UK Universities, decolonisation and the future of sociology

UK Universities, decolonisation and the future of sociology

Dylan Kerrigan and Daniel Nehring

What is meant by the decolonisation of academic life? Why might it be of importance to contemporary British sociology? How might decolonisation proceed, and what might our sociological imaginations suggest are some of the obstacles it faces along the way?

The term “decolonisation” is, to borrow a phrase from linguistic anthropology, a “rich point” (Agar 1984). It means different things to different people in different spaces. This has implications for how it is used in UK academia, in the context of initiatives to decolonise academia at large and to decolonise sociology in particular. In what follows we discuss some of the obstacles the process of decolonisation faces in UK academia, and we consider why this matters to the critical potential of sociology.

The first obstacle the sociological imagination might acknowledge about decolonising the university is one of historical background and origins. This is the suggestion that we have been here before and that decolonisation is not a new process. While the South African ‘Rhodes Must Fall Movement’ is an important step in the wider global movement to decolonise the university, the decolonisation of academic life builds on a long legacy of movements to decolonise the University around the world. These include in the 1960s and 70s the Black Power Revolution in Trinidad and Tobago, where West Indian students attacked racism and colonial structures at both regional and Canadian universities; the regional and national anti-colonial student movements in Central America against Imperialism in 1930 and 40s; and of course the 1968-70 student revolutions that took place in Europe, the USA, Brazil and Mexico.

There is a deep irony in this historical amnesia. Historical thinking and historical knowledge were a core aspect of anti-colonial ideology and discourses during the period 1930-1970. This was explicit because of capitalism’s myth-making ability to rewrite history and the processes that created hierarchies in the present, and the necessity in self-determination and resistance terms to push back against historical mythologizing. It is also ironic because of a more general trend within UK academia toward the dominance of the psychological imagination and its focus on individual behaviour over the sociological imagination and its focus on context, backstory and the larger historical scene (a, b).

A second major obstacle in the process of decolonising the University is how to be decolonial without destroying the racial and class-based hierarchies of capitalism? From the Haitian Revolution forward, the anti-colonial movements and radicalism that give birth to decolonial discourses in the 1950s were always explicitly anti-capitalist, and the politics of socialism was often offered as the solution. The 1930s politics of intellectuals in the Global South, such as Suzanne Césaire, René Maran, Paulette Nardala, CLR James, Arnold Ward and George Padmore, to name just a few, are clear on this point.

This is not to say such thinkers from across different linguistic and social backgrounds were in complete agreement across their spaces of Pan-Africanism, Négritude, Marxism and more. Rather, it is to say they all agreed on this key foundational aspect of anti-colonialism. As Suzanne’s husband Aimé writes in Discourse on Colonialism, anti-colonialism necessitates anti-capitalism and anticipates an alternative to capitalism (2000: 44). Hence, decolonisation requires the logic of anti-capitalism. One implication of this point is that the decolonisation of the University must involve fundamental discursive and structural changes. In other words, to make the point polemically, including a few more scholars from the Global South in your curriculum, while obvious and necessary, does not per se amount to decolonisation. Sustainable decolonisation is a process requiring engagement with and a challenge to the structures of academic capitalism.

The third obstacle is the limitation in adopting a language of identity politics such as a singular political pillar to mobilise around, over the language of transforming structural social processes. This is not to belittle identity politics, which is a necessary discourse of transformation in the fight for equality and social justice, not least in political and spiritual terms, which anti-colonialism also recognises as important; but it is to say that structural politics are the primary ground, emergent space, and place of organisation for decolonisation, and in the context of liberation from capitalism that there are always limitations to situational and nationalist politics.

