Postcolonial Feminisms and Introducing Sociology in the Imperium

By Puri, Jyoti | Radical Teacher, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

Postcolonial Feminisms and Introducing Sociology in the Imperium


Puri, Jyoti, Radical Teacher


The first week of classes usually surfaces the problem of introductions--how to present myself to students and sociology to neophytes. (1) I have been teaching at a liberal arts and professional studies institution in northeastern United States for many years, but these issues seem more complex than ever in the introductory sociology class that I offer regularly. Mixed in with the excitement and adrenalin rush that usually quicken my walk toward the first class are confounding questions of what and how much to say about myself, how I came to know sociology, what I think sociology is and how it can be useful.

The problem of presenting the self in the classroom is fundamentally about locating it and, as Erving Goffman (1959) anticipated, managing its perception by students. In a setting marked by the imperatives of thinking, learning, and communicating, students' first impressions of the instructor are formed not just in terms of what is said but perhaps more so through expressions that one gives off--through name, race, linguistic accent. As someone born and raised in India, I am never more conscious of my non-Judeo-Christian name, brownness, accented English, and non-verbal self-expression than in the first few minutes of a new class, when it's not clear how best to navigate the differences of race, social class, gender expression, age, sexuality, nation, culture that swirl among us. Would it be more forthright to establish distance from a predominantly young, white, middle-class, U.S.-born, Judeo-Christian student body by noting that I migrated here as an adult and have not been through an undergraduate degree program here? Or, would it be more effective to establish common ground by noting that though my formative experiences were elsewhere, I have lived in this country for many years. Seeking to sidestep the anxious fretting self, elicited by the prospect of introduction, I usually choose to emphasize my affiliation to the institution, the department, and teaching and research interests.

More than these subjective aspects, though, it is the problem of introducing the discipline--what is sociology, how is it defined, what are its objects of study--that I find vexing. My first meaningful engagement with sociology was through the lens of cultural studies, especially the contributions of scholars such as Stuart Hall, foregrounding the importance of colonial legacies particularly in relation to race, representation, metropolitan and postcolonial nationalisms, and questions of belonging. And, it was when I encountered the glimmers of what would be later called postcolonial feminisms through the writings of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Inderpal Grewal, Ann Laura Stoler, M. Jacqui Alexander, and others that my relationship to sociology came to be further modulated through attention to the histories of modernity and their gendered, racialized, and sexualized dimensions. Surely, ambivalence can be generative, but it can also be difficult to communicate to students taking the introductory class in sociology, as they do typically at my institution, in order to either meet a general education requirement or because it looks generally interesting.

The vast majority of introductory sociology texts and readers in the United States resolve this problem of the discipline's presentation by gesturing to or providing excerpts from C. Wright Mills' (1959) concept of the sociological imagination--as the ability to connect the life of an individual with the history of a society or the quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay of man (sic) and society, of biography and history, of self and world (p. 4). Starting with the sociological imagination not only helps distill the discipline for the uninitiated, but it boldly presents sociology as a call to critical awareness and action. Seeking to rescue sociology from its tedium and depoliticization by the 1950s in the United States, Mills' attention to social structures and individual agency, the relevance of history, and analysis of social apathy and unease can be most useful. …

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