An antidote to intellectual imperialism




ONE of the intellectual giants of the Global South, Syed Hussein Alatas’ academic works cover a variety of themes, but all fall under the discourse of correcting ideological and hegemonic readings and interpretations. His concerns about the nature, workings, and the effects of colonialism, afforded him an opportunity to reflect critically on academic or intellectual imperialism, and the pertinent effective response or anti-dote, which he consciously proposed in the form of the idea of an auto-nomous social science.

Alatas defined academic imperialism as the domination of an imperialistic intellectual power over a subjugated people and culture, which includes their thinking, values, and the way they comprehend the world. It is a phenomenon where the Euro-American imperialistic knowledge powerhouses imposed their intellectual and academic tradition and corpus on the Third World, insisting that their superior universal knowledge enabled them to know the Third World better than the latter themselves. This phenomenon has a long history, and actually ‘began in the colonial period with the setting up and direct control of schools, universities and publishing houses by the colonial powers in the colonies.’1

Four major traits of academic imperialism are worth noting. First, it is marked by exploitation, where the subjugator wants to dominate and monopolise resources and people, both physically and mentally. The second trait is the ideological rationalisation for this subjugation, where the subjugator constructs myths and ideologies of superiority and invincibility, in order to justify their dominance. Third is the condition of tutelage where the subjugator determines and exacts from the subjugated group and regards themselves as a ‘protector’ or as a group who are more civilised than the rest. Finally, the subjugated groups can only assume a junior and secondary role, and conformity and submission are expected of them.



In some contexts, academic imperialism is more explicit and intense especially when the local intellectual and academic scene lacks critical scholars and thinkers who resist intellectual domination. Alatas detected this in various Asian academic settings, which are generally dominated by Orientalist scholars and western experts in the fields of social sciences and the humanities, even after these societies have established their own universities and research institutes. While some academics are not conscious of this domination, many others choose not to see this as a problem, nor urgently in need of being addressed.

To Alatas, the problematic assumptions, the erroneous approaches, and the biases in observing and evaluating Asian societies past and present have grave consequences, not only for our knowledge and understanding of society and the world, but also for policy making and implementation, especially when the knowledge that has been produced is deemed as irrefutable. Therefore, these erroneous and problematic assumptions and postulations must be corrected, and this is only possible when Asian scholars and researchers recognise the imperialistic forms of knowledge production.

Academic imperialism manifests itself in various dimensions, not only in theories and methodological frameworks but also in the very research agendas, concerns and priorities that have a strong imprint on the Asian academic scene. For example, western academics who often pontificate as experts in Asian studies have formed cliques of supporters and venerators in Asian campuses. In other words, academic institutions in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean countries, are generated and consequently motivated to develop along the lines of the western academic model.

The intellectual paradigm is invariably western. Often, western models are imposed on the local context, even to a point of referring to the ‘summer’ or ‘winter’ break. Most notably, academic excellence is linked and measured by one’s connection to western universities. Researchers and postgraduate students upon graduation should produce monographs (ideally to be published by leading western publishers or university publishing houses), and publish articles in western-based journals or those in the ranked list of journals, determined by academic consortia which are also Euro-American based.



Universities are the sites where academic imperialism operates at its best, and where it breeds intellectual bondage, slavishness and dependency. Academic compradors are its products, who act as brokers and  mediators. What Alatas observed during his time is neither dissipating nor abating today. The current euphoria surrounding global university ranking in fact exacerbates the conditions for academic imperialism, alongside spawning more captivity, especially when Eurocentrism and Orientalism persists on Asian campuses.

Such intensity of intellectual captivity could well be explained by the fact that academic leadership has always maintained that the best could only come from the West, or that ‘real’ and legitimate knowledge could only come from the western tradition.