Without transformation of the transhistorical processes connected to racial capitalism that produced social inequalities and hierarchies in the present, what Iris Marion Young called “positional difference” and Johan Galtung called “Structural Violence”, decolonisation becomes a performance just like post-colonial politics was. As Chakrabarty notes in his essay on The Legacies of Bandung, “Postcolonial theory emerges from this recirculation of decolonization texts within the west”. In this sense post-colonial discourses come from the heart of liberal capitalism, and as many others have noted over decades, are a form of soft power and diplomacy to neuter anti-capitalist politics, embrace modernisation and reproduce the Master’s tools. Decolonisation becomes a metaphor for culturalism over structural transformation. Within a university setting simply falling back on diversity as evidence of decolonisation is a failure to understand systemic power relations.

This raises the questions why should decolonisation figure in debates about the politics of academic life, and why should it be a matter of concern just now? We suggest two reasons. On the one hand, we suggest that the decolonisation of academic life is bound up with what might be termed academic cosmopolitanism, that is to say the ideal of scholarly dialogue that is multivocal because of the differences, of race, ethnicity, gender, class, geographical position, and so forth, that they manifest. The antipode of academic cosmopolitanism might be termed academic nationalism, to refer to the closure of higher education systems and scholarly conversations along national, ethnic and other axes of social differentiation. Conversations about decolonisation allow both the advancement of academic cosmopolitanism as an important political and intellectual goal and the refutation of academic nationalism on ethical, political and intellectual grounds. All this seems an important topic of conversation at a time when Brexit has brought nativism to the fore in British political life (a, b), when foreign academics fall victims to the hostile environment and find themselves expelled from British academia (a, b), and when higher education policy directs universities in a robustly parochial direction (a).

On the other hand, decolonisation matters to sociologists because it is one way to foreground the implications of academic capitalism and what this means for the production of sociological knowledge. For the decolonisation of academic life to become sustainable, it requires both discursive and structural change at universities. By structural change, we refer concretely to an effective, transformative challenge to academic capitalism. Since its beginnings with Thatcherite higher education reforms in the 1980s, academic capitalism has, under different labels and in the form of a broad array of policy programmes, taken deep roots in British academia. The marketisation of higher education and the economisation of academic labour today organise higher education governance, day-to-day administrative processes, funding calls, interactions between academics and the terms on which sociologists produce and market their research in a competitive attention economy. Equally, academic capitalism defines the ways in which British universities compete for ranks and prestige in international league tables, conceive of the ‘impact’ scholarship has on the world at large, set up satellite campuses in the Global South, and recruit foreign staff and students. At a time when there is much talk about decolonising academic discourses and curricula in the social sciences and humanities, academic capitalism works to reinforce international academic hierarchies that work in favour of former colonial powers such as the UK.

For sociologists, the processes of academic capitalism entail a fundamental contradiction. Academic capitalism requires sociologists, lest their careers flounder, to define their careers narrowly and instrumentally in terms of a competition for metrics – grant money, journal impact factors, citation frequencies, mentions on Twitter, etc. -, in competition with other sociologists. However, sociology is predicated upon the critical engagement with the social world through the sociological imagination, including neo-colonial inequalities in academia. Academic capitalism is inimical to such critical engagement, and it mandates a certain conformism and depoliticised acceptance of the (metrics-driven) status quo [1]. In the context of our argument, this means specifically the curtailment of sociology’s critical edge, as it might be brought to bear on neo-colonial structures and practices in higher education. In this sense, the decolonisation debate is an arena in which the struggle over sociology’s identity as a publicly relevant and politically committed discipline is being played out.

[1] It is therefore no coincidence that, for a time, academic capitalism was debated in the USA as a “conservative backlash” against critical and progressive currents in the humanities and social sciences, involving both structural changes such as the curtailment of tenure and fierce criticism of progressive public intellectuals.


Dylan Kerrigan @rumagin is Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Leicester and a Visiting Lecturer in Sociology at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago. Daniel Nehring  @nehring daniel is an Associate Professor of Sociology at East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai, China. They are the joint authors of a range of publications on globalisation, (neo-)colonialism and therapeutic cultures, including their recent Therapeutic Worlds (Routledge, 2019). In their new book, Imagining Society, published in February 2020 by Bristol University Press, they make a case for a cosmopolitan, critical and publicly relevant sociology.

Image: Suzanne Césaire, photographer unknown