On Positivism, Functionalism and Alterity: A Critique of the Social Sciences

Get Complete Project Material File(s) Now! »

Chapter Four On Positivism, Functionalism and Alterity: A Critique of the Social Sciences

…when I went to Langa to do fieldwork in 1961, I was armed with an essentially ahistoricist and overly functionalist question: Why and how do social groups cohere or split? Historically, it is necessary not to accuse me of inanity but simply to acknowledge the fact that I should have known that ebbs and flows are the very movements of which the dialectic of history is made, and, as such, are permanent features of collective existence. – Mafeje 1975: 167


The previous chapter dealt with Mafeje’s early writings with the intention not only to show how his ideas gradually evolved and changed as he grew as a scholar, but also to demonstrate his thematic critique of anthropological categories. The present chapter builds from the preceding one and concerns itself with Mafeje’s more deep-going and programmatic critique of the social sciences. Those who are enthusiastic about polemic, or otherwise polemically enthusiastic, tend incorrectly to reduce Mafeje’s critique of the social sciences to a polemic on anthropology singly (Hendricks 2007a, 2007b, 2008, 2012). That is what one will call the standard view or the conventional view. The standard view or conventional view is that he single-handedly ‘demolished’ ‘anthropology as a discipline’ or that he ‘single-handedly destroyed the science of anthropology’ (Mngxitama 2007, 2010). Such a standard view or conventional view of Mafeje’s work is misleading in at least three respects. Firstly, it is true that for over at least two decades, the discipline of anthropology went through a Kuhnian ‘revolutionary crisis’. But to say that it was destroyed or demolished simply is not true, not least because anthropology is still a thriving discipline. If anthropology was indeed ‘demolished’, Mafeje (2001a), Magubane (2000, 2007) and Nyamnjoh (2012a, 2012b, 2013, 2015) would not as late as the twenty-first century feel the need to critique a discipline that was demolished. Secondly, the idea that Mafeje ‘single-handedly’ took down anthropology is factually and historically incorrect. There were a number of other radical social scientists who critiqued anthropology (see Ahmed 1973; Asad 1973; Banaji 1970; Depelchin 1983; Faris 1973; Gough 1968a, 1968b; Goddard 1979; Magubane 1968, 1969, 1971, 1973, 2000, 2007; Magubane and Faris 1985; Moore 1971; Stauder 1974; Vilakazi 1973, 1989). Thirdly, to suggest that he offered a critique of anthropology singly and not all of the social sciences, far from being an appreciation of Mafeje, is tantamount to saying he was a reformist as opposed to a radical or revolutionary scholar. Mafeje understood very clearly, where other radical social scientists did not, that all of the social sciences were Eurocentric and imperialist. Thus, the focus on anthropology to the exclusion of other disciplines is to make reforms as against adopting a thoroughgoing and radical critique for the emergence of what he called ‘non-disciplinarity’ (see Mafeje 1976a; 1996). The object of this chapter is not only to show that the excessive focus on Mafeje’s critique of anthropology is a partial reading of his oeuvre, but also to make apparent how his critique was directed at all of the social sciences and not limited to the discipline of anthropology.

