COMMENT: Eurocentrism and the neglect of local ideas
BIAS: Eurocentrism as an outlook creates the syndrome of academic dependency
EUROCENTRISM remains a persistent problem in Social Science teaching and research in Malaysia despite more than 50 years of political independence.
A survey of course outlines and textbooks used in our universities will reveal a number of characteristics of Eurocentrism. Americans and Europeans are generally presented as the originators of ideas and theories and Western concepts dominate in the discussion of problems.
In other words, Europeans and Americans are the ones that do the original thinking and they are the social theorists.
If at all non-Europeans appear in the texts, they are usually objects of study of the European theorists featured and not as knowing subjects, that is, as sources of theories and ideas.
Social theory texts, for example, usually give accounts of European and American originators of Sociology, as if there were no originators of social thought in Asia, Africa or Latin America in the 19th century.
The works of non-European thinkers are not given the same attention as European and American social theorists such as Marx, Weber and Durkheim.
The great Filipino thinker and activist José Rizal (1861-1896) was probably the first systematic social thinker in Southeast Asia, but he is almost never mentioned in books on social thought, even in the Philippines. In the case of the Malay world, Raja Ali Haji (1809-1873) and Syed Shaykh al-Hady (1867-1934) are similarly neglected.
Eurocentrism is a thought-style that is not restricted to Europeans or people in the West. The Social Sciences are taught in much of the Third World in a Eurocentric manner.
This has contributed to the alienation of social scientists from local and regional scholarly traditions.
Furthermore, courses in Sociology and the other Social Sciences generally do not attempt to correct the Eurocentric bias by introducing non-Western thinkers.
The absence of non-European thinkers in these accounts is particularly glaring in cases where non-Europeans had actually influenced the development of social thought.
For example, Ibn Khaldun is occasionally referred to in histories of social thought, but is rarely seen as a source of relevant sociological theories and concepts.
He is merely regarded as a precursor of Sociology. The consequence of all of this is that the West, particularly the Americans, British, French and Germans are seen as the sole originators of ideas in the Social Sciences.
ACADEMIC DEPENDENCY SYNDROME
Eurocentrism as an outlook creates the syndrome of academic dependency. The academically dependent scholar is more a passive recipient of theories and ideas from the Western knowledge powers.
Academic dependency can be defined as a condition in which the production of knowledge of scholars in the Third World is conditioned by the development and growth of knowledge of scholars in the Western centres of knowledge production such as North America and Britain.
There are many dimensions of academic dependency that I have discussed at length in my Alternative Discourses in Asian Social Science (Sage, 2006).
One of these is the dependence of scholars in developing societies on demand in the West for their knowledge and research abilities.
This results in a brain drain. Another important dimension of academic dependency is dependence on recognition.
Dependency on recognition of our works manifests itself in terms of the effort to enter our publications into international ranking protocols. Our universities strive to attain higher and higher places in the rankings.
Institutional development as well as individual assessment are undertaken in order to achieve higher status in the ranking system with a system of rewards and punishments in place to provide the necessary incentives that centre around promotion, tenure and bonuses.
As far as Malaysia is concerned, the consequences of this form of dependency include the de-emphasis on publications in local journals and the increasing underdevelopment of social scientific discourse in the Malay language.
Intellectual imperialism is the context within which academic dependency exists. According to Syed Hussein Alatas, intellectual imperialism is analogous to political and economic imperialism in that it refers to the "domination of one people by another in their world of thinking".
Ultimately, the result of intellectual imperialism is the neglect of local ideas.
For example, the Malay term merantau refers to a specifically Malay world concept of migration and movement of people in the region, but has never been developed as a social scientific concept with universal validity.
Unlike the colonial period, the form of intellectual control exerted in today's intellectual imperialism is "not imposed by the West through colonial domination, but accepted willingly with confident enthusiasm, by scholars and planners of the former colonial territories and even in the few countries that remained independent during that period", as Syed Hussein noted.
Syed Hussein Alatas was himself a victim of Eurocentrism. Although his critique of the Eurocentric domination of knowledge preceded that of Edward Said, he tends to be less recognised in Malaysia than abroad for having pioneered the intellectual current of his generation against the knowledge hegemony of the West.
This is probably because Said was located in the centre, that is, in the United States, whereas Syed Hussein wrote from the periphery of knowledge production.