Teaching social theory as alternative discourse

Teaching social theory as alternative discourse
Syed Farid Alatas

While the critique of Orientalism in the social sciences is well-known, this has yet to be reflected in the teaching of basic and mainstream social science courses in most universities around the world, says Syed Farid Alatas.

ORIENTALISM defines the content of education in such a way that the origins of the social sciences and the question of alternative points of view are not thematised. It is this lack of thematisation which makes it highly unlikely that the works of non-European thinkers would be given the same attention as European and American social theorists such as Marx, Weber, Durkheim and others. Orientalism is a thought-style that is not restricted to Europeans. The social sciences are taught in the Third World in a Eurocentric manner. This has contributed to the alienation of social scientists from local and regional scholarly traditions. Furthermore, courses in sociology and the other social sciences generally do not attempt to correct the Orientalist bias by introducing non-Western thinkers. If we take the 19th century as an example, the impression is given that during the period that Europeans such as Marx, Weber, Durkheim and others were thinking about the nature of society and its development, there were no thinkers in Asia and Africa doing the same.
The absence of non-European thinkers in these accounts is particularly glaring in cases where non-Europeans had actually influenced the development of social thought. Typically, a history of social thought or a course on social thought and theory would cover theorists such as Montesquieu, Vico, Comte, Spencer, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Toennies, Sombart, Mannheim, Pareto, Sumner, Ward, Small, and others. Generally, non-Western thinkers are excluded.
Here it is necessary to make a distinction between Orientalism as the blatantly stereotypical portrayal of the ‘Orient’ that was so typical of 19th century scholarship, and the new Orientalism of today which is characterised by the neglect and silencing of non-Western voices. If at all non-Europeans appear in the texts and courses, they are objects of study of the European scholars and not knowing subjects, that is, sources of sociological theories and ideas. This is what is meant by the silencing or marginalisation of non-Western thinkers.
Teaching social theory: Universalising the canon
It seems fitting, therefore, to provide examples of social theorists of non-European backgrounds who wrote on topics and theorised problems that would be of interest to those studying the broad-ranging macro processes that have become the hallmark of classical sociological thought and theory. In my own teaching I have been concentrating on Ibn Khaldun and José Rizal (Alatas, S.F., 2009). I would like to say a few words about the latter, as I believe that his work is of particular interest to us in South-East Asia.
The Filipino thinker and activist José Rizal (1861-1896) was probably the first systematic social thinker in South-East Asia. He raised original problems and treated them in a creative way. He lived during the formative period of sociology but theorised about the nature of society in ways not done by Western sociologists. He provides us with a different perspective on the colonial dimension of the emerging modernity of the 19th century.
Rizal was born into a wealthy family. His father ran a sugar plantation on land leased from the Dominican Order. As a result, Rizal was able to attend the best schools in Manila. He continued his higher studies at the Ateneo de Manila University and then the University of Santo Tomas. In 1882 Rizal departed for Spain where he studied medicine and the humanities at the Universidad Central in Madrid.
Rizal returned to the Philippines in 1887. This was also the year that his first novel, Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), was published. The novel was a reflection of exploitative conditions under Spanish colonial rule and enraged the Spanish friars. It was a diagnosis of the problems of Filipino society and a reflection of the problems of exploitation in Filipino colonial society. His second novel, El Filibusterismo (The Revolution), published in 1891, examined the possibilities and consequences of revolution.
If we were to construct a sociological theory from Rizal’s works, three broad aspects can be discerned in his writings. First, we have his theory of colonial society, a theory that explains the nature and conditions of colonial society. Second, there is Rizal’s critique of colonial knowledge of the Philippines. Finally, there is his discourse on the meaning and requirements for emancipation.
In Rizal’s thought, the corrupt Spanish colonial government and its officials oppress and exploit the Filipinos, while blaming the backwardness of the Filipinos on their alleged laziness. But Rizal’s project was to show that in fact the Filipinos were a relatively advanced society in pre-colonial times, and that their backwardness was a product of colonialism. This required a reinterpretation of Filipino history.
During Rizal’s time, there was little critique of the state of knowledge about the Philippines among Spanish colonial and Filipino scholars. Rizal, being well-acquainted with Orientalist scholarship in Europe, was aware of what would today be referred to as Orientalist constructions. This can be seen from his annotation and republication of Antonio de Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas (Historical Events of the Philippine Islands) which first appeared in 1609. De Morga, a Spaniard, served eight years in the Philippines as Lieutenant Governor General and Captain General and was also a justice of the Supreme Court of Manila (Audiencia Real de Manila) (de Morga, 1890/1991: xxxv).