Sociology of Knowledge and the ‘Totalising Critique’ of Social Change

Mafeje’s essay, ‘Religion, Class and Ideology in South Africa’ (1975), from which the above epigraph is extracted, constitutes not only a brilliant critique of social change but it is a pioneering work in the sociology of knowledge. It marks, together with Mafeje’s earlier essay, ‘The Ideology of Tribalism’ (1971), a significant departure from standard anthropological and sociological writings on Africa. The former essay, moreover, constitutes or amounts to an auto-critique of Mafeje’s earlier work, the co-authored book, Langa. It is for this reason that this section uses the essay as a point of departure. In critiquing some of the themes pursued in the Langa study, Mafeje focuses in particular on those aspects which deal with religion. In setting the theoretical matrix, he singles out controversial questions in the epistemology of the sociology of religion. The question turns on whether or not it is possible to reconcile a belief in an ‘extra-societal source’ – the transcendental viewpoint – and a belief in a positivist conception of science. In other words, the conflict seems to be on whether or not belief systems are a reflection of concrete realities – experience – or an outcome of higher or divine intervention. This challenge compelled areligious theorists to make a distinction between sociologists of religion and religious sociologists. This, for Mafeje, gives force to the view or belief in the positivistic notion of ‘value-free’ or ‘non-partisan’ science. So that just as materialists are confronted with the problem of ‘consciousness’ and empirical history, positivistic idealists are confronted with the problem of ‘theodicy’ (Mafeje 1975). As a result of the functionalist approach, South African sociology of religion was confined to narrow studies of churches, ‘tribal’ rites etc. and their function in society. Yet, ‘the preoccupation with institutions has meant a narrowing of context to a point where some of the more general ramifications of belief systems and some nascent forms of commitment are made to appear as something apart’ (Mafeje 1975: 164–65). Therein lies the rub, because this was a refusal to contend with history and the wider socio-political context.
Mafeje argues that functionalist analyses of social phenomena or ‘functionalist organicism’, due to the tendency to study or focus on social institutions as if they were disconnected rather than focusing on society as a whole, have treated or interpreted ‘social change’ as if it only meant ‘a substitution of one set of institutions with another’ (Mafeje 1975: 165). At the descriptive level, this may well be valid, but substantively this serves as an ‘ideological mystification’ of underlying societal issues. Accordingly, ‘social change’, such as is understood by functionalist and positivist sociologists, did not necessarily connote the same thing as radical historical transformation which is called for by those who subscribe to the materialist conception of history. In critiquing social change, Mafeje appeals to the sociology of knowledge primarily and attempts to relate sociological phenomena to ‘its material substratum’ viz. class and ideology.
Writing in response to Magubane’s well-known essay, ‘A Critical Look at Indices Used in the Study of Social Change in Colonial Africa’ (1971), Mayer had this to say: ‘The considerable interest of Magubane’s paper seems to me to lie in its contribution to the sociology of knowledge rather than to the theory of change. The author’s own “existential” situation is therefore of some relevance, especially as such single-minded onslaught of “colonial anthropology” seems almost anachronistic in 1970. He is speaking out of personal experiences which have clearly affected his perspective…’ (Mayer 1971: 433). There is a lot riding on this quote not least because of its relevance for the present section of this chapter.
First, Mayer does not intend these words as a compliment to Magubane. If he so intended, the outcome is surely backhanded. Second, Mayer sets up a false-dichotomy between the sociology of knowledge and contribution to the study of social change. In the process, he disdainfully discards the relevance of one’s existential experiences in knowledge-making. In doing so, he confirms both Mafeje’s and Magubane’s respective critiques of the positivistic nature of social anthropology and sociology in Africa. Mayer writes as though social scientists write ‘neutrally’ and ‘objectively’ without being influenced by the sociological baggage of their socio-historical backgrounds. Relatedly, Mayer’s argument accords with the very issues critiqued by Lewis R. Gordon (1998; 2000) when he says that such treatment as black intellectuals get from their white counterparts, where it is not patronising, it is contemptuous to the point where the former are seen as providing ‘experience’ as opposed to contributing to knowledge or being knowledge-makers in their own right. Yet taking seriously one’s lived experiences is precisely what enabled both Mafeje and Magubane to see through the colonial and imperialist nature of the social sciences in Africa. Thirdly, the fact that Mayer is unable to see that anthropology in Africa was colonial, even in the 1970s, is precisely because of the failure to acknowledge the importance of one’s own socio-historical and biographical experiences. By contrast, however, and in taking seriously the sociology of knowledge, Mafeje was able to understand the ‘totality’ of South African history without getting entangled in idealistic arguments which characterised the works of liberal functionalist and positivist sociologists and anthropologists in South Africa. This is what he calls, elsewhere, a ‘totalising critique’ (Mafeje 1976a, 1991a).
