Southern Theory

“Southern theory” is a term I use for social thought from the societies of the global South.  It’s not necessarily about the global South, though it often is.  Intellectuals from colonial and postcolonial societies have also produced important analyses of global-North societies, and of worldwide structures (e.g. Raúl Prebisch and Samir Amin).

In the 1980s I had been living and teaching in Australia but writing and teaching about theorists who almost all came from the other side of the world, from societies that had a very different historical experience.  I gradually became bothered by the incongruity.  I wondered what was the significance of global power for the social theory that was produced in the imperial centre, and exported to the rest of the world.

After teaching for a few years in the United States I wrote a paper about this, called “Why is classical theory classical?”  I argued that what sociologists call “classical theory” is a myth, created much later than the lives of Marx, Weber & Durkheim,, and that the real origins of European sociology were deeply bound up with empire and the problems of colonialism.  Some sociologists didn’t like that at all.
Critique by itself is inadequate: one needs to show alternatives.  So I went looking.  It took time; fourteen years in fact, hunting in bookshops in Africa, quizzing colleagues in South America, searching dusty shelves in the library stacks in Australia, and searching online as well.  And there is a rich archive, not always in academic genres but intellectually powerful, focussed on the problems posed by colonialism and post-colonial societies.

The result was the book Southern Theory, published in 2007 and still in print.  It brings the critique of classical theory up to the present, showing how the theories of Giddens, Coleman and Bourdieu, and the theory of globalization, are constructed from global-North points of view.  It then has five chapters telling the stories of social thinkers from sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Iran, India, and Australia, such as Paulin Hountondji, Ali Shariati, Sonia Montecino and Veena Das (if you don’t recognize those names, please read the book!)  There's a chapter about the land, a topic little discussed in Eurocentric theory but enormously important in indigenous thought and politics.  The final chapter offers ideas for a more inclusive and democratic social science. 

Since then, I’ve taken a closer look at some issues that were under-played in the book.  They include questions about gender, so I have written papers about feminist theory from the global South.  I have outlined the Southern archive of writing and thought about masculinity, and re-thought the concept of hegemonic masculinity in that light.  Influenced by Helen Meekosha, I’ve thought about disability and embodiment in Southern contexts. With Nour Dados, I have looked at global-South thought about neoliberalism, and the different picture of neoliberal thought and politics that emerges when we give priority to Southern experiences.  As discussions of post-colonial social thought have multiplied, I’ve been interested in their applications in fields like education, social work and health.

Some readers have assumed that because “Southern theory” is in the singular, it means there is only one global-South point of view.  I have never thought this.  There is tremendous diversity among ideas and intellectuals from the periphery. The concept “Southern theory” is simply one that names the geopolitics of knowledge.  It invites readers to pay attention to conceptual work produced under colonialism or in the post-colonial periphery.

Earlier work
Most of my early efforts at social theory went into a book Which Way is Up? which topped the best-seller list at Melbourne’s ‘Hill of Content’ bookshop for one brilliant week in 1983, and then sank like a stone.  Heaven knows why I picked such a terrible title.  The chapters wrestle with concepts of class, hegemony and patriarchy, using ideas from Gramsci, Freud and Sartre, and criticising social-reproduction theory (including Bourdieu). 
A few years later came Gender and Power.  This was a full-scale attempt at theorising gender as social practice and social structure.  It had some influence, especially in the United States.  It included some ideas on the state, which were expanded in another book, Staking a Claim, written jointly with Suzanne Franzway and incorporating work by the late Dianne Court.  This theorising connected with the empirical work on masculinities I was doing at the same time, and provided the intellectual framework for Masculinities. I’ve continued to develop this line of thought, reformulating it in the book Gender: In World Perspective.

The following video shows my 2012 lecture at a Brasilian social science congress (ANPOCS): "The Coming Revolution in Social Theory"

Part 1.
Part 2. 
Part 3.

Connell, Raewyn, Fran Collyer, João Maia and Robert Morrell.  2016. Toward a global sociology of knowledge: post-colonial realities and intellectual practices. International Sociology, published online (Open Access) November 2016, DOI: 10.1177/0268580916676913, at:

Report from our research on the making of new domains of knowledge in Brasil, South Africa and Australia, and the implications of Southern theory for the sociology of knowledge.

