Our identification of ‘modern’ society rests on a conception of what it means to be modern – whether the modern is understood in terms of social structures or of discourses – and it is from the Western experience that these definitions are drawn.

Gurminder K Bhambra

« Notre identification de la société ‘moderne’ repose sur une conception de ce que signifie être moderne – que le moderne soit compris en termes de structures sociales ou de discours – et c’est à partir de l’expérience occidentale que ces définitions sont tirées. »

                                                                   ‘Modernity’ is the dominant frame for social and political thought, not just in the West, but across the world.

‘Modernity’ is the dominant frame for social and political thought, not just in the West, but across the world. The repercussions of the French Revolution and the processes of industrialization stimulated debates about the emergence of a modern world and this world was held to require a distinctively modern form of explanation. I shall argue that this rests on two fundamental assumptions: rupture and difference – a temporal rupture that distinguishes a traditional, agrarian past from the modern, industrial present; and a fundamental difference that distinguishes Europe from the rest of the world. These paradigmatic assumptions frame both the standard methodological problems posed by social inquiry and the explanations posited in resolving them. In this book, I call into question the socio-historic evidence for ideas of rupture and difference, and examine how the construction of this evidence itself has led to the development of particular forms of theoretical understandings. Most importantly, the equating of modernity with Europe reinforces a fundamental assumption of much intellectual thought today: that particular structures, emerging first in the West, would become universal.

Some will assert that such claims are no longer novel. The ideas of temporal and spatial disjuncture on which dominant ideas of modernity rest have seemingly been challenged by many postmodern and postcolonial theorists and yet, while there is increasing hesitancy in equating westernization with progress, it is my contention that the West is still seen as the leader or ‘signifier’ of change. For example, many theorists locate the postmodern turn itself in the advanced capitalist countries of the West and many postcolonial scholars alike continue to use Europe as a reference point, albeit a negative one. I shall argue that there is a need to reconsider the conceptual framework of modernity from a wider spatial and historical context, one which regards the very concept of modernity itself as problematic.

By addressing the relationship between modernity, postcolonial theory, and Eurocentrism, I challenge the continued privileging of the West as the ‘maker’ of universal history and seek to develop alternatives from which to begin to deal with the questions that arise once we reject this categorization. This is done in the belief that the ways in which we understand the past are crucial to our understandings of ourselves and the world in which we live today and that if our understandings of the past are inadequate it follows that our grasp of the present will also be inadequate. Although I address dominant conceptions of modernity from the perspective of postcolonial theory, I shall also criticize postcolonial theory itself, arguing that it frequently simply inverts the dualism inherent to the dominant conceptions and, in that way, preserves the very intellectual structure that is being challenged.

Modernity, broadly conceived, refers to the social, cultural, political, and economic changes that took place in Western Europe from the mid-sixteenth century onwards. Regardless of the different interpretations put forward by theorists of modernity – as to its nature, the timing of its emergence, and its continued character today – ideas of rupture and difference, I contend, underpin all theories of modernity. This is high-lighted in the work of the French and Scottish writers of the eighteenth century – such as Montesquieu, Ferguson, and Smith – who are largely seen as precursors of the sociological approach as well as in the work of the primary theorists of classical sociology – Durkheim, Weber, and Marx – who all express, in differing ways, the challenges faced by modern European society, a society that they see as distinguished from earlier agrarian societies and as unique within the contemporary world order.

More recent social theorists on modernity, from a variety of traditions, also see it as both distinctive and European in its origins. […]

Across a range of theoretical positions, then, modernity can be seen as resting on a basic distinction between the social formations of ‘the West’ and ‘traditional’ or ‘pre-modern’ societies. […]

Our identification of ‘modern’ society rests on a conception of what it means to be modern – whether the modern is understood in terms of social structures or of discourses – and it is from the Western experience that these definitions are drawn. […]

As I shall demonstrate, the Western experience has been taken both as the basis for the construction of the concept of modernity and, at the same time, that concept is argued to have a validity that transcends the Western experience. Following Mohanty, I would like to draw attention to the ways in which authors codify others as non-Western and hence themselves as implicitly Western without ever really stating what being Western entails (1991: 51), or, for that matter, what being European entails.

Gurminder K Bhambra –  Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade (1991) ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’ in C. T. Mohanty, A. Russo and L. Torres (eds) Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism

Gurminder K Bhambra



“From the perspective of postcolonial theory, the book takes issue with the ‘facts’ of European modernity and the scholarly understanding of the European ‘ownership’ of modernity as an originary project. Bhambra recognizes that ubiquitous within social scientific inquiry is the continual privileging of Europe and the West as the sole ‘maker’ of modernity. In her words, “the story is never about the peasant” (25). […]

In chapter 1 Bhambra briefly discusses the politics of knowledge production, and, importantly, acknowledging colonialism as part of the scene of dominant social scientific inquiry. For Bhambra, the colonial encounter, which involved conquest, domination, and enslavement of peoples and forms of life, is “constitutive of the very disciplines that express or seek to understand modernity” (16). With theoretical poise, Bhambra posits that colonialism was intrinsic to the contemporary scene in which dominant forms of inquiry were found and yet the colonial encounter is rendered unseen. Hence it remains, for Bhambra, imperative to deconstruct these forms of inquiry that elaborated universal criteria on the basis of marginalizing and silencing other experiences and voices. Borrowing from historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam (1997), Bhambra proposes the concept of ‘connected histories’ as a viable approach to deconstructing dominant narratives at the same time rendering visible the constituted ‘other.’”

Gregory Lee Cuellar : Postcolonial Networks