​Understanding Eurocentrism as a Structural Problem of Undone Science


       One sense in which we can conceptualize the idea of “decolonizing the university” is in the decolonization of the curriculums of instruction that are employed in the classrooms and seminars of said university. As a basic unit of the university itself, the classroom is I argue one of the key places that the colonial nature of universities, especially in metropoles and settler colonies, manifest itself. Work such as “The Death of White Sociology” (Ladner 1973) and “White Logic, White Methods” (Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva 2008) have highlighted how the “imperial unconscious” of these curriculums shapes how undergraduates, graduate students, and academics understand and study the world (Go 2013). This is one of the reasons why curriculums have become a popular target of marginalized students and academics seeking to decolonize the university.

The task of decolonizing the curriculum, at least in the social sciences, has taken the form of epistemological critiques of who produces knowledge and what knowledge those people produce. Decoloniality, postcolonialism, and other bodies of scholarship have all dissected the ways in which the ideas of the Enlightenment have structured how we think about the modern, the human, and legitimate knowledge of the social world (Quijano & Ennis 2000; Bhambra 2007). Although challenging Eurocentric epistemologies in text is an important component of decolonizing knowledge systems, there is less attention given to how structural and physical factors of the colonial world that help create and maintain the same epistemology that scholars are currently struggling to decolonize. Using the framework of undone science, I argue that the struggle to decolonize university knowledge systems is intimately intertwined with addressing forms of physical and economic colonial violence. These forms of violence including genocide, interpersonal racism in academia, and global structures of academic knowledge transmission, serve to ensure that the configurations of people, resources, and space that allow for new decolonial knowledges to emerge never come to exist. Considering these forces, I argue that to effect real decolonization of our knowledge systems that we have to consider how marginalized communities and decolonial scholars need to not only intervene in epistemic debates but also politically intervene in the physical spaces these debates often take place in.

What is Undone Science?

       Most discussions of knowledge production and epistemic cultures focus on describing or analyzing questions of how particular pieces of knowledge are produced, used, and disseminated among scientific actors and the communities and societies they inhabit. What is not often talked about is all the other possible research projects, proposals, papers, and agendas that are not completed or taken up by these same actors. Frickel et al defined this non-produced knowledge as “undone science” which can be defined as “areas of research identified by social movements and other civil society organizations as having potentially broad social benefit that are left unfunded, incomplete, or generally ignored” (2010). I would add to Frickel et al’s definition for the purpose of this paper that the “identifiers” can also be other scholars, or members of other communities who encounter scientific institutions. Undone science is understood to be a systematic occurrence that is embedded within relationships of power and influence within and around academia. For every scientific project or research paper that is supported and funded there is another project or paper that is not being funded or given attention by scholars and those that support them i.e. a zero sum game. The concept of undone science also highlights the importance of agenda setting as an overtly political process that determines what science is done and what science is undone. This framework puts an emphasis on how actors both within and outside academia influence which agendas, among a number of alternatives, are taken up or marginalized.

       The concept of undone science allows scholars to speak about marginalization outside of a narrative of simply higher quality projects winning out over lower quality projects and instead focus on the power relationships that determines what quality is and what scientific pursuits are important or not important. These qualities make the concept of undone science valuable to discussions of eurocentrism in the social sciences. Eurocentrism in the social sciences is not only about how the focus of academic work tend to be on European societal phenomena but also about how this focus on European social life leave the social life and thought of other communities and nations understudied, unattended to, or worse actively suppressed.

