Decolonising epistemologies

The second post in the Race Critical and Decolonial Sociology blog series is a round-up of some of the central debates in postcolonial and decolonial thinking about epistemology. The class had a very interesting discussion where for example the historicity of Ramon Grosfoguel’s timeline was interrogated. Students also tackled the thorny question, raised also by Arif Dirlik in his critique of postcolonial studies, about the validity of criticisms of imperialist or Eurocentric or what Boaventra De Sousa Santos calls ‘abyssal’ thought made by scholars who, while originating from the Global South (though not always) work at universities in the rich North, mainly the United States. We surmised that that this is a bind that we are essentially all mired it. However, that it is important to be aware of the real possibility for the coexistence of theorising and activism, thus not merely lauding the work of social movements in books and articles, but using any leverage we may have in the university to make space for them to represent themselves and to guide theory-making. This linked to the previous week’s discussion ‘Black Study, Black Struggle’ and the possibility of subverting the university to facilitate rather than thwart study in the socially transformative sense of the word.

What are the possibilities for social and political critique opened up by the decolonial approach.I shall examine the interconnections between postcolonial theory and the decolonial, uncovering the trajectory that began with Indian subaltern studies and Latin American autonomous social science, for example. I shall also examine the impact of a critical focus on race, gender and sexuality on the opening out of decolonial approaches. This work will go towards asking questions about the epistemological implications of taking a decolonial approach as well as examining the possibilities for transformative social and political action.

Postcolonial theory

Postcolonial theory and postcolonial studies grew out of the anti-colonial movement which formally overthrew European colonial government in almost all of the states in which it had intervened. The postcolonial is, therefore, as much the theorisation of an aspiration borne of struggle as it is an attempt to capture, as Couze Venn says, the legacy of European colonization.

As Venn notes, postcolonialism is both a theorization of the interconnections between the “present and the past, the local and the global, the vernacular and the cosmopolitan, the postcolonial and the postmodern” and a tool for attempting to overcome what he calls the “underlying problem of opening critical spaces for new narratives of becoming and emancipation” (Venn 2006: 1). He calls this orientation both postcolonial and post-occidental, in the sense that it properly belongs to the theoretical critique and practical project of overturning the centrality of the West.

There is some debate about when to date postcolonialism. As Ella Shohat asks, ‘When exactly… does the “post-colonial” begin?’ This question arises out of the overlap between postcolonialism as the description of a time – after colonialism – and postcolonialism as a discourse, a concept, and/or a set of theories.

As Venn notes, the ‘what and where’ of the postcolonial has shifted over time. During the cold war and at the height of decolonization, the 1955 Bandung Conference and the heydey of the non-aligned movement, the postcolonial had a particular meaning. Then, it was possible to imagine the Third World as a space within which post-independence countries could define their own destiny free from western imperialism.

However, the wars which have afflicted many of these territories in the name of the cold war and the interventions of global institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, according to Venn, have dispelled the myths of autonomy.

So, the postcolonial is no longer a geographical territory which exists – or seeks to exist – outside of or in opposition to colonialism – past or present. It has been realised that this is an impossibility.

Therefore, postcolonialism becomes an assemblage of critiques of what Venn calls Occidentalism – ‘the conceptual and historical space of the becoming-West of Europe and the becoming modern of the world.’ The role of critical postcolonialism is to challenge this space and to rethink the principles that lend it legitimation.

It is, in essence, a critique of how colonialism and western domination served to silence local knowledges and to institute a teleological reading of human history that assumes that western civilization is the pinnacle of progress, while all other cultures are in a process of becoming.

Inherent to this view is the notion that western culture is universal while all other cultures are localised and particular. However, the elision of the particularity in which western culture originates is not even necessarily acknowledged. Therefore, white, western culture becomes the norm or the standard bearer against which all other world cultures are judged and (often) found lacking, so as to create a civilizational hierarchy.

Whereas, what David Theo Goldberg has called naturalist racial theories (e.g. of the crude racial scientists of the 19th century) assumed that non-Europeans could never accede to the level of progress achieved by western ‘races’, the historicist assumptions that underpinned much colonial rule – incorporated by the notion of the ‘civilizing mission’ – saw the colonised as lower down the ladder of progress. The spread of modernization through colonization – and later development – would serve to rectify the situation over time.

