Decolonizing Epistemologies: Part 2

Race Critical and Decolonial Sociology

This blog post is republished with the permission of the author, Alana Lentin, from her blog, This discussion is a continuation of the discussion begun in the last post, Decolonizing Epistemologies: part 1.

Decolonial approach

The decolonial approach to the discussion of the relationship between modernity and coloniality and how this continues to impact upon global power relations represents an advance in thinking about the condition of coloniality in a way which may avoid some of the problems set out by Dirlik. It goes towards engaging deeply with the theme of interrelatedness which Bhambra suggests is fundamental for de-privileging western historicism and (re)writing more inclusive histories.

Decolonial thinking originates mainly with Latin American scholars such as Ramon Grosfoguel, Walter Mignolo, Enrique Dussel, Arturo Escobar, and Gloria Anzaldua. Decolonizing approaches are useful because they focus not only on theoretical deconstructions of the colonial structures which many critics argue continue to shape relationships between states and peoples across the globe, but also on the proposition of alternatives to them, sometimes through an appeal to the precolonial.

Scholars looking at the links between modernity and coloniality work with critical theories of modernity and postmodernity, South asian subaltern studies, Chicana feminist theory, postcolonial theory, and African philosophy. According to Arturo Escobar, the genealogy of the modernity/coloniality research programme associated with decolonial thinking can be traced back through liberation theology of the 1960s and 70s, debates in Latin American social science about liberation theology and autonomous social science, dependency theory, debates on hybridity in anthropology, and communications and cultural studies of the 1990s.

Understanding the relationship between modernity and coloniality is crucial if we are to go towards decolonizing knowledge and the resultant power structures.

According to Walter Mignolo,

‘the rhetoric of modernity is that of salvation, whereas the logic of coloniality is a logic of imperial oppression. They go hand in hand, and you cannot have modernity without coloniality; the unfinished project of modernity carries over its shoulders the unfinished project of coloniality.’

The reason for this interrelationship is in the fact that naturalized beliefs about the world order are imperial-colonial, and continue to be so. The beliefs about the inherent differences between the West and the majority of the world, established by the discourse of modernity, which were mobilized both by Christianity and by capitalism, have shaped hegemonic understandings of the world for the last 500 years. These need to be debunked by an epistemic decolonial shift.

Therefore, unlike postcolonialism, decolonial thinkers like Mignolo are not calling for an analysis in terms of ‘neo’, ‘post’ or deconstructive — colonialism which he says are ‘all changes within the same modern colonial epistemology’. Rather the Decolonial entails a delinking from the rules of the game, a decolonizing of the mind (I call this unlearning).

This process of delinking doesn’t mean attempting to exist outside of modernity or indeed Christian, liberal, capitalist or marxist hegemony. Rather, the aim is to reject the naturalizing assumptions made by these four macro-narratives (in this sense, the aim is similar to postcolonialism’s repudiation of master narratives).

As Mignolo puts it bluntly, the aim of decolonial thought is to show that the majority of people (who are oppressed and racialized) in the world do not think in terms of, and neither do they care, about things like human rights which are based on an imperial view of humanity. Instead, we should privilege human dignity which is based on a decolonial view of humanity, but which is constantly denied by the rhetoric of modernity in which basic dignity takes second place to progress and the participation in formal structures and institutions such as citizenship, the rule of law, etc.

So, the challenge for the Decolonial is to be committed to a decolonizing of knowledge. If we decolonize knowledge we cannot continue to privilege western modernization because we would have to privilege the work of historical and contemporary thinkers from the Global South instead.

Ramon Grosfoguel points out that doing this does not mean becoming inward looking, anti-European or fundamentalist. On the contrary, a Decolonial approach would be based in a truly universal outlook which looks, as Bhambra says, at how ideas are always arrived at from a variety of sources — there is no one truth out there, but many truths.

At its very core, the decolonial approach challenges us to look at the world from the perspective of a poor Latin American woman, a process which would reveal the organization of power globally in terms of what Anibal Quijano calls the ‘colonial power matrix’.

The modernity/coloniality research program

Arturo Escobar in his discussion of the modernity/coloniality research program which has given rise to decolonial thought sets out the five main points around which the linking of modernity and coloniality are based.

