- The Theft of History
In recent decades, social scientists have come to think more critically about the way we produce representations of the “Orient” and “Occident” and about the constructed nature of these categories themselves. Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), of course, has done much to further this critical awareness. Jack Goody’s The Theft of History contributes to this effort by calling attention to the Eurocentrism inherent in past and present social science scholarship. Drawing upon an impressive range of sources in English, French, and other languages, Goody argues, “Europe has stolen the history of the East by imposing its own versions of time (largely Christian) and of space on the rest of the Eurasian world” (p. 286).
Goody is critical of teleological history that presupposes progress in terms of a unique trajectory from feudalism to capitalism. European scholars, he says, have taken Europe to be “set on a self-sufficient, self-made course in Antiquity which led inevitably through feudalism, to colonial and commercial expansion, and then to industrial capitalism” (p. 293). Yet, Goody notes in an insightful statement, “what we define as progress is reflective of values which are very specific to our own culture, and which are of relatively recent date” (p. 24). He suggests we abandon such teleological histories and focus instead on “roughly parallel developments” in the East and the West (p. 296).
Goody devotes particular attention to the works of three scholars: China specialist Joseph Needham, sociologist Norbert Elias, and historian Fernand Braudel. Each privileges the West in his historical narrative and therefore “distorts rather than illuminates world history” (p. 125). Needham, for example, uncritically linked Protestantism to the emergence of a literate labor force, the industrial revolution, and “modern science,” each following upon the other in a causal sequence. Needham claimed that despite China’s early advances, “modern science” emerged as a unique development first in the West. Elias’s account of “the civilizing process” is also Eurocentric, says Goody, because it takes Europe and its values as civilization’s standard and “does not even begin to consider that a similar process occurred in other cultural areas” (p. 166). As an example, Goody points to Heian period (794–1180) Japan and its “delicacy of feeling and the arts of peace” (p. 166). Braudel, in his desire to reserve “true capitalism” for Europe alone, “deviates from ‘objectivity’” and “privileges the West to an overwhelming degree” (p. 180). His historical account is ultimately grounded in an opposition that posits Europe as dynamic and Asia as static. (Goody reminds us [End Page 440] that Asia was not static.) Braudel sees capitalist development in many parts of the world but, says Goody of Braudel, “there was always something special about Europe that produces ‘true capitalism’” (p. 203). From his critique of the status of “modern science,” “civilization,” and “true capitalism,” Goody moves to a study of towns, education and the university, freedom, democracy, individualism, and even love to question the way certain institutions, values, and emotions are too often upheld as European inventions.
In all of the above cases, Goody sees a Eurocentrism or “Occidentalism” whereby Western categories and temporal trajectories are imposed on the non-West, all with the effect of securing a superior position and uniqueness for Europe. But the historical record, Goody reminds us, is more complex; Western categories distort the histories of the non-West while values and institutions like freedom and democracy (in some form), according to Goody, can be found over a broad “range of human societies.” To overcome this Eurocentrism, Goody suggests these categories and teleologies be set aside. He calls for a broad comparative approach—a “sociological grid laying out the possible variations of what is being compared” (p. 304)—to supplement the narrow, noncomparative, “post-modern” research focused on a single time and place.
The problem of Eurocentrism in the social sciences is real and Goody’s critique, based upon impressive research, is both lucid and warranted. But how are we to critique this Eurocentrism without reproducing it? Goody’s suggestion is to...