As against this, the role of postcolonial critique, according to Gyan Prakash, is to radically rethink and reformulate ‘the forms of knowledge and social identities authored and authorized by colonialism and western domination.’

Prakash’s argument is that the original responses to colonialism – nationalism and Marxism – both reproduced the master narratives of colonialism. Nationalism may have attributed agency to the oppressed nation, but it reproduced the claim to Reason and Progress – two key facets of nationalism and nation-states – at the heart of colonialism.

Similarly, Marxist movements in decolonised countries railed against colonialism but nevertheless fell back on a universalist mode of production narrative that ignored the specificity of the non-western, pre-capitalist economic order, or indeed the specificity of capitalism outside of the West.

In contrast, postcolonial criticism, according to Prakash, ‘seeks to undo the Eurocentrism produced by the institution of the west’s trajectory, its appropriation of the Other as history.’ However, crucially, it cannot do this as if postcoloniality were unrelated to coloniality. On the contrary, ‘the postcolonial exists as an aftermath, as an after – after being worked over by colonialism.’ So postcolonial criticism is neither inside nor outside of colonialism, rather it is in a tangential relation to it, occupying an in-between position, as Homi Bhabha puts it.

The postcolonial is therefore relational and the postcolonial subject a hybrid. The role of the postcolonial, according to Gayatri Spivak, is to ‘reverse and displace’. I could add that it is also to unsettle by forcing us to reassess received wisdom as well as the privilege of not having to particularise western universalism.

Critiques of postcolonialsm: Arif Dirlik

According to Arif Dirlik, the major contribution of postcolonial critique is the repudiation of all master narratives the most powerful of which are those constituted in and by post-Enlightenment Europe and which were fundamental to the establishing of colonial domination.

  1. The most important narrative to be rejected is that of modernization. While Marxism rejects bourgeois modernization theories, it too must be critiqued because it works with the same teleological assumptions as those that motivate bourgeois theories. The narrative of modes of production sees colonialism as a transition to capitalism (rather than integral to it). This leads to the colony being seen merely as Europe’s other, as outside of history – a major factor in Orientalist thought.
  1. Secondly, nationalism should also be debunked because it reproduces the essentialisms inherent to Orientalism and Eurocentrism by constructing an authentic and reified national subject. National identity does not take into account Bhabha’s hybridity or the notion that Stuart Hall introduces of the postcolonial subject as inherently split – the colonial exists within the colonised and, thus in the postcolonial, and vice versa.
  1. Lastly, the idea of foundationalism has to be repudiated. Foundationalism assumes that it is possible to look at history as represented by an identity – a class, for example – that cannot be broken down further – that cannot be seen as heterogeneous; hence the universalisation of the ‘proletariat’, for example. However, taking this view means being unable to see past the particular ideal type being mobilised.

According to postcolonial critics, the most important consequence of the rejection of foundationalism is the rejection of capitalism as a foundational category. Critics like Prakash argue that it is impossible to read the history of any Third World country in terms of the development of capitalism alone or to argue against the role played by capitalism in homogenizing the contemporary world. Doing so would reject out of hand the role played by other factors and actors that exist outside of these western logics.

Similarly, it is impossible to see the Third World itself or Third World subjects as categories. Postcolonial critique unsettles the neat categorisation into East and West, First World and Third World, etc. Rather the point is to see all accounts – orientalist, nationalist, marxist, etc. – as ‘discursive attempts to constitute their objects of knowledge.’

Third World identities have to resist this attempt by foundationalism to be fixed. They must be constituted as relational and heterogeneous. Rejecting essentialisation, they suggest engagement not insularity. The Third World refuses to stay in its place. Rather, it has ‘penetrated the inner sanctum of the first world’ and has affiliated with other subordinated subjects in the first world. So, according to the postcolonial critics, there is a strong role to be played by postcolonial actors in alliance with other marginalised groups and activists such as socialists, radicals, feminists, and other minorities.

The Third World postcolonial subject is deterritorialised. Postcolonial politics are a politics of positionality – where I position myself and am positioned by others in an imbalanced power relation undergirded by a colonial logic – rather than a politics of location, grounded in a particular localised space.

