HIST233 - History and Colonial Modernity: South Asia, Africa and Middle East

Is it meaningful or dangerously relativist to say that ‘reality’ is socially constructed? Is social constructionism/social constructivism the purview simply of continental philosophers and assorted post-modernists? Is it right, as many scientists and philosophers in the analytical tradition would contend, that claims about social construction make for an implicit disavowal of the subject(ive)/object(ive) distinction or a disbelief in the reality of nature or even the external world? Is social constructionism a view about how we go about knowing the world or about the contents of the world itself? In this course, we will consider whether there is any special insight that historians can bring to bear upon these questions. After all if history is change over time in human societies, in a certain sense, all social reality must be partly constructed by human actors who interact socially. Yet at the same time, if history is a process of people creating new forms of reality through social interaction, then claims about social constructionism in the historical context may be liable to appear as if they are simply truisms. To think more specifically about social construction in the historical context, we will focus our attention on the rich outpouring of scholarship about the ‘invention of tradition,’ the reification of native culture, and the genealogies of colonial modernity in British (and to a lesser degree French) colonial South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Coming to the fore especially in the wake of Edward Said’s landmark Orientalism (1977), ideas about social construction in history are often thought of—whether to their benefit or detriment—as being coequal with the three great post’s in the humanist intellectual landscape of the last quarter of the twentieth century—post-structuralism, post-modernism, and post-colonialism. In the first few weeks of the course, therefore, we will unpack the connection between social constructionism and the latter orientations as well as other traditions in philosophy and sociology. In the rest of the course we will then go on to survey important scholarship by historians and historically minded anthropologists dealing with eighteenth- to twentieth-century history in a number of former colonial/semi-colonial domains of the African and Asian continents. While it has never been without controversy, one unmistakable legacy of the rise of a social constructionist temperament among scholars of Africa and Asia after the mid-1970s has been to put the histories of these parts of the non-West into greater dialogue with one another. Therefore, it is ultimately in the spirit of connected history that we will be asking whether it is meaningful, dangerous, or vacuous to speak about modernity as a ‘social construct’ in the very Afro-Asiatic world that contemporary scholarly dialogue has increasingly and perhaps problematically ‘constructed’ into being.
Day and Time: 
M 0200PM-0500PM
Cross Listings: 
  • SAST264402