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“Provincializing the Social Sciences – A Preliminary Discussion”

BGSMCS Workshop, Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Convenors: Schirin Amir-Moazami, Ruth Streicher

Program and Readings


The one-day workshop “Provincializing the Social Sciences” was designed as a preliminary forum of discussion with the research community at the BGSMCS. It was the kick-off for a broader conversation and a research project that we are currently working on. The project asks about possibilities of a theoretical engagement with area studies that allows for challenging epistemological closures of social scientific concepts, and seeks to find ways for alternative conceptualizations by using previously excluded archives of knowledge.


A lot of important energy has recently been spent on the reconfiguration of area studies as translocal, transregional and historically entangled fields of investigation (e.g. Derichs 2014; Houben 2013; Middell/Naumann 2010), not least given a number of crucial research initiatives that have worked to revitalize area studies in this direction (see, for instance, the “Forum Transregionale Studien”, the research network “Crossroads Asia”, or the initiative “CrossArea”. Meanwhile, the question how these discussions could and should “speak back” to established epistemologies, methodologies and research agendas within disciplines of social sciences (in particular Political Sciences and Sociology) has less frequently been posed.


The workshop was opened by the invited guest speaker, Prof Anupama Rao (Columbia University) with an input lecture. Prof. Rao is the co-editor of the journal “Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East” and has thoroughly thought about connections between area studies and the social sciences. The movement to “provincialize the social sciences” was timely and necessary, she argued, both to productively think with and beyond critiques of Orientalism and to grapple with a widely perceived “crisis” of the social sciences.


Her move was twofold. Arguing along Chakrabary’s call to both dwell on and to provincialize European epistemological archives, Rao suggested to reflect upon ways to more explicitly universalize from the particular. Moving beyond a critique of Orientalism in this sense means to think about moments of translation, comparison and provincialization as an inherent impossibility and a very difficult theoretical space to occupy. But it also means to break the often reiterated divide between ideographic and nomothetic disciplines. The sources of critical theory, deriving themselves from the social sciences (e.g. from the early Frankfurt School), could be fruitfully reactivated and reconfigured – whilst obviously taking into account current geopolitical dynamics from which no kind of knowledge production can be disentangled.


The first session covered the question of the programmatic title: what could a strategy to “provincialize the social sciences” entail? Whilst the sociologist Michael Burawoy developed his call for “provincialization” as a critical reply to the Gulbenkian Commission Report “Open the Social Sciences”, his strategy differs from Chakrabarty’s understandings of “provincializing Europe” – as pinned down more concretely, for instance, in his reflections on possibilities of a postcolonial political economy. One central part of Chakrabarty’s strategy is that of genealogies, i.e. the historical problematization of currently used social scientific concepts. This is an unavoidable step in any critical reflection on the potentialities and problems of any disciplinary practice and the kinds of questions it enables or impedes.


The second session was therefore devoted to start thinking about genealogies of knowledges. Here we asked about the formation of concepts such as religion, regional areas and areas worth to be studied as part of larger formations of knowledge. Through these discussions it became clear that the formation of larger sections of knowledge on the “Orient” in the late 19th, beginning of the 20th century not only needs to be understood as anchored in imperial projects. It also revealed the importance to attribute German variants of Orientalism a greater responsibility for later divisions between oriental studies (including Islamwissenschaft) and social sciences and for largely influencing the establishment of area studies in the US academy, not least through emigrant academics.


In the final session of the workshop we discussed the question of alternative epistemologies, as formulated by the feminist Donna Haraway, the sociologist Raewyn Connell and the literary theorist Rey Chow. An important problem foregrounded here was the strengthening of neocolonial tendencies through the current neoliberal restructuring of universities. The necessary economic pressure to measure the rationales, outcome and outreach of knowledge production along standardized systems of measurement, indeed, already shaped the conceptual matrix of knowledge production that governs both the social sciences and area studies. Rather than offering an easy way out, the move to “provincialize the social sciences” can offer means for a critical reflection and awareness of the traps these conditions mean for what has come to be called “academic freedom”.


The workshop was very well received – over 15 doctoral and postdoctoral researchers participated, prepared presentations of different readings and actively engaged in the discussion. A number of participants voiced their demands for a follow-up, for instance, in the form of workshops focussing on individual aspects of the very broad preliminary discussion.


Some of the discussions will be continued at an international conference which we will organize from the 4th to the 6th of June 2015 in collaboration with the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies and with the Centre for Area Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. Details about the conference program will be announced in spring 2015.



Derichs, Claudia 2014: Reflections: Normativities in Area Studies and Disciplines, in: Forum Transregionale Studien (retrieved from: http://trafo.hypotheses.org/1372, 11/19/2014).

Houben, Vincent 2013: The New Area Studies and Southeast Asian History (Dorisea Working Paper, Nr. 4).

Middell, Matthias/Naumann, Katja 2010: Global history and the spatial turn: from the impact of area studies to the study of critical junctures of globalization, in: Journal of Global History 5: 1, 149-170.