Post-Colonialism and Disability Politics

By | November 16, 2017

Having just completed a blog on feminism’s putative four waves, I continue here with a companion piece on ‘postcolonialism’ and ‘disability politics’. I do justice to neither, but my intent is limited: to present an ongoing quandry. Can sociology reconnect with the likes of feminism, postcolonialism and disability politics, or has it shot its bolt? My own view is clear – and it’s ‘yes’, it can and must reconnect – but I humbly accept that it will be a tough ‘ask’!  

Postcolonialism, like feminism, stands against most orthodox sociologies. Its departure was marked by the publication of Said’s Orientalism in the late 1970s. He and other critical literary scholars provided what Bhambra has termed the canonical hub of postcolonial studies. Since then it has retrospectively incorporated contributions from writer-activists like Fanon, Memmi and Cesaire and moved forward on to generate its own distinctive frames and narratives. In essence, postcolonialism interrogates and critiques the assumptions that underlie prevailing dominant discourses – including those deployed by sociologists –  through which we make sense of the social world we dwell in. This involves some deep mining to destabilize prevailing ways of seeing. Spivak has written of ‘reversing, displacing and seizing the apparatus of value-coding’.  

An allied family of theorists has clustered around the concept of ‘decoloniality’. These theories focus on existing forms of the ‘coloniality of power’ and/or the ‘coloniality of being’. Maldano-Torres, who emphasizes the latter, engages with the critical theory of Habermas amongst others. He argues that instead of writing as Habermas does of the ‘unfinished project of modernity’, we should proclaim the ‘unfinished project of decolonisation’. In similar vein Wynter writes of ‘a new principle of nonhomogeneity’ consolidated around the ‘Colour (cum Colonial) Line’.    

Postcolonial and decolonial commentators are committed not only to exposing the taken-for-granted in conventional sociological practice, but also to showing how we might move forward. Just as feminists have sought to pick up and shake sociologies of gender and sexuality in order to construct more apposite understandings and explanations using some of the pieces, so theorists of the postcolonial have sought to disassemble and reassemble sociologies of race, ethnicity and colonialism.     

Disability theorists rebelled against prevailing and ubiquitous cultural biases that distinguished between the desirable and normal ‘able-bodied’ and the undesirable and abnormal ‘dis-abled’. Medical sociology too was a ready target. Inspired by the interactionist and dramaturgical schools, sociologists focused – notably in the UK in the 1980s – on chronic or long term illnesses and disabilities as ‘personal tragedies’. They not only disrupted biographies and frequently led to stigmatization, they heralded unequivocally and irredeemably negative states and identities with which those affected had somehow to ‘cope’ whilst pursuing with whatever vigour left to them strategies of ‘normalization’. Oliver was among the first to demand a gestalt shift. His ‘social model of disability’ stressed who was doing the labeling and why, not the miseries and challenges of being labeled. The notion of oppression was key.      

There was some affinity between second-wave feminism and Oliver’s rewriting of disability via a social model that was part and parcel of a critique of capitalism. Moreover his model was community midwife to a reinvigorated ‘disability politics’. The model soon came under attack, however, not least by fellow disability theorists and activists. If there is a singular way of characterizing this assault, then it might be through the catch-all notion of ‘identity politics’. Self-identity, it was maintained, is at the heart of any worthwhile cultural change and effective disability politics. Barnes and Mercer pick up this theme: 

‘however, while disabled activists were promoting a group identity culture and politics, they found themselves increasingly challenged by the transition to an identity politics that became a ‘celebration of difference’ … Now the emphasis on a disabled identity was criticized for being in conflict with a truly emancipatory politics. Indeed, no limits were placed on the amount of difference or the distinct collectivities that might emerge, in terms of age, gender, ‘race’ and sexuality, for example, to undercut the claims of a common, disabled group identity. 

Disabled identities, in short, were uncertain, fluid and liquid rather than solid.  

These paragraphs on postcolonial and disability theory only give a flavour of innovative and committed endeavour and activism. Each offers an overdue challenge to sociologists reluctant to reflect on premises taken-for-granted. I have owned up to my own sins of omission and commission in relation to the sociological study of, and publications on, long term or chronic illness and disability in the 1980s. It is not that all prior research is defunct (its studies continue to provide grist to sociology’s mill), but rather that its limitations and lack of reflexivity and bite have been starkly exposed. Worse, it has been solicitous to or accommodated: (a) enduring social hierarchies of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, disease, disability and so on, and (b) their accompanying mindsets or ‘isms’.  

The question for me is whether or not sociology can adapt to these critiques and reconnect. I can understand those who think not. Bhambra has argued that so deep-seated are orthodox sociology’s extant premises that the only viable option – and here she draws eloquently on postcolonial and decolonial theories – is not for one but (the title of her book) for ‘connected sociologies’. This is not my preference. While I am largely accepting of the critiques of those conventional sociological epistemologies and practices targeted by feminist, postcolonial and disability theorists, I would want to argue – and I have in my forthcoming ‘Sociology, Health and the Fractured Society’ – for reconnection and a unified sociology allied to Habermas’ reconstructed ‘project of modernity’.       


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