The problem with decolonising the social sciences

19 January 2021 | Story Stephen Langtry. Photo Roger Sedres. Read time 5 min.
UCT’s Dr Lwazi Lushaba delivered a thought-provoking Summer School lecture on the decolonisation of the social sciences.
UCT’s Dr Lwazi Lushaba delivered a thought-provoking Summer School lecture on the decolonisation of the social sciences.

The current discourse on the colonial character of knowledge in South Africa places emphasis on the colonial period, suggesting that the problem of social scientific thought was its overt support of, or open alliance with, the colonial project. Dr Lwazi Lushaba, a lecturer in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT), challenged this notion during a thought-provoking Summer School lecture.

During his double lecture, “Decolonising the social sciences”, Dr Lushaba dug deeply into the history of the social sciences to begin answering questions raised since South African students and a small number of progressive academics began a campaign in 2015 to decolonise the curriculum at universities.

He argued that the set of disciplines that constitute the social sciences are intricately woven together and traced their origins to the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. As a result of this common intellectual genealogy, he claimed that it is not possible to decolonise the disciplines individually. Rather, the social sciences as a whole need to be decolonised.

Archie Mafeje

Lushaba drew on the work of Archie Mafeje, who wrote a paper in 1976 titled “The problem of anthropology in historical perspective: An inquiry into the growth of the social sciences”.

In his paper, Mafeje criticised fellow social scientists who insisted on thinking about the individual disciplines in the social sciences as opposed to the social sciences as a whole. He argued that anthropology was under attack because of its close association with colonialism, but this problem could not be attended to by merely stripping it of its colonial tendencies. Rather, what was required was that anthropology be returned to its Enlightenment thought.

Lushaba identified the common moment of social science birth as post-Enlightenment Europe. The social sciences, as a group of cognate disciplines, share a common set of methods, theories and generalisations. The individual disciplines did not always exist in their current forms – they originated from a root moment, and the problem, therefore, is the genesis moment and not the individual social science disciplines.

One cannot, therefore, decolonise one discipline in the social sciences in isolation from the social sciences as a whole, he said.

A perilous career

The social sciences were organised to fit into an existing university structure in order to administer knowledge production. According to Lushaba, the university is nothing but a regulated and administered universe of knowledge production.

As a set of disciplines, the social sciences have accepted the university’s rules. He then asked the question: “How genuine is someone who speaks about decolonisation if they have accepted the rules?” He argued that decolonisation of the social sciences (and the university) cannot be a career because it cannot lead to institutional affirmation. In fact, he said, “If it has to be a career, it can only be a perilous [one] that cannot end well.”


“Black people have to cease to be available as objects for study by white scholars.”

Inasmuch as these problems exist at a universal level, the problem of decolonising the social sciences has a specific character in South Africa. Lushaba identified seven historical moments which formed South African social scientific thought. The first six each had their own distinct body of knowledge and definitive texts: (1) 1652–1750, (2) 1751–1850, (3) 1851–1900, (4) Early 1900s, (5) 1910–1940s and (6) 1960–1994.

These moments all held in common a white consciousness which excluded black South Africans, who were only included as objects of study. Lushaba chose not to address the post-1994 era in his lecture, instead leaving it open to the audience to characterise.

In the post-lecture discussion, Lushaba emphasised that black people have to cease to be available as objects for study by white scholars. He suggested that a deficit of the liberation project in South Africa was government’s failure to recognise the importance of the levers of knowledge production and argued that the democratic government had to invest in the creation of its own intellectuals.

In the absence of this, knowledge will remain unevenly distributed in society.

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