Session 2

Decolonizing Social Science Methodology – Overcoming Positivism and Constructivism

Epistemological approaches in the tradition of e.g. constructivism, relativism, postmodernism or postcolonialism stress that empirical findings are strongly influenced both by the researcher’s social position and positioning in the world system and by the social organization of doing science. Sociology of science has provided strong empirical evidence for this position. This means that, if researchers find (dis)similarities between different social contexts, it is not clear at all, if these (dis)similarities result from actual substantial differences or rather e.g. from diverging theoretical perspectives, research styles, ways of doing methods or different reactions of the field to social science research. At the same time, approaches in the tradition of e.g. positivism or critical radicalism stress that it is important that science upholds the ideals of searching for truth, intersubjectivity and empirical evidence and that relativism itself is also a fallacy because – if you take this serious – what is the difference between “fake news” and “alternative facts” and scientific knowledge? Moreover, many research questions in the social sciences require to be sure about (dis)similarities between contexts, e.g. in social inequality research. So far, suggestions to overcome these contrasting demands on social science methodology have mostly focussed on methods, e.g. by mixing methods or applying cross-cultural survey methods. In contrast, the session aims at addressing the underlying deeper epistemological and methodological issues which remain mainly unresolved: Papers should ask how to overcome the divide between positivism and constructivism and to truly decolonize social science methodology.




1.Analytical frameworks as epistemological and methodological interfaces for a decolonized social science methodology

Christian Schneijderberg  (Institute for Sociology, RWTH Aachen University, Germany)

Nelson C. Zavale  (University Eduardo Mondlane, Mozambique)

What are the implications of overcoming the divide between positivism and constructivism? According to the sociology of science, social sciences are defined as normative cognitive and corresponding social organizations. Accordingly, constructivism and positivism seem larger than life identity politics based on formal and informal organizations of specific social sciences methodologies and its theoretical foundations. Given such gnoses and epistemes, for example Mudimbe (1988) would suggest that the spatial and cultural specificities are only useful to characterize an unequal cohabitation of scientific and ideological discourses on social entities, and its cultures and people. Concisely, the answer would be that both positivism and constructivism both carry colonialism’s mission civilisatrice, which suggests that the divide cannot be overcome. As an alternative, we suggest that analytical frameworks are interfaces for a decolonized social science methodology and researching diverse ecologies of knowledge. This methodological approach defines analytical frameworks as interfaces for epistemic discourse between different gnoses of social scientific research. Inspired by Santos’ (2014) pluralistic idea of an epistemology of seeing, we use the example of an analytical framework for studying formal and informal organizing of academics’ societal engagement (also known as academic outreach and knowledge and technology transfer) to systematically approach (dis)similarities between contexts. Reflecting ecologies of knowledge in Sub-Sahara Africa, the analytical framework is composed of three analytic units of actors, knowledges and actions of academics’ societal engagement. In the analytical framework, the analytic units present distinct categories for guiding empirical research, independent whether qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods are applied for studying (dis)similarities of a social phenomenon between spatial contexts and/or over time. In the contribution, we would discuss how analytical frameworks contribute to analytically framing a social phenomenon by categorizing key analytical characteristics of a social phenomenon, its spatial and temporal (dis)similarities for comparison across contexts.


2.How to decolonize sociological research? Lessons from Ecuadorian Sociology

Philipp Altmann  (Central University of Ecuador, Ecuador)

