore the relevance of coloniality in their work. This guide will be necessary reading for any student or proponent of sociology. In opening up the work of other decolonial advocates and under-represented thinkers to readers, Meghji offers key suggestions for what teachers and students can do to decolonize sociology. With curriculum reform, innovative teaching and a critical awareness of these issues, it is possible to make sociology more equitable on a global scale.

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Table of Contents


Series Title

Title Page

Copyright Page


Introduction: Sociology and Coloniality

Sociology, colonialism and colonial difference

Sociology in the metropoles

1. Sociologists reproducing the ‘civilizational backwardness’ thesis

2. Endorsing democratic imperialism

3. Being active agents of empire

Why does this matter? From colonialism to coloniality

Decolonial sociology and …

Outline of the book

Further reading




1 The Decolonial Challenge to Sociology

The Eurocentric standpoint in sociology

Orientalism in the Eurocentric standpoint

Bifurcation in the Eurocentric standpoint

Interrogating the Southern standpoint

Modernity/coloniality and the formation of the Southern standpoint: relationality and recognition

Modernity/coloniality and relational sociology

From relationality to recognition of agency

A Southern standpoint beyond opposition?

Further reading




2 Beyond Intellectual Imperialism: Indigenous and Autonomous Sociologies

Launching the canon across the globe

The coloniality of knowledge, global epistemicide and intellectual imperialism

The past and present of sociology’s intellectual imperialism

Theorizing the captive mind and extraversion

Indigenous and autonomous sociology: decentring or recentring Northern theory?

From the ‘what’ back to the ‘why’

Further reading




3 Walking While Asking Questions: Towards a ‘Sociology in Conversations’

On your Marx

Du Bois and racialized capitalism

Fanon, Shari’ati and capitalism: widening the Marxist scope

The hidden links in Bourdieu’s and Foucault’s social thought

Intersectionality and the coloniality of gender

A sociology

sin fronteras


Further reading




Conclusion: Sociology and the Decolonial Option

Embracing the decolonial option: sociology, coloniality and the climate crisis

Widening the scope of sociological methodologies

Time to fire the canon?

1. Situate the development of sociology in the field of colonial-imperial relations

2. De-universalize any canon

3. Look for links even if you were not taught them yourself

4. Value the Global South regardless of Northern valuation schemes

5. Do not ‘neoliberalize’ decolonial work

6. Encourage students and scholars to be multilingual

7. Accept that decolonizing sociology does not have a finishing point

A long way forward, but with a long road behind




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Table of Contents

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Series Title

Decolonizing the Curriculum

Ali Meghji:

Decolonizing Sociology

Robbie Shilliam:

Decolonizing Politics

Decolonizing Sociology

An Introduction

Ali Meghji


Copyright Page

Copyright © Ali Meghji 2021

The right of Ali Meghji to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First published in 2021 by Polity Press

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ISBN-13: 978–1–5095–4194–2

ISBN-13: 978–1–5095–4195–9 (pb)

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Meghji, Ali, author.

Title: Decolonizing sociology : an introduction / Ali Meghji.

Description: Cambridge, UK ; Medford, MA : Polity Press, 2020. | Includes bibliographical references and index. | Summary: “An action plan for a globally equitable sociology”-- Provided by publisher.

Identifiers: LCCN 2020023850 (print) | LCCN 2020023851 (ebook) | ISBN 9781509541942 (hardback) | ISBN 9781509541959 (paperback) | ISBN 9781509541966 (epub)

Subjects: LCSH: Sociology--Philosophy. | Postcolonialism. | Racism in sociology

Classification: LCC HM435 .M45 2020 (print) | LCC HM435 (ebook) | DDC 301.01--dc23

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As I read through the pages of this book, I am reminded of numerous conversations about decolonial sociology that I have had with friends, colleagues and students. As usual, I owe thanks to many people from my institution at the University of Cambridge, including members of our Decolonizing Sociology working group such as Dr Mónica Moreno Figueroa, Dr Manali Desai, Dr Tiffany Page, Dr Ella McPherson, Dr Kathryn Medien, Dr Jeff Miley and Professor Sarah Franklin. Each of these scholars has helped develop dialogues around coloniality and sociology, and has helped sustain an engaging intellectual community dedicated to making sociology a more critical, equitable discipline. Of course, this intellectual community was not composed just of those employed as academics, but also copious numbers of students with a deep passion for generating critical sociological knowledge. My thanks go to each of these students, as well as all of the undergraduate and graduate students I have taught who have equally taught me about decolonial sociology. Also at Cambridge, the co-convenors of the Black Radicalism research group – including Dr Tanisha Spratt, Dr Rachell Sánchez-Rivera, Dr Daphne Martschenko and Sharon Walker – also helped inspire understandings of transnational anti-colonial thought and practice. My understanding of transnational links between anti-racist and anti-colonial movements across the world was also furthered when I had the pleasure of co-interviewing Angela Davis when she visited Cambridge.

