Social theory and postcolonial challenges

David Leverett, Color Structure 2 (test proof), 1971


The organizers' introduction to the newly published book


Social theory and postcolonial challenges is a project that was born at the same time that the work of PERIFÉRICAS – Center for Studies in Social Theories, Modernities and Colonialities, which we created in 2019 at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), had to be readjusted as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the second academic semester of 2020, we proposed a course with the same title as the recently published book, bringing together colleagues from Brazil and abroad. The course aimed to problematize social sciences, social theory and discussions surrounding the idea of ​​“modernity”, seeking to go beyond Eurocentric approaches that limit both geopolitically and intellectually the world to the Global North.

Creating tensions between Eurocentric approaches and approaches that bring broader views of modernity into play, we seek to question universalist tendencies that, in reality, reflect nothing more than the (provincial) perspective of the North-Atlantic space. As stated in the open course syllabus, the objective was to present simultaneously panoramic, interdisciplinary, critical and decentered approaches to new epistemological paradigms of contemporary social sciences, with an emphasis on the dialogues between social theory and post-colonial contributions.

At the same time, the course sessions proved to be a privileged space to reflect on the limits and challenges of knowledge decolonization movements in their empirical and epistemic dimension, given the changes brought about by a decade of affirmative actions in Brazilian public universities.

Offered as an integral part of the Social Sciences course – offered by the Department of Sociology – and the Postgraduate Program in Social Sciences at UFBA, from the beginning of its conception, we sought to ensure that the sessions were accessible to all other interested parties who were not part of the academic community of our university. Thus, in an initiative that, at that time, challenged our knowledge about transmission platforms, and which involved a team of teachers and students at each meeting, we decided to transmit the course via PERIFÉRICAS channel on YouTube.

This spirit of opening up knowledge beyond the limits of our university mirrored the intention that drove the project: to open and enrich social theory based on new decenterings. We were very happy, and actually surprised, with the wide and positive impact achieved by the course, which was decisive in motivating us to invite participants to transform their classes into chapters for a book. This book represents the written record of our collective experience at such a challenging time in Brazil and the world.


Social theory and postcolonial challenges is divided into three sections: “Global South and New Epistemological Designs”, “Criticism and Rereading of Traditions” and “Facing Colonial Wounds”.

In the first chapter, “South for the South: knowledge that challenges the abyssal fractures of our world”, Maria Paula Meneses, from the University of Coimbra, frames the Global South not only as a decisive space-time for the present, but also as a source of theorization about contemporary times. Articulating multi-situated traditions that delimit different political-cultural processes and demands for justice, the Mozambican anthropologist expands the understanding of social sciences regarding the Global South, relating ecology of knowledge and experience, scientific knowledge and reality, intellectual production and institutions. These axes are crossed by an analytical repertoire established by the Epistemologies of the South, from which Meneses thinks about ways of confronting neoliberal globalization.

By valuing and amplifying knowledge that resists capitalist-colonial-patriarchal interference, Maria Paula Meneses explains the potential of different paradigms of ontological, epistemic and political decolonization – such as (pan)African, Latin American and Caribbean, South Asian and that of an Islamic matrix, as well as indigenous philosophy and feminist thought from the Global South –, which pose new challenges to the program of Epistemologies of the South. The ecologies of knowledge forged in global peripheral areas have established conditions for more symmetrical dialogues, with the centrality the struggles for fairer societies and a production of knowledge that is not limited to the academic field.

The argument is that, to understand the epistemic diversity of the world, it is essential to construct an “alternative theory of alternatives” that contemplates the heterogeneity of the demands of the subalternized in favor of a “post-abyssal world”.

In the second chapter, “Critique of Post-Colonial Criticism”, Paulo Henrique Martins, from the Federal University of Pernambuco, proposes that critical theory should not be understood as an intellectual phenomenon geopolitically located in Europe or, therefore, limited to the development of social sciences in Europe. Global North, but rather as a systemic, open, pluriversal program of reflection. Facing important themes in social theory – such as modernity, development, imperialism, social injustice –, the sociologist proposes a “critical theory of coloniality”, which is expressed globally in a variety of intellectual narratives of libertarian desires that have been exchanging information horizontally, in order to contribute to an expanded critique of the reality of colonial capitalism.

