Sociology for Survival: a view from the Global South

If humanity is to survive, the future will be organized along eco-feminist-socialist lines. In this future, an altered relationship between society and nature will be a central characteristic.

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Photo: Climate March in Durban, Oxfam, CC BY-NC-DC 2.0

Re-visioning ‘Nature’

My starting point is that we are part of nature in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. However ‘nature’, as Raymond Williams has suggested, is “perhaps the most complex word in the (English) language”. Its meanings are always unstable and contested. It is variously understood as “natural capital”(as in the extreme version of the green economy) or as a repository of rights, as in the indigenous Andean perspective in which nature is valued for itself, or as simply a store of resources. But a consensus is emerging that the nature –society relation is in crisis: that we have reached the limit of using nature as a sink for our waste products and simply as a source of raw materials for economic activity. Pollution, particularly in the form of carbon emissions are rising(61% since 1990) which means climate change is intensifying and having devastating impacts – particularly on the working class – in the form of rising food prices, water shortages, crop failures and so on. The Global South(particularly Africa) is badly affected through increasing coal production and consumption.

At the same time the understanding is spreading of the climate crisis as “arising from and perpetuated by the rule of capital, and hence incapable of resolution within a capitalist framework”. As Michael Burawoy has warned “it is the expansionist logic of capitalism which is moving us towards ecological catastrophe”. However, in this understanding the climate crisis could be a ’historic opportunity’, a turning point, a catalysing force for fundamental change to reclaim the commons and build an eco-feminist socialist future.

This requires a revisioning of the nature – society relationship, a revisioning grounded in recognition of an ecological interdependence, an implicit view of people as embedded in complex social and ecological relations instead of disembodied rational economic actors. What requires recognition (rephrasing what Neil Smith has said of the human- nature relation) is that nature and society are not separate entitites, but are welded together in a (dialectical and differentiated) relational unity.

Making this interdepence apparant involves accepting Burawoy’s challenge to Public Sociology “to make visible the invisible”. The importance of doing this is grounded in what David Harvey has termed the most important of the contradictions inherent in modern capitalism: the way surface appearances disguise underlying realities. We have to get behind the surface appearances if we are to act coherently in the world.

Making Visible

There are a number of difficulties in doing this “unmasking’. Much damage to nature such as climate change or toxic pollution takes place gradually and invisibly, a process Rob Nixon captures in his concept of ‘slow violence’ ; it “extends over time, is insidious, instrumental, accretive and relatively invisible.”

This damage, which is hidden from both sensory perception and social awareness, has to pass through a process of social recognition, and a number of factors make this recognition difficult. As Ulrich Beck points out environmental risks are ubiquitous in urban– industrial society. Pollutants are “the stowaways of normal consumption. They travel on the wind and in the water. They can be in anything and everything…”. In addition, there is a political invisibility in that the interests and power relations involved in much damage to nature is obscure and hidden. Finally the people who suffer most are the poor and the powerless who lack political voice. Much of the protest of the marginalized in the Global South is about a denial of access to clean air, water and land– all aspects of how the crises of nature and society are connected.

The Sociology of the South

Public sociology is a form of both intellectual and political engagement. In the weak version public sociology is defined by a scholarly engagement with contemporary public issues. The strong version of ‘organic public sociology’ involves the sociologist working in close connection with a ‘visible, thick, active and often counter-public’(Burawoy). It also involves linking C. Wright Mill’s ‘naïve’ notion of the ‘sociological imagination’ to a political imagination. Burawoy finds Mills naïve because “he seemed to think that knowledge immaculately produces its own power effects….(but) the sociological imagination is no guarantee of social transformation, the turning of personal troubles into public issues, as Mills implies. It requires in addition a political imagination, forged through collective and collaborative practices with groups, organisations and movements beyond the academy”. For Burawoy this dialectic of political and sociological imagination is the defining mark of Sociology of the South.

At the core is the conceptualization of alternative futures. In the South an alternative vision of the future is emerging which links feminism, environmental justice and socialism. A democratic eco-feminist-socialism implies that the socialist emphasis on collective ownership and democratic control of productive resources must be connected to several other imperatives: gender justice, participatory democracy and a new narrative of the relation between nature and society. A feminist response to the ecological crisis involves recognising the specificity of gendered experience; it means women acting in solidarity to challenge corporate and patriarchal power “as part of the larger struggle to eradicate domination in all its forms”.

The foundational concepts of food sovereignty, energy democracy and environmental justice are other building blocks for eco-socialism. The localization of food production in the shift from carbon-intensive industrial agriculture to agro-ecology as part of food sovereignty could promote not only co-operatives and more communal living, but also a more direct sense of connection to nature. The mass roll out of renewable energy in the name of energy democracy could mean decentralized, socially owned energy with much greater potential for democratic control. The discourse of environmental justice could be powerful in linking scattered grassroots struggles. As Harvey writes, it is in these “struggles of the everyday that contain the possibility of revolutionary energy”.

While any blueprint of a post-capitalist society has to come ‘from below’, a democratic, eco-feminist socialism points to several core values which are deeply embedded in these political traditions. They include:

  • transformed relations with nature
  • new and different relations between men and women
  • a commitment to participatory democracy
  • the social ownership and democratic control of productive resources
  • a commitment to collective action, mutual responsibility and solidarity
  • linking the core principles of social justice, equity, heath, human rights, democratic participation, accountability and ecological sustainability
  • reclaiming the ‘commons’ meaning that education, health and the provision of basic services such as access to water should be regarded as public goods
  • rethinking economic growth and development
  • a confidence in human beings – in the capacity of both men and women to reason, to share, to learn from mistakes, to co-operate, to care for each other and – most importantly­- a confidence in our capacity to work together to create a more just and equal world

So the question I would like to end with for the ‘carbon criminals’ gathering in Vienna 2016 is; what is the role of the sociologist in a time of ecological collapse, a collapse that is moving us all towards ecological catastrophe?


Jacklyn Cock is a professor emeritus at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and an honorary research professor in the Society, Work and Development Institute (Swop). She has published widely on gender, militarization and environmental issues and regards herself as an ‘academic -activist’.

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