It is with this notion that Arif Dirlik opens his critique of contemporary postcolonialism. Postcolonial critique, by becoming disconnected from a particular space, has made the postcolonial subject more important than the world which exists around her.

For Dirlik, in his scathing critique, a lot of the problems with postcolonial theory is in the fact that it only becomes significant once certain academics from Third World countries make it in the western academy. He says that ‘postcolonial, rather than a description of anything, is a discourse that seeks to constitute the world in the self-image  of intellectuals who view themselves… as postcolonial intellectuals… postcolonial discourse is an expression not so much of agony over identity… but of newfound power.’

Dirlik, basing much of his critique on the subaltern historians – originating mainly from India – who are considered to be the instigators of postcolonial studies, is irritated by what he sees as the projection of certain local problems as global concerns. He says that the problems raised for Indian historiography by the subaltern historians has led to them being generalised because of the centrality of Indian subaltern history to postcolonialism in general.

The problem that Dirlik sees as central to postcolonial critique is that while, on the one hand, its proponents are calling for attention to heterogeneity, difference and historicity, they are, on the other hand, generalizing from the local context to the global while denying that there are any global forces which have an impact on the forming of the local in the first place.

Anne McClintock, for example, notes that a central problem in this is that while postcolonial theory promises to decentre history by privileging hybridity, it nonetheless ends up re-centering global history around singular European time by privileging the colonial moment over all others.

Furthermore, the focus on hybridity and subjectivity leads to what O’Hanlon and Washbrook call a ‘depoliticising insulation of social from material domains’. According to them, this makes postcolonialism a conservative, rather than a radical, project, because it doesn’t seek to subvert any of the macro structures, especially capitalism. There is no way of looking at the impact of these structures on different localities because the direction postcolonialism is interested in is that from the local to the global, but in so doing it generalises local experiences so that they lose meaningfulness.

Dirlik also finds problematic the language of postcolonial discourse which is the language of Western post-structuralism. Prakash admits that the language used by third world scholars is often familiar to the West, but he doesn’t characterise this as a problem. For Dirlik, this is a problem because the choice of language means that postcolonial critique remains a conversation between the postcolonial and the First World rather than between postcolonial intellectuals.

The focus on subjectivities also prominent in poststructuralist approaches means too that postcolonial studies risk causing a dislocation between these subjective standppoints and the ideology and institutions that produce them. Indeed, the drive in much postcolonial studies and cultural studies towards a focus on identity and affect – especially within literature and psychoanalysis – may have contributed to a dilution of the political aim of postcolonialism. As the late David Macey noted in his biography of Fanon,

‘The Third Worldist Fanon was an apocalyptic creature; the post-colonial Fanon worries about identity politics, and often about his own sexual identity, but he is no longer angry… The wretched of the earth are still there, but not in the seminar rooms where the talk is of post-colonial theory. They came out on the streets of Algiers in 1988, and the Algerian army shot them dead. […] Had he lived, Fanon would still be angry. His readers should be angry too.’ (Macey 2000: 29).

Part of what we may want to think about is how to reclaim the angry Fanon for an evaluation of the contribution postcolonial theory can make today. In the rest of this lecture, I want to look at how a simultaneous reading of postcolonialism alongside other, allied, traditions in subaltern studies, race critical theory, and Chicana feminism for example can help in the construction of a decolonial reading that would radically decentre Occidentalist thinking and power.

Doing this helps us consider the impact of what Boaventura De Sousa Santos calls western ‘abyssal thinking’ on thought in general and how the colonial project and the allied colonization of knowledge brought about an erasure of precolonial philosophy, science and art. Part of what we do when we heed the call to decolonize knowledge is both to uncover the processes by which these erasures occurred and return to these traditions in the effort to embed a more global understanding of the social world.


Dirlik’s criticisms notwithstanding, the contributions of South Asian subaltern history have been vital to questioning the relationship between coloniality and history.

In Dipesh Chakrabarty’s ‘Provincializing Europe’, the author problematises history as a narrative of transition and examines the effects upon the understanding of formerly colonised countries such as India.