Rizal republished this work with his own annotation in order to correct what he saw as false reports and slanderous statements to be found in most Spanish works on the Philippines, as well as to bring to light the pre-colonial past that was wiped out from the memory of Filipinos by colonisation (de Morga, 1890/1962: vii). This includes the destruction of pre-Spanish records such as artefacts that would have thrown light on the nature of pre-colonial society. Rizal found de Morga’s work an apt choice as it was, according to Ocampo, the only civil history of the Philippines written during the Spanish colonial period, other works being mainly ecclesiastical histories. The problem with ecclesiastical histories, apart from the falsifications and slander, was that they ‘abound in stories of devils, miracles, apparitions, etc., these forming the bulk of the voluminous histories of the Philippines’ (de Morga, 1890/1962: 291 n. 4). For Rizal, therefore, existing histories of the Philippines were false and biased as well as unscientific and irrational. What Rizal’s annotations accomplished were the following:
1. They provide examples of Filipino advances in agriculture and industry in pre-colonial times.
2. They provide the colonised’s point of view of various issues.
3. They point out the cruelties perpetrated by the colonisers.
4. They furnish instances of hypocrisy of the colonisers, particularly the Catholic Church.
5. They expose the irrationalities of the Church’s discourse on colonial topics.
Rizal noted that the ‘miseries of a people without freedom should not be imputed to the people but to their rulers’ (Rizal, 1963b: 31). Rizal’s novels, political writings and letters provide examples such as the confiscations of lands, appropriation of labour of farmers, high taxes, forced labour without payment, and so on. Colonial policy was exploitative despite the claims or intentions of the colonial government and the Catholic Church. In fact, Rizal was extremely critical of the ‘boasted ministers of God [the friars] and propagators of light(!) [who] have not sowed nor do they sow Christian moral, they have not taught religion, but rituals and superstitions’ (Rizal, 1963b: 38).
This position required Rizal to critique colonial knowledge of the Filipinos. He went into history to address the colonial allegation regarding the supposed indolence of the Filipinos. This led to his understanding of the conditions for emancipation and the possibilities of revolution.
The myth of the indolent Filipino
Bearing in mind the reinterpreted account of Filipino history, Rizal undertakes a critique of the discourse on the lazy Filipino native that was perpetuated by the Spaniards. The theme of indolence is an important one that formed a vital part of the ideology of colonial capitalism. Rizal was probably the first to deal with it systematically. This concern was later taken up by Syed Hussein Alatas in his seminal work The Myth of the Lazy Native (1977), which contains a chapter entitled ‘The Indolence of the Filipinos’, in honour of Rizal’s essay of the same title (Rizal, 1963a).
The basis of Rizal’s sociology is his critique of the myth of the indolent Filipino. It is this critique, and the insight that the backwardness of Filipino society was due not to the Filipinos themselves but rather to the nature of colonial rule, that provides the proper background for understanding Rizal’s criticisms against the clerical establishment and colonial administration.
In his famous essay ‘The Indolence of the Filipinos’, he defines indolence as ‘little love for work, lack of activity’ (Rizal, 1963a: 111). He then refers to indolence in two senses. First, there is indolence in the sense of the lack of activity that is caused by the warm tropical climate of the Philippines that ‘requires quit and rest for the individual, just as cold incites him to work and to action’ (Rizal, 1963a: 113). Rizal’s argument is as follows:
‘The fact is that in the tropical countries severe work is not a good thing as in cold countries, for there it is annihilation, it is death, it is destruction. Nature, as a just mother knowing this, has therefore made the land more fertile, more productive, as a compensation. An hour’s work under that burning sun and in the midst of pernicious influences coming out of an active nature is equivalent to a day’s work in a temperate climate; it is proper then that the land yield a hundredfold! Moreover, don’t we see the active European who has gained strength during winter, who feels the fresh blood of spring boil in his veins, don’t we see him abandon his work during the few days of his changeable summer, close his office, where the work after all is not hard – for many, consisting of talking and gesticulating in the shade beside a desk – run to watering-places, sit down at the cafes, stroll about, etc.? What wonder then that the inhabitant of tropical countries, worn out and with his blood thinned by the prolonged and excessive heat, is reduced to inaction?’ (Rizal, 1963a: 113).
What Rizal is referring to here is the physiological reaction to the heat of a tropical climate, which, strictly speaking, as Syed Hussein Alatas noted, is not consistent with Rizal’s own definition of indolence, that is ‘little love for work’. The adjustment of working habits to the tropical climate should not be understood as a result of laziness or little love for work.
There is a second aspect of Rizal’s concept of indolence that is more significant, sociologically speaking. This is indolence in the real sense of the term, that is, little love for work or the lack of motivation to work:
‘The evil is not that a more or less latent indolence [in the first sense, that is, the lack of activity] exists, but that it is fostered and magnified. Among men, as well as among nations, there exist not only aptitudes but also tendencies toward good and evil. To foster the good ones and aid them, as well as correct the bad ones and repress them would be the duty of society or of governments, if less noble thoughts did not absorb their attention. The evil is that indolence in the Philippines is a magnified indolence, a snow-ball indolence, if we may be permitted the expression, an evil which increases in direct proportion to the square of the periods of time, an effect of misgovernment and backwardness, as we said and not a cause of them’ (Rizal, 1963a: 114).

