‘Epistemologies of the South’ and Transformation


By Eric Hoddy

I’d been waiting for this book to appear for a while, having been intrigued by some of Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ earlier work such as Toward a New Legal Common Sense and his collection, Law and Globalization from Below (co-edited with César Rodriguez-Garavito). Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide, which was finally released in early 2014, builds on Santos’ earlier works and collections to situate how the multiple dimensions of injustice (social, political, cultural, sexual, ethnic, religious, historical and ecological) are all underpinned by ‘cognitive injustice’ – that is, the failure to recognise the plurality of different knowledges by which people give meaning to their existence. Epistemologies builds the case that it is only by pursuing global cognitive justice that global social justice can be made real.

This blog post isn’t intended as a book review. Rather, this piece is meant as a brief overview of the ideas presented by Santos with the addition of some reflections about where the ideas might help us think about the ways we approach and conceptualise ‘transformation’ and ‘transformative justice’. It doesn’t aim to be comprehensive or conclusive, but serves instead the purpose of pointing to a set of potentially significant ideas that should be considered further vis-à-vis transformative justice. Very generally, the book is useful for providing us with a framework for considering how our disciplines are constructed and for making salient how their ‘architectures’ might impact the way we think about transformation and transformative justice. More than that, the book describes a set of processes that have the potential to fundamentally reshape how such issues are approached. Engaging with the disciplines in this critical way is not entirely novel though, as Rosa (2014) points out: Frantz Fanon and Aime Césare in the ´50s and ´60s criticised the colonial imparting of the West’s “essential qualities” (Fanon, 1963 p. 47) and the impact the disciplines had on the construction of colonised people’s subjectivity. More recently, movements in the form of “theoretical reactions” (Rosa, 2014, p. 2), – ‘postcolonial’ and ‘multiple modernities’ for example – have striven to restore the liberation movement momentum of the 1950s and 1960s across a number continents and peoples. Epistemologies of the South is located in this tradition and more concretely as a contribution to an emerging social sciences interest in theories of the South.

Three basic ideas underlie Epistemologies. The first is that understandings of the world far exceed those provided by the Eurocentric critical tradition. For Santos, the reality of a world with many different principles concerning social justice and human dignity cannot be reconciled by the Western-centric response to such challenges: namely, postulating “the abstract universality of the conception of human dignity underling the concept of human rights.” Doing so closes off the possibility of other grammars of dignity and ideas of justice that appear inconsistent with universal human rights[1] – a tension that has played out for instance in rule-of-law and development initiatives in post-conflict Timor-Leste (Grenfell 2006; Kovar 2012). For the Eurocentric critical tradition, this has meant failing to recognise a variety of actors, movements and other “grammars of resistance” in the Global South that “belong to very distinct cultural, symbolic and linguistic universes.”

The second idea underlying Epistemologies is that global social justice cannot be achieved without global cognitive justice. The ‘epistemological reconstruction’ that Santos calls for amounts to a paradigmatic shift through which can be captured “the immense variety of critical discourses and practices” and the valorisation of what transformative potential they have. For academics and practitioners from the Global North this would mean a deliberate distancing from Eurocentric thinking in favour of learning from the South via processes of horizontal intercultural dialogue and ‘translation’ among different critical knowledges and practices (‘ecologies of knowledges’). The aim should not be to replace the Euro-centric critical tradition but rather to include it “in a much broader landscape of epistemological and political possibilities.” This would seem an important exercise for transformative justice social scientists to participate and contribute to. If Santos is correct that cognitive justice is an essential prerequisite to social justice, then this endeavour would mean approaching transformative justice with a more complete set of tools for building alternatives to the present (one-way) transnational flow of legal norms, prescriptions and policies (see also Shiv Visvanathan (2005) who has discussed cognitive justice in respect to its contribution to democratic practice). For Santos the broader aim of an epistemologies of the South is “not so much to imagine new theories, new ideas, and new relations among them [but] to imagine new ways of theorizing and of generating transformative collective action.”