In particular, Chakrabarty states, it is necessary to question the notions of progress, development and modernisation within historicist accounts. The subaltern historians are as critical of Indian nationalists as they are of colonialists. Nationalist historicist readings examine Indian progress since 1947 in terms of a lack, an absence or a failure. In this sense, these nationalist readings are often continuous with British colonialist interpretations of India as inadequate or incomplete in contrast to the achievements of the colonisers whose efforts notwithstanding failed to change the course of Indian destiny.

Indian nationalism was complicit in the interpretation of India as lacking, a fact that Gandhi realised when he noted that nationalists’ demands for more railways, modern medicine, etc. were efforts to ‘make India English’. However, from a nationalist perspective, the ambition was not to be English or European but but for Indians to become individuals by embracing the nation and citizenship – understood as universal principles.

Paradoxically, Indian nationalists had internalised the universal presumptions underlying western ideas, such as the individual, equal subject. The problem was that, because of the unadmitted particularity of these principles, the West was not ready to accept Indians as individual subjects or the independent Indian state on equal terms.


To see the colonised world as lacking or as a stage of history in transition towards something approximating that seen as already achieved by the West, is to privilege a process of modernization. In that the West is considered modern, everywhere else is seen as in the process of becoming modern.

As Gurminder Bhambra explains, modernisation theory rests upon a separation between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’. In the West, tradition is located in the past whereas, the Third World is seen as traditional co-temporally with western modernity. However, modernisation theory also sees tradition as gradually being superseded by modernity in all societies. Bhambra describes modernisation theory as a theory of convergence in which all difference is erased by the diffusion of western institutions.

If anything, this has been exacerbated and accelerated since the proliferation of globalization – which, in one sense can be understood as a speeding up of the drive to Euro-American modernization.

As Arturo Escobar points out, key theorists of modernization, like Anthony Giddens, explicitly state that globalization entails the universalisation of modernity.

The assumption that modernity is synonymous with the West has been refuted by theorists of multiple modernities, or ‘varieties of modernity’ who point out that non-western societies are not stagnant, but that they develop their own institutional and cultural contexts prior to western modernity. The exposure to western modernity led to the emergence of multiple modernities within societies where western institutions converged with local cultural practices.

However, Bhambra critiques the multiple modernities approach for being rooted nonetheless in a Eurocentric vision: modernities of various kinds emerged first in Europe and only later with the expansion of modernity in the Americas, Africa and Asia. The multiple modernities approach sets itself up as non-Orientalist, but by saying that multiple modernities emerge only through the encounter with European modernities (which themselves are construed as multiple), scholars such as Eisenstadt or Wittrock are actually saying that the West is ‘both the origin of modernity and…of multiple modernities.’

In contrast to this approach, which assumes that there are civilizational ideal types that can be compared with each other, Bhambra argues that the West is not already modern before its encounter with the rest of the world. Rather, it is through the colonial relationship that modernity is formed: ‘colonisation was not simply an outcome of modernity, but, rather, modernity itself, the modern world, developed out of colonial encounters.’

For Escobar, the power of what he calls ‘Eurocentred modernity’ – which he says is a ‘particular local history’ – lies in the fact that it has subalternised other local histories. Modernisation appears teleological and universal, but it is only one of a number of possible stories still waiting to be played out.


Contra the idea of modernisation as a linear universalising process, Bhambra contends that “there are no entities that are not hybrid, that are not always and already hybrid.”

Everything has already in some way been influenced by something else. For example, while we talk about the importance of the Industrial Revolution in facilitating the growth of capitalism and locate the milling industry in places like Manchester, we do not always remember that cotton milling were only made possible because cotton was brought from India where it was grown. In other words, the industrial revolution and the growth of capitalism was only made possible through the connection between India and Europe.

Instead of seeing the global as an extension of western modernity, we should focus, according to Bhambra, on the interconnectedness of the world, or the ‘common world’.

European social theory has explained the evolution of the modern world in terms of a series of separate processes taking place independently in different parts of the world. Therefore, capitalism for example is seen as a western process that is then extended to the rest of the world through colonialism firstly, and globalization more recently.

However, to see things from this perspective would be to ignore the example of the cotton mills. Modernity, and today globalization, should be seen as a series of ‘conjunctions and connected and entangled histories’. Doing so deprivileges the West as the origin, the vanguard, the norm and sheds light both on the other, untold and silenced histories that need to be told for a full picture of the contemporary world to be revealed and on the ways in which the interdependence between the First and the Third World is central rather than incidental.

