12 Sep 2024 - 13 Sep 2024

University of Basel

ZASB/"Reversing the Gaze"

Kongress / Tagung / Symposium

Conference: “Reversing the Gaze: Using Concepts Across Borders”

University of Basel, 12-13 September 2024

crowd in street

The use of concepts deemed ‘Eurocentric’ in analyzing the global South is heavily criticized within the context of postcolonial and decolonial debates. Such critiques are concerned with the entanglement of the concepts and their colonial context – whether a moral concern with the possibility that colonial worldviews are ineradicably present in the forms and substance of these concepts; an empirical concern with the complicity of these concepts in colonial projects of rule, violence, and extraction; or a concern that colonial structures (e.g. racial hierarchies; geographies of center and periphery) are replicated in conceptual structures in ways that limit their validity or utility. Furthermore, critics lament the traditional geography of theory, whereby the West gazes towards the Rest, and in doing so imagines the universality of the former and particularity of the latter.

In doing so, these critiques raise doubts about the assumption that concepts can be analytically fruitful beyond their context of origin and the normative assumptions on which they are based. The project “Reversing the Gaze: Towards Post-Comparative Area Studies” takes as its core issue whether concepts are inextricably tied to their context and the circumstances of their origins. It does so by deploying concepts used to describe identifiable social and institutional phenomena, typically used to account for phenomena in non-European settings, to study similar empirical phenomena in Europe.

Conference rationale

This conference brings together reflections on the use of concepts across borders in social sciences. The conference has two aims. The first aim is to examine cases of applying socio-scientific concepts across regional or historical contexts. The second aim is to explore the epistemological and methodological implications of turning the gaze traditionally directed at the Rest towards the West. The conference contributions will explore theoretical and/or empirical questions related to:

  1. The functions and performativity of social-scientific concepts of specific social and institutional phenomena, i.e. whether they produce descriptions, or whether the deployment of concepts itself produces the objects which concepts describe.
  2. Conceptual change in such concepts, i.e. whether (and how) concept use, scope and meaning change fundamentally according to where, why and by whom they are deployed.
  3. Theoretical and political aspects of the use of such concepts across borders, i.e. whether the use of some concepts can be inappropriate for the study of particular contexts due to some properties of the concepts and/or studied contexts.

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