Connell, Raewyn. 2016. Masculinities in global perspective: hegemony, contestation, and changingstructures of power. Theory and Society, vol. 45 no. 4, 303-318.  DOI 10.1007/s11186-016-9275-x.

Reconsidering hegemony and masculinity when we understand gender relations on a world scale; we have to see hegemony not as normally accomplished, but as always in question.

Connell, Raewyn. 2015. Social science on a world scale: connecting thepages. Sociologies in Dialogue: Journal of the Brazilian Sociological Society, vol. 1 no. 1, 1-16.

Another look at the problem of democratising social science in the light of colonial experience and postcolonial intellectual work.

Connell, Raewyn. 2015. Meeting at the edge of fear: theory on a world scale. Feminist Theory, vol. 16 no. 1, 49-66.  German translation: Treffen am Rande der Angst; Feministische Theorie im Weltmassstab. Das Argument, 2015, no. 314, 693-710.

Starting with a quotation from a poet writing in Arabic, an extended reflection on feminist and gender theory coming from the global South.
Connell, Raewyn. 2014. Margin becoming centre: for a world-centred rethinking of masculinities. NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies, vol 9 no. 4, 217-231. Published online August 2014, DOI 10.1080/18902138.2014.934078

Discussion of the global archive on masculinities, and the need to re-think our understanding of masculinities in Southern perspective.

Connell, Raewyn and Nour Dados. 2014. Where in the world does neoliberalism come from? The market agenda in southern perspective. Theory and Society, vol 43 no. 2, 117-138.

Report of our study on global-South experience with neoliberalism as development agenda, telling a different story of neoliberalism on a world scale.

Connell, Raewyn. 2014. Rethinking gender from the South. Feminist Studies, vol. 40 no. 3, 518-539.

An exploration of the politics of knowledge about gender, with a focus on the creative work that has come from the global South, introducing some notable thinkers, and discussing different models of knowledge on a world scale.

Connell, Raewyn. 2007. Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. Sydney, Allen & Unwin Australia; Cambridge, Polity Press.

Starting with a critique of Northern sociology, this tells the story of my encounters with social thought from sub-Saharan Africa, Iran, India, Latin America and Australia, and then reflects on the nature of a global social science.  It’s deliberately not a treatise, but an attempt to trace conceptual learning across spaces and cultural divides.

Connell, Raewyn. 1997. Why is classical theory classical? American Journal of Sociology, vol. 102 no. 6, 1511-57.

A blockbuster critique of the myth of the ‘founding fathers’ in sociology, outlining a more realistic global history of the discipline emphasising its changing relations with imperialism.  The journal paid it the unusual compliment of publishing an attack on the paper in the same issue, which persuaded me it said something of importance. 

And some other stuff: 

Connell, Raewyn. 2012. Gender,health and theory: Conceptualizing the issue, in local and world perspective.  Social Science & Medicine, vol. 74, 1675-1683.

Written for an international seminar on gender and health, this tries to link a social approach to gender with the global politics of health knowledge.

Connell, Raewyn. 2005. Empire, domination, autonomy: Antonio Negri as a social theorist.  Overland, no. 181, 31-39. An expanded and updated text is: Connell, Raewyn. 2012. The poet of Autonomy: Antonio Negri as a social theorist. Sociologica, 6(1): 1-23.

An essay in theoretical critique, especially tracing the links between Negri’s writing as an Italian autonomist in the 1970s, and his writing on global issues around 2000.

Connell, Raewyn. 1990. The state, gender and sexual politics: theory and appraisalTheory and Society vol. 19, 507-544.

An attempt to synthesise the (mostly Northern) feminist writing about the state, in the theoretical framework of Gender and Power. 

Connell, Raewyn. 1983. Which Way Is Up?  Essays on Sex, Class and Culture. Sydney, Allen & Unwin.

Critiques of stratificationist theories of class, Althusserian theories of class, psychoanalysis, Sartre’s theory of practice, the Birmingham school of cultural theory, plus my first paper on intellectuals, and an essay on Johann Sebastian Bach.

Back to Top