Outside of my institution, there are a range of people who have helped shape this book. Several years ago, Professor Gurminder K. Bhambra keynoted at a conference I organized on ‘Social theory beyond whiteness’. Gurminder’s presentation deepened my interest in inequality and canon formation in sociology, and her work continues to be a reference point for my understanding of why we need a decolonial sociology, and what this sociology ought to look like. With Gurminder, I am a co-convenor of the British Sociological Association’s Post/decolonial Transformations working group, along with Dr Sara Salem, Dr Meghan Tinsley and Saskia Papadakis. Each of these intellectuals is pushing the boundaries of sociology in their work, and has helped instil a decolonial spirit into British and international academia. A close friend and collaborator, Dr Rima Saini, is also developing debates over decoloniality and curriculum reform in the social sciences, and I thank her for stimulating conversations as well as constant support.

Of course, the decolonial spirit is one which rejects hierarchies in favour of collaboration and conversation. I was fortunate enough to be on the receiving end of this spirit of kindness as I was forming the arguments of this book. While at Harvard, Professor Julian Go kindly made the time to have coffee with me, and helped provide advice on how a decolonial sociology is much more than an issue of ‘race’; this was a watershed moment for me in my understanding of decolonial sociology. At the same time, conversations with Professor Michèle Lamont helped me to deepen my understanding of social theory, the sociology of valuation and canon formation. While visiting Cambridge, Professor Raewyn Connell also made the time to have coffee with me, providing me not only with an endless list of references to follow up, but also with explicit advice on how to write a ‘review’ book; again, I am indebted to this help. On the theme of help, I also owe thanks to Professors Les Back and Satnam Virdee. Before my interest in decoloniality I was primarily a sociologist of race, and both Les and Satnam helped me to see how race scholarship in the United Kingdom was often formed around the principles of anti-imperial, decolonial sociology. I also owe thanks to mentors such as Professors John Solomos and Derron Wallace, both of whom are incredibly kind and supportive. Of course, I also owe a significant deal to the editorial team at Polity – especially Jonathan Skerrett and Karina Jákupsdóttir. Karina helped gather incredibly helpful reviews on drafts of my manuscript, while Jonathan’s editorial comments greatly improved this manuscript’s clarity. Both Jonathan and Karina played a central role in developing this from a book proposal to a completed manuscript.

Lastly, I thank my partner, Emily Chan, and the newest addition to our family – Maisie. Emily is loving, supportive, affectionate, and provides constant encouragement. She is my rock and foundation, and brings me constant happiness and joy.

Thank you, everybody.

Introduction: Sociology and Coloniality

As someone interested in decolonial theory, I often find myself reflecting on my relationship with sociology. I did not study sociology until part way through my undergraduate degree, and in this regard, I was never formally introduced to the works of Karl Marx, Max Weber or Émile Durkheim. Not having sat down and systematically read Marx, Weber and Durkheim became a secret of mine that I kept close to my chest at the beginning of graduate school. Readers of this book will be pleased to know that since then I have become acquainted with such ‘classical’ works, but it remains puzzling that three figures, two of whom did not even classify themselves as sociologists, and none of whom were regarded as sociologists by their contemporaries (Connell 1997), have come to hold so much symbolic weight in the field of sociology. Now as an advisor, I regularly get graduate students – much less secretive than I was – declaring anxieties to me that they aren’t familiar with the works of Marx, Weber and Durkheim, questioning whether that makes them ‘bad sociologists’.