Academic imperialism is indeed an intellectual force to be reckoned with. But in the context where this is hardly problematised, and where there is no deep sense of shame of servility and dependency, academic imperialism will never be seen as a problem, nor could it entice interest amongst local researchers and students. The most is to regard it as one of the many critical perspectives on theory making and mastery.



In such a context, students and researchers are not embarrassed, as demonstrated in their bibliographic lists, in which many local scholars’ works do not appear. Such tendency has become an accepted norm, almost a sanctified academic ritual. Ironically, those with a critical bent, rejecting such hegemony and captivity, are deemed as parochial and insular, if not simply ideological.

Alatas’ reconstructionist sociological endeavours demonstrate deep commitment for research, education and reform.2 With rigorous analyses of sociological phenomena, he was no less robust in his call for critical and creative reform. One of the concerns that he persistently and consistently articulated was the problem of intellectual captivity, dependency, domination and disruption.3

Long before critiques against Orientalism and the euphoria around postcolonial studies, Alatas had conducted a serious study of colonial ideology and its instruments of domination.4



Through reading his works, one could detect a common thread of diagnosis and reconstruction. Problems and issues raised are accompanied by possible solutions, after thorough analysis. When he raised the problem of academic or intellectual imperialism, Alatas not only elaborated critically on the dynamics of exogenous (western) imposition, but also the internal dynamics of mental captivity. It is the captive minds where academic imperialism has its ready audience.

In delineating the terrain of research, Alatas has provided good signposts, indicating what researchers should be wary of. He urges caution with regard to the politics of research which ranges from the regime of ideas, cartel of scholarship affecting publications, and ideological affiliation, as well as globalised standardisation which imitates Euro-American criteria and disregards local needs and contexts. It is in this regard that Alatas’ cogent discussion on academic imperialism, alongside Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), should be incorporated as an essential component for researchers who are working on developing or Third World societies.

In Alatas’ schema of research, a genuine social science should also be an autonomous one. The functionality of the social sciences actually has no difference from the task and commitment of an intellectual. The four criteria that an intellectual should fulfil, according to Alatas, are: (i) the ability to recognise and identify problems and challenges in society; (ii) the ability to define and conceptualise the problems accordingly; (iii) the intensity in analysing and diagnosing the problems, and (iv) providing viable solutions to those problems.5 Although Alatas enumerated this with specific reference to the functioning of intellectuals, these attributes could be extended to the role of an autonomous social science.

Alatas defined autonomous social science as ‘the linking of social science research and thinking to specifically Asian problems.’6 Autonomous social science is a response to imitative scholarship that is prevalent in our academia. Alatas saw the need for contemporary Asian intellectual circles to respond to the dominant scholarship marked by academic imperialism.



This endeavour should comprise of the following characteristics: (i) It is not dictated by exogenous research agendas, especially those from the Euro-American world; (ii) It does not take wholesale Euro-American research methodologies and approaches, that is, appropriating them as ready-made theoretical packages that are simply to be read and applied; (iii) It is not beset by problematic assumptions, nomenclatures and  categories; (iv) It is clear in its function to serve not only the realms of academia but also the society at large; (v) It has both the educative and combative dimension in its discursive en-gagement; and (vi) It is not exclusive in only raising Asian issues or only using Asian materials, nor rejecting western intellectual corpus.

Lastly, the schema of autonomous research that Alatas proposed should develop according to the following components of knowledge construction:

‘Foundational knowledge refers to knowledge of foundations of Asian societies, their culture, religion and other crucial aspects of societal life. Consolidative knowledge refers to knowledge that consolidated and strengthens the foundations. Reactive knowledge refers to knowledge that is required to react to ideas that tend to strengthen or corrode the basis of social life. Developmental knowledge is knowledge required to attain peace, justice, welfare and insight into human living.’7 

The above last point is important to be highlighted as autonomous social science is not simply a trend of decolonising scholarship which has recently gained some currency, which ironically demonstrates a subtle imitative effect, since it is fashionable to speak of this topic in western academic circles. People are not attracted to an autonomous social science merely because it is trendy or popular. Instead, it is taken up by scholars because it is part of the societal, existential, historical and developmental issues and challenges that warrant attention and alternatives.



