Last fall I assigned Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe in my “Foundations of Global Studies Theory” class. The book was very challenging for most students, and I ultimately decided that it might be more appropriate for a graduate level course. At the same time, the work is a foundational text in Postcolonial Studies, which seeks to examine the ways in which Western intellectual history continues to shape programs and expectations in less developed countries. Chakrabarty argues that Western theories are both “indispensable and inadequate.” Inherent to most Western social science theory is the concept of historicism; in other words, there is one evolutionary model that societies pass through, which also happens to be that of Europe. For this reason, most Western social theorists do not take religion seriously, nor do they necessarily question using Western concepts such as Marxism to understand the class consciousness of Indian workers. In this sense, Chakrabarty demonstrates the Eurocentrism that runs through Western social sciences.
Chakrabarty’s work begins with a careful consideration of how conventional theoretical models have been based on European history. Certain key themes –the development of capitalism and modernity- are central to these narratives. He argues that Europe is not only a geographical region, but also a body of scholarship that defines how academics view the world. This concept underpins his key theme, provincializing Europe, which entails returning Europe to its rightful place as one world region amongst many, without the privilege that it has continued to hold in academic circles; that is, Europe should no longer be considered as the template for modernity, as it is only one expression of this transition. In this respect, his work underpins postcolonial theories, which argue that colonial relationships endure long after the end of formal empires. Chakrabarty wishes to take off these intellectual blinders by challenging the concept of historicism, which suggests that all societies pass through similar developmental stages on the path to modernity. Amongst Chakrabarty’s many points is that societies are not unitary, so that sophisticated technology and bureaucracy can exist side by side with feudal land holding and traditional ideologies in one nation. For my students, this chapter was particularly challenging and interesting at the same time, as it led them to question their notion of what history is.
While insightful, at times Chakrabarty can be prolix, and the density of his writing can make for a challenging read. This is particularly the case in chapter two, in which he undertakes a detailed look at the Marxist conception of abstract and real labor. Chakrabarty’s work problematizes Marxist thought by showing how it failed to contextualize its theoretical content to a particular culture. This argument forms part of a larger piece on how approaches to history in Western thought shapes theories such as Marxism, so that they do not reflect non-Western experiences.
This theme of the importance of context continues into chapter three and four, in which Chakrabarty examines how time and language change conceptions of history. At its core, this chapter continues to problematize traditional social science conceptions built on Western ideals, by showing how they fail to take into consideration important values in other cultures, such as that events might be interpreted in a religious context. Here Chakrabarty again returns to the Western association of modernity with secularism, and suggests that the European model may not apply to regions such as South Asia. Again, Chakrabarty points to the limitations of Marxist thought. How do we understand a culture in which people work for religious reasons? Of course, this point has historical precedent in the West, where for the Shakers, for example, the concept of work was inseparable from their religious identity. In the final chapters in the book, Chakrabarty talks about the problems of metanarratives, a leit motif is poststructalist thought, and applies his theoretical models to a Bangladeshi cultural context. Because this latter section is less relevant for Global Studies, I won’t cover it in detail in this review.
This book has pros and cons. The negative aspect for the work is the prolixity and jargon that can turn undergraduate students away from a serious engagement with the work. We have enough challenges asking students to read Kwame Appiah or E.H. Carr. Chakrabarty’s writing style is a particular challenge, even though his ideas are essential in such fields as development, religious studies and literature. Sometimes it can also be difficult to see how to apply his ideas. Yes, Western concepts of time are inherent to the social sciences. But how would a non-Western social scientist create a theory modeled on a different vision of time? Were there examples that he could have drawn on to support his argument from intellectuals writing in subaltern cultures? This is a more general point, as throughout his work Chakrabarty’s arguments would have been strengthened by more specific examples. His work also draws heavily on the field of Subaltern Studies with a basis in South Asia. Strangely, this literature has long remained isolated from postcolonial literature in the Francophone world. Chakrabarty could have drawn on Fanon, Sartre, Cixous, Derrida and other French-language thinkers to make his arguments. Lastly, Chakrabarty’s own thought is also shaped by its historical context, and at times he speaks of the developing world as a unitary construct, even though his core intent is to undermine exactly this approach.
At the same time, one of the strengths of Chakrabarty’s work its ability to discuss theoretical issues in a nuanced way. Chakrabarty reveals the limitations of non-Western approaches, but remains interested in modernity and development. The question is how people from other cultural backgrounds can apply ideals that have roots in Europe’s Enlightenment thought in a way that works in a radically different culture. He also clearly argues his point that traditional social sciences are culturally specific, and fail to reflect the diversity of global experiences and thought.
It is also important to note that the developmental vision of history that Chakrabarty critiques is not only an academic construct, but also one with real world consequences, as it shapes the imposition of global capital through development practices and policy approaches. While Chakrabarty does not make this point specifically, a Eurocentric vision of history serves to justify the power of Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization) by suggesting that the conditionality they impose on loans is justified to ensure that non-Western cultures pass through the appropriate stages to achieve modernity. This approach, in many respects, echoes the arguments that British made to justify their role in nations as diverse as India and Ghana. As such, Chakrabarty’s work can be read as a critique of the ideological foundations of the neoliberalism that now defines global capitalism. The text also leads students to think critically about such basic ideas as modernity and history. It also has echoes of Critical Theory, in that it leads students to question the objectivity of theoretical stances, and to think about the cultural context in which they are embedded. For many of my students, this work led them to think seriously for the first time about how the social sciences may be Eurocentric. Despite its challenging style, this work deserves its place as a foundational text, which would be appropriate for every graduate seminar in Global and International Studies.