Postdoctoral researcher Amrita Ghosh interviews Gurminder K Bhambra, Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies (at University of Sussex) about the relevance of postcolonial and decolonial studies and the importance of the anticolonial in relation to these. The discussion expands into greater considerations about ‘modernity’ and colonialism from a contemporary perspective in the context of books written by Professor Bhambra. The interview brings forth many important ideas to readers, both familiar and unfamiliar with such concepts, drawing connections to substantial research required to dialogue with such ideas and their use in various fields of knowledge, particularly historiography and the social sciences.
Gurminder K Bhambra is Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies in the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex. Previously, she was Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick and has been Guest Professor of Sociology and History at the Centre for Concurrences in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at Linnaeus University, Sweden. She is author of Connected Sociologies (Bloomsbury, 2014) and the award-winning Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination (Palgrave, 2007). She also co-edited a volume on Decolonising the University (Pluto Press, 2018, available) and has spoken regularly on the crisis for refugees in Europe and on questions of British citizenship in the light of Brexit. She set up the Global Social Theory (Globalsocialtheory.org) website to counter the parochiality of standard perspectives in social theory and is co-editor of the social research magazine, Discover Society (discoversociety.org). She tweets @gkbhambra
Amrita Ghosh (AG): As you know, our journal aims to bring together academic and non-academic circles from across the world, and our readers are from varied backgrounds, thus, can you distinguish and demystify the terms postcolonial and decolonial studies? There is a school of thought that pits one against the other. Is that fair?
Gurminder K Bhambra (GKB): Both terms – postcolonial and decolonial – emerge in relation to seeking to understand a world constructed and configured by five hundred years of European colonialism. This is a world not only configured by European colonialism, but one in which many of the significant inequalities and injustices that currently exist emerge from these historical processes. For me, the postcolonial refers not to a world after colonialism, but as a theoretical provocation always to consider the colonial in our analyses of the present. The significant focus of the decolonial option is to consider the ongoing work necessary for decolonization.
Within the academic context, the term ‘postcolonial’ emerges in the humanities, with the significant work of scholars such as Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Homi Bhabha, and then travels into the social sciences. It was then followed by the development of an alternative, but complementary, field, that of decolonial studies which emerges more from the social sciences and then moves to the humanities. While these terms / fields refer to different time periods and different geographical areas, they are nonetheless both concerned with the historical and historiographical processes of European colonialism and its ongoing legacies; and, perhaps most importantly, how these can be overcome. They are interventions in the politics of knowledge production and provide resources for all those who wish to contribute to its transformation. (See Bhambra 2014 for further details).
The differences that exist between these fields are more than outweighed, as far as I am concerned, by the commonalities of questions and concerns that motivate them. Rather than situate them against each other, I would follow Qadri Ismail’s analysis which suggests that the focus of decoloniality is the celebration of the subject – which enables multiple narratives across locations engaged with similar themes – while ‘postcoloniality puts history itself to question … [and] unsettles the structure, episteme that centres man” (2017: 49). Both aspects are necessary to the work of remaking the worlds we inhabit, and my own focus has been to seek to transform the concepts and categories of the social sciences using the resources provided by scholars within these fields and beyond them.
AG: As an extension to the previous question, where does anticolonial fit into these taxonomies?
GKB: Both the postcolonial and the decolonial ought to have the anticolonial at their heart, but it is not an academic field in either the humanities or the social sciences. This is despite there being very many anticolonial thinkers and scholar-activists over the ages and across geographical locations. It is a term that covers a wide range of activities historically and contemporaneously pointing to the practices and movements against colonialism that occurred across time and place. With the systematic dismantling of the explicitly colonial world in the second half of the twentieth century, some may believe that this term is no longer of relevance. I would disagree. The colonial structures that have been produced and reproduced over the past 500 years are not so easily dismantled and often remain in place despite the work to overhaul them.
AG: Why European colonialism: what is at stake in our present moment in history in analyzing western European colonialism and its aftermaths, when evidently there have been many more other Empires in the past?
GKB: While there have been many political empires through history, there is a key defining factor that distinguishes earlier empires from European empires and that is a history of extraction and appropriation. European empires were not simply political entities that governed over diverse peoples; they enacted hierarchies structured on ideas of racial difference that were also then used to legitimate processes of systematic extraction and appropriation. These processes continue to shape our contemporary world and the inequalities and injustices that structure it cannot be understood separate from such accounts. While not all parts of the globe were implicated within the European colonial project, the world-historical nature of European colonialism structures global inequalities.
AG: In one of your books, Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination, you make the decolonial turn by questioning the Eurocentric narratives and existing historiography of modernity. Can you explain how you see deconstructing the idea of an ‘European modernity’ through your idea of “connected histories”? How does this interconnectedness in histories deconstruct the binaries of “East” and “West” and the structures they are loaded with?
GKB: The main concern of my research is to examine how the histories that we tend to acknowledge in the social sciences are demonstrably parochial and, as such, are inadequate as the basis from which to develop the concepts and categories necessary for understanding our world. It is only by taking into account broader, connected histories that it is possible to reconstruct and transform the social sciences.
