Whiteness and Global Academia: Sociological Observations

I have recently taken a look at the list of the current board members of the International Sociological Association Research Committee on Labour Movements. I was convinced that the composition of the board would reflect, at least to some extent, the diversity of the global sociological community and the fact that labor movements are a global phenomenon.

To my utter surprise, I immediately realized that there was not even one Black African scholar among the sixteen members of the board. And, even more strikingly, the Africa Regional Representative is a white woman from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg …

Not only Black sociologists from Africa, but also Black sociologists in general are glaringly absent from this important committee. The president is a white South African woman, again from the University of Witwatersrand, and there is yet another white woman from another South African university among the board members (a most peculiar fact).

Five other members, from Europe, the United States and Australia, are white, too, and the Regional Representative for Latin America, a Brazilian sociologist, would be identified as white in many parts of the world. Both vice-presidents are white men from Europe. There are no board members from the Caribbean, and the Brazilian member is the only Latin American one.

It is obvious that this important committee of the best known and most largest international sociological organization is grotesquely and shockingly dominated by white researchers; but somehow this grotesque and shocking fact seems to have gone unnoticed, as if it were somehow “normal” that such committees are white-dominated, “normal” that even though the ISA currently has members from 167 countries, the white members are far more likely to access positions of power and play a significant role inside the organization.

In 1969, at the annual meeting of the African Studies Association in Montreal, some African and African American scholars publicly expressed their justified outrage at the white domination of this organization by staging a walk-out and an occupation protest. After the ASA meeting, the African descendant scholars, led by the eminent and largely self-taught historian John Henrik Clarke, founded a new organization devoted to African studies, African Heritage Studies Association, which organized its first annual conference in 1970, at the historically black Howard University. The AHSA describes itself on its website as “the major challenger of Eurocentric view of Africa and African Studies.”

One is left to wonder if Black/African descendant sociologists are likely to revolt against the white domination of the ISA in the foreseeable future, despite the enormous imbalance of power between them and white scholars.

Significantly, a sociologist who was one of the presidents of the ISA in recent years, the Polish sociologist Piotr Sztompka (he was the ISA president in the years 2002-2006), has displayed on many occasions a complete misunderstanding of the position of those who oppose white-dominated sociology.

Ever since Akinsola Akiwowo made a call for ‘indigenous African sociology’, I have been puzzled by such claims and searched for possible examples of those alternative, indigenous sociologies. Akiwowo did not provide one, and because he based his conclusions in the area of the sociology of knowledge on the empirical evidence of African oral poetry [it] does not indicate any alternative sociology, but new original data to support (or undermine, as the case might be) the ‘mainstream’ sociology of knowledge of Marx and Mannheim

wrote Sztompka in his 2011 article “Another Sociological Utopia.”

Sztompka clearly believes that sociology is a discipline created by white Western scholars, but (mysteriously) free from any white-centric bias and fully trustworthy, and that alternative approaches are neither needed nor possible. His views did not in the least prevent him from reaching the highest position of power inside the ISA: this fact speaks volumes about the imbalance of power inside the global sociological community.

Joanna Tegnerowicz is a specialist in the history of ideas and an Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology of the University of Wroclaw in Poland