The term 'Eurocentrism' denotes a world-view which, implicitly or explicitly, posits European history and values as “normal” and superior to others, thereby helping to produce and justify Europe's dominant position within the global capitalist world system. Latin American critics in particular have provided analyses of Eurocentrism that link its epistemological dimension, that is Eurocentric knowledge, to economic aspects such as the organisation of global capitalism and economic exploitation (see Quijano 2000). At the heart of Eurocentrism lies a binary way of thinking which constructs a white, progressive, modern and civilised European identity and juxtaposes it to a black/indigenous, underdeveloped, traditional and barbarian Other in the colonies. The continuous organisation of power along these lines, both on a transnational level and within societies, is what Aníbal Quijano has called the “coloniality of power” (Quijano 2002).
Many substantial critiques of Eurocentrism, such as Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) or Samir Amin's Eurocentrism (1988), have focussed on the production of Eurocentric knowledge through Europe's encounter with and construction of the Orient as distinct entity. The resulting localisation of the colonial divide between Orient and Occident has been found as failing to accommodate the Latin American experience (Mignolo 1998). While both North and Latin America are considered part of the Occident, they were and continue to be affected by Eurocentrism in quite different ways. With regards to their insertion into the global economy, the historical experience of the United States as part of the centre, for example, differs substantially from that of many Latin American countries whose productive sectors were organised so as to serve the needs of (neo-)colonial powers. The way Eurocentric values structure inter-American relations becomes apparent in, to name but one area, development cooperation. Here, US actors intervene in the name of liberal democracy and development in Latin American societies to help them come closer to the universalized role model of the developed northern state. On an intra-societal level, postcolonial studies have pointed out how Eurocentric categories, such as race, continue to structure relations among individuals in both North and South America, through, for example, the exploitation of migrant workers.
Modernity, Universal History and the Americas
Most prominently, the concepts of modernity, progress and universal history have been identified as inherently Eurocentric. The standard account, as presented in encyclopaedias and European histories, captures modernity in terms of a self-contained European process of moral and economic progress. Researchers contributing to the Latin American Modernidad / Colonialidad research programme have drawn attention to the mythical character of this narrative by arguing that coloniality, understood as a pattern of European violence in the colonies, and modernity need to be understood as two sides of the same coin. They also stress the constitutive role of the “discovery” of the Americas which enables Europe to situate itself at the economic and epistemological centre of the modern world system. The modern idea of universal history, that is the writing of history of humankind in a frame of progressive and linear time, has also been criticised as inherently Eurocentric. This is because it construes the European development as following the normal and necessary course of history and consequently only accommodates the experience of other world regions in relation to it. The construction of the Americas through a European lens is epitomised by the fact that for a long time most accounts of American history started with the arrival of the settlers (Muthyala 2001). Strategies deployed to challenge this Eurocentric master narrative have involved replacing discovery with disaster to stress the violence inherent in the process which was a key part of European modernity.
Geopolitics of Knowledge
In contrast to more localised ethnocentrisms, Eurocentrism shapes the production of knowledge and its proliferation well beyond Europe and the western hemisphere. This is possible, critics argue, due to an epistemology which pretends that knowledge has no locus. In western thought, Descartes' proclamation of a separation of body and mind has led to an image of the cognisant subject as abstracted from all social, sexual and racial realities (Grosfoguel 2006, pp. 20ff, Gandhi 1998: 34ff). In consequence, analytical categories such as state, democracy, equality, etc., formed against the background of particular European experience, are declared to be universally valid and applicable, independent of place (Chakrabarty 2002, p. 288). This leads, according to Edgardo Lander (2002, p. 22), to a naturalisation of liberal values and a devaluation of knowledge produced outside the prescribed scientific system. Europe's successful placing of itself at the centre of history also caused universities outside Europe to teach it from a Eurocentric point of view and include predominantly “northern” thinkers in their academic canons. Postcolonial scholarship has pointed out that knowledge produced in the global South is recognised if the respective academics are working in European or US-American universities (Castro-Gómez 2005, p. 35). As a means to challenge the hegemony of Eurocentric knowledge, indigenous universities have been founded in various Latin American countries. They demand that different ways of knowing be recognised as valid and suggest that indigenous knowledge can inspire new methodologies.
In sum, Eurocentrism is a concept coined by its critics, who analyse its complicity in upholding power structures that legitimise the devaluation of ways of living and the oppression of people who do not conform to European norms and ideals. As such, critiques of Eurocentrism have often been formulated in the name of those suffering from a Eurocentric organisation of the global economy and knowledge. However, given that Eurocentrism has been found to be entrenched in principles that structure knowledge and power relations all over the world, there is a concern that Eurocentrism limits the very possibility of critique by preventing those who are worst affected from speaking out and being heard (see Spivak 1988). This remains a controversial debate.
Please cite as:
Franzki, Hannah. 2012. “Eurocentrism.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/e_Eurocentrism.html.
Amin, Samir. 2009. Eurocentrism. Modernity, Religion, and Democracy. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Castro-Gómez, Santiago. 2005. La poscolonialidad explicada a los ninos. Popayán: Editorial Universidad del Cauca.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2000. Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Duke University Press.
Gandhi, Leela. 1998. Postcolonial Theory. A Critical Introduction. New York: Columbia University Press.
Grosfoguel, Ramón. 2006. “La descolonización de la economía, política y los estudios postcoloniales: transmodernidad, pensamiento fronterizo y colonialidad global.” Tabula Rasa 4: 17–48.
Lander, Edgardo. 2002. “Ciencias sociales: saberes coloniales y eurocéntricos.” Colonialidad del saber: eurocentrismo y ciencias sociales. Perspectivas latinoamericanas, ed. Edgardo Lander, 11-40. Buenos Aires: CLACSO.
Muthyala, John. 2001. “Reworlding America: The Globalization of American Studies.” Cultural Critique 47, no. 1: 91–119.
Quijano, Anibal. 2000. “Coloniality, Eurocentrism, and Social Classification.” Neplanta 1, no. 3: 533–580.
Quijano, Anibal. 2002. “Colonialidad del Poder, eurocentrismo y America Latina.” In La Colonialidad del saber: eurocentrismo y ciencias sociales. Perspectivas latinoamericanas, ed. Edgardo Lander, 201-246. Buenos Aires: CLACSO.
Quijano, Anibal and Immanuel Wallerstein. 1992. “Americanity as a concept, or the Americas in the modern world-system.” International Social Science Journal 44, no. 4: 549–557. Said, Edward W. 1995. Orientalism. London: Penguin Books.
Spivak, Gayatri C. 1988. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, 271-313. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.