I did this in my first book, Rethinking Modernity, by looking at how the standard historical accounts of how the modern world came into being did not fully capture the historical processes that could more plausibly be argued to bring that world into being. Further, that these accounts also excluded other historical processes that could be argued to be just as significant. For example, while there is a tendency to acknowledge the French and industrial revolutions, there is little systematic consideration of colonialism and appropriation and how these processes are both constitutive of the events otherwise highlighted and of relevance in their own terms as well.
The arguments made here were developed further in Connected Sociologies where I sought to situate my argument for ‘connected sociologies’ in relation to other modes of doing historical sociology and in relation to the insights of postcolonial and decolonial theories. What I have sought to develop is a way of thinking about the relationship between history and social science that is based on an acknowledgment of the connected histories of colonialism and enslavement as central and how this necessitates a reconfiguration of social science as a consequence.
AG: Lately, there has been an increasing number of voices that have attempted to see the colonial past in benevolent ways and argued against shame in the colonial history. What do you say to such apologists of empire and why do you think such voices are emerging more in our recent times?
GKB: The issue, for me, is not about shame, the issue is responsibility – all the arguments that there are positive consequences of empire are to do with the idea of the diffusion of modern institutions – such as democracy and the rule of law. However, empire was not governed democratically and did not operate externally in terms of the rule of law. Empire involved appropriation and the elimination of peoples, the extraction and appropriation of resources, and the forced labour and wholesale transportation of people. In short, it was a systematic programme of the extraction of resources and of the appropriation of the land, labour, and livelihoods of those from other countries.
All the major institutions in the UK derived significant resource from empire which was foundational to their development and expansion – even till today. You only need to look at the significant work done by Catherine Hall and Nicholas Draper (2014) on their Legacies of British Slave Ownership project to understand how this wealth percolated into every aspect of the fabric of the nation. This wealth was not only used domestically, but, as Utsa Patnaik (2017) argues, also funded wars and colonial settlement in what we might call the ‘white empire’ – that is, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and across Africa. The investment in building up these colonies came from the resources extracted from the darker parts of empire, primarily India. As such, we see that Empire is about the establishment of asymmetries of power along racialised lines – it is about processes of domination and subordination – and, given this, it has no claim to legitimacy in relation to the universal values otherwise claimed to be transmitted.
The presumption of shame, to go back to the question, actually depends upon recognition – recognition of the shared past that produced the legacies of inequality and injustice that continue to disfigure contemporary politics. It is odd that we are encouraged to overcome our shame when there is no recognition of what the consequences of empire were upon the populations subjected to violent imperial rule.
AG: Can we say that the old postcolonial framework is becoming more and more redundant in the present times of Brexit, globalization, occupations of varied kinds, border conflicts or do you think there is still a place for that framework?
GKB: The significance of the postcolonial, for me, has always been about how and to what extent the processes of colonialism have been acknowledged within our histories and historiographies and, from there, in the social sciences. And, perhaps more importantly, how we might seek to repair the colonial wounds established in the process. This would require ‘postcolonial reparative action’ that was material as well as epistemological. We would need to transform our understandings of how the world we share in common came to be and we would need redistributive policies, nationally and globally, to address the inequalities associated with its particular configurations.
AG: What, according to you, is, thus, the future of postcolonial studies?
GKB: The future of postcolonial studies will be whatever people make of it! For my part, I am committed to using the various resources of postcolonial and decolonial studies – as well as literatures associated with earlier anti-colonial scholars and political actors – to address problematic issues within the dominant historiographies, epistemologies, and theoretical frameworks that structure our understandings of the world.
AG: I have a specific question about a term that has been in currency for different purposes—POC, or people of color, has been used by some minorities to forge a certain kind of solidarity against the hegemonic narratives and identity. Yet, can one say it becomes a monolithic lumping of minority identities against a hegemonic yardstick that still needs to create a POC? How useful or relevant is this acronym of people who are “minoritized”?
GKB: Issues of recognition and of commonality across different positions are, of course, important. However, it is necessary to understand the different circumstances of different minorities as well as the possibilities of collective solidarity across differences. My concern has been more with thinking about the structures of colonization and enslavement that have produced and reproduced both the possibilities and constraints for differently expressed identities. The problems identified in the question, I would suggest, are symptomatic of deeper structures and the most adequate way of addressing them would be to resolve the structures. This is best done through a transformational approach focused on postcolonial reparative action.
Bhambra, Gurminder K. 2014. Connected Sociologies. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Hall, Catherine, Nicholas Draper, Keith McClelland, Katie Donington and Rachel Lang 2014. Legacies of British Slave-Ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ismail, Qadri 2017. ‘Exiting Europe, Exciting Postcoloniality,’ Kronos 43 (Nov): 40-50.
Patnaik, Utsa 2017. ‘Revisiting the “Drain”, or Transfer from India to Britain in the Context of Global Diffusion of Capitalism’ in Shubhra Chakrabarti and Utsa Patnaik (eds) Agrarian and Other Histories: Essays for Binay Bhushan Chaudhuri. Tulika Books: New Delhi.