How have we got to the point where students see it as a moral obligation to read Marx, Weber and Durkheim? How have we got to the point where those who are not familiar with these three thinkers are construed as having some form of sociological deficiency? Why is the sociological canon composed as it is, and what does this tell us about the dominant vision of sociology? Do we even need a sociological canon? This book reflects on some of these questions throughout the following chapters. However, in order to fully understand the responses to these questions, and consequently to tackle the wider problem of ‘decolonizing’ sociology, we need to situate the development of sociology in its proper colonial history. This is because, although we are regularly presented with a picture of sociology as being one of the most ‘critical’ of the social sciences, sociology became formally institutionalized in the nineteenth century at the height of global colonialism, imperialism and empires. This world of colonialism and empires was not merely background noise to sociology, but rather the discipline came to internalize colonial ways of thinking and representing the world. Over a century later, and this colonial style of knowledge production still shapes sociological practice. In this regard, actions for the future of sociology require a significant examination of the discipline’s past.

Sociology, colonialism and colonial difference

Sociology is unlike many of the other disciplines covered in Polity’s ‘Decolonizing the Curriculum’ series – including philosophy, history, natural science, music, theology, economics and English literature – in that sociology did not have a formal existence before European colonialism. While people were certainly thinking sociologically for a very long time, in terms of being a formal academic discipline with institutional recognition, sociology did not arrive on the academic scene until the nineteenth century at the high point of colonialism. Thus, speaking about the US, Julian Go (2016a) points out that the first sociology PhD awarded in the US – William Fremont Blackman’s The Making of Hawaii – was published in 1893, the same year that the US overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy. Go (2016a) additionally points out that as the first school of sociology in the US was set up in Chicago in 1893, France was colonizing the Ivory Coast, Laos and Guinea, and as the first issue of the American Journal of Sociology was published in 1895, the Cuban rebellion against the Spanish began. Outside of the US, we may add that the first sociology department set up in the UK, in 1904 at the London School of Economics, was established the same year that we see the first genocide of the twentieth century (the Herero and Nama genocide conducted by the German empire), while the first sociology department set up in mainland Europe (in Bordeaux, 1895) happened in the same year that French West Africa was founded. Simply put, sociology formally developed in a world that was shaped by the processes of colonialism and empire.

In terms of decolonizing sociology, unlike many other disciplines, therefore, sociology did not ‘become’ colonized; rather, it was always colonial to begin with. By saying that sociology was colonial, I mean that sociology both internalized the logic of a colonial episteme, and also (re)-produced and bolstered that very episteme itself. Epistemes are ways of thinking and knowing, they set the limits of what can be known, as well as dictating what counts as legitimate knowledge and how this knowledge can be legitimately produced (Meghji 2019a). When speaking of a colonial episteme, therefore, I am referring to dominant ways of thinking and knowing that produced and reproduced colonial difference: the idea that the colonized were inherently different from (and inferior to) the Western colonizers.

One of the paradoxes of world history, as Gurminder K. Bhambra (2014: 132) states, is that ‘colonization invent[ed] the colonized’. What is evoked in Bhambra’s statement is a recognition of the interplay between power, knowledge (epistemology) and being (ontology), and how the imbalances of power created in colonialism had epistemic-ontological dimensions. The idea that colonized people were inherently different from the colonized was not a ‘given’ fact, but was a form of knowledge that had to be actively produced by colonial empires (Mignolo 2012). The creation of race, as a master-category through which we could categorize the world’s population, was a primary mechanism through which colonial difference could be made (Mills 1997). Thus, through the concept of race in the sixteenth century, Spanish colonizers were able to draw links between the indigenous people’s1raza (blood) and their being gente sin razón (people without reason) (Lewis 2012), while the biological revolution in the eighteenth century allowed for a more rigid conception of race that held non-white racialized groups as naturally inferior to whites (Banton and Harwood 1975). The concept of race was thus the glue that stuck the colonial world order together, as it became common-sense knowledge that there was a global racial hierarchy which permitted the colonization of the ‘lesser’ races by the dominant white Europeans. This global hierarchy is well described by W. E. B. Du Bois (1967 [1899]: 386–7) when he comments:

We grant full citizenship in the World Commonwealth to the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (whatever that may mean), the Teuton and the Latin; then with just a shade of reluctance we extend it to the Celt and Slav. We half deny it to the yellow races of Asia, admit the brown Indians to an ante-room only on the strength of an undeniable past; but with the Negroes of Africa we come to a full stop, and in its heart the civilized world with one accord denies that these come within the pale of nineteenth-century Humanity.