Eurocentrism and Undone Science

Eurocentric critiques have been levied at mainstream sociology and other social sciences primarily by scholars of color and those coming from the Global South (Maia 2014). The most prominent perspective in this space is postcolonial sociology which argues that sociology is a product of the intersection of science and European imperialism. As mentioned above, one example of this critique is Julian Go’s descriptions of the “imperial unconscious” of sociology (2013) that underpins the epistemology of mainstream sociology. Raewyn Connell alternatively describes the field as “metropolitan sociology” (2007). A similar critique of sociology comes from Black sociology. Black sociology, as both a political movement within sociology and a theoretical perspective driven by black scholars during the Civil Rights/ Black Power era developed a conceptualization of sociology based on its relationship to the American racial system. Black sociological writings argued that American sociology is really a “White sociology” that constitutes the scientific reflection of American racism. This description of American sociology also understood the field as an institution within itself which held an ideology, stratification structure, culture, as well as an epistemology (Alkalimat (Gerald McWorter) 1969; Hunter 2002; Ladner 1973; Wright & Calhoun 2006). Similar descriptions of social science as a white/European space in general come from scholars within the North American indigenous community and other places in the global south (Akiwowo 1999; Keskin 2014; Manigault-Bryant 2014; Dei 2000).

       Postcolonial and Black sociology echo the logic of scholars working in the new political sociology of science (NPSS) perspective that one can’t understand the production of knowledge and science independent of its relationship to societal interests and structures of power (Scott & Kelly 2006). What makes these discussions of eurocentrism interesting is the way in which they extend arguments about “the relationships embedding scientific knowledge systems within and across economic, legal, political, and civil society institutions” to argue that these scientific perspectives are constructors of whole societies, namely modern Euroamerican society. The history of the social sciences reflects this in the birth of national sociological spaces reflecting the angst and interests of the dominant powers of those societies. European sociology for instance was primarily concerned with the birth and growing pains of “modernity” and how it was different from their previous “primitive” state (Connell 2007). American sociology on the other hand, especially if you include WEB DuBois as part of the first wave of American scholars, was primarily concerned with inequality and (racial) difference (Magubane 2016; Morris 2015). The national/civilization level relationship between Eurocentric scientific enterprise and the societies that produced and are produced by them changes somewhat how we understand thing such as undone science, as I will go into below.

       Undone science as a concept takes on new importance when coupled with these analyses of eurocentrism. Edward Said argued that Enlightenment thought, which laid the basis for the creation of the social sciences, constructed Europeans as the dialectical opposite of “Orientals” whereby Europeans produce logic and science while all others produce myths and superstition (Said 1979). This racist conception of European’s relationship to the world both justified colonialism, and within academia, determined what people and whose societies were allowed to produce legitimate scientific knowledge. Orientalism and other colonial logics reject whole societies and the possible scientific agendas they may possess as superstition or folk knowledge. This categorical writing off of colonized peoples and their societies as knowledge produces ensures that at least within western defined academic spaces certain ideas always remain unthought. This move by western academe to “unthink” colonized people as knowledge producers is related to what Knorr-Cetina calls “negative knowledge which is ” unknown knowledge that is deemed insignificant and/or dangerous to actors (Cetina 2009). Constructing colonized people as non-knowledge producers creates a geography of negative knowledge whereby knowledge that comes from or is influenced by that geography is always already inferior to European derived knowledge.

       An example of undone science and negative knowledge is mainstream sociological accounts of the rise of modernity. Gurminder Bhambra argues that European modernity, and its scientific avatar sociology, are grounded in an understanding of European society separate and unique among all other societies (Bhambra 2011). She defines Eurocentrism as “the belief, implicit or otherwise, in the world historical significance of events believed to have developed endogenously within the cultural-geographical sphere of Europe.” What’s important here is the agenda setting power of the idea of modernity as a uniquely European phenomenon. Karl Marx, for instance, developed his stages of history from a European perspective that ignored the historical developments of other societies, while arguing that these same stages were universal in nature (1972). When he did address non-European societies and their historical development, as he did Asia, he created a category called the “Asiatic mode of production” that set Asia apart from “normal” trajectories of class conflict (Fogel 1988). The agenda setting power of the European modernity literature and Marxist historical materialism produced conditions in which research on the 3rd world class conflict seemed both useless and/or a threat to orthodox Marxism, an example of negative knowledge (Abdo-Zubi 1996; Bhambra et al. 2014). Examples such as Marxist theory show us epistemically how eurocentrism established itself within the social sciences over time by systematically privileging one research agenda and perspective over all others.

