Social science has been Eurocentric throughout its institutional history, which means since there have been departments teaching social science within university systems.footnote1 This is not in the least surprising. Social science is a product of the modern world-system, and Eurocentrism is constitutive of the geoculture of the modern world. Furthermore, as an institutional structure, social science originated largely in Europe. We shall be using Europe here more as a cultural than as a cartographical expression; in this sense, in the discussion about the last two centuries, we are referring primarily and jointly to Western Europe and North America. The social science disciplines were in fact overwhelmingly located, at least up to 1945, in just five countries—France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, and the United States. Even today, despite the global spread of social science as an activity, the large majority of social scientists world-wide remain Europeans. Social science emerged in response to European problems, at a point in history when Europe dominated the whole world-system. It was virtually inevitable that its choice of subject matter, its theorizing, its methodology, and its epistemology all reflected the constraints of the crucible within which it was born.

However, in the period since 1945, the decolonization of Asia and Africa, plus the sharply accentuated political consciousness of the non-European world everywhere, has affected the world of knowledge just as much as it has affected the politics of the world-system. One major such difference, today and indeed for some thirty years now at least, is that the ‘Eurocentrism’ of social science has been under attack, severe attack. The attack is of course fundamentally justified, and there is no question that, if social science is to make any progress in the twenty-first century, it must overcome the Eurocentric heritage which has distorted its analyses and its capacity to deal with the problems of the contemporary world. If, however, we are to do this, we must take a careful look at what constitutes Eurocentrism, for, as we shall see, it is a hydra-headed monster and has many avatars. It will not be easy to slaughter the dragon swiftly. Indeed, if we are not careful, in the guise of trying to fight it, we may in fact criticize Eurocentrism using Eurocentric premises and thereby reinforce its hold on the community of scholars.

There are at least five different ways in which social science has been said to be Eurocentric. These do not constitute a logically tight set of categories, since they overlap in unclear ways. Still, it might be useful to review the allegations under each heading. It has been argued that social science expresses its Eurocentrism in 1) its historiography, 2) the parochiality of its universalism, 3) its assumptions about (Western) civilization, 4) its Orientalism, and 5) its attempts to impose the theory of progress.

This is the explanation of European dominance of the modern world by virtue of specific European historical achievements. The historiography is probably fundamental to the other explanations, but it also the most obviously naive variant and the one whose validity is most easily put in question. Europeans in the last two centuries have unquestionably sat on top of the world. Collectively, they have controlled the wealthiest and militarily most powerful countries. They have enjoyed the most advanced technology and were the primary creators of this advanced technology. These facts seems largely uncontested, and are indeed hard to contest plausibly. The issue is what explains this differential in power and standard of living with the rest of the world. One kind of answer is that Europeans have done something meritorious and different from peoples in other parts of the world. This is what is meant by scholars who speak of the ‘European miracle’.footnote2 Europeans have launched the industrial revolution or sustained growth, or they have launched modernity, or capitalism, or bureaucratization, or individual liberty. Of course, we shall need then to define these terms rather carefully and discover whether it was really Europeans who launched whatever each of these novelties are supposed to be, and if so exactly when.

But even if we agree on the definition and the timing, and therefore, so to speak, on the reality of the phenomenon, we have actually explained very little. For we must then explain why it is that Europeans, and not others, launched the specified phenomenon, and why they did so at a certain moment of history. In seeking such explanations, the instinct of most scholars has been to push us back in history to presumed antecedents. If Europeans in the eighteenth or sixteenth century did x, it is said to be probably because their ancestors—or attributed ancestors, for the ancestry may be less biological than cultural, or assertedly cultural—did, or were, y in the eleventh century, or in the fifth century bc or even further back. We can all think of the multiple explanations that, once having established or at least asserted some phenomenon that has occurred in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, proceed to push us back to various earlier points in European ancestry for the truly determinant variable.

There is a premise here that is not really hidden, but was for a long time undebated. The premise is that whatever is the novelty for which Europe is held responsible in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, this novelty is a good thing, one of which Europe should be proud, one of which the rest of the world should be envious, or at least appreciative. This novelty is perceived as an achievement, and numerous book titles bear testimony to this kind of evaluation.

There seems to me little question that the actual historiography of world social science has expressed such a perception of reality to a very large degree. This perception can be challenged, of course, on various grounds, and this has been done increasingly in recent decades. One can challenge the accuracy of the picture of what happened, within Europe and in the world as a whole in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. One can certainly challenge the plausibility of the presumed cultural antecedents of what happened in this period. One can implant the story of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries in a longer duration, enlarging it by several centuries or tens of thousands of years. If one does that, one is usually arguing that the European ‘achievements’ of the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries thereby seem less remarkable, or more like a cyclical variant, or less like achievements that can be credited primarily to Europe. Finally one can accept that the novelties were real, but argue that they were less a positive than a negative accomplishment.