The Cultural Cringe and Social Science

There is a problem about intellectual work in settler-colonial societies, like Australia, that deeply affects social science.

The problem was named “The Cultural Cringe” by the Australian critic Arthur Phillips, in a pungent article published in 1950 by the new literary magazine Meanjin.  Phillips diagnosed “a disease of the Australian mind”, an assumption of inferiority vis-a-vis England, a deep dependence on imported judgments and tastes.  Phillips shrewdly observed that this resulted in “the estrangement of the Australian Intellectual” from Australian society, a disdainful attitude that equated the rough, the uncultured and the local.

Phillips was talking about literature and art, but the same issues arise in science.  The Beninese philosopher Paulin Hountondji described the situation in his  important 1997 book Endogenous Knowledge.  There is a global division of labour: data are gathered in the colony, but theory is made in the metropole.  Scientists from the global South travel to the USA and Europe for training and recognition, learn Northern intellectual frameworks, try to get published in Northern journals.  Hountondji calls this attitude “extraversion”, being oriented to external sources of authority.  It is found both in settler and colonized societies.

What Phillips called a disease is better analyzed by Hountondji as part of a global economy of culture.  It’s structural, not personal.  Ultimately it has to do with the way the public realm is created in colonial societies.

The colonizers claimed to have the true religion or a superior civilization, but what they crucially had was warships, muskets, cavalry, cannon, steam power and the ruthlessness to use them for conquest.  As Hilaire Belloc observed,

            Whatever happens, we have got
            The Maxim gun, and they have not.

Imperial force enabled settlement, up to the point of demographic dominance over indigenous people, and demographic dominance was mainly achieved by immigration.  The colonial state achieved local order, so far as it could - the colonies were violent places - through imperial law and bureaucracy.  Settler schools and newspapers were modelled from the start on those of the home country.  When the colonists felt they were up to universities (the 1850s, in Sydney and Melbourne) they imported both the academics and the curricula direct from what was, without irony, called the mother country.

Settler colonialism thus produced a truncated public realm.  The leading institutions and technologies were developed in the metropole; most of the capital that underpinned colonial development came from the metropole; and key political decisions were also made there.  In 1939 the Prime Minister famously announced on radio that “Great Britain has declared war on [Germany], and that, as a result, Australia is also at war”.  The gesture was repeated as recently as 2003, when the Prime Minister of the day sent Australian troops into Iraq.

For social sciences in a settler-colonial society, this produces an “as-if” form of knowledge.  Research is done as if the researcher were standing in the metropole, or as if the society being studied were part of the metropole.  Thus, Australian psychology is full of experiments using scales developed in the United States, Australian economics is full of models developed in the United States, Australian sociology is full of concepts developed in France.

When these studies are published, there is normally no discussion of whether such ideas really apply in a settler-colonial context.  What might be called the productive arc of methodology – the movement of thought in which concepts and methods are generated from actual social experience - is missing, in settler society’s truncated public realm of social science.  That arc was traversed in the metropole.  Its results, packaged as theory or methodology, are simply imported.

To extraverted thought, what is imported from the metropole simply is theory or method – no other meaning for those terms is recognized.  So, on the rare occasions where an Australian journal conducts a conceptual discussion, it is conducted wholly within European or US parameters, and often by invited European and US writers, at that.  Australian social scientists writing theory usually do so by commentary on European and US theorists.

The fact that the settler population is mostly white, English-speaking, and has European ancestors creates an illusion of identity.  Politicians encourage this by constantly talking of Austalia as a “Western country”, a nonsense term that a surprising number of social scientists still use.

Current trends in universities are worsening the problem.  Neoliberal policy-makers drive Australian universities and academics to compete with each other.  The key metrics for this competition involve recognition in the metropole, especially, publication and citation in highly-ranked metropolitan journals.  Since metropolitan journals operate within metropolitan intellectual cultures (we can’t expect them to do otherwise!), the message for Australian scientists is clear: do it the US/EU way, if you want promotion and grants in Australia.

Social science in a settler-colonial society therefore tends to split between an abstracted theoretical discourse, conducted as if in the metropole with little or no local reference, and an applied social science in which methodologies developed in the metropole are applied to empirical studies of local social problems.

The social problems – class, patriarchy, racism, environmental destruction, and more – are all too real.  But the methodologies are rarely sufficient to understand them in depth.  Why?  Because the social problems of settler society partly arise from the nature of settler colonialism itself, especially from its truncated public realm.  When key determinants are located in the relationship with the metropole, or in the dynamics of the world economy, a social science using methods and concepts developed for the metropole to describe itself, and constantly looking for authority to the metropole, is in a specific way displaced.  Like the literary culture criticized by Phillips, though trying to describe local society it is estranged from it.
Christina Stead

Estrangement of intellectuals is recognized, indeed a cliche of Australian cultural history.  There are also well-known responses to it.  One is the angry rejection of the cultural cringe in the name of an anti-imperial nationalism.  That was the note struck by Bulletin school of writers in the 1890s, especially the radicals who associated English culture with a despised upper class in the colonies.  Settler intellectuals don’t have Aboriginal culture to fall back on, though the “Jindyworobak” movement poets of the 1930s tried – the result being an arrogant act of colonial re-appropriation, as well as some interesting poetry.  Some go into exile, but in a way that inverts the exile stories known since Ovid.  It is exile to the metropole.  The result can be the haunted double vision of the world seen in The Man Who Loved Children, the great work of Australia’s first modernist novelist, Christina Stead, who wrote it in exile in the United States.

These responses are available to social scientists too, and we can trace them through the history of social sciences in settler societies.  The greatest social scientist Australia has produced, the pre-historian Vere Gordon Childe, went down the track of exile, working in Europe for most of his career from the 1920s on.  He came back to the Blue Mountains near Sydney to die.

The problem can’t be solved on an individual basis.  It requires collective and institutional change, on a scale that is only now becoming clear.  It requires, in fact, a re-making of social science on a world scale.
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