       Although scholarship has broadly done an exemplary job exposing the epistemic trajectories that produce eurocentrism, NPSS opens the door to tracing the physical and structural forces that also contribute to the production of eurocentrism. This turn toward a not-strictly epistemic understanding of how science is conducted is one of the major contributions of science and technology studies as an interdisciplinary field. What it shares with the abovementioned literature on eurocentrism is an understanding of science as a social activity that is not strictly driven by logic and methods, but also driven by the interactions of scientists with each other and with the public. If we can identify eurocentrism as a structural problem within sociology and the social sciences in general, there should be individuals, groups, and institutions that perpetuate the logic across space and time.

       To illustrate my point about eurocentrism as a structural problem I’ve chose three phenomena that serve to shape intellectual agendas in the university that ultimately become the curriculums that students are taught from. These phenomena include generalized colonial violence, racial discrimination in academia, and structures of global knowledge transmission. These phenomena exist outside the bounds of what we call the epistemic, but I argue have profound impacts on it all the same. An important dimension to consider is how it’s often institutions and individuals within the university itself who are creating policies, initiatives, and decisions that drive all three of these phenomena.

Generalized Colonial Violence

       Implied in discussions of eurocentrism is its historical relationship to European colonialism. As argued above, much of the grounding that allowed for Marx’s historical materialism and Eurocentric modernity narratives to thrive was the idea that people in the Global South had nothing to contribute empirically or intellectually to understanding human social development. This idea of non-European inferiority contributed to justifying colonial invasion and violence. Colonial enterprise, which includes the killing of colonized peoples, destruction of records and texts, and imposition of metropolitan culture ensured that much of the already existing knowledge structures, cultures, and intellectual agendas of colonized people were outright destroyed, leaving European epistemologies unchallenged. We can consider the hypothetical for example of what kinds of knowledge systems would have developed in colonized societies/nations had they not been invaded and controlled by European empires. These hypothetical knowledge systems is the undone science that no long exist or will exist because the civilizations they hail from have either been pushed onto new “development” trajectories, or worse, have been eradicated by genocidal violence, something I will going into next.

       The clearest examples of how generalized violence encouraged and ensured the supremacy of eurocentrism is settler colonialism in the western hemisphere. Settler colonialism can be best defined by its difference from classical colonialism. Where classical or resource colonialism seeks to simply extract resources and/or labor from the dominated nation or people, settler colonialism is typified by the establishment of a permanent presence that usually involves displacing or eradicating the dominated population. Patrick Wolfe (2006) in his theorization of settler colonial logics coined the idea of the logic of elimination. Wolfe argues that in any settler colonial society there exist a contradiction whereby the settler seeks to claim sovereignty over the space while dealing with the fact that the original inhabitants of the land still exist, challenging their sovereignty. The logic of elimination is the manifestation of the need to rectify this contradiction by eradicating the indigenous population from the land in various ways. Wolfe states “elimination is an organizing principle of settler-colonial society rather than a one-off (and superseded) occurrence.” The general idea is that any process that leads to the invisibility or disappearance of indigenous peoples is a positive for the settler regime.

When we consider undone science in the context of settler colonialism, it is easy to see how indigenous knowledge agendas become marginalized. The direct genocide of the vast majority of the indigenous peoples over 500 years destroyed much of the knowledge, scientific or otherwise, held by their communities. Today one of the manifestation of this genocide is the dying out of indigenous languages worldwide as the survivors of genocide fail to maintain numbers that allow for the transmission of language from one generation to the next (Alfred & Corntassel 2005). Another means by which indigenous people were prevented from maintain their knowledge based, scientific or otherwise, was residential schools. In both Canada and the United States residential schools were established that took indigenous children from their families to be taught how to think and act like white Americans/Canadians (Castellano et al. 2008). These residential schools aside from having obscenely high mortality rates that further reduced the indigenous populations also ensured that those that’s survived wouldn’t engage in any of their traditional culture or lifeways. The combined physical and cultural genocide of indigenous peoples means that there few individuals to carry indigenous intellectual agendas and among those individuals, cultural genocide via assimilationist policies may have stripped them of the potential to produce indigenous knowledges. Similar arguments can be made of African Americans in regards to the impact of chattel slavery on the lack of knowledge transmission from one generation to the next (Patterson 1982; Sexton 2016).