What is captured in Du Bois’ remark is that colonial difference divided the world through the taxonomy of race. However, this division of the world was not just geographical, and did not aim to just specify where the ‘different races’ of the world lived. Rather, the colonial difference that ruptured the world also asserted that people in different regions across the world were in different temporal stages of human development, and consequently had essential ontological differences; scholars have referred to these processes as the coloniality of time (Demuro 2015; Mignolo 2012) and the coloniality of being (Maldonado-Torres 2017; Wynter 2003).

In terms of the coloniality of time, the ‘myth’ of colonial difference relied upon the premise that the colonized were less developed – as a civilization – than those living in the West (Mignolo 2012; Mills 2014). It was this very logic that allowed colonial empires to justify their actions on the pretence of ‘bringing civilization’ to the rest of the world, and indeed, this temporal grammar is still used in the present day when we continue to refer to the ‘undeveloped’ regions of the world (rather than, as scholars such as Walter Rodney (2018 [1972]) have argued, using the term ‘underdeveloped’, which stresses the overdevelopment of the West through colonialism). In terms of the coloniality of being, as Sylvia Wynter (2003) argues, colonial difference relied on the premise that only the white Westerners achieved the full status of ‘man’, while the colonized people of the world were all varying degrees of sub-human. Overt examples of this may include the evolutionist idea that Black people were closer to animals than mankind, as analysed by Wulf Hund (2015), and the way that colonized people throughout the world were referred to as savages. Indeed, it was through the coloniality of being that imperial powers could support liberal legislation ‘at home’ while still exploiting people in their colonies. For instance, France’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen claimed that there are certain universal rights to be protected for all people, and yet at the same time France was running a murderous empire (Wilder 2004). As Charles W. Mills (1997) thus points out, colonizers across the world could defend themselves as liberal because colonized people were not considered fully human, so did not qualify under the supposedly universal laws protecting the rights of ‘man’; justice thus became a resource for just-us.

With colonialism, starting in the sixteenth century, therefore, the world became epistemically, ontologically and temporally divided and hierarchically organized, in what Aníbal Quijano (2007) has referred to as the colonial matrix of power. It is now a fairly common view held in the sociology of knowledge that academic disciplines are not impervious to the ‘outside world’, and, indeed, are often shaped by the external world.2 Thus, if sociology developed in this world marked by the colonial matrix of power, surely it is apt to assume that sociology itself was in some ways influenced by this world. In fact, when we actually look at the development of sociology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we see that sociology was a key academic discipline in producing and reproducing colonial difference. One of the first missions for ‘decolonizing’ sociology, therefore, involves what George Steinmetz (2017) refers to as a disciplinary remembering, where we can show that sociology both internalized the colonial episteme, and continues to be shaped by this episteme in the present day. This disciplinary remembering, however, requires us to tell quite a different story of sociology’s past and present from what we regularly encounter in our textbooks and classrooms. It is useful to begin by considering sociology’s development in the metropoles – the imperial centres of the colonizing world.

Imperialism, colonialism, empire: While these three processes are often interlinked, Steinmetz’s (2014) general division between the three is helpful. Empires are political organizations ‘that significantly limit the sovereignty of the peoples and polities they conquer’, while imperialism is a ‘strategy of political control over foreign lands that does not necessarily involve conquest, occupation, and durable rule by outside invaders’ (Steinmetz 2014: 79). On the other hand, with colonialism, we have ‘the conquest of a foreign people followed by the creation of an organization controlled by members of the conquering polity and suited to rule over the conquered territory’s indigenous population. […] Colonialism always involves the arrogation of sovereignty by a conquering power, whose rule is presented as permanent’ (Steinmetz 2014: 79).

Metropole: Metropoles are the nucleus, the ‘home cities’ of empires. London was thus the metropole of the British empire, just as Paris was of the French empire. Sociologists have found it useful to use the notion of metropoles to highlight how Western sociologists were producing knowledge not in a nationally isolated world, but in fact in the epicentre of a world globally connected through colonialism (Connell 1997).