A similar point was made by Gilberto Freyre in the context of Brazil:
‘And when all this practically useless population of caboclos and light-skinned mulattoes, worth more as clinical material than they are as an economic force, is discovered in the state of economic wretchedness and non-productive inertia in which Miguel Pereira and Belisario Penna found them living – in such a case those who lament our lack of racial purity and the fact that Brazil is not a temperate climate at once see in this wretchedness and inertia the result of intercourse, forever damned, between white men and black women, between Portuguese males and Indian women. In other words, the inertia and indolence are a matter of race…

‘All of which means little to this particular school of sociology. Which is more alarmed by the stigmata of miscegenation than it is by those of syphilis, which is more concerned with the effects of climate than it is with social causes that are susceptible to control or rectification; nor does it take into account the influence exerted upon mestizo populations – above all, the free ones – by the scarcity of foodstuffs resulting from monoculture and a system of slave labor, it disregards likewise the chemical poverty of the traditional foods that these peoples, or rather all Brazilians, with a regional exception here and there, have for more than three centuries consumed; it overlooks the irregularity of food supply and the prevailing lack of hygiene in the conservation and distribution of such products’ (Freyre, 1956: 48).

Rizal’s important sociological contribution is his raising of the problem of indolence to begin with, as well as his treatment of the subject-matter, particularly his view that indolence is not a cause of the backwardness of Filipino society. Rather, it was the backwardness and disorder of Filipino colonial society that caused indolence. For Rizal, indolence was a result of the social and historical experience of the Filipinos under Spanish rule. We may again take issue with Rizal as to whether this actually constitutes indolence as opposed to the reluctance to work under exploitative conditions. What is important, however, is Rizal’s attempt to deal with the theme systematically. Rizal examined historical accounts by Europeans from centuries earlier which showed Filipinos to be industrious. This includes the writing of de Morga. Therefore, indolence must have social causes and these were to be found in the nature of colonial rule. Rizal would have agreed with Freyre that:

‘It was not the “inferior race” that was the source of corruption, but the abuse of one race by another, an abuse that demanded a servile conformity on the part of the Negro to the appetites of the all-powerful lords of the land. Those appetites were stimulated by idleness, by a “wealth acquired without labor…”’ (Freyre, 1956: 329).
Freyre suggested that it was the masters rather than the slaves who were idle and lazy. He referred to the slave being ‘at the service of his idle master’s economic interests and voluptuous pleasure’ (Freyre, 1956: 329).
Teaching social theory: Correcting the biases

A course on social theory that corrects the Eurocentric bias should not only focus on non-Western thinkers. It should critically deal with Western thinkers that make up the canon. This is what a colleague, Vineeta Sinha, and I have done in our course on Social Thought and Social Theory at the National University of Singapore, a discussion of which was carried out in the journal Teaching Sociology (Alatas & Sinha, 2001). The discussion in the rest of this section is drawn from that paper.