By critical theory of coloniality, Paulo Henrique Martins understands a set of contributions that seek to overcome Western universalisms towards more pluriversal understandings, in which other analytical perspectives and cultural forms fit into the organization of modernities.

The critical theory of coloniality would synthesize, according to the author, a “critique of criticism”, insofar as it updates its repertoires with post- and decolonial contributions, as well as with other epistemological and methodological revisions underway in the social and human sciences, always maintaining the commitment to overcoming the division of intellectual labor in contemporary times. On the one hand, Paulo Henrique Martins is not unaware that there has been a fading of the optimistic aura that surrounded the idea of ​​modernity, as the future no longer opens up as a space of possibilities and expectations, closing in as a dystopian horizon.

However, on the other hand, he realizes that this context has served to articulate transnational networks of intellectuals, activists, institutions and decisive movements to reorganize democratic resistance to the new global coloniality, acting in the “gaps” of the system in order to demystify discourses, images and practices of coloniality and envision alternatives for tomorrow.

In the third chapter, “Democratic Decolonization and Politics of Vitality: the Global South in postponing the end of the world”, Luciana Ballestrin, from the Federal University of Pelotas, tensions the idea of ​​the Global South from a decentered perspective. The objective is to ascertain the relevance and relevance of the category, in order to analyze the extent to which it has been effective in designing contemporary alternatives to neoliberal globalization, considering the revitalization of struggles for decolonization in different contexts.

To this end, the political scientist establishes an analytical tripod: starting from a historical review of the idea and its conceptual development in different latitudes, observing its uses and appropriations; highlights the limits and potential of the Global South as a “systemic counter-hegemonic force”; and analyzes the main contemporary challenges of the Global South posed by the confluence of multiple crises.

Heir to the image of the “Third World”, the Global South carries a political potential that is currently in permanent dispute between progressive and regressive forces of the international order – post-colonial, neoliberal and multipolar. However, at the same time, Luciana Ballestrin realizes that the Global South has become a space for the movement of projects of representation and articulation of “subaltern (geo)geopolitical identities”. Inspired by the intellectual, environmentalist and indigenous leader Ailton Krenak, the author's argument is that the critical reconstruction and strategic renewal of the category must be modeled around the principle of democratic decolonization to “postpone the end of the world”.

To this end, it is necessary to affirm its commitment to forms of human, non-human and environmental life through a “politics of vitality”, understood as an ostensible non-submission to violence, necropolitics and death, politicizing the right to life in an illiberal perspective.

The fourth chapter is written by Muryatan Santana Barbosa, from the Federal University of ABC. The essay “African Political Economy: from development to self-development” deals with African intellectual history, more specifically the debate on development in the second half of the 1960th century, through the contributions of political economy from the 1970s - 1980s to the interventions of social sciences from from the XNUMXs.

The sociologist and historian starts from the hypothesis that this continental debate led to a theoretical-methodological expansion that enabled tensions in the idea of ​​development, which little by little came to be understood as self-development (or “endogenous development”), that is, a dialectical process of overcoming-conservation of the “old” for the emergence of the “new”.

In this process, development comes to be seen as something endogenous, less Eurocentric and, in effect, more related not only to economic factors, but also to identity, educational, cultural, philosophical, scientific, technological, religious and political factors. For this reason, a development alternative for the African continent, in the sense of overcoming the neoliberal order, implies popular participation, transnational partnerships, diplomatic agreements, real social democratization and State guidelines, that is, a collective construction that involves nations and respect the heterogeneity of the continent.

For Muryatan Santana Barbosa, the academic field has offered important support for the realization of this path, based on different intellectual traditions. However, it is important not to antagonize these traditions, based on limiting geopolitics, but to seek complementarities to guarantee sovereignty and improve the quality of life, especially for vulnerable groups.

