On Max Weber and Ethnicity in Times of Intellectual Decolonization
Elke Winter, University of Ottawa
The past few years have seen a rise in attempts to decolonize curricu-la, pedagogies, classrooms and knowledge production. Most importantly, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in May 2020 and in the wake of the subsequent season of protests against anti-black racism — not just in the United States — universities are seeking to affirm their commitments to racial justice at all levels. Administrators are drawing up institutional plans to address structural racism, and faculty are reorienting their courses to greater emphasize diversity and inclusion.
While this overdue reckoning is a desperately needed initiative to address longstanding inequities and injustices, it is also flanked by an ever-increasing polarization. On the one hand, proponents of intellectual decolonization wish to undo the legacies of imperialism and colonialism in universities of the Global North, to overcome the silencing of minority voices, and to dismantle “global Apartheid” and minority exclusion in higher education (Mbembe 2016, 38). On the other hand, skeptics of intellectual decolonization emphasize the values of academic freedom and free speech, they feel that academic excellence is undermined by affirmative action, and argue that critical perspectives of the new liberal mainstream at universities are unfairly labelled “racist”. It is within this climate of increasing polarization that I received an invitation to write a paper on Max Weber and ethnicity.
While grateful for the invitation, the task at hand also gave me a headache: how and what could I possibly write about Max Weber and ethnicity past the aforementioned events of 2020? Was it not time to stop teaching the so-called founding fathers of sociology since most of them were white, bourgeois men (although some of Jewish origin)? If there was still something that Weberian sociology could teach us about ethnic and racial strife, what would that be? What kind of reading would it require? And how should we teach this kind of “white” sociology in increasingly diverse classrooms? This paper is a modest attempt to offer some preliminary answers to these questions which, arguably, require a much wider and deeper reflection than what can be achieved here. In keeping with the original request to write about Max Weber and ethnicity, the paper offers a six-step argument for reading and teaching Max Weber — among other scholarly writings — even in times of intellectual decolonization.
First, examining Weber’s confrontation with early biological, race-based reasoning, I highlight two of his contributions to sociology that, I believe, are still valid and desperately needed in today’s world: (1) his calls for scientific rigour and the prevalence of social causality over biological, culturalist or other essentialist interpretations (2) without the denial that racism is indeed embedded in the core institutions of modern societies. The next section traces (3) how Weber situates the construction of ethnic groups within a general theory of social relations tied to migration, conquest, and colonization. (4) His analysis reveals how dominant and subordinate “ethnic” identities are constituted in and informed by unequal power relations. Finally, I argue that Weber’s epistemology allows us to conceive of human knowledge as a multiculturally constituted mosaic. On the one hand, (5) this requires a plurality of perspectives to be generated, debated, and included into the curriculum, most notably those of minority groups, such as women, Indigenous Peoples, and people of colour who tend to be sidelined in the wider society. On the other hand, (6) Weber’s call for a strict separation of science and politics prohibits political activism in the lecture hall or classroom.
Precisely because our classrooms are more and more diverse in terms of ethnic, “racial,” and religious backgrounds, as well as gender, sexual orientation, and class positioning, it is the professors’ duty to be a mentor to all their students. While this may curtail minority activism in the classroom, it places an even bigger demand for self-awareness and restraint upon members of dominant groups.
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