These are:

  1. An emphasis on the conquest of the Americas as the starting point of modernity, rather than the Enlightenment or the end of the 18th century as is more commonly accepted. Doing this would immediately reveal the relationship between the advent of modernity and colonial domination and uncover the dependence of the western project of modernity upon European domination over the majority world. One is unthinkable without the other. Therefore, modernity should be decentred from its alleged linear progression from Greece to Rome, through Christianity and modern Europe. Instead, a new spatial and temporal conception of modernity should consider the role of Spain and Portugal in the conquest of the Americas as fundamental. Dussel calls this the first modernity which he contrasts to the second modernity which occurred in Northern Europe with the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment.
  2. Colonialism needs to be seen as fundamental to the making of the capitalist world system and therefore as constitutive of modernity. This is encapsulated by Anibal Quijano’s concept of the ‘coloniality of power’, which he sees as a hegemonic model of power in place since the Conquest of the Americas. Under ‘coloniality of power’, race and labour, space and peoples are articulated according to the needs of capital and to the benefit of white European people. So, colonialism is not about the inclusion of non-Europeans in processes of modernization. Rather, it is about their exploitation for the demands of capital and the benefit of people construed as superior all under the guise of progress and civilization. ‘Coloniality of power’ means the persistence of colonial logics after the end of colonialism. So, the lingering colonial mentality on a world scale explains why global capital is based upon the exploitation of poor workers in the Global South who are still considered racially/ethnically inferior to those in the richer North. This also explains the exploitation of migrant workers in the West/North. This also happens at the level of states, with nations that are considered peripheral (e.g. non powerful/western) being forced to live under a regime imposed on them by the IMF, World Bank, etc. For Grosfogeul, “Peripheral zones remain in a colonial situation even though they are no longer under colonial administration.”
  3. As a result of seeing colonialism as constitutive of modernity, it is necessary to see modernity as a world-wide process rather than an intra-European phenomenon which is then rolled out across the rest of the world. Enrique Dussel proposes the notion of trans-modernity as a way of encapsulating this. Most critiques of modernity (including postcolonialism if we accept Dirlik’s critique) are in fact euro-centred critiques of eurocentrism. In other words, they accept the terms of reference established by European conceptualizations of modernity (such as Marxism). What needs to happen in contrast is for colonial difference to be brought to the fore by privileging the relationship between modernity and coloniality. Transmodernity refuses the idea that critical discourse is uniquely European (something often heard in contemporary discussions of Islam in the West, for example). The aim is to give voice to the negated Other by what Dussel calls ‘the negation of the negation’ — that is unveiling the subjugation to which subalterns have been subjected to and listening to the silenced counter-discourses of the oppressed. This is similar to what is proposed by the subaltern historians who uncovered the unauthorized and silenced histories of peasants and other subaltern people in the Indian subcontinent. So, for example, Escobar talks about giving value to some of the landmark experiences of decolonization in the teaching of history including the Tupac Amaru rebellion, the Haitian revolution or the more recent anticolonial movements. Instead, what we are seeing is a revaluing of hegemonic colonial history through the institutionalization of revisionist historians such as Niall Ferguson and Linda Collier in the UK or the passing of a law in France in 2003 (later repealed) requiring teachers to teach about the important contributions and sacrifice of the French in North Africa! In today’s time, it would be listening to the accounts of poor people of their lives and allowing them to conceptualize their lives in terms of their own experience and being led by them, rather than vice versa. According to Dussel, transmodernity cannot be brought about from within modernity — or from within a logic that privileges modernity. Rather, in that it is what Escobar calls ‘the expression of an ethics of liberation’. It needs to be brought about through the action of sub-alternized groups (examples include the Zapatistas, the landless people of Brazil, or the Indian tribal people currently fighting the government in the forests of India).
  4. It is fundamental to see the domination of non-Europeans as integral to modernity. This process of domination also led to the silencing of other knowledges and cultures which are then expressed as a lack in comparison to European knowledge and culture. Mignolo’s project of colonial difference and global coloniality insists on attending to the knowledge buried by the process of colonial domination.
  5. Eurocentrism has to be seen as the knowledge form of modernity/coloniality. This again is also fundamental to the postcolonial critique and involves unveiling the way in which particularized European knowledge constitutes itself as universal to the exclusion and repudiation of other knowledges.

Impacts on the academy

Decoloniality also aims to have an impact on the academy. The aim of the modernity/coloniality research group has also been to decolonize the humanities (if not the university). To a limited extent within Latin America, the proliferation of ideas from liberation theology to autonomous social science through the work of pioneers such as Dussel, going back to the 1970s has had an impact in this direction. But there is clearly far to go.

Walter Mignolo, in particular, has been concerned with the advancing of border epistemologies as ways of ‘putting the humanities at the service of decolonial projects’. Border thinking would entail moving beyond the categories imposed by Western epistemology.