Bearing in mind the ‘Western’ origins of writings that are seen to constitute the corpus of sociological theory, we felt that the theme of Eurocentrism would provide a crucial additional point of orientation and could also provide for a meaningful and empowering discourse.

A cautionary word on our usage of the term ‘Eurocentrism’ is necessary. As we understand the term, it signifies far more than its literal and common-place meaning ‘Europe-centredness’. We hold that Eurocentrism connotes a particular position, a perspective, a way of seeing and not-seeing that is rooted in a number of problematic claims and assumptions.

We also did not want to ourselves essentialise by assigning to the three theorists examined – Marx, Weber and Durkheim -the same, generalised usage of the label ‘Eurocentrism’. In fact we quite consciously strived to establish the specific and different ways in which aspects of the theories under consideration might be Eurocentric or not. We are further aware that the recognition of Eurocentrism in the writings of Marx, Weber and Durkheim is neither a surprise nor a recent discovery.

Yet despite the datedness of this theme in the social sciences, the critique of Eurocentrism has not meaningfully reshaped or restructured the ways in which we theorise the emergence of the classical sociological canon. So despite ‘knowing’ that some aspects of Marx’s, Weber’s and Durkheim’s writings are ‘Eurocentric’ and expectedly so, the issue of how this impacts our contemporary reading of their works remains largely unaddressed and untheorised.

