Confronting Canon and Empire

In reflecting on the American literary canon, Toni Morrison asserts: “Canon building is empire building. Canon defense is national defense. Canon debate, whatever the terrain, nature, and range… is the clash of cultures. And all of the interests are vested.” 

Having never taken a single sociology class in the course of my undergraduate study, my first exposure to the sociological canon and sociology’s disciplinary mythos happened in the months preceding the actual start of my doctoral program. In a frenzied effort to orient myself to the discipline, I decided to dedicate time to familiarizing myself with the major figures and works of the field. I quickly found myself inundated by the same names and same stories – ones enshrining Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Comte as the founding fathers of the discipline and tracking the emergence of sociology from Enlightenment thinking and the industrial revolution in the European context. 

By the time the start of the academic year rolled around, I felt more acquainted with the sociological canon and, truthfully, even more primed to rail against the exaltation of all the “dead white men” within it. As an Asian American Studies minor in my undergraduate career where the curriculum felt much more pertinent to me and my communities, many of the canonized works of sociology honestly left me feeling detached and even bored.

Fortunately, rather than regurgitating the same disciplinary creed about the importance of the “classical” texts, my first introductory sociological theory course in my first year was refreshing in its openness to problematizing the sociological canon. I am better able to appreciate Morrison’s contention that “canon building is empire building” and “canon defense is national defense” in relation to the contested terrain of the sociological canon because of it. While the standard story about sociology’s inception as a discipline focuses on industrialization, urbanization, and Enlightenment rationality and scientific approaches as the core social context, it conveniently leaves out the centrality of the expansion of empire in shaping sociology’s principal questions, methods, and data. Western conceptualizations of progress in the imperial context concentrated sociological theorizations on “global difference,” positioning those outside of the metropole as primitive, uncivilized Others that were prime objects of sociological study. Importantly, the formation of the canon necessitated the very erasure of the imperial culture it was steeped in.

Critically, confronting the racialized and imperial implications of the codification of sociological “classics' ' highlights that what matters is not just the content of the canon but its making and its maintenance.  Morrison’s declaration about canon building and empire building thus lends us towards interrogating the canon beyond who is in it. The development of sociology and its inextricable ties to empire not only resulted in the exclusion of specific scholars from the discipline and canon, but shaped the very structure and form of sociological thought. The coalescence of sociology’s way of knowing was borne out of an “imperial binary” which circumscribed understandings of who was able to produce social scientific knowledge that was universal, rational, and objective and whose work was partial, biased, and irrational. In other words, while non-Western scholars of color writing on race, colonialism, and other subjects neglected in the canon are characterized as deeply subjective and providing non-generalizable accounts of the social world, “classical” sociologists’ theorizations are treated as comprehensive and ubiquitous and their specific context and positionalities are considered immaterial. This often taken-for-granted epistemic structure is necessary for the canon’s defense. 

Canon building and empire building is sustained and safeguarded, in part, not just by continued commitments to upholding certain canonical works and excluding others, but by teaching the canon using dominant analytic frames that invisibilize the specific conditions they were formed in and implicitly characterize them as universal. Importantly, the canon’s defense is further bolstered by the structure of the academy and the knowledge economy that these epistemic structures are situated in. Expectations around citing canonical pieces and researchers in the Global North for credibility and publishability, the concentration of top-rated journals and research funding/resources in universities in the Global North, the skewed composition of the academic workforce, and more are all conditions in which imperial knowledge systems are maintained and thus are inseparable from conversations about the preservation of the canon. 

With this in mind, it is clear that while moves to include the contributions of a more diverse selection of social theorists in the canon are certainly welcome, mechanical additions to the canon by themselves do not necessarily get to the heart of how the canon is made and maintained. In addition to the more complex, daunting task of thinking through the transformation of existing academic structures as a whole, challenging the canon also requires changes in how we conceptualize and teach these works. As long as we fail to read and teach social theory, including the canonized works, as inherently particular rather than universal and fall short of unshrouding the full roots of the discipline in empire and white supremacy, our attempts to confront the canon will be incomplete. Rather than treating this context as extraneous, we should understand it to be central to a rigorous engagement with the canonized “classical” works as well as the works of those historically excluded from it. I believe my introductory theory course began to do some of this work by emphasizing that the sociological theorizations we engaged with were not isolated, stagnant creations, but intellectual projects actively produced by thinkers in a specific milieu. 

I end again with an excerpt from Morrison’s critique of American literary canon and her critical reflections on the position and presence of African Americans within it:

“Looking at the scope of American literature, I can’t help thinking that the question should never have been “Why am I, an Afro-American, absent from it?” It is not a particularly interesting query anyway. The spectacularly interesting question is “What intellectual feats had to be performed by the author or his critic to erase me from a society seething with my presence, and what effect has that performance had on the work?” What are the strategies of escape from knowledge? Of willful oblivion?” (Morrison 1988, emphasis added). 

Morrison’s reflections grant us a much more capacious view of how to confront sociology’s canon that goes beyond simply reconsidering who is in it. What intellectual feats had to be performed to form the sociological canon? What intellectual feats continue to be performed to maintain it?

Kourtney Nham is a co-Assistant Director of the Emancipatory Sciences Lab and a doctoral student in the Department of Social & Behavioral Sciences at UCSF.

This blog is part of the series called Inquiring Minds: On Decolonizing the Sociological Canon. Students came together to write this series on harmful literature in the sociological canon, which features 5 blog posts.

  1. Confronting Canon and Empire by Kourtney Nham
  2. What Does the Writer Owe the Reader? by Kate LaForge
  3. Embodied Experiences Navigating Harmful Literature by Brittney Pond
  4. Institutions of Higher Learning Must Do More by Berty Arreguin
  5. Whose Class is it, Anyways? by Selam Kidane