Winter 2021 Letters from the Editors: New Ethnographies of the Global South
From the Contexts Editors:
This past year has been a challenge in many ways. Still, it has been a pleasure to work with the community of writers, anonymous peer reviewers, and staff who make this magazine possible. In 2020, our previous managing editor, Paige Miller, transitioned out of her role, as well as Catherine Bolzendahl and Sabrina Strings transitioned out of their roles as editors of our culture section. We thank each of them for their work with Contexts. In 2020, we also welcomed Genesis Fuentes and Simone Durham as our new managing editors. In addition, Simone now oversees the culture section and the management of contexts.org.
Through our internal staffing changes, we have been fortunate that our community of readers continues to grow. We’re happy to report that in 2020, we had over one million combined page views and article downloads.
Our Winter 2021 issue is a special issue edited by Victoria Reyes and Marco Garrido, two outstanding early-career scholars who are transforming how we understand urban life and global politics. This issue on ethnographies of the Global South promises to reveal more cutting-edge research on issues critical to our work as sociologists. We hope that you enjoy it.
Rashawn Ray and Fabio Rojas
From the Special Issue Guest Editors:
There has been a proliferation of qualitative work on the Global South in just the last two decades. This body of work, no doubt, reflects the growing number of scholars working in American academic institutions with international backgrounds and experiences, many of whom grew up in and emigrated from countries in the Global South (or whose parents did). These scholars have an interest in and insight into these countries, possess cultural as well as linguistic fluency, and feel keenly the constraints of U.S.-centric theory with respect to their cases.
This work is new not only in terms of its numbers. It feels new in its relation to mainstream sociology. If the older ethnographies of the Global South were marginal, standing to one side of standard accounts of sociological phenomena largely constructed in terms of U.S. realities, the new ones, while perhaps not yet central, crowd around the center. Scholars in this analytic vein insist on the theoretical value of their empirical research and aim to revise standard categories of sociological thought.
The term Global South is generally used to distinguish countries in Latin America, Africa, and South and Southeast Asia from countries in the Global North (mainly North America and Western Europe). It is a blanket term encompassing tremendous heterogeneity, and yet it remains meaningful as an indicator of real differences between domains in levels of economic development, strength of political institutions, and character of social structures. These differences arise out of shared historical and structural circumstances among the countries within the set, such as colonization, late industrialization, and peripheral or dependent position in the world economy. They are important to keep in view and take into account conceptually.
Our goal in this issue is to highlight new ethnographies of the Global South. To be sure, sociologists have been writing about the Global South, and issues such as imperialism and colonialism, since the founding of the discipline. However, we believe that the proliferation of such work in recent decades marks a new and exciting development, one that augurs a movement beyond the historically domestic focus of American sociology. This work moves outside the shadow of U.S.-centric frameworks and beyond the need to bring findings back to the U.S. (as articulated in the oft-heard query “that’s interesting, but what does it mean for us?”—i.e., why should I care?). The new ethnographers of the Global South do not feel compelled to justify their fieldsites in terms of their relevance to the United States. They find these places theoretically interesting in their own right, and see in them an opportunity to rejuvenate traditional categories of sociological thought.
In particular, we highlight the role of ethnography—the practice of “being there” and the thick description and deep understanding of local and national histories and contexts. Using ethnographic methods, researchers are forced to pay close attention to realities on the ground. The knowledge they derive from close observation of everyday life inevitably raises questions of conceptualization, and they are led to rethink standard accounts of the phenomenon at hand. We might contrast an inductive approach to one where Global South cases are employed primarily to support existing theory or illustrate global logics. In this approach, the meaning of a case is determined by an external framework, whereas in the former, its meaning is discovered inductively and used to inform theory.
The new ethnographies of the Global South represent a call to recognize that concepts derived from research on the U.S. cannot simply be exported. They promise more than just new ideas but the more pluralistic landscape of viewpoints and positions befitting a truly global sociology, one where all sociological concepts and theories are seen as partial and specified historically and contextually.
Victoria Reyes and Marco Garrido