Racism within Academia

       Since the advent of desegregation in the United States many more scholars of color have entered the academy as students and scholars. With the inclusion of more people of color the assumption is that the academic and intellectual agendas ought to reflect the increasing diversity of people in the institution. Unfortunately, as I will discuss below, academia embodies the same kinds of prejudices towards people of color that exist in broader American society. Interpersonal and institutional racism within academia ensure that scholars of color don’t survive within academia, have the social power to set research agendas, or directly challenge their more privileged peers. As with generalized colonial violence, the agenda setting power of racism in academia is contingent on understanding that eliminating people from institutions also eliminates the intellectual agendas and knowledges embodied within those same people. People of color in academia must contend with white peers who were socialized into similar racial logics and ideologies that led to the colonial violence mentioned above. This socialization encourages behavior that makes scholars of color, particularly women of color feel unwelcomed, unappreciated, and marginalized.

       One of the base mechanisms of racial exclusion within academia is via hiring. Lauren Rivera’s concept of cultural matching is a concept that embodies much of what happens on the job market and in other kinds of evaluations of scholars of color. Cultural matching refers to the ideas that evaluators often increase their opinion of interviewees when they share hobbies, institutional memberships, or cultural habits (2012). Scholars of color, especially those that come from low income communities often lack the same kinds of networks and relationships that their white and middle class counterparts may have. The result is that people of color in any professional setting is less advocated for than their white counterparts and therefore less likely to get hired.

       Another mechanism of marginalization is the culture of silence and politeness within academia. Scholars of color are often scared of challenging their white counterparts on racist or exclusionary activity because of a norm of collegiality that exist within many academic spaces.  As Christine Stanley observed when trying to recruit scholars of color to discuss biases in journal review processes:

“…As a result, there are many faculty members of color who remain fearful about publicly sharing their narratives concerning their academic lives on university campuses. Many declined to participate in this study for several reasons. Some said that their narratives were too painful to share, while others expressed that they could be targeted because they were among a few or the only ones in their departments. Still others in the junior faculty ranks declined because they felt that their untenured status would be at risk. A continued sanction on silence and politeness, with the result that the master narrative norms are not troubled, obscures open and frank dialogue about diversity issues and, in particular, about racism in the editorial- review process.” (Stanley 2007)

This silencing of scholars of color due to fear of marginalization is a theme that is nearly universal within narratives of marginalization (Ward Randolph & Weems 2010). As Stanley noted, this silence enables other forms of marginalization to go unnamed and unchallenged.

       Lastly, we can look at graduate training as another place where scholars of color are marginalized with two major results: their assimilation into mainstream (i.e. Eurocentric) patterns of behavior and scholarship or being filtered out of academia all together for refusing to assimilate. Relationship with faculty and other students are a primarily mechanism by which graduate students are shaped. One scholar describing their political science education noted that fellow students would question her with “how is your work political?” (Brown 2007). Alternatively, we can see how African women graduate students are denied professional courtesy as advanced graduate students and faculty alike (Beoku-Betts 2004). These two examples are indicative of situations where scholars of color are forced to alter their behavior or research agendas to fit into the mainstream culture of their departments or disciplines or see themselves in a position where they may be pushed out or denied tenure and other accolades.