The fifth chapter opens the second section of the collection, “Criticism and Rereading of Traditions”. The essay entitled “The Post-Colonial Criticism of Fanon, Said and Mudimbe: other ontologies for a 'radical humanism'”, by Adelia Miglievich-Ribeiro, from the Federal University of Espírito Santo, revisits post-colonial criticism based on a project of “subversion of humanism”, which opens space for subaltern voices and insurgent movements that “erase” hegemonic narratives and their colonial maneuvers. This exercise is based on a cross-talk with three representatives of different intellectual traditions from the Global South: Frantz Fanon, Edward Said and Yves-Valentin Mudimbe.

For Adelia Miglievich-Ribeiro, the three theorists can offer contemporary social theory important subsidies for thinking about anti-colonial solutions for the world and, therefore, they should be treated not only as precursors of post-colonialism, but above all as “critical humanists”, whose contributions have a decisive influence on the academic field, social movements and political guidelines in different geopolitical contexts. The sociologist thus offers a critical reinterpretation of the contribution of these theorists: the Martinican Fanon, for example, is read based on his praxis revolutionary in North Africa; Said, due to his performance in the public debate arena, especially on the Palestinian cause; the Congolese Mudimbe, due to the way in which he carried out a radical revision of colonial African thought.

The sixth chapter is written by Ricardo Pagliuso Regatieri, from the Federal University of Bahia. “Violence, Risk and Exception in the Global Periphery” undertakes a reinterpretation of the contributions of three important intellectual traditions: the first generation of Frankfurt School critical theory, Latin American decolonial thought and postcolonial criticism by authors from Africa and from Asia.

Based on a dialogue with Walter Benjamin and the Cameroonian theorist Achille Mbembe, Regatieri updates the reflection on forms of exception, violence and risk, in the sense of thinking about colonies and former colonies of contemporary capitalism. This dialogue is permeated by an analysis of the intrinsic and unavoidably destructive character of contemporary capitalism, which imposes a permanent situation of dependence – which Aníbal Quijano called the coloniality of power, understood as patterns inscribed in post-colonial culture and society that “survived” at the end of colonial rule.

For Ricardo Pagliuso Regatieri, this situation perpetuates hierarchies, inequalities and violence, keeping societies on the global periphery in continuous subordination in relation to central countries, as large reserves of natural resources or labor. One of the author's arguments is that post-colonial societies were and continue to be risk societies, where the exception is the rule, to the extent that individuals and peripheral groups have their existence constantly threatened, their claim for dignified living conditions denied and their political projects blocked.

In the seventh chapter, “Marxism and Post-Colonialism”, Pedro dos Santos de Borba, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and Guilherme Figueredo Benzaquen, from the Federal University of Pernambuco, revisit the debate between Marxism and post-colonialism. On the one hand, the authors stress the differences and similarities between traditions, showing how the reinterpretation of this encounter must be anchored in the struggles against colonial capitalism. On the other hand, they explain that an epistemological and political terrain full of potential can emerge from the analytical reconstitution of common lineages and shared problems. Pedro dos Santos de Borba and Guilherme Figueredo Benzaquen believe that the simplism of analyzes that tend either to antagonize one or the other, or to place them as reducible complements to each other, weakens critical, decolonial and anti-Eurocentric theory.

Therefore, the authors argue that these encounters must be explored from a decentered perspective of colonial capitalism, which at the same time strengthens the critique of colonialism from a dialectical perspective. The researchers follow three paths in constructing the argument. First, they face tensions in Marx's own thought. They then carry out a reanalysis of post-colonial thought, framed as a set of critical contributions originating from the periphery of global capitalism that have their roots in national liberation struggles, but which diversify in counterpoint to Eurocentric universalism.

Finally, they defend an articulation between Marxism and post-colonialism that does not shield either side, nor does it cover up limitations, pointing out that this encounter can advance increasingly if crossed by tensions in contemporary critical theory. The success of the dialogue depends less on predefining fields and more on identifying pertinent connections.