Sociology in the metropoles

There are sometimes tendencies, even within decolonial schools of thought, to assume that sociology began in the nineteenth century as a discipline involving European thinkers discussing European societies.3 However, as shown by recent revisionist historians of sociology, as sociology developed within Europe and the US in the nineteenth century, sociologists were deeply interested in issues pertaining to empires and colonialism.4 In fact, even the supposedly ‘first’ European thinker to use the term ‘sociology’ – Auguste Comte (2009 [1853]) in his Cours de philosophie positive – dedicated a section of his book to the discussion of the pros and cons of colonial rule, concluding that colonialism was ‘a social monstrosity’ (175), and that

It is not our business to decide by anticipation what that preparatory course must be, nor when it shall terminate; nor to suppose that each race or nation must imitate in all particulars the mode of progression of those which have gone before. Except for the maintenance of general peace, or the natural extension of industrial relations, Western Europe must avoid any large political intervention in the East. (491)5

Indeed, as Go (2009: 778) shows, in the American Journal of Sociology (AJS) ‘the percentage of articles […] that referred to “empires”, ‘imperialism”, “colonies”, or “colonialism” from 1895 to 1914 had a mean of 36 percent. […] In 1902, the percentage of articles that referred to those keywords reached as high as 60 percent.’ Further, not only were the topics of empires, colonialism and imperialism featuring in the AJS, but US-based sociologists saw these processes as key topics of investigation. In his presidential address to the American Sociological Association, for instance, Franklin Giddings (1911: 580–1) went as far as to say that ‘questions of territorial expansion and of rule over alien peoples’ were the most important issue for sociologists to study. Even the sociologists now renowned for their analyses of US society were in fact more interested in global processes in their early writings. Robert Park, for instance, is renowned for his studies of ‘race relations’ in Chicago, but prior to his interests in US urban sociology, Park was interested in much more global issues, including the role of Europe in ‘uplifting’ the African continent through colonialism (Magubane 2013).

From the nineteenth century until the post-war period, colonialism and empire were thus the hot topics for sociologists, with most of the ‘founding fathers’ of US sociology teaching courses on these processes (Go 2016a). A dominant argument in revisionist histories of sociology, as offered by Raewyn Connell (1997) among others, is that after World War II, US sociology became a lot more inward-looking – largely limiting itself to the study of US society – while European sociology (and particularly British sociology) came to import this ‘new’ insular US sociology, particularly the structural functionalism paradigm pioneered by Talcott Parsons. However, if we look at British sociology as a case, then we can see how the sociological interest in colonialism and imperialism was preserved far into the post-war period (despite little mention of this in recent histories of British sociology6). From the archives of The British Journal of Sociology (BJS), for instance, we can see that in the post-war period, British sociologists were interested in issues including marriage patterns across Africa (Leach 1953), colonial resistance in South Africa (Kuper 1953), how to strengthen British colonial administration (Friedman 1951), the value of ‘colour’ in Jamaica (Henriques 1951) and the ethnic demography of East Africa (Sofer and Ross 1951), among many other topics.

It seems, therefore, that from Comte’s discussion of ‘sociology’ in the mid-nineteenth century, well into the discipline’s next one hundred years of development, sociology had a fixation on colonialism, empires and imperialism. Through engaging with these topics, sociology became a key discipline in producing and reproducing colonial difference. In particular, I think it is useful to see three discrete, although connected, ways that sociologists worked to reproduce colonial difference.

1. Sociologists reproducing the ‘civilizational backwardness’ thesis

As aforementioned, one key premise of colonial difference was the idea that the colonized were undeveloped sub-persons (contrasted to the ‘civilized’ European). It was this logic that allowed colonial powers to justify their actions as being part of an overall ‘civilizing mission’.7

Sociologists not only bought into this myth of colonial difference, but also were committed to buttressing it. We can see this even in the writings of one of the members of the ‘holy trinity’ of the sociological canon – Durkheim. Durkheim is regularly taught as one of the leading canonical thinkers in sociology, along with Marx and Weber, with particular attention being paid to his critique of Western modernity.8 The teaching of Durkheim often revolves around his ideas of the societal evolution from mechanical into organic solidarity, as primitive societies become ‘advanced’ (Durkheim 1997 [1893]). However, Durkheim’s typologies of primitive and advanced societies is primarily based on his comparative fieldwork between Aboriginal people in Australia and indigenous Americans, on the one hand, and European societies, on the other (see Kurasawa 2013). In this respect, in order to contrast ‘past’, ‘historic’, pre-modern societies with advanced societies, instead of actually consulting history, Durkheim studied colonized people in his present day. As Connell (1997) argues, it was this logic that allowed Durkheim, in his description of mechanical solidarity and primitive societies, to discuss the ancient Hebrews along with the contemporary French colony of Kabylia, without drawing any conceptual distinction between the two cases. The colonized were thus treated as ‘the past in the present’, as Durkheim and his French contemporaries at L’Année Sociologique9 were able to construct their sociological models around the idea of colonial difference. Further, Durkheim and his French contemporaries were far from being the only sociologists who saw the colonized as ‘the past in the present’. Even prior to Durkheim’s work, in Britain, Herbert Spencer (2010 [1895]) was already publishing evolutionist ideas in his theory of militant versus industrial society (a similar typology to Durkheim’s primitive versus modern societies). As Connell (1997, 2010) shows, Spencer was identical to Durkheim in the way that those in the supposedly historical ‘militant’ societies were in fact the colonized in the present. In Spencer’s (2010 [1895]) sociological exposition, therefore, in order to define militant, primitive societies, he uses a range of colonial examples from Bengal, Tasmania, Victoria and South India.