       What we see through this mechanism is how routine racism (and misogyny) within academia can lead to the marginalization of scholars of color. What is important to note here is that as students and scholars are pushed to the margins or pushed out, the knowledge that they have or intend to produce is marginalized along with them. When considering undone science, we can easily see how racism within academia would make sure that one does not have the power or influence to change the trajectory of fields, departments, or committees.

Structures of Global Knowledge Transmission   

       The last major mechanism that prevents marginalized people from shaping academic agenda and research trajectories is the relationship between scholars of color, especially those in the Global South and academic institutions and norms in the Global North. This mechanism is primarily driven by the inertial legacy of eurocentrism of the social sciences manifesting itself in academia today. Scholars studying these dynamics are primarily concerned with the ways in which former colonial powers influence the research and structure of academic spaces in the Global South.

       The central framework that discusses this North-South academic relationship is work on what’s call academic dependency or alternatively intellectual imperialism. Academic dependency is the dependence of academic spaces in the global south on the resources of global northern institutions for academic and financial support while intellectual imperialism is defined as the colonization of the intellectual life of a colonized people by European social thought (Alatas 2000). Scholars in this space saw academic dependency as a kind of neo-colonial form of intellectual imperialism. The most fleshed out of these theories is seen in the work of Syed Farid Alatas. In his work on academic dependency he identified mechanisms that impacted the way research in the global south was conducted (Alatas 2003). He identifies 4 major ways in which the global south is dependent on the global north academically: 1 Dependence on ideas and the media of ideas; 2 Dependence on the technology of education; 3 Dependence on aid for research as well as teaching; 4 Dependence on investment in education.

       Dependence on ideas and media of idea is a reference to both the domination of already existing Eurocentric ideas within the social sciences as well as the domination of journal publication outlets by global north nations and academics. In sociology for example, the top two journals, The American Journal of Sociology and the American Sociological Review are both United States based journals, one of which is owned by the American Sociological Association. Alatas argues that the dominance of these outlets and the ideas they contain creates a situation where western scholars have well established publishers and distributors while the global south largely imports foreign journals from these publishers versus having their own publishing houses and journals. Due to the realities of publishing in academic journals, the expectations of the type of language used as well as the style of writing and selection of article topics are shaped in the Global South to model those in the Global North.

       The next three are all more explicitly tied to the realities of global economic inequalities. In all three cases we see a situation where the ability to do scientific work and educate those that can engage in scientific work is hinged upon the support of institutions and governments of the Global North. Particularly when it comes to education, many parts of the world inherited the education systems set up by their former colonial masters. In addition, many scholars in the Global South go to European or American universities to get advanced training, taking that training and the ideas back to their home nations. Because the money and resources for these educational and scientific endeavors come from the Global North, they are able to determine what does and doesn’t get funding, who get an education, and what knowledge looks like on a global scale. The possibilities for scholars in the global south to reject this agenda setting process likely means they will be cut off from networks of scholarship and funding that will make sure their work is marginalized.

We see a number of scholars in the global south take up versions of academic dependency theory to critique the development of scientific institutions within their societies or conceptualize how to develop sociological spaces outside these relationships of dependency. Solvay Gerke and Hans-Dieter Evers for example looked at how different Southeast Asian nations conceptualized what constituted “local knowledge” and how that impacted their institutional development over time (2006). Akinsola Akiwowo in his scholarship explored how indigenisation could make space for new forms of sociological thought in Africa and elsewhere in the Global South (1988; 1989; 1999). Kang Jun In focusing on Korean political science showed how the United States occupation influenced the development of their political science scholarship in a way that marginalizes indigenous Korean concepts and experiences (2006). These efforts and other highlight how hard it is for intellectual production in the Global South to happen outside of the influence of western academic and political institutions but it is a problem that scholars in those regions are actively challenging.

Resisting Structural Eurocentrism in the University

       As argued earlier in the paper, the three phenomena I identified that structurally perpetuate Eurocentrism all share the fact that universities themselves as institutions help create and perpetuate these phenomena. The task of decolonizing the university curriculum then requires us as scholars, activists, and marginalized people to struggle both within the university and outside, acknowledging that the line between the campus and community is a thin one at best. I will end this essay with some recommendations for places where these mechanisms of marginalization can be disrupted and reversed.

