2021 Bissell-Heyd Public Research Event: “Racisms in the United States” – Session 3: “The Interconnected Histories of South African and American Sociology: Knowledge in the Service of Colonial Violence"

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Thursday, March 25th, 2021

Thursday, March 25, 20211:00PM - 2:00PMOnline Event, Online Event
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2021 Bissell-Heyd Public Research Event:
“Racisms in the United States”

Event Info:
Perhaps in more pertinent ways than any other time in recent memory, the power of globalization and how it intersects with race is at full display. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that what happens in a faraway land does not stop at its borders but can produce domino effects, forceful enough to lock down almost the entire world. Immigrants, long been singled-out as disease carriers, have once again been blamed for the world’s pandemics. The coronavirus originating in China, this time xenophobia has turned its gaze on immigrants of Asian descent. At the same time, the world is witnessing massive protests against anti-Black racism in the U.S. echo across countries as far-flung as Canada, France, Great Britain, India and Ethiopia, showing that such domino effects are not just produced as a result of once-in- a-lifetime epidemiological crises but also because of sociopolitical dynamics that have long percolated in our societies. These events highlight how the age-old colour line that still divides an “us” from a “them” are challenging America’s identity as a nation.

This webinar series hosts a panel of distinguished scholars to situate the ongoing conversations on race, migration, and nationalism in today’s global context to discuss how racisms—such as, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant sentiments, anti-Blackness, and settler colonialisms—all work together to produce systemic racial disparities in the United States and abroad. The event is open for free to the public. Please register to receive a Zoom link for each session.

Session 3 Theme: How Racisms Work Together in the United States and Abroad

Title of Presentation: “The Interconnected Histories of South African and American Sociology: Knowledge in the Service of Colonial Violence”

South African sociology is a colonial discipline. As such, it was not born out of a desire to add to the general store of knowledge about human nature and social relations. Rather, its raison d’être was to produce knowledge in the service of apartheid. Therefore, the matrix of ideas and understandings that coalesced around the concept of ‘culture’ in South African sociology cannot readily be separated from the issue of cultural violence. Indeed, to review the history of South African sociology is to review the history of an idea—culture—deployed in the service of colonial violence. But where did the ideas about culture that were so central to the apartheid episteme come from? The genealogical exploration of South African sociology I undertake below argues that the ideas about culture that were the bedrock of the South African apartheid policy of ‘separate development’ took the shape that they did because of the strength of the connection between ‘scientific sociology’ in South Africa and the apartheid regime. South African sociology was not, however, a sui generis phenomenon. As an imperial episteme it traced its roots and borrowed many of its concepts about culture from American sociology,
which was, itself, a product of American slavery. The goal of this essay, therefore, is to explain how the concept of ‘cultural difference’ in American sociology, which evolved out of the practical needs of transforming industrial and agrarian labor relations in the period following emancipation, captured the hearts and minds of the first generation of South African sociologists.

Speaker Bio:
Dr. Zine Magubane received her PhD from Harvard University. Her work has dealt with two major geographic areas of the world, the United States and Southern Africa. Her choice of research topics reflects a deliberate effort to make an innovative contribution in the following four sociological sub-fields: the sociology of knowledge, the sociology of culture, social stratification, and historical sociology. In addition to several influential books and articles, she is the author of Bringing the Empire Home: Race, Class, and Gender in Britain and Colonial South Africa, which explores colonial conceptions of blackness across England and South Africa and how these representations continue to influence ideas of race, gender, and class today.


Mio Otsuka


Zine Magubane
Professor, Department of Sociology, Boston College

Tahseen Shams
Assistant Professor of Sociology, 2020-21 Bissell-Heyd Research Fellow, Centre for the Study of the United States, University of Toronto

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