The decolonial approach

The decolonial approach to the discussion of the relationship between modernity and coloniality and how this continues to impact upon global power relations represents an advance in thinking about the condition of coloniality in a way which may avoid some of the problems set out by Dirlik. It goes towards engaging deeply with the theme of interrelatedness which Bhambra suggests is fundamental for deprivileging western historicism and (re)writing more inclusive histories.

Decolonial thinking originates mainly with Latin American scholars such as Ramon Grosfoguel, Walter Mignolo, Enrique Dussel, Arturo Escobar, and Gloria Anzaldua. Decolonizing approaches are useful because they focus not only on theoretical deconstructions of the colonial structures which many critics argue continue to shape relationships between states and peoples across the globe, but also on the proposition of alternatives to them, sometimes through an appeal to the precolonial.

Scholars looking at the links between modernity and coloniality work with critical theories of modernity and postmodernity, South asian subaltern studies, Chicana feminist theory, postcolonial theory, and African philosophy. According to Arturo Escobar, the genealogy of the modernity/coloniality research programme associated with decolonial thinking can be traced back through liberation theology of the 1960s and 70s, debates in Latin American social science about liberation theology and autonomous social science, dependency theory, debates on hybridity in anthropology, and communications and cultural studies of the 1990s.

Understanding the relationship between modernity and coloniality is crucial if we are to go towards decolonising knowledge and the resultant power structures.

According to Walter Mignolo,

‘the rhetoric of modernity is that of salvation, whereas the logic of coloniality is a logic of imperial oppression. They go hand in hand, and you cannot have modernity without coloniality; the unfinished project of modernity carries over its shoulders the unfinished project of coloniality.’

The reason for this interrelationship is in the fact that naturalised beliefs about the world order are imperial-colonial, and continue to be so. The beliefs about the inherent differences between the West and the majority world, established by the discourse of modernity, which were mobilised both by Christianity and by capitalism, have shaped hegemonic understandings of the world for the last 500 years. These need to be debunked by an epistemic decolonial shift.

Therefore, unlike postcolonialism, decolonial thinkers like Mignolo are not calling for an analysis in terms of  ‘neo’, ‘post’ or deconstructive – colonialism which he says are ‘all changes within the same modern colonial epistemology’. Rather the decolonial entails a delinking from the rules of the game, a decolonising of the mind (I call this unlearning).

This process of delinking doesn’t mean attempting to exist outside of modernity or indeed Christian, liberal, capitalist or marxist hegemony. Rather, the aim is to reject the naturalising assumptions made by these four macro-narratives (in this sense, the aim is similar to postcolonialism’s repudiation of master narratives).

As Mignolo puts it bluntly, the aim of decolonial thought is to show that the majority of people (who are oppressed and racialised) in the world do not think in terms of and neither do they care about things like human rights which are based on an imperial view of humanity. Instead, we should privilege human dignity which is based on a decolonial view of humanity, but which is constantly denied by the rhetoric of modernity in which basic dignity takes second place to progress and the participation in formal structures and institutions such as citizenship, the rule of law, etc.

So, the challenge for the decolonial is to be committed to a decolonizing of knowledge. If we decolonize knowledge we cannot continue to privilege western modernization because we would have to privilege the work of historical and contemporary thinkers from the Global South instead.

Ramon Grosfoguel points out that doing this does not mean becoming inward looking, anti-European or fundamentalist. On the contrary, a decolonial approach would be based in a truly universal outlook which looks, as Bhambra says, at how ideas are always arrived at from a variety of sources – there is no one truth out there, but many truths.

At its very core, the decolonial approach challenges us to look at the world from the perspective of a poor Latin American woman, a process which would reveal the organisation of power globally in terms of what Anibal Quijano calls the ‘colonial power matrix’.

The modernity/coloniality research programme

Arturo Escobar in his discussion of the modernity/coloniality research programme which has given rise to decolonial thought sets out the five main points around which the linking of modernity and coloniality are based.

