Semi-Peripheral, Not Anti-Colonial: The Sociological Discourse of Modernity in East Asia

Hon Fai CHEN (Presenter)

Research output: Other Conference ContributionsPresentation


Attempts to indigenize sociology and social science have never been lacking in East Asia. A common strategy is to highlight the distinctive characteristics of East Asian societies and cultures, and on that basis question the limited applicability of Western sociology outside its European origin. Impressive and laudable as they are, these indigenization efforts risk succumbing to the Eurocentric and Orientalist bias by representing East Asia as the West’s Other. It is most evident in sociological studies purporting to articulate the alternative route of East Asian modernity with reference to its historical, institutional and civilizational settings. While such a paradigm of “multiple modernities” is pervasive in the works of leading social theorists in the region, it is problematic in positioning East Asia as a latecomer catching up with the West in terms of socioeconomic development, and introducing a veneer of cultural tradition and diversity in adopting the dominant Western model. Thus construed, the colonial contexts in the formation of East Asian modernity are discarded, including not only the hegemonic presence of the West (particularly America) but also the colonial pasts and power relations inside East Asia. By revisiting the sociological discourse of modernity in Japan, Korea and Greater China, I demonstrate that the colonial dimension is systematically excluded as attention is fixed on how East Asian modernity can aspire to compete with and eventually surpass the West. I characterize this orientation as “semi-peripheral”, as the overarching aim is to achieve upward mobility rather than effecting structural change in the capitalist and academic world-system. On the other hand, I explore some of the reasons why anti-colonial thoughts, despite their wide reception in cultural studies and humanities, fail to make much headway in the sociological field of East Asia. To decolonize East Asian sociology, in the sense of making it structurally and intellectually autonomous, I argue that it is necessary to transcend the opposition between semi-peripheral and anti-colonial thoughts. It can be accomplished by bringing back in the colonial question, while relating it to the historical sociology of nationalism and imperialism in the making of the East Asian modern.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 10 Feb 2023
EventConference on Decolonizing Sociology and Beyond: Rethinking the Critical Lexicon - Lingnan University , Hong Kong
Duration: 9 Feb 202310 Feb 2023


ConferenceConference on Decolonizing Sociology and Beyond: Rethinking the Critical Lexicon
Country/TerritoryHong Kong
OtherFollowing “modernization”, “development” and “globalization”, in recent years “decolonization” has become a keyword in the production of sociological knowledge and reflections about the sociological discipline. Critical perspectives and alternative discourses are set forth to displace Western sociology from its privileged position as the model of universal and legitimate knowledge. These critical currents include postcolonial sociology, post-Western sociology, connected sociologies, and Southern theory to name a few. The time is ripe for clarifying the conceptual foundation of this broad-based intellectual movement, and proposing some future directions for research aiming to explore alternative paradigms in sociology and social science.
The major theme of the conference is the relationship between decolonial sociology and the global history of colonialism. Conference speakers will compare various decolonial perspectives by situating them in a variety of historical and geopolitical contexts, including settler colonialism, non-settler colonialism, internal colonialism, semi-colonialism, postcolonialism, imperialism, neo-imperialism etc. In this way, the conference aims to contribute to the historical sociology of colonial modernity and its repercussions on knowledge production.


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