We also made it clear to our students that to characterise the works of Marx, Weber and Durkheim as being Eurocentric or Orientalist was not to suggest that it was possible for European theorists to be otherwise. They were, after all, products of their time. However, from the vantage point of our own time other readings of their works are possible.
In an effort to deal with these issues, we assigned an essay by Wallerstein on Eurocentrism (1996). Wallerstein discusses a number of ways in which social science is Eurocentric. Eurocentric historiography yielded accounts according to which whatever Europe was dominant in (bureaucratisation, capitalism, democracy, etc.) was good and superior and such dominance was explained in terms of characteristics peculiar to Europeans. Thus, Europe considered itself to be a unique civilization in the sense that it was the site of the origin of modernity, the autonomy of the individual (vis-a-vis family, community, state, religion, etc.), and non-brutal behavior in everyday life. The idea that European society was progressive (industrialisation, democracy, literacy, education) and that this progress would spread elsewhere, became entrenched in the social sciences. Furthermore, social science theories assumed that the development of modern capitalist society in Europe was not only good, but would be replicated elsewhere and that, therefore, scientific theories are valid across time and space.
Our aim in this project was not only to look for ‘other’ founding fathers of sociology, such as Rizal, but to ask how we should read Marx, Weber or Durkheim given the Eurocentrism of the ‘Western’ social sciences. Thus, the rethinking entailed emphasising those aspects of, say, Marx’s works that demonstrate his Eurocentrism, or selecting Weber’s writings that either prove or invalidate similar charges levelled at him. For example, in addition to reading Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and the Grundrisse, we also chose to focus on Marx’s discussion of the Asiatic mode of production and his discussions on colonialism in India (Marx & Engels, 1968), themes that are routinely excluded in sociological theory courses. More importantly, through our treatment of these substantive issues we further hoped to generate discussions about the effects of identifying Eurocentric biases in these works.
The need to reorient the course in this way is held to be all the more important because we note that Eurocentrism is not only found in European scholarship, but has affected the development of the social sciences in non-Western societies in a number of ways:
(i) The lack of knowledge of our own histories as evidenced in textbooks. In textbooks used in Asia and Africa, there tends to be less information on these parts of the world because the textbooks are invariably written in the United States or the United Kingdom. For example, we know more about the daily life of the European premodern family than that of our own. This is because sociology arose in the context of the transition from feudalism to capitalism and, therefore, the European historical context is the defining one. Normal development is defined as a move from feudalism to capitalism; therefore, that is the normal thing to study. The object of study is defined by this bias of normal development. In our own societies, while the priority is to study modern capitalist societies as well, the problem is that we begin with European precapitalist societies and draw attention to our own precapitalist societies in order to show that they constituted obstacles to modernization.
(ii) Through Eurocentrism, images of our society are constructed which we come to regard as real until Eurocentric scholarship yields alternative images which may be equally Eurocentric. It was widely believed that values, attitudes and cultural patterns as a whole change in the process of modernization and that such changes were inevitable (Rudolph & Rudolph, 1967; Kahn, 1979). However, after the experience of high growth in East Asia in the 1980s and early 1990s, traditional cultural patterns such as those derived from Confucianism were offered as a factor explaining growth. With the onset of the Asian financial crisis in 1997, however, once again Confucianism and Asian values had become suspect for having a hand in the economic decline.
(iii) The lack of original theorizing. Because of the deluge of works on theory, methodology and empirical research arising mainly from North America and Europe, there has been much consumption of imported theories, techniques and research agendas.
Bearing in mind the above three problems, it was stressed to our students that they should (i) bear in mind the context in which sociological theory developed; (ii) gauge its usefulness for the study of our own context (non-Western); and (iii) be aware of the Eurocentric aspects of sociological theory, which detract from its scientific value.
In dealing with the theme of Eurocentrism in the course we presented to our students the following assessment with regard to specific aspects of the works of Marx, Weber and Durkheim. Here I discuss the example of Marx.
While the section on Marx did deal with traditional topics such as the transition from feudalism to capitalism, circulation and production, alienation, class consciousness, the state, and ideology, there was an attempt to work into the materials the three interrelated objectives referred to above. For example, we put it to the class that the relevance of Marx’s discussion on the transition from feudalism to capitalism is that it suggests that the presence of an emerging bourgeoisie in feudal society and a weak decentralised state in feudal societies were preconditions for the rise of capitalism. This in turn implies that these preconditions were non-existent in non-European societies. We pushed our students further with these queries: To what extent is this true and to what extent is this a Eurocentric view?
In line with Eurocentric assumptions that Europe was unique, it was assumed that such prerequisites were not to be found outside of Europe and that precapitalist modes of production outside of Europe were obstacles to capitalist development. An example was the Asiatic mode of production on which students were assigned readings.
Highlighted in the lectures were the features of the Asiatic mode of production, that Marx was often factually wrong in his characterization of ‘Asiatic’ economies and societies, and that undergirding his political economy were Orientalist assumptions which viewed non-European societies as being the polar opposite of Europe. To put things in perspective, bearing in mind the problematic nature of Marx’s characterization of Indian society and his discussion of the Asiatic mode of production, we also pointed out that despite this limitation Marx’s concept of the ‘mode of production’ is extremely central to sociological analysis. Yet, we emphasised that it is important to recognize the limitations in Marx’s discussion of the Asiatic mode of production because it continues to inform contemporary interpretations of his works and perpetuates certain images of Asiatic and/or Indian society.
The discussions on the Eurocentric elements in Marx then made it possible to provide a more critical reading of Singapore’s or South-East Asia’s past while retaining the universalistic aspects of Marxist theory. For example, an article on colonial ideology in British Malaya was assigned (Hirschman, 1986). Here it was possible to demonstrate the utility of the Marxist concept of ideology for the critique of the Eurocentric aspects of colonial capitalism, of which Marx himself partook.