These are:

  1. An emphasis on the conquest of the Americas as the starting point of modernity, rather than the Enlightenment or the end of the 18th century as is more commonly accepted. Doing this would immediately reveal the relationship between the advent of modernity and colonial domination and uncover the dependence of the western project of modernity upon European domination over the majority world. One is unthinkable without the other. Therefore, modernity should be decentred from its alleged linear progression from Greece to Rome, through Christianity and modern Europe. Instead, a new spatial and temporal conception of modernity should consider the role of Spain and Portugal in the conquest of the Americas as fundamental. Dussel calls this the first modernity which he contrasts to the second modernity which occurred in Northern Europe with the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment.
  1. Colonialism needs to be seen as fundamental to the making of the capitalist world system and therefore as constitutive of modernity. This is encapsulated by Anibal Quijano’s concept of ‘coloniality of power’, which he sees as a hegemonic model of power in place since the Conquest of the Americas. Under coloniality of power, race and labour, space and peoples are articulated according to the needs of capital and to the benefit of white European people. So, colonialism is not about the inclusion of non-Europeans in processes of modernisation. Rather, it is about their exploitation for the demands of capital and the benefit of people construed as superior all under the guise of progress and civilisation. Coloniality of power means the persistence of colonial logics after the end of colonialism. So, the lingering colonial mentality on a world scale explains why global capital is based upon the exploitation of poor workers in the Global South who are still considered racially/ethnically inferior to those in the richer North. This also explains the exploitation of migrant workers in the West/North. This also happens at the level of states, with nations that are considered peripheral (e.g. non powerful/western) being forced to live under a regime imposed on them by the IMF, World Bank, etc. For Grosfogeul, “Peripheral zones remain in a colonial situation even though they are no longer under colonial administration.”
  1. As a result of seeing colonialism as constitutive of modernity, it is necessary to see modernity as a world-wide process rather than an intra-European phenomenon which is then rolled out across the rest of the world. Enrique Dussel proposes the notion of trans-modernity as a way of encapsulating this. Most critiques of modernity (including postcolonialism if we accept Dirlik’s critique) are in fact eurocentred critiques of eurocentrism. In other words, they accept the terms of reference established by European conceptualisations of modernity (such as Marxism). What needs to happen in contrast is for colonial difference to be brought to the fore by privileging the relationship between modernity and coloniality. Transmodernity refuses the idea that critical discourse is uniquely European (something often heard in contemporary discussions of Islam in the West, for example). The aim is to give voice to the negated Other by what Dussel calls ‘the negation of the negation’ – that is unveiling the subjugation to which subalterns have been subjected to and listening to the silenced counter-discourses of the oppressed. This is similar to what is proposed by the subaltern historians who uncovered the unauthorised and silenced histories of peasants and other subaltern people in the Indian subcontinent. So, for example, Escobar talks about giving value to some of the landmark experiences of decolonisation in the teaching of history including the Tupac Amaru rebellion, the Haitian revolution or the more recent anticolonial movements. Instead, what we are seeing is a revaluing of hegemonic colonial history through the institutionalisation of revisionist historians such as Niall Ferguson and Linda Collier in the UK or the passing of a law in France in 2003 (later repealed) requiring teachers to teach about the important contributions and sacrifice of the French in North Africa! In today’s time, it would be listening to the accounts of poor people of their lives and allowing them to conceptualise their lives in terms of their own experience and being led by them, rather than vice versa. According to Dussel, transmodernity cannot be brought about from within modernity – or from within a logic that privileges modernity. Rather, in that it is what Escobar calls ‘the expression of an ethics of liberation’. It needs to be brought about through the action of subalternised groups (examples include the Zapatistas, the landless people of Brazil, or the Indian tribal people currently fighting the government in the forests of India).
  1. It is fundamental to see the domination of non-Europeans as integral to modernity. This process of domination also led to the silencing of other knowledges and cultures which are then expressed as a lack in comparison to European knowledge and culture. Mignolo’s project of colonial difference and global coloniality which insists on attending to the knowledge buried by the process of colonial domination will be discussed in the next slide in relation to the epistemological concerns of the decolonial project.
  1. Eurocentrism has to be seen as the knowledge form of modernity/coloniality. This again is also fundamental to the postcolonial critique and involves unveiling the way in which particularised European knowledge constitutes itself as universal to the exclusion and repudiation of other knowledges.