The third idea flows from this point: that grammars and scripts outside of the Western-centric critical tradition may be at the heart of transformative change, and these should therefore be made prominent. Arguably, the Global South has been the crucible of some of the most innovative and effective transformative practices over the past few decades – from landless movements in Brazil contesting a highly concentrated land structure put in place by the Portuguese Crown, to indigenous groups in Latin America and India pursuing recognition of their political and legal systems. Such groups have also been originating sources for new human rights.[2] Their experiences speak in particular to the elements of transformative justice that emphasise recognition of the collective experiences of structural and systemic violence (including of ‘colonialism without end’ as Santos terms it) and to the sorts of community and local-level processes that can drive change. While transitional justice has already undergone a ‘turn to the local’, emphasising transformative practices rooted in alternative movements and grammars invites something quite different to forms of ‘transitional justice from below’ and its emphasis on grassroots actors taking on transitional justice responsibilities (McEvoy & McGregor 2008).

All of this begs the question of what an epistemologies of the South looks like in practice. The final two chapters of Epistemologies begin to sketch this out. The ‘ecologies of knowledges’ and ‘intercultural translation’ are unpacked across both chapters, with some promise of greater elaboration in his forthcoming volume, Epistemologies of the South: Reinventing Social Emancipation. For Santos, both the ‘ecologies of knowledges’ and ‘intercultural translation’ upon which an epistemologies of the South is built, is less an academic exercise than one which unfolds in intermovement politics – that is, where diverse movements from different parts of the world politically articulate “across knowledges, practices and agents with the purpose of strengthening the struggles against capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy”. It involves movement leaders, rank-and-file activists and ‘subaltern cosmopolitan intellectuals’. To take one example, the labour movement in its present crisis has begun to engage with other social movements (civic, feminist, ecological and migrant movements) such that there has begun an intercultural translation between “labour practices, claims and aspirations and objectives of citizenship protection of the environment, and antidiscrimination against women and ethnic or migrant minorities.” As a result, “Translation has slowly transformed the labour movement and the other social movements, thus rendering possible constellations of struggles that until a few years ago would be unthinkable.” Elsewhere, Santos (2006) has tried to show how the World Social Forum – and the diversity of its actors, movements and networks – might represent an epistemology of the South.

This blog post has aimed to provide an overview of Epistemologies of the South and some reflections on how it might speak to transformative justice. The key point, iterated earlier, is that the book is useful for providing us with a framework for considering how our disciplines are constructed and for how their ‘architectures’ might impact the way we think about aspects of transformation. This is a significant starting point. If the global South is replete with emancipatory discourses and practices that depart from Western presuppositions (ethical, political, cultural, epistemological and ontological) and which are made invisible, as Santos suggests, then understanding this diversity should be at the heart of transformative justice initiatives. It is moreover an invitation to engage with actors, organisations, movements and networks that are organising across and between scales to challenge violence in all its forms.


Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press: New York.

Grenfell, L. (2006). Legal Pluralism and the Rule of Law in Timor Leste. Leiden Journal of International Law.

Comaroff, J. & Comaroff, J. (2011). Theory from the South: Or How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa. Paradigm Publishers: London.

Connell, R. (2007). Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. Polity: Cambridge.

Edelman, M., & James, C. (2011). Peasants’ rights and the UN system: quixotic struggle? Or emancipatory idea whose time has come? Journal of Peasant Studies, 31(1).

Kovar, A. (2012). Approaches to Domestic Violence against Women in Timor-Leste: A Review and Critique. In Human Rights Education in Asia-Pacific, Volume 3, 2012.

McEvoy, K. & McGregor, L. (2008). Transitional Justice from Below: An Agenda for Research, Policy and Practice. In K. McEvoy & L. McGregor (eds)., Transitional Justice from Below: Grassroots Activism and the Struggle for Change. Hart Publishing: London.

Rosa, M.C. (2014). Theories of the South: Limits and perspectives of an emergent movement in the social sciences. Current Sociology.

Santos, B.S. (2002). Toward a New Legal Common Sense. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Santos, B.S., Rodriguez-Garavito, C.A. (2005). Law and Globalization from Below: Toward a Cosmopolitan Legality. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Santos, B.S. (2006). The Rise of the Global Left: The World Social Forum and Beyond. Zed Books: London.

Santos, B.S. (2014). Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide. Paradigm Publishers: London.

Visvanathan, S. (2005). Knowledge, Justice and Democracy. In M. Leach, I. Scoones, B. Wynne (eds.), Science and Citizens. Zed Books: London.

[1] Elsewhere Santos (2002, p.202) has suggested a need for a cross-cultural reconstruction of human rights in the shape of a “network of mutually intelligible native languages”.

[2] See Edelman & James (2009) for a disussion about movements as originating sources for new indigenous peoples rights and peasant rights.

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