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Julian Go’s Post-Positivist, Postcolonial Realism

A post by Paige Sweet.

Critical realism shares a natural post-positivist alliance with postcolonial studies and feminist standpoint theory. All three paradigms offer a sharp critique of positivism – its neutral masquerade, its valorization of detached inquiry, its empiricism, its search for “general” laws and regularities. However, postcolonial thought and feminist standpoint theory ask questions about the structural location of the knower and the Western, masculinist endeavor that is “science,” while critical realism tends to leave the knower under-theorized and to shy away from politicizing science. Many sociologists share with critical realists this trepidation about ditching science as a helpless reproduction of empire and patriarchy. So here we are, feminists and queers and postcolonial thinkers alike, critiquing science’s racism and heterosexism from within its lofty ranks, while we also want you to believe that, yes, our findings are legitimate and true of the world, at least… maybe… sometimes. Lucky social scientists that we are, we have Julian Go’s book, Postcolonial Thought and Social Theory (2016) to help us theorize our way out of this critical impasse.

Go argues for at least a two-fold strategy here. First, we should make realist, sociological claims about empire if we are to understand the social world: a “postcolonial relationalism” that analyzes connections and assemblages across global networks of power. These relations are constitutive features of social reality. This relationalism will also help us resist binary explanations that reproduce identities, cultures, and states as essences that act outward from the West. In other words, a postcolonial sociology develops an explicit relational-realist social ontology that dislodges metropole-as-center.

Second, we should draw on the under-used resources of subaltern studies and feminist standpoint theory to think through this project. Such work provides various methods and justifications for uncovering subjugated knowledges, which are always partial and a bit ambivalent. Even better, Go demonstrates that we can put subaltern standpoints to sociological work by scaling their particularities upward to illuminate contingent structural conjunctures and new objects of social analysis.

Note, both of Go’s strategies are critical and realist: they embed the knower in a social ontology and they generate causal claims about the social relations that characterize any object of study. Both strategies, in postcolonial fashion, also resist tired binaries of subject/object, East/West, and macro/micro. Indeed, rather than disposing of sociology for its institutionalized imperialism and its game of scientific authority (though both are clearly relevant and real), Go argues that the most profound postcolonial thinkers have actually relied on realist, sociological claims in order to wage their critiques.

From left to right: Franz Fanon, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Sandra Harding, Donna Haraway
Licensing: Photograph of Donna Haraway and Cayenne, Rusten Hogness (2006)

Frantz Fanon, Go shows us, identifies new patterns of racial formation in France and makes causal arguments about how colonization produces novel subjectivities in both colonizer and colonized. In what I detect involves some sociological glee, Go also claims Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak as realists, eschewing their standard labeling as (gasp) “discursive” and therefore (gasp) “irrealist.” Go convincingly argues that both Bhabha and Spivak do the realist work of identifying relations of European exploitation and their effects. For example, Bhabha’s theory of hybridity and mimicry identifies social regularities in colonial discourse and their effects on colonized subjects. Spivak argues for a “strategic essentialism” in praxis, for the mobilization and realization of colonial categories when politically necessary, even if those categories falsely homogenize subjugated groups.

For Go, then, postcolonial theorists are mapping a social ontology: “To make even the most basic claim that knowledge fueled imperialism is to summon the basic tenets of social science. It is to posit a realist social ontology: it is to insinuate that there is a world consisting of some regularities or patterns (even if they are not total or universal) that is observable and knowable” (73).

To address how we link observations and knowledge, Go turns to the subaltern standpoint. Here, he draws on feminist thinkers like Donna Haraway and Sandra Harding to show that standpoints are not essences or “innocent” identities with clear pathways to better knowledge; rather, standpoints are structural entry points for developing “situated knowledge,” always dependent on the observer and her instruments of observation. Following Harding and Haraway, then, subaltern standpoints generate “partial but objective truths” (164) about the social world. (Picking up on my friend Sam’s example of Emma Gonzales and Parkland activist two weeks ago, this dialogue between Parkland students and black anti-violence activists on Chicago’s south side provides a perfect example of standpoint, partiality, and community knowledge production.)

In this sense, theorizing from the subaltern allows for a “post-positivist realism,” wherein we recognize that there is a world independent of what we say about it – power structures of colonialism and racism exist, really – but we cannot know about that world via the conventions of positivist science. Instead, we need methodologies and theories that are critical and situated. To do both at once, Go concludes by uniting his postcolonial relationalism with his epistemological strategy of subaltern standpoint. Go successfully demonstrates here that ontological commitments (relationalism) must be aligned with epistemic strategies (subaltern positions, boundary-crossing, decentering) in order to get the job done.

Rather than casting aside poststruturalist thought as helplessly naïve to material reality, Go forces us to broaden our understanding of social ontology and realism, bringing a range of critical thinkers into our purview. In fact, Go demonstrates here how ironic it is that realists want to cast aside poststructuralist theory, which has actually given us deep and enduring socio-structural maps of heterosexuality, colonialism, and subjectivity itself. From this perspective, the book provides a clear map for a stronger post-positivist alliance. In such a project, critical realism would be grounded by a clear demand for the knower and her embeddedness in a global field of power relations to be taken into account.

 So, I think sociologists and critical realists should read this book. We should use it to help us fumble our way through theorizing real power structures while admitting that our knowledge of them is itself embedded in, written about it, and read from within the icky, hierarchical folds of science. We should use this book to demand serious sociological engagement with the claims of “discursive” postcolonial theorists.

But we should go beyond this book. For example, fearing that standpoint theory is too essentialist, Go rejects the idea – contra many feminist thinkers – that subjugated standpoints yield better knowledge, or epistemic privilege. I think we should, in fact, argue for epistemic privilege – not a naïve kind that romanticizes the seemingly naturalized knowledge-producing capabilities of oppression itself – but for the analytic benefits of politicized knowledge produced from subjugated positions, which is better precisely because it moves between center and margin. As Bhabha himself demonstrates, subjugated knowers are better at knowing not because they are homogenous or have access to something that is pure, but because they are forced to understand the position of the colonizer and the colonized.

But this is a minor quibble. This book provides a model for interdisciplinary engagement, where sociology meets literary analysis meets cultural theory, for the purposes of identifying the “hauntings” in our social ontologies (Gordon 1997). These gaps and absences within our theories of social reality are surely part and parcel of the history of positivism within sociology. Perhaps we will never fill in all the holes with this or that new paradigm, but we can strive to identify the hauntings and their invisible, embedded hierarchies (Gordon 1997). We should also, clearly, use this book to identify good social analysis, which often works quite literally, “from margin to center” (hooks 2000).

Go, Julian. 2016. Postcolonial Thought and Social Theory. Oxford University Press.

Gordon, Avery. 2008. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. University of Minnesota Press.

hooks, bell. 2000. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Pluto Press.

Paige Sweet recently completed her PhD in Sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her dissertation focuses on the medicalization of domestic violence, trauma, and feminist politics, revealing the ways in which domestic violence victims craft therapeutic narratives and transform their performances of self in order to become legible as ‘good survivors’ to institutions of aid. Paige is an alumnae of the Philosophy of Social Sciences Seminar 2015 and a co-leader of the Graduate Student Working Group on Using Critical Realism in Sociological Research.

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