An autonomous mind is never slavish nor imitative; it is independent yet open to relevant exogenous ideas, and invariably averse to nativist tendencies. Being autonomous also means to have the consciousness to contribute to a larger understanding about society, knowledge, history and the likes, both useful to the academic world and the public sphere. This is the emancipative dimension of autonomous social science. Alatas himself exemplified this commitment excellently thorough his own works. Unlike many sociological works that often end up as textbooks, due to their proclaimed neutrality and distant observations, Alatas’ works are moving and engaging. His sharp scrutiny and engagement will not be possible if the mind is not free from docility and imitation.

Alatas was one of the luminaries in Asian sociological studies, with the Malay-Indonesian world as his primary research area. Within the Southeast Asian and Malay World studies, he has pioneered various fields of research, many of which were later developed and expanded by scholars such as Chandra Muzaffar, Shaharuddin Maaruf, Syed Farid Alatas, Noor Aisha Abdul Rahman and a few others.



When Alatas spoke of the need for an Asian social science tradition, he was not referring to a parochial Asian-centric discourse, succumbed by nativist and insular tendencies. However, it must be stated that he was never opposed to western ideas and learning. In fact, he was highly critical of those who were anti-West due to their prejudice and ignorance. To him, embracing all genuine and useful knowledge, regardless of its origin, was vital. But the ability to recognise and appropriate this knowledge can be affirmed if we possess an independent, critical spirit, and moral courage, while appreciating our own intellectual tradition.

Fundamental too in Alatas’ academic repertoire was the com-mitment to address the problems and challenges of society, with a deep sense of reformistic purpose, including the courageous and combative affiliations against the ‘other worldly’ – to borrow Edward Said’s term – academic regime.8 For those who are serious about the foibles and pitfalls of the social sciences, the need for an autonomous social science cannot be relegated and postponed.

Alatas, who grew up in colonised Indonesia and Malaya, had a deep concern about the effects of colonialism, both materially and mentally. Since his debut critical essay on colonialism (1956), his commitment to the issue culminated in his critique on colonial ideology and its instrument of colonial capitalism, which he argued explained the fervour for imperialistic expansion. This critique was best encapsulated in his magnum opus, The Myth of the Lazy Native (1977).

In much of his research, Alatas focused on criticising the materials that he had brilliantly selected for his study. Lengthy elaborations of theoretical discussions, including enumerations of methodology were never the central focus of his writings. This does not mean that he lacked the theoretical rigour or had little interest in deliberating on methodological issues. Instead, the marshalling of data and scrutinising them for their inconsistencies, distortions, conscious selections, and silencing, constituted the primary focus of his discussions.



This approach was consistent throughout his works, in which the raising of issues was equally complemented by suggesting relevant solutions and mitigations. In other words, Alatas’ works demonstrated a fundamentally autonomous approach, one that was not slavish in imitating or rehearsing existing research approaches.

Simply put, reading his range of works, one can see how he creatively adopted a diagnostic and reconstructionist spirit, with the sociology of knowledge forming part of his modus operandi. This kind of sociological touch and tone is especially relevant for developing societies which need greater clarity in comprehending their contemporary contexts. However, this approach, which could also be adopted by other sociologists, is not necessarily what made Alatas’ research automatically outstanding. It was actually the research questions that he posed, and the ways in which the methods were employed that stood out as much as his research objectives.

Alatas’ writings were not simply academic or theoretical expositions. At the heart of his writings was his ability and need to address the predicaments and challenges of the present, and to illustrate how some theories imported into the Asian context were fraught by misreading and distortion.

Hence reading through his major works, ranging from monographs such as The Sociology of Corruption (1968), Thomas Stamford Raffles: Schemer or Reformer? (1971), Intellectuals in Developing Societies (1977), as well as a compilation of articles in Modernization and Social Change (1972), one could detect a clearly autonomous approach in dealing with issues and discourses of the day.