Closing the section, in the eighth chapter, “Rereadings of Brazilian Sociological Theory”, Ana Rodrigues Cavalcanti Alves and Lucas Amaral de Oliveira, from the Federal University of Bahia, discuss to what extent sociological theories produced in the Brazilian academic field dialogue with a global movement of criticism to coloniality and the Eurocentric foundations of social sciences. To this end, they face some of the main challenges underlying attempts to define these two theoretical approaches, Brazilian sociology and post-colonial thought, without ignoring their internal heterogeneities.

Then, they analyze the tensions between intellectual fields as conditions of possibility for research agendas that bring the two contributions together. In the final part of the text, they explore the epistemological potential of one of these agendas, which corresponds to a “rereading” of the Brazilian sociological tradition in the light of post-colonial criticism.

This re-reading exercise is based on the “sociological reduction” project, by the Bahian sociologist Guerreiro Ramos, which indicates a two-way dialogue between Brazilian sociology and post-colonial thought: a decentered look at our sociological tradition, but which reveals contributions of this tradition to the future of postcolonial epistemologies. If post-colonial approaches have already established unavoidable questions in the Brazilian sociological field, Ana Rodrigues Cavalcanti Alves and Lucas Amaral de Oliveira argue that the latter can also contribute to the advancement and deepening of this critical movement.

The last section of this work, “Facing Colonial Wounds”, begins with the ninth chapter, a challenging essay by Alexandro Silva de Jesus, from the Federal University of Pernambuco. “Notes on the Current Affairs of the Colonial Wound” reconstructs the premises on which the bad colonial encounter was based, understood as an asymmetrical relationship between different ethical, political, ontological and civilizational perspectives, which produced a first “division of the sensitive” (the radical asymmetry between people), a distorted and manipulated communication by colonizers in relation to otherness.

For Alexandro Silva de Jesus, we have not yet emancipated ourselves from this primordial asymmetry, which has become a wound, whose permanence operates as a structuring logic of our contemporary times. Refusing any kind of easy way out regarding the possibility of political inclusion – as raciality itself and the narcissistic pact of whiteness exclude groups and prevent politics from taking place –, the researcher resorts to some conceptual images to tension the actuality and extent of this wound, showing that the persistence of the wound keeps the colonized subject as “ex-proprietary” and in an eternal colonial debt.

The effects of the bad encounter and the persistence of the wound were not dissolved after the legal fiction initiated by the formal decolonization processes. Therefore, Jesus proposes that this precarious decolonization – the idea-image of “de/colonial”, with the crossed out “s”, inspired by the Lacanian subject, translates its inconclusive condition – has not reached its end, this incompleteness being its reason for to be. It then demarcates aspects of this wound with Western thought and archive, arguing, on the one hand, that the device of raciality is a trace of dissent within the modern political community, but, on the other, that being black constitutes the condition of the possibility of the emergence of politics as the institutionalization of the homeless. It is not a question of whether or not the black being can speak as an erased subject, but rather whether or not the white being will be able to silence his deafening voice that sustains the historical monologue.

The tenth chapter, “Documents of Culture and Barbarism: imaginary and coloniality”, is by Patrícia da Silva Santos, from the Federal University of Pará, who proposes a discussion on the possibilities of interpreting cultural documents based on their connections with colonial violence . For the sociologist, modern cultural goods are usually seen as universal, insofar as they emerge as if purified from the political and barbaric dimension of colonialism and imperialism. However, many of them preserve in their origin, form and transmission elements of coloniality – therefore, they cannot be fully extricated from the destruction of ways of life, racial classification and the violent imposition of modern Western rationality.

Taking authors such as Edward Said, Mary Louise Pratt and Walter Benjamin as references, Patrícia da Silva Santos reflects how much the original accumulation of the modern cultural imaginary is impregnated with coloniality, showing that cultural documents are “subtle witnesses” of power relations, violence, cultural silencing and impositions of ways of life and representation that took place under colonialism. To this end, the sociologist takes as an empirical basis documents, reports and images bequeathed by travelers from the 19th century, from which she establishes inexorable links between culture and barbarism in cultural documents derived from the bad colonial encounter.