But, as discussed by Boaventura de Sousa Santos, doing so is made difficult by the embedding of what he calls ‘abyssal thinking’. He says that abyssal thinking forms the basis of modern wester thinking. It involves the creation of a system of visible and invisible distinctions where the invisible ones form the foundation of the visible ones. The invisible distinctions divide social reality into two realms, one realm existing ‘on this side of the line’, and the other ‘on the other side of the line’. This ‘other side’ disappears from analyses because it is constituted as nonexistent, or as irrelevant or incomprehensible.

To make this concrete, de Sousa Santos sees modern knowledge and modern law as the two sites of abyssal thinking. Both construct what is true and what is false, what is right and what is wrong. Lay, plebian, peasant or indigenous philosophies or world views are made invisible by the visibility of modern knowledge and law. They are put on the other side of the abyssal line.

Western modernity is formally seen as the abandonment of the state of nature. But, according to de Sousa Santos, the state of nature and modern civil society coexist, but the state of nature is put on the other side of the invisible abyssal line. In the context of western modernity, the state of nature is the colonized territories. By putting it outside of modernity, by declaring it the state of nature, and hence overcome, western modern thinking renders the colonized — and thus indigenous knowledge — nonexistent.

This problem confronts the project of building new decolonial epistemologies. 

Border thinking

Being committed to a decolonization of knowledge, and hence of social realities, requires an engagement with border thinking, according to Walter Mignolo.

Critical Border thinking, a concept often attributed to Chicana poet and feminist Gloria Anzaldua, is based on the understanding that European culture and thought has been imposed upon the whole world not only through colonialism in the past but through the persistence of western models of ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’, etc.

Even decolonised nation-states accept a western ethos by reproducing the nation — which is a European invention — upon populations that did not necessarily want to live within these artificially created territorial units.

Critical border thinking rejects both Eurocentrism and the fundamentalist retreat into anti-western third world identities.

Therefore, things like citizenship, democracy, human rights, humanity and economic relations are disconnected from their presumed origin in westerns institutions/ideologies, and redefined to make sense in non-western contexts.

Grosfoguel gives the examples of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico. The Zapatistas are not anti-modern. They accept democracy but redefine it for a local indigenous standpoint.

The Zapatistas use slogans such as ‘commanding while obeying’ to convey how democracy should be both led by people themselves as well as in respect for elected leaders.

Fundamentally, Gloria Anzaldua and Maria Lugones, for example, also introduce a particular focus on gender as a further power divide. It is not enough to understand global inequalities as dividing lines between the rich North and the poor South. But, gender divides also reproduce these inequalities within and across all societies.

Part of the decolonizing project is to decolonize these uneven power relations between men and women.

Border thinking, then, challenges us to go beyond simple divisions into north and south, rich and poor, us and them, citizen and foreigner, men and woman, straight and queer, etc. The challenge — like for an interconnected understanding of globalization — is how we contain all of these elements in ourselves and, using them, overcome (at least in theory) the resultant inequality.


Bhambra, Gurminder K. (2007) ‘Multiple Modernities or Global Interconnections: Understanding the global post the colonial’, in N. Karagiannis and P. Wagner (eds.), Varieties of World-Making: Beyond Globalization. Liverpool UP.

Bhambra , Gurminder K and Boaventura de Sousa Santos. 2017. ‘Introduction: Global Challenges for Sociology’, Sociology. Online First 3 Jan 2017.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2000) Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference Princeton University Press Introduction and Chapter One (pp. 3-47).

Grosfoguel, Ramon. 2013. ‘The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century’, Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, XI, Issue 1, Fall 2013, 73-90.

Mignolo, Walter D (2006) ‘Citizenship, Knowledge, and the Limits of Humanity’. American Literary History (Cary, NC; Oxford) (18:2): 312-321.

Verges, Francoise (2004) ‘Postcolonial Challenges’, in Nicholas Gane (ed.) The Future of Social Theory. Continuum. Buck-Morss, Susan ‘Hegel and Haiti,’ Critical Inquiry 26(4): 821-865.

Fanon, Frantz (1963) ‘Concerning Violence’, Chapter 1 of The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakrabarty (1988) ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture University of Illinois Press, Chicago

Bhabha, Homi K. (1994) The Location of Culture Routledge, London.

Dirlik, Arif (1994) ‘The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism’ Critical Inquiry Vol. 20, Winter pp. 328-35

Said, Edward W. (1993) Culture and Imperialism Chatto and Windus, L


Alana Lentin

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