The social sciences of the Global South have always had one central problem: theories and empirical studies that were presented as universalistic were, indeed, universalizations from local experiences in the Global North. Therefore, it was and is impossible to simply reproduce in the Global South what the great classics did in the Global North. Even the most Eurocentric Southern thinkers had no alternative to attempt a local adaptation. This presentation will argue that central elements of a decolonial sociological research can be found in those attempts of local adaptation. Sociology in Ecuador did develop until the 1950s in a -at that time, largely imaginary- panorama of Spencerian positivism. A short-lived attempt to modernize in the context of the newly created School for Sociology in the 1960s gave way to a Marxist re-reading of Ecuadorian social thought and history since the 1970s. In each of those phases, some interesting proposals on how to do sociology outside of Europe came up. This presentation will revisit important moments of sociological self-reflection in Ecuador and establish some principles of a possible way to decolonize sociological research contained within them, sometimes openly, others, hidden. In this, it will become visible that the engagement even with highly problematic theories, such as Spencer or Gumplowicz, can help to establish ways to break with the inherent Eurocentrism of sociology. Those principles will be: 1. to take into account the institution that defines social acts (“It’s the institution, stupid!”), 2. the need to focus on the local reality instead of a problematic general history (“Localize it!”), and 3. the obligation for sociologists to engage with the social reality that surrounds them (“Talk to people, please!”).


3.‘A group of transformation’: Structural Anthropology as a Decolonial Political Epistemology

Heike Delitz  (University Bamberg, Germany)

‘Truly decolonizing the social sciences’ methodology’: Following structural anthropology (Descola, Viveiros de Castro), this means (as I want to argue) taking the other’s and one’s own epistemology, methodology and ontology as symmetrical. A ‘truly’ decolonized methodology has to take the various modes of knowledge as equally being instances within ‘a group of transformation’ (Lévi-Strauss), or as ‘variants of variants’ (Descola). From this view, ‘constructivism’ (as well as positivism) is based on a ‘naturalist’ or ‘multiculturalist’ ontology – if ‘constructivism’ is understood as a view according to which “substantial differences” (or similarities) underlie “diverging perspectives” (as the call argues). To decolonize sociology – its methodology or epistemology – then means to contrast this ontology with other ontologies, seeing them “in rigid continuity” (Viveiros de Castro). Or it means to introduce an “ontological turn” into anthropology and sociology. This turn not only aims to come to a symmetrical view on one’s own and other ontologies, epistemologies and social theories. It recognizes indigenous collectives as subjects of the anthropologist’s or sociologist’s theories; and aims to ‘experiment with’ Western thought. Far away from ‘intellectualism’, structural anthropology is epistemological politics – criticizing ‘New’ anthropology for sharing a constructivist and narcistic view, taking ‘other’ cultures as Western ‘invention’. Only interested in globalist encounters, anthropology and sociology ignore the “extra-moderns”. Hereby, structuralism goes beyond constructivism and positivism, unfolding a third epistemology according to which there is no ‘substance’ which underlies the different perspectives. Rather, there are meaning systems which constitute particular societies, collectives, nature and culture, and subjects. The talk wants to present this social theory, methodology and epistemology – (re-)introducing the structuralist option within sociological thought as a decolonial view. Secondly, the talk sketches a research project, comparing ‘architectural modes of collective existence’ – symmetrising urban architectural cultures with extra-urban ones in view of the respective constitution of ‘society’; and analysing societal transformations through urbanization.


4.Thinking Sideways across Webbed Connectivities: Decolonizing Imperial Spatialities and Temporalities

Vrushali Patil  (Florida International University, United States)