“Essay on Development, Colonial Issues and Good Living”, by Felipe Vargas, from the Federal University of Bahia, is the eleventh chapter of this book. Facing the theme of development, but in conjunction with coloniality and good living in Latin America and the Caribbean, the sociologist follows three paths. First, it establishes a theoretical-conceptual approach between criticisms of development and the colonial issue on the continent. Next, he analyzes some development projects, such as the energy mega-projects that have plagued the Global South since the 1970s and 1980s, as an update to colonial logic.

However, his attention falls on the counter-hegemonic voices that state a difference in relation to this logic: good living as an alternative to development. Finally, it brings this discussion into academic activity, through a policy of care and re-education of the senses to face the open archive of the colonial issue together, in the sense of producing “knowledge mixed” with other experiences. As Felipe Vargas argues, submitting academic knowledge to the Good Living test, as another experience of development, is not romanticizing otherness or becoming ontologically other, but being affected by care in a present that is devastating, in different times and ways. and asymmetrical, all of them.

The penultimate chapter, “Facing the coloniality of power: essentialism, multiculturalism and tolerance in the construction of political representation”, authored by Maria Victória Espiñeira González and Danilo Uzêda Cruz, from the Federal University of Bahia, deals with one of the biggest dilemmas in post-modern debates. and decolonial: what are the limits of representation and legitimacy of the subaltern voice in confronting the coloniality of power? Maria Victória Espiñeira González and Danilo Uzêda Cruz revisit some important categories of contemporary political debate, such as essentialism, multiculturalism, identity, tolerance and construction of political representation, to analyze to what extent these elements are still valid and how they are articulated in order to highlight the contradictions within the liberal model that prevent the political emancipation of subalterns.

On the one hand, this resumption is based on a radical theoretical review of these categories, in which external ambiguities and internal limitations are faced. On the other hand, the authors reevaluate these categories based on data collected in two studies on public policies – Nuetros Ninõs, in Uruguay, and Fome Zero, in Brazil.

Even though the intention and results of these policies were aimed at “giving voice” to subalterns, particularly those most excluded, marginalized and, therefore, silenced, they ended up reinforcing the systems of coloniality. Therefore, the authors argue that thinking about a fairer global society by expanding the active voice of the subaltern is starting from another institutional arrangement, from redistributive policies of “affirmation of differences”, which see the plural and listen to the diverse, recognizing and accepting the demands and particularities of historically vulnerable groups.

Finally, the last chapter, “Eurocentric modernity idealized from the perspective of post-colonial criticism”, by Clovis Roberto Zimmermann, from the Federal University of Bahia, problematizes the ideological bases of the term “modernity”, taking as a basis the way in which the idea was mimicked by Latin American social thought. For the sociologist, modernity was designed as an inverted image of the Global North, implying a spatial and temporal relationship with colonial perspectives of evolution and progress. Due to this generalized and virtual understanding of a Eurocentric modernity on the continent, it is customary to consider that the very idea of ​​modern appears as an external and extemporaneous condition – or, if within Latin America, almost always as a future condition, as a political project that inhabits the discourses of power, but remains unreachable in pragmatic terms.

As a result, Latin America is described as a promise of the future, relegating its past to the pardons of oblivion and its present to incessant social, economic, political and environmental failure. Thus, the author associates post-colonial criticism of modernity with alternative contributions that have been emerging in the Latin American debate, suggesting the use of some “ideal types of modernity” to think about the continent, transgressing Eurocentric ideas of singularity and uniformity: productivist modernity , hybrid modernity and non-productivist modernity (based on Good Living).

*Ricardo Pagliuso Regatieri is professor of sociology at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA). Author, among other books, de Unfettered capitalism: The critique of domination in the debates at the Instituto de Pesquisa Social in the early 1940s and in the elaboration of the Dialectic of Enlightenment (Humanitas).

*Lucas Amaral de Oliveira He is a professor at the Department of Sociology at the Federal University of Bahia. Author of Aesthetic experiences in movement: literary production in the outskirts of São Paulo (Ape'Ku).


Ricardo Pagliuso Regatieri & Lucas Amaral de Oliveira (orgs.). Social theory and postcolonial challenges. Salvador, Publisher of the Federal University of Bahia (EDUFBA), 2024. []

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