This holistic historical approach is important for Mafeje because, ‘a sociology of knowledge that operates outside of particular historical contexts seems futile’ (Mafeje 1985a: 97). In acknowledging the importance of history and context, Mafeje parts ways with liberal idealists who only focus on minor ‘contradictions’ and ‘perversions’ of the South African society. It should be said that Mafeje was not alone in critiquing the notion of social change. Among those African scholars who mounted a scorching critique of social change may be mentioned Magubane, who has already been alluded to above. For Magubane, in refusing to take seriously the fact that colonialism is an ‘essential dimension’ of the present social structure, colonial anthropologists assumed that its general characteristics are already known, and therefore one could conduct studies without situating them in their historical context. What is essential in understanding social change, for Magubane, is ‘a total historical analysis’ (Magubane 1971: 419). In accounting for changes in African urban and rural settings, colonial anthropologists were wont to speak of ‘Europeanisation’, ‘Westernisation’ or ‘acculturation’. In doing so, they thought Africans were, rather than being disposed of their own being and knowledge-systems, aspiring to a western way of life. Colonial anthropologists played down the fact that the purported ‘acculturation’, such as they called it, hinged on three stages:
1. An initial period of contact between the invading whites and Africans: African resistance to white rule of formerly independent chiefdoms, and white use of physical force to overcome African resistance. 2. A period of ‘acquiescence’: some Africans, alienated from their traditional society, are impelled to acquire the techniques and social forms of the dominant group, as shown by adopting its religion, going to school, and assimilating value patterns and cultural traits functional in the new order. 3. A period of resistance in a new way: Africans develop a ‘national’ consciousness that transcends ‘tribal’ divisions and confront the colonial power with the demands of national liberation. (Magubane 1971: 419–420)
There is, of course, an overlap in these stages, but they must all be taken into account if one is to survey in a meaningful way social change in Africa. Thus, for Magubane, colonialism must at all times be the point of reference or the natural starting point. Social anthropologists and sociologists tended to ignore the fact that the different stages of change in Africa were accompanied by force and coercion. The focus tends to be on appearances and superficial issues which do not scratch beneath the surface. So that many of the conclusions reached are no more than impositions of dominant values on the Africans. The studies tend to take on micro units of analysis such as individual behaviour as opposed to society at large. A study of social change, therefore, required that one study not only the victims of oppression but the structure of domination itself and the methods used by the oppressor to maintain the oppressive structure.
As intimated in the previous chapter, anthropologists tended to over-emphasise or otherwise create a dichotomy between the rural and the urban communities. For Mafeje, there is a ‘dialectical link’ between the two settings (Mafeje 1975). Based on the fieldwork he conducted in Langa and the rural Transkei, for the Langa book and for his MA thesis respectively, he discovered that sociologically, town and country are not polar opposites. The ‘Christian atmosphere’ which permeates Langa township is to be found in the rural hinterland of All Saints (an Anglican mission station founded in 1859 in the Engcobo District) as well. The same can be said of cultural practices, subsistence farming etc. The migrant worker who lives in Langa is the same man who goes home to perform cultural rituals during holidays or goes home for subsistence farming either during holidays or when he retires. Further, the so-called ‘pagans’ of the Transkei are to be found in the barracks in Langa. Mafeje writes: ‘In South Africa after 1½-2 years I was able to interview in the Transkei – a rural area, the same men as I had interviewed in Cape Town. In Uganda before I had finished my 15-month survey some of the poorer farmers had disappeared to the city for employment or were commuting by bicycle’ (Mafeje 1978a: 43 fn1).