Impacts on the academy

Decoloniality also aims to have an impact on the academy. The aim of the modernity/coloniality research group has also been to decolonise the humanities (if not the university). To a limited extent within Latin America, the proliferation of ideas from liberation theology to autonomous social science through the work of pioneers such as Dussel, going back to the 1970s has has an impact in this direction. But there is clearly far to go.

Walter Mignolo, in particular, has been concerned with the advancing of border epistemologies as ways of ‘putting the humanities at the service of decolonial projects’. Border thinking would entail moving beyond the categories imposed by Western epistemology.

But, as discussed by Boaventura de Sousa Santos, doing so is made difficult by the embedding of what he callas ‘abyssal thinking’. He says that abyssal thinking forms the basis of modern wester thinking. It involves the creation of a system of visible and invisible distinctions where the invisible ones form the foundation of the visible ones. The invisible distinctions divide social reality into two realms, one realm existing ‘on this side of the line’, and the other ‘on the other side of the line’. This ‘other side’ disappears from analyses because it is constituted as nonexistent, or as irrelevant or incomprehensible.

To make this concrete, de Sousa Santos sees modern knowledge and modern law as the two sites of abyssal thinking. Both construct what is true and what is false, what is right and what is wrong. Lay, plebian, peasant or indigenous philosophies or world views are made invisible by the visibility of modern knowledge and law. They are put on the other side of the abyssal line.

Western modernity is formally seen as the abandonment of the state of nature. But, according to de Sousa Santos, the state of nature and modern civil society coexist, but the state of nature is put on the other side of the invisible abyssal line. In the context of western modernity, the state of nature is the colonised territories. By putting it outside of modernity, by declaring it the state of nature, and hence overcome, western modern thinking renders the colonised – and thus indigenous knowledge – nonexistent.

This problem confronts the project of building new decolonial epistemologies.

Border thinking

Being committed to a decolonisation of knowledge, and hence of social realities, requires an engagement with border thinking, according to Walter Mignolo.

Critical Border thinking, a concept often attributed to Chicana poet and feminist Gloria Anzaldua, is based on the understanding that European culture and thought has been imposed upon the whole world not only through colonialism in the past but through the persistence of western models of ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’, etc.

Even decolonised nation-states accept a western ethos by reproducing the nation – which is a European invention – upon populations that did not necessarily want to live within these artificially created territorial units.

Critical border thinking rejects both Eurocentrism and the fundamentalist retreat into anti-western third world identities.

Therefore, things like citizenship, democracy, human rights, humanity and economic relations are disconnected from their presumed origin in westerns institutions/ideologies, and redefined to make sense in non-western contexts.

Grosfoguel gives the examples of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico. The Zapatistas are not anti-modern. They accept democracy but redefine it for a local indigenous standpoint.

The Zapatistas use slogans such as ‘commanding while obeying’ to convey how democracy should be both led by people themselves as well as in respect for elected leaders.

Fundamentally, Gloria Anzaldua and Maria Lugones for example  also introduces a particular focus on gender as a further power divide. It is not enough to understand global inequalities as dividing between the rich North and the poor South. But, gender divides also reproduce these inequalities within and across all societies.

Part of the decolonising project is to decolonise these uneven power relations between men and women.

Border thinking then, challenges us to go beyond simple divisions into north and south, rich and poor, us and them, citizen and foreigner, men and woman, straight and queer, etc. The challenge – like for an interconnected understanding of globalisation – is how we contain all of these elements in ourselves and, using this, to overcome (at least in theory) the resultant inequality.


Bhambra, Gurminder K. (2007) ‘Multiple Modernities or Global Interconnections: Understanding the global post the colonial’, in N. Karagiannis and P. Wagner (eds.), Varieties of World-Making: Beyond Globalization. Liverpool UP.

Bhambra, Gurminder K  and Boaventura de Sousa Santos. 2017. ‘Introduction: Global Challenges for Sociology’, Sociology. Online First 3 Jan 2017.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2000) Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference Princeton University Press Introduction and Chapter One (pp. 3-47).

Grosfoguel, Ramon. 2013. ‘The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century’, Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, XI, Issue 1, Fall 2013, 73-90.

Mignolo, Walter D (2006) ‘Citizenship, Knowledge, and the Limits of Humanity’. American Literary History (Cary, NC; Oxford) (18:2): 312-321.

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