While histories of the colonial have engendered a dense web of entanglements across the globe, the categorical logics of modernity often elide these linkages. Here, I introduce my theoretical framework of webbed connectivities and method of thinking sideways as an approach for challenging imperial spatialities and temporalities in social science. Webbed connectivities are first historical formations—cross-border networks of relations forged within proto-colonial and colonial processes. As historical formations, they form the basis of a historically situated theoretical framework for analysing cross-border relations which connect seemingly distinct regimes. By beginning with webbed connectivities, the goal is to move the starting point for analysis from an assumption of nation-states as ahistorical containers to nation-states as historically consolidated sites within cross-border networks of relations. Rather than focusing on a priori sites, then, webbed connectivities encourages tracing relations, networks, and connections that cross sites, with the methodological tactic of thinking sideways. Thinking sideways begins with imperial and other agents/agencies which have historically crossed borders. It insists on following the movements of these agents across received borders, and tracing their productions, circulations and impacts as these, too, move across borders. One entry point into these processes is secondary sources which deal with seemingly disconnected materials, which however, in light of a sideways sensibility can be brought into productive relation with each other. Reading across materials not intended to be brought together in this way opens up new avenues for exploration. Ultimately, given that so much of our knowledge production is organized by an a priori (colonial-modern) delineation of sites, thinking sideways across webbed connectivities can enable us to challenge the colonial modern disciplining of knowledge. It can help us read across seemingly closed boundaries of knowledge, power, and struggle, opening up possibilities for making not just the political but also the ontological case for solidarity.


5.Decolonizing scholars’ methodological stances based upon Second Wave of Southern Perspectives

Sangeeta Bagga-Gupta  (Jönköping University, School of Education and Communication, Sweden)

Machunwangliu Kamei  (SVKM’s Usha Pravin Gandhi College of Arts, Science and Commerce, India)

Built upon alternative epistemologies and going beyond straight-jacket methodologies, this study juxtaposes four cases across geopolitical time spaces with the intent to (i) discuss trans methodological framings, and through these (ii) unpack the role that boundaries and liminality play in the constitution of what is glossed as human and collective language and identity. We argue that a researcher’s mobile gaze is highly relevant in making visible and troubling processes that contribute to the re-enforcing naturalization of archaic conceptualizations pertaining to not only language, identity, nation-spaces, but also nationalism. Applying a SWaSP, Second Wave of Southern Perspective framing, the paper troubles mainstream methodologies and epistemologies and engages with peoples mobilities (including the scholars mobile gaze) and the processes of boundary creations across time and the global-North/South by including the South in the North and the North in the South. We gaze analytically at (i) Sápmi across northern Scandinavia and Russia; (ii) Nagalim in the tri-junction area of the eastern parts of India, Myanmar and China; (iii) massive displacements that ensued during the violent emergence of the nation-spaces of India and (West) Pakistan through the creation of the Radcliffe Line in 1947; and (iv) the urban to rural Pandemic induced exodus across the internal boundaries of the nation-spaces of India in post-March 2020. Conceptualizations that build upon the materiality of and the boundary-marked nature of language, identity, and nation-spaces (and their populations), salient features across these four cases, are also – we argue – etched in mainstream scholarship despite having been challenged through historical, philosophical, and empirical explorations. SWaSP’s reflexive tenets call attention to the cost of disruptions, the counter-flows related to colonially marked mobilities in disentangling analytical engagement as a trans methodological stance. This builds on the scholar’s mobile gaze at the entanglements of time-spaces, vocabularies, epistemology-methodology and positionalities.


6.Grounded Theory and Reflexivity as Decolonial Methodologies

Janet Arnado  (De La Salle University, Philippines)

There may not be a truly decolonial methodology because both the theoretical and methodological foundations of sociology have western origin, in the same way that many writers of decolonial or postcolonial theory have western connections. Additionally, there is no going around English in international knowledge production. With a less ambitious goal, this paper explores existing qualitative approaches that are consistent with a decolonial social science methodology, particularly in localizing the knowledge context, giving voice to the subaltern, addressing power relations, respecting cultures, and encouraging community participation. It focuses on the theoretical framing (grounded theory) and the framer (reflexivity). Grounded theory begins with the local knowledge and experience in building categories and concepts and sets aside the grand western paradigms. At the heart of this decolonial methodology is the researchers’ reflexivity or heightened awareness of their position and positioning in the various structures of power, e.g., in relation to the researched and the peer review publication process. Reflexivity paves the way towards giving voice to the usually silenced categories and accurately representing that voice through community participation and data validation. The paper elaborates how grounded theory and reflexivity contribute towards a decolonized methodology.