Across the pond in the US, sociologists were replicating these very same ideas. Take, for instance, Albert Keller’s (1906) ‘The Value of the Study of Colonies for Sociology’. In this paper, Keller puts forward the idea that colonies are ideal sociological laboratories because they provide us with data on what modern societies used to be like.10 As Keller (1906: 417) states, the ‘study of such societies gives us our only starting-points for the scientific demonstration of the evolution of human institutions’. Keller was of the belief that in order for sociology to understand the complexity of the modern world, it must first provide a framework for society in its simplest form. The colonies, to Keller (1906: 418), provided such a pool of data for these ‘simple’ societies: ‘What the sociologist may note with safety is that in the colonial or frontier society there occurs an elimination of many artificial or cultural conditions of life prevalent in the metropolis, and that this results in an approach, more or less close, to conditions of existence characteristic of “savage” societies.’ In a similar line of thought, in his ‘Standpoint for the Interpretation of Savage Society’, W. I. Thomas (1909: 146) states that ‘tribal society is virtually delayed civilization, and the savages are a sort of contemporaneous ancestry’. Thomas (1909: 146) thus argued that if sociology is to be a science of man, it should concern itself not only with findings in biology (i.e. biological evolutionary theory), but also with anthropology and ecology, given that ‘the lessons which the sciences dealing with man in historical time have to learn from the life of the lower human races are even more important than those which they have learned from biology’. It was only through understanding the ‘institutional life of savage society’ – through studying the colonies – that sociologists, according to Thomas (1909: 147), were able to understand present modern societies.

Early sociologists, therefore, reaped great benefits from colonialism and empire, as the whole colonized world was treated as a pool from which to gather sociological data. As Connell (2010: 41) aptly puts it, to sociologists:

The colonized world, seen from the metropole, was a magnificent museum of primitiveness […] the colonized world offered a gallery of social forms, social customs, social groups. Theorists in the metropole could, and did, array these data in a grid of race, levels of economic development, social integration or whatever principle of classification took their fancy. […] These cultures were, in their eyes, of interest precisely because they were more primitive, representing (as they thought) earlier stages of social development.

Furthermore, it should come as little surprise that some sociologists straightforwardly adopted the ‘civilizational backwardness’ thesis of colonial difference. Even though sociology was becoming formally institutionalized as a specific discipline in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in this period sociology only had a relative autonomy from other disciplines. In Britain, for instance, both Sujata Patel (2010) and Steinmetz (2017) point out that sociology and anthropology were closely related, with many anthropologists publishing in journals such as The British Journal of Sociology and The Sociological Review. Of course, given that anthropology was one of the key academic institutions used to gather data on the colonized’s lifeworlds, cultures and customs, it is clear to see how this anthropological way of thinking came to influence sociology’s own dispositions (Huizer and Mannheim 1979; Patel 2010). Similarly in the US, there was a close relationship between political science and sociology in the early twentieth century (Go 2014). While this link may appear to be quite appropriate, we also have to contextualize that this was a period of time when the leading political science journal was called The Journal of Race Development, and featured papers such as Ellsworth Huntington’s (1914: 185) ‘The Adaptability of the White Man to Tropical America’, where he argues that:

The tropical portions of America and Africa, as every one knows, are the richest unexploited regions in the world. If ever they are to be developed the work must apparently be done by people of European origin, for the native races seem incapable of doing it alone, and Europe and America are scarcely willing to leave the task to Asiatics. Yet in spite of innumerable attempts during the past four hundred years the problem of the adaptation of the white races to a tropical environment still remains one of the most serious that has ever confronted mankind. Shall the white man forever be an outsider, a mere exploiter, or shall he become a permanent denizen of the regions which he develops.