       The core mechanism by which we can begin to disrupt these processes of structural eurocentrism is by ensuring that colonized and marginalized people don’t die. It’s not often that social scientists talk about death outside of it being a research finding or observation, but it indeed stalks our struggle as scholars to challenge Eurocentric institutions. Eurocentric institutions, including the university, were all mid wifed into existence by the actual physical deaths of colonized peoples. My academic institution, Northwestern University, was funded into existence with blood money obtained via the genocide of indigenous women and children (John Evans Study Committee 2014). University of Chicago on the other hand was founded on land gifted by a slaveowner who was famous for regularly working his slaves to death (Boyer 2015). Decolonization means prioritizing the survival of colonized peoples above other interests. As scholars and activists, our work can influence policy and social movements that promotes the survival of colonized people ensuring they survive, physically, and socially to possibly join the academy, or if we want to be truly radical, perhaps subvert it all together.

       Another place where we can begin to disrupt structural Eurocentrism is in academic institutions such as departments, committees, disciplinary organizations, and the like. These institutions provide actors with the power to hire, fire, fund, defund, promote, and marginalize scholars and research agenda and serve as the primary levers of power within academia. Scholars interested in decolonization need to consider the politics of these institutions in the sense that by controlling or making oneself independent of these institutions we can open space for new knowledge agenda to emerge and have the means to protect and nurture them. These moves may include campaigns for electing officers to national academic organizations or simple informal institutions such as group chats or message boards on social media platforms that provide grounds for collective action and coordination. For scholars in the Global South and those colonized with settler colonies, I’d add the necessity for developing independent institutions where possible that don’t rely on funding or validation from mainstream academic spaces. Although an incredibly hard objective to pull off, this independence will help to re-establish intellectual sovereignty which then allows colonized communities to interact with European derived academic spaces as independent and autonomous entities vs marginalized others.

       All the above-mentioned ways of subverting structural Eurocentrism require academics to theorize and organize themselves as explicit political actors vs. thinkers whose work may contribute to one or another political movement or debate. The importance of this distinction is connected to Stanley’s work mentioned when discussing racism in academia. Much of the silence they noted is connected to respectability norms that are dominant in western academe. By respectability norms, otherwise known as professionalism, I mean the ways in which academics are influenced to engage in disagreement and dissension is certain prescribed ways that often allow already dominate and abusive behaviors to continue largely unabated (Muhs et al. 2012). Engaging in scholar-activist behaviors, especially those that are geared towards decolonial ends, requires us to release ourselves from many of these respectability norms. By doing this we will be able to engage in more substantive action for change within the academy, university, and wider communities the former two impact. Although anti-respectability carries with it the risk of marginalization, the creation of support systems and institutions among decolonial scholars, students, and activists can help protect actors from some forms of marginalization.

       To conclude I would like to reiterate the original conceit of this paper which is the idea that to decolonize the university we must target the curriculum which itself is impacted by the long history of Eurocentrism and colonialism. This work is a reminder that the stake of struggles to destroy racist monuments, include marginalized people in class syllabi, or create safe spaces for marginalized peoples is not simply in making it easier for marginalized people to get through university. The real stakes is the protection or undoing of the colonial world itself, within which the university is a core component. Part of these movement is to think beyond the rules, norms, and concepts of this existing social order. My hope is that this essay does some of work of questioning some of the conceptual binds that prevents us from challenging Eurocentrism, university curriculums, and ultimately our modern colonial order itself.


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One comment

  1. […] Global History Reading Group we read a fascinating blog written by William Jamal Richardson entitled ‘Understanding Eurocentrism as a Structural Problem of Undone Science’ publicised in 2017. It is an excellent introduction to the topic, and a very thought provoking […]


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