In addressing such topics as class consciousness, the state, and ideology, we made it a point to include readings on contemporary Third World societies and on the region of South-East Asia in order that students might see the relevance of the ideas of Marx to regions and areas other than his own. There was a concerted attempt, therefore, to expose the Eurocentrism in Marx while preserving the universal elements of his work as well as his theoretical contributions.
The captive mind, academic dependency and teaching
My interest in this topic is due in large part to the lifelong concerns of my late father, Syed Hussein Alatas (1928-2007), with the role of intellectuals in developing societies. On this topic he wrote a number of works that developed themes such as the captive mind (Alatas, S.H., 1969a, 1972, 1974) and intellectual imperialism (1969b, 2000).
The idea of intellectual imperialism is an important starting point for the understanding of academic dependency. According to Alatas, intellectual imperialism is analogous to political and economic imperialism in that it refers to the ‘domination of one people by another in their world of thinking’ (Alatas, S.H., 2000: 24). Intellectual imperialism was more direct in the colonial period, whereas today it has more to do with the control and influence the West exerts over the flow of social scientific knowledge rather than its ownership and control of academic institutions. Indeed, this form of hegemony was ‘not imposed by the West through colonial domination, but accepted willingly with confident enthusiasm, by scholars and planners of the former colonial territories and even in the few countries that remained independent during that period’ (Alatas, S.H., 2006: 7-8).
Intellectual imperialism is the context within which academic dependency exists. Academic dependency theory theorizes the global state of the social sciences. Academic dependency is defined as a condition in which knowledge production of certain social science communities is conditioned by the development and growth of knowledge of other scholarly communities to which the former is subjected. The relation of interdependence between two or more scientific communities, and between these and global transactions in knowledge, assumes the form of dependency when some scientific communities (those located in the knowledge powers) can expand according to certain criteria of development and progress, while other scientific communities (such as those in the developing societies) can only do this as a reflection of that expansion, which generally has negative effects on their development according to the same criteria.
This definition of academic dependency parallels that of economic dependency in the classic form in which it was stated by Teotonio dos Santos:
‘By dependence we mean a situation in which the economy of certain countries is conditioned by the development and expansion of another economy, to which the former is subjected. The relation of interdependence between two or more economies, and between these and world trade, assumes the form of dependence when some countries (the dominant ones) can expand and be self-sustaining, while other countries (the dependent ones) can do this only as a reflection of this expansion, which can have either a positive or a negative effect on their immediate development’ (dos Santos, 1970: 231).
The psychological dimension to this dependency, conceptualized by Syed Hussein Alatas as the captive mind (Alatas, S.H., 1969a, 1972, 1974), is such that the academically dependent scholar is more a passive recipient of research agenda, theories and methods from the knowledge powers (Alatas, S.F., 2003: 603). According to Garreau and Chekki it is no coincidence that the great economic powers are also the great social science powers (Garreau, 1985: 64, 81, 89; see also Chekki, 1987), although this is only partially true as some economic powers are actually marginal as social science knowledge producers, Japan being an interesting example.
In previous work I had listed six dimensions of academic dependency. These are (a) dependence on ideas; (b) dependence on the media of ideas; (c) dependence on the technology of education; (d) dependence on aid for research and teaching; (e) dependence on investment in education; and (f) dependence of scholars in developing societies on demand in the knowledge powers for their skills (Alatas, S.F., 2003: 604). I would like to add a seventh dimension, that is, dependence on recognition.
Dependency on recognition of our works manifests itself in terms of the effort to enter our journals and universities into international ranking protocols. Our universities and journals strive to attain higher and higher places in the rankings. Institutional development as well as individual assessment are undertaken in order to achieve higher status in the ranking system, with a system of rewards and punishments in place to provide the necessary incentives that centre around promotion, tenure and bonuses. The consequences of this form of dependency include:
1. The de-emphasis on publications in local journals to the extent that local journals are not listed on the international rankings. The result of this is
2. The devaluation of local journals and the underdevelopment of social scientific discourse in local languages.
The problem is not to come up with alternative ways of teaching the social sciences. Nor has it to do with any difficulty of developing adequate or relevant textbooks and readings. These can easily be done. Rather, the problem has to do with the psychological problem of mental captivity and the structural constraints within which this takes place, that is, academic dependency.
The idea behind promoting scholars like Jose Rizal and Ibn Khaldun and a host of other well-known and lesser-known thinkers in Asia, Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe as well as in Europe and North America, is to contribute to the universalization of sociology. Sociology may be a global discipline but it is not a universal one as long as the various civilisational voices that have something to say about society are not rendered audible by the institutions and practices of our discipline.
While the critique of Orientalism in the social sciences is well-known, this has yet to be reflected in basic and mainstream social science courses in most universities around the world. Basic introductory courses in the social sciences are generally biased in favour of American or British theoretical perspectives, illustrations and reading materials. On the other hand, the logical consequence of the critique of Orientalism in the social sciences is the development of alternative concepts and theories that are not restricted to Western civilisation as source. But, in order for this to be done, the critique of Orientalism must become a widespread theme in the teaching of the social sciences.
Syed Farid Alatas is Head of the Department of Malay Studies and Associate Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore. The above is extracted from his presentation at the International Conference on ‘Decolonising Our Universities’ held in Penang, Malaysia, in June 2011.
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*Third World Resurgence No. 266/267, October/November 2012, pp 32-38

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