Exploring the discourse of modernisation allowed him to critically evaluate the role of elites in development, alongside the feudal psychology that inhabited the worldview and practices of both the leaders and the led. This in turn branched out into his interest in studying the problems of corruption and the nature and functions of intellectuals in developing societies. All these reflect his concern of addressing contemporary political, socio-economic and cultural issues, especially ones that deal with the role of elites and intellectuals, the vision of development and the ethos of planning, moral ethical integrity, religious orientations, and other competing historical and cultural outlooks.

Today we inhabit an academic and public discursive terrain where theoretical ideas are easily celebrated, consumed and disseminated. Surely it comes with an elaborate package, and definitely not without a cost. It is the Euro-American academic centres where non-western studies are transacted, commodified and given a stamp for its academic excellence and ingenuity. This veneration comes together with an attitude which sees the local production of knowledge as inferior and unsophisticated.

It is certainly naēve to view academic excellence only in terms of fulfilling exogenous Euro-American standards, which are often regarded as ‘global’ in terms of rigour and prestige. In this so-called ‘internationalising’ outlook, research impact is measured mostly based on Euro-American scales.



In many developing countries, the pursuit of post-colonial studies and postmodern critiques are celebrated as the ultimate pronouncements against dominant/grand narratives. Yet, we hardly see such deconstructive postures having a deep interest to interrogate forms of Eurocentrism, intellectual captivity and the academic imperialistic forces that see their own corpus and frameworks as the only legitimate ones. In this sense, even to be truly critical, we still need Euro-American theories. This says a lot about the extent of academic imperialism which is at play today.

Alatas’ autonomous approach is invariably eclectic. His bibliographic coverage testifies his openness to app-ropriate and apply various intellectual corpuses from various traditions, without privileging one over the other.

Reading about Alatas’ autonomous approach, one can see a blending of perspectives from the major intellectual traditions of the world. Additionally, the autonomous social science which Alatas delineated tempers the fervour of western academic circles and their satellites to constantly churn out new theories. Most remarkably, Alatas did not succumb to indigenising trends nor anti-western rhetoric.



To reiterate, Alatas never rejected western knowledge in toto. He objected only to the imposition of western theories and perspectives on Asian contexts, with the flawed assumption of the universality of western ideas. In fact, he recognised that autonomous social science can be found even in the western intellectual tradition.

‘In the western world, the autonomous tradition is decisive and vigorous and the demarcation line between general universal sociology and the auto-nomous studies of subjects peculiar to specific western countries is clearly observed…that there is truly a genuine and autonomous tradition in western historical, sociological and other social scientific disciplines. Both the general universal social science thinking and the autonomous application to a specific problem area have not been imitative and uncritical conceptually and methodologically. This is to be distinguished from committing errors in analysis and in the choice of methodology or in interpretation and conclusion.’9

Alatas’ sociological research vision was very much fused with his intellectual engagement to address the current predicaments and problems of the day. As an intellectual he was conscious of the role that he had to perform and deliver. In designing and envisioning an autonomous social science, it was never for the purpose of theoretical exposition, nor for the sake of being appraised and venerated for his academic acumen. Alatas’ scholarship was always clear in its purpose and function. In fact, one can say that Alatas’ tour de force in academia was his idea of an autonomous social science.

What Alatas initiated was also accomplished by some of his contemporaries in other developing countries. Close to home, the renowned Filipino historian Renato Constantino pronounced similar concerns to resist colonial mentality and domination in Filipino studies.10 In Brazil, Alberto Guerreiro Ramos demonstrated many similar positions which Alatas had adopted. From the African continent, Akinsola Akiwowo11 and Ngugi wa Thiong’o12 are the two luminaries who vociferously spoke against colonial intellectual hegemony