CONCEPT TRAVEL, COMPARISON, AND AREA STUDIES

The project “Revering the Gaze” explores the use of social scientific concepts developed in the context of the Global South to study political crises in the Global North. The aim of this work package is to create a framework for a sound discussion about concept travel that addresses theoretical constraints and possibilities as well as the politics of using concepts beyond their contexts.


CONCEPT TRAVEL AND EUROCENTRISM

“Reversing the gaze” means to change directions in the way concepts can travel, not only from Europe to what is often simply called “the rest of the world”, but from the rest back to Europe. In this way, this project critically engages with critiques from the South about the Eurocentrism of social science. One central argument of such critiques is that the concepts constituting the social sciences are predominantly of European origin and/or address European experiences but are nevertheless deemed universal. Furthermore, critiques from the South contend that a large part of social science builds on a logic of knowledge-production that applies these concepts mainly to highlight the deficiencies of non-European contexts — such as when social scientists declare Global South contexts to lack “development” or “modernity”. Thus, critiques from the South consider these concepts inadequate to analyse phenomena in postcolonial societies. This is a crucial departure point for our project.

By testing the explanatory possibilities of concepts from one context (Global South) in another one (Global North), the project focuses on the scientific merits of the use of concepts beyond their contexts of origins. Our working package reflects on the theoretical constraints and possibilities of concept travel, as well as on the politics of using concepts beyond their contexts of origin. Our ambition is not simply to argue that the use of concepts (such as those from the Global North in the Global South) is necessarily problematic. Rather, it is to define and specify the problems entailed so that amidst the highly politicised debates about concept travel we come to recognise the scope for a common substantive, theoretical, and methodological background shaping our discussions. We hope to develop methodological insights on how comparative studies, through the practice of reciprocal comparison, can take seriously the politics of concept travel while making the most of the theoretical possibilities that such travel offers.

CONCEPTUAL AND POLITICAL CRITIQUE

More specifically, our working package critically engages with various issues about concepts and concept travel raised in two important debates. The first debate focuses on postcolonial studies, Southern theory and decolonial theory. One key task here is to clarify and examine the problem of Eurocentrism. To this end, we introduce two sets of distinctions: one distinction between a Eurocentrism of origin and a Eurocentrism of application and another one between a conceptual and a political critique of Eurocentrism. For example, a conceptual critique of Eurocentrism is based on theoretical assumptions about the nature of concepts – supposed to be unresolvedly tied in some certain way to a location – and claims that it is wrong or impossible to apply concepts beyond the context of their origin. If the critique holds, then concepts are, theoretically, bound to the context of their origin. A political critique, on the other hand,might take issue with, for example, the fact the hegemony of certain concepts in the social science canon which lead to an ignorance of other (perhaps, but not necessarily) local concepts which might be more useful at explaining different phenomena. This critique addresses a problem that could possibly be mended, a dominance that could be balanced out, other concepts that could be used, etc. Importantly, the distinction highlights that the two kinds of critique are mutually exclusive and alerts us to be careful how we characterise the problem(s) of Eurocentrism. Our aim with these distinctions is to illustrate some possible confusions with some of the ways in which the problem(s) of Eurocentrism are characterised, and to work towards a clearer and more consistent characterisation of the problem.

POST-COMPARATIVE AREA STUDIES

The second debate we focus on concerns comparison and initiatives to reframe area studies. In recent decades, scholars have criticised the container-view of area studies (such as “European Studies”) and have instead called for relational approaches to areas that take into account interconnectedness, fluidity, fringes, and borderlands. In a similar vein, comparative approaches within social science have been accused of an affinity for simplified units of comparison. Following these critiques, we suggest that concept travel should not aspire to simply establish differences and similarities of two (or more) areas. Instead, we adopt an approach that has been termed “post-comparative”. Going post comparison does not imply to omit any form of juxtaposition, but rather to reframe comparison by decentring areas and by diversifying the scales making up the levels of analysis. Our goal in revisiting these debates is to examine effects on the practice of comparison when we “reverse the gaze” and to gain a more nuanced understanding of philosophical conceptualisations of comparison.


Team

Ralph Weber (Institute for European Global Studies, University of Basel)

Lerato Posholi (Institute for European Global Studies, University of Basel)

Julienne Karzig (Institute for European Global Studies, University of Basel)