Even the link between sociology and political science, therefore, allowed for the exchange and influence of colonial modes of thinking.

Lastly, sociology also only had a relative autonomy from the natural sciences. Indeed, some of the early sociologists also worked as natural scientists: Patrick Geddes in Britain, for instance, not only was a sociologist but also worked as a botanist and zoologist; Herbert Spencer too was a biologist; and Lester Ward, in the US, was a botanist as well as a sociologist. Even sociologists who did not work in the natural sciences still adopted the idea that sociology somehow ‘evolved’ from (and therefore maintained strong epistemic links with) biology and physics.11 This link between the social and natural sciences meant that someone like Francis Galton (a leading figure in European eugenics) was able to publish his paper ‘Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope, and Aims’ (Galton 1904) in the American Journal of Sociology. Given sociology’s close connection with the natural sciences, it therefore became easy for the idea of a natural, biological, scientifically based racial hierarchy to become a common-sense idea within dominant sociology (Bonilla-Silva 2017). Linnaeus and Darwin – two of the key thinkers behind this idea of a natural racial hierarchy – are thus listed as key influencers for sociologists by Thomas (1896); other sociologists including Spencer (2010 [1895]) in Britain and Gumplowicz (1883) in Germany, and their US-based disciples such as Barnes (1919), Simons (1901), Weatherly (1911) and Ward (1903, 1907, 1913), all invoked the Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest to discuss variations of a global ‘race struggle’.

Given that many sociologists clearly endorsed the premise of the colonized’s civilizational backwardness, it is no surprise that such sociologists therefore were in favour of colonialism and imperialism. Such sociologists, in this case, were merely replicating the larger colonial logic that it was the duty of the West to bring civilization to the rest of the backward world (Du Bois 2008 [1920]). This feeds into the second way that sociologists worked to produce and reproduce colonial difference: endorsing ‘democratic imperialism’.

2. Endorsing democratic imperialism

Colonial difference did not just produce myths and knowledge about the colonized, but also produced myths and knowledge about the colonizer. While the colonized were assumed to be ‘backward’, the ‘West’ positioned itself as the beacon of civilization. Through this binary, the myth was able to be produced that the ‘West’, as the civilized agents of the world, had a moral duty to bring their civilization to the rest of the globe.12 As with the construction of race, this myth of moral obligation started with deeply theological roots, with both Spanish and British colonists seeing empire as bringing salvation to indigenous peoples.13 However, the metropoles’ belief in their moral duty to civilize the rest of the globe was not only grounded in theology, but also took on economic meanings (improving the economic development of the colonies) and cultural meanings (improving the cultural institutions of the colonies). Certain sociologists, sharing in the colonial episteme, supported the belief in this moral duty of the West to uplift the rest, and in doing so, endorsed the idea and possibility of democratic imperialism.

Perhaps one of the most explicit formulations of democratic imperialism from a sociologist comes from Franklin Giddings. In his paper ‘Imperialism?’, Giddings (1898: 600) stated that colonial (or imperial) rule was an essential process in order for Western nations to continue their economic development:

the task of governing from a distance the inferior races of mankind will be one of great difficulty – one that will tax every resource of intellect and character; but it is one that must be faced and overcome, if the civilized world is not to abandon all hope of continuing its economic conquest of the natural resources of the globe.

Using the precise example of the US empire, Giddings (1898: 588–9) comments:

We must find new opportunities for making fortunes by jobs and government contracts. The reservations allotted to our unhappy red men have nearly all been appropriated by rough-riders, and we naturally turn to the sunny lands and gentle savages of Hawaii and Luzon for further practice of the Christian art of exploitation […] Honolulu may not be as good a field for political banking as Philadelphia has been; and Cuba does not afford unlimited opportunities for the development of Star Route postal facilities. Nevertheless, they offer something better than an honest living, earned in the sweat of one’s brow.

Underlying Giddings’ reasoning, therefore, was the belief that economic expansion and growth can only be achieved through imperial or colonial control. Furthermore, Giddings did not even see this imperialism as being a necessary evil for such economic development, but argued that there was a consistency between empire and democracy. This logical consistency is later defended by Giddings (1901: 3) in his book Democracy and Empire, where he uses the example of the US and British empires to show that while ‘both have been