What becomes ‘a curious logic of colonial history’ is the fact that the ‘pagans’ or amaqaba who were once considered ‘conservative’ (insofar as they refused to give up their African ways of living) became latter day militants through the sheer force of their resistance to Christianity and the western way of life. In this regard, they found allies in the urban-based militant youth who rejected Christianity and racism by appealing to an ‘African God’. In fact, ‘… the youth in Langa are indifferent to and even disaffected from the church. They are ready to condemn Christianity as a diabolical scheme by the whites to enslave the black man and rob him of what legitimately belongs to him. They compare unfavourably the material well-being and greed of the whites with the misery, deprivation, exploitation and oppression of the blacks. Their feelings are genuine and they explode with anger and frustration’ (Mafeje 1975: 175). Mafeje says there may be a difference between the two groups at the level of ‘theoretical self-consciousness’, but there remain clear affinities. One example being that in the 1960s, the two groups were the only ones who ‘tried to fight white oppression bodily’ (Mafeje 1975: 178).
Admittedly, Mafeje argues:
The radical youth have not all the answers. But because they have rejected the status quo and have no wish or way of going back to the African past, they are destined to produce the necessary revolutionary paradigms, even for the unliberated African Christians. But, contrary to the expectations of the ‘primitive rebels’, who are their potential followers, the issue will be resolved neither in the church nor on Zion but in the wider society which the radicals have chosen as their terrain. (Mafeje 1975: 176– 177)
It should be emphasised at once, that through missionary stations, white oppression in rural areas was felt as much as any other part of South Africa. Thus the rural–urban thesis, much loved by anthropologists and sociologists of social change, was no more than a false-dichotomy. In the rural areas, as in the urban settings, there was to be found the same South African white supremacist ideology. In the church, the white liberal ideology reproduced itself through missionary work and education. Missionaries have, of course, been doing that ab initio. Mafeje is, however, too quick to find positive features in this colonial arrangement when he says: ‘While at first this represented a progressive force, by introducing the arts of writing and universalising metaphysical concepts in small pre-literate societies which relied on simple theoretical paradigms for explanation, later it became reactionary, precisely by failing to come to terms with the contradiction of its own emergence in peculiarly South African conditions’ (Mafeje 1975: 182, emphasis in original).
Here Mafeje unwittingly accepts the ‘civilising mission’ of the missionaries but fails to locate its logic in the wider sociological and historical context which informs it. The sheer enormity of pain and oppression which accompanied this ‘civilisation’ simply overshadows the supposed ‘progressive force’ about which Mafeje speaks. The colonial project, suitably interpreted, was about plundering, looting and subjugating others. Civilisation, if it must be so called, was a by-product not its driving force. Mafeje is here pandering to the social change theory of colonial social scientists. Once again, Magubane’s work is instructive in this regard. Magubane argues that because colonial social scientists were reluctant to criticise colonial governments, they chose to play it safe and never exposed the truth about colonial rule. They never touched on matters political but simply focused on innocuous issues. To the extent that they touched on colonialism, they saw it as a necessary stage in history and how its long-term effects benefitted African people (Magubane 1968). They ignored altogether the suffering, exploitation and degradation of Africans and their value systems. Thus the theory of social change, the term itself notwithstanding, could not account for social change in Africa. To the extent that it did, it did so in mechanistic and ethnocentric terms. When colonial social scientists saw change, they saw ‘tribesmen’ who were becoming like them, viz. Europeanised. They mistook appearance for reality. In this respect, they saw a fulfilment of white supremacist ideals – hence the notion that the African was being ‘civilised’ (Magubane 1968).
It should be said that notwithstanding Mafeje’s foregoing claim about the progressive nature of the liberal ideology, he nevertheless acknowledge that being ‘civilised’ did not necessarily mean automatic acceptance in white liberal middle-class cosmic view. In this regard, the liberal theory, which had always taken for granted its own supposed progressiveness, is put under the spotlight and its hypocrisy exposed. It is unable to transcend itself insofar as it treats black people as perpetual subordinates who are in need of tutelage. The liberals sought to produce ‘black “carbon-copies” of white Christian orthodoxy in South Africa’ (Mafeje 1975: 184). Mafeje posits that, from the point of view of the sociology of knowledge, the liberal may not be able to transcend his own ideological limitations. He reminds sociologists of knowledge that: ‘Weber, having recognised the partiality of the German middle-class ideology, came to the conclusion that, since it was the fate of all ideologies to be both “objective” and “subjective”, they could not be transcended. Therefore, the most that could be done was to endure them stoically. Thus, he paid the price of being radical without being revolutionary’ (Mafeje 1975: 184). In invoking the sociology of knowledge, much of what has been said in this section was an attempt to build a case against the supposed ‘value-free’ or non-partisan positivist belief generally and functionalism particularly. The section that follows attempts to characterise this problematic more fully.


On Positivism and Functionalism in Anthropology

The issues discussed above were not unique to the social sciences in South Africa. They were/are characteristic of the social sciences universally. Indeed, anthropologists and sociologists in other parts of the world had, by the 1960s, began to question the status of anthropology as a discipline and the categories which anthropologists used in understanding Africa and other ‘less-developed’ societies (see Asad 1973; Banaji 1970; Faris 1973; Gough 1968a, 1968b; Goddard 1979; Mafeje 1971; Magubane 1968, 1969, 1971; Moore 1971; Stauder 1974). In an excellent (albeit often overlooked) essay, ‘The Problem of Anthropology in Historical Perspective’, Mafeje surveys the diverse manner in which critics of anthropology in the North aired their views as regards the status of anthropology: in the American academy criticisms of anthropology were, he says, largely ‘ideological than theoretical’; in Britain, on the other hand, the discussion was less ideological so as to give it an air of respectability in the name of an ‘academic discussion’ (Mafeje 1976a).
The said discussions and revisions issued in what Mafeje calls ‘neo-positivist conceptions’ of the French anthropologists. Such neo-positivism is to be found in Levi-Straussian structuralism or in liberal relativism which was, Mafeje argues, couched in neo-Marxist jargon. According to Mafeje, this was an ideological tactic all of its own. Unlike in the US and the UK, in France there was a sharp divide between Marxist and non-Marxist anthropology. Though all these groups attempted to place on the table issues which plagued anthropology as a discipline, Mafeje nevertheless felt that the problematic they were grappling with was badly formulated from the start (Mafeje 1976a). Characteristically, the UK-based critics of anthropology lacked in their critiques what Mafeje calls a ‘totalising critique’ (see Brown 1973; James 1973; Kuper 1973). They sought to rehabilitate anthropology by offering or presenting the other, supposedly better, side of it. The ‘militantly critical anthropologists’, on the other hand, allowed their critiques to remain at the level of ideology and polemic (see Gough 1968a, 1968b; Moore 1971 etc.). The upshot were self-contradictory appellations such as ‘radical anthropology’ or ‘socialist anthropology’. Yet, as Mafeje eloquently argue: ‘It is as hard to fit socialist clothes on an imperialist off-spring as it is to transform positivism by radicalising it’ (Mafeje 1976a: 308).
In short, the two sides of the divide are best understood as reflective of a case of the ‘complicity of opposites’. They took different routes only to arrive at the same destination. The assumption they made was that there is a better side of anthropology which could be rescued. Magubane, who himself had been a critic of anthropology was not spared Mafeje’s criticism. Mafeje reminded Magubane of the importance of the sociology of knowledge in shaping one’s ideas. With regards to Magubane’s critique of colonial anthropologists, Mafeje wrote:
…a more than ad hoc (or ad hominem) premise was required to conduct a proper critique of their work, of which Magubane is, historically-speaking, both an affirmation and a negation. For an appreciation of the latter a deeper theoretical self-consciousness is required than was reflected in Magubane’s polemic. Nor is Magubane alone. In an unpublished article in 1971, while recognising the systematically selective nature of theory under determinate historical conditions, I also became ahistorical by suggesting that British anthropologists should have been something other than what they were. (Mafeje 1976a: 308–309).
Not only was Mafeje criticising Magubane, he was, over and above that, conducting an auto-critique. Here Mafeje gets to the crux of the matter. He argues that in singling out colonial anthropology as the problem, its critics became undialectical, and thus created an epistemological impasse, in that they identified in it functionalism and imperialism but failed to link that to the ‘metropolitan bourgeois social sciences which are equally functionalist and imperialist’ (Mafeje 1976a: 309, emphasis in original). They failed to advance the totalising critique about which Mafeje speaks. As far as Mafeje is concerned, the problem of anthropology is primarily theoretical (‘universal’) rather than ideological (‘colonial’). Merely to point out that anthropology was a handmaiden of colonialism was to present the argument in a partial and ideological way. That it was colonial could not have been its ‘single diagnostic attribute’. Epistemologically, its biggest crime was positivism and functionalism.

READ  The Learning-Focused Approach to Syllabus Construction

Table of Contents
Title Page
List of Acronyms
Part I: Background and Context
Chapter 1: Introduction
1.0 Background and Context
1.1 Importance and Scope of this Study
1.2 Literature on the Question of ‘Biography’
1.3 Statement of the Problem
1.4 Objectives of the Study
1.5 Research Questions
1.6 A Note on Method
1.7 Ethics Statement
1.8 Structure of the Thesis
1.9 Summary
Chapter 2: Archie Mafeje: His Intellectual and Political Environment
2.0 Introduction
2.1 Mafeje’s Background
2.2 From Cape Town to Cambridge
2.3 Life in Exile
2.4 Conclusion
Part II: A Critique of the Social Sciences
Chapter 3: From Liberal Functionalism to Radical Social Science
3.0 Introduction
3.1 Early Functionalist Writings
3.2 On the Concept of Tribe and the Ideology of Tribalism
3.3 On Ethnic Groups, Ethnic Divisions and Ethnicity
3.4 Conclusion
Chapter 4: On Positivism, Functionalism and Alterity: A Critique of the Social Sciences
4.0 Introduction
4.1 Sociology of Knowledge and the ‘Totalising Critique’ of Social Change
4.2 On Positivism and Functionalism in Anthropology
4.3 On Idiographic and Nomothetic Enquiry
4.4 On the Epistemological Break and the Lingering Problem of Alterity
4.5 Conclusion
Chapter 5: On Methodology and Epistemology: Reading The Theory and Ethnography
of African Social Formations
5.0 Introduction
5.1 The Problem and its Matrix: Conceptual Orientations
5.2 The Ethnography and Social Formations of the Interlacustrine
5.3 Modes of Political Organisation in the Interlacustrine Kingdoms
5.4 The Social and Economic Character of the Interlacustrine Kingdoms
5.5 Modes of Production in Africa Reconsidered
5.6 Deconstruction and Reconstruction
5.7 Conclusion
Part III: On Land and Agrarian Issues in sub-Saharan Africa
Chapter 6: The Agrarian Question and the Land Question in sub-Saharan African
6.0 Introduction
6.1 The Problem in its Intellectual Setting
6.2 The Evolution of Agrarian Revolution and the Land Question: The Case of Buganda .. 188
6.3 The Crisis in African Agriculture and its Causes
6.4 The Dynamics of African Land Tenure Systems
6.5 Government Responses to the Agrarian Question
6.6 Conclusion
Chapter 7: Small Producers, Food Production/Security and Poverty Eradication in sub- Saharan Africa
7.0 Introduction
7.1 Small Producers/Peasants in sub-Saharan Africa
7.2 The Agrarian Question, Food Production and Food Security Issues
7.3 Prospects for Agrarian Reform in sub-Saharan Africa
7.4 From Poverty Alleviation to Poverty Eradication
7.5 Conclusion
Part IV: On Revolutionary Theory and Politics
Chapter 8: Groundings: Intellectual Imperatives for the ‘Second Independence’
8.0 Introduction
8.1 Beyond Academic Freedom: Mafeje’s Struggle for ‘Authenticity’
8.2 The Responsibility of the African Intellectual
8.3 On the Question of Africanity
8.4 Prospects and Projections for the Indigenisation of Political and Intellectual Discourse 279
8.5 Conclusion
Chapter 9: On Revolutionary Theory and Politics: Part I
9.0 Introduction
9.1 Neo-colonialism and Underdevelopment
9.2 Issues in State Capitalism
9.3 A Critique of ‘Dual Theories’ of Economic Growth
9.4 Conclusion
Chapter 10: On Revolutionary Theory and Politics: Part II
10.0 Introduction
10.1 South Africa: A Theoretical Overview
10.2 Black Struggles in South Africa: Conceptual Issues
10.3 Conclusion
Chapter 11: Ideology, Development and Social/New Democracy in Africa
11.0 Introduction
11.1 Ideology and Development
11.2 Social/New Democracy and the African Discourse
11.3 Conclusion
Chapter 12: Conclusion
12.0 Introduction
12.1 Summary of Discussions
12.2 African Intellectuals: Locating Mafeje
12.3 Contribution and Importance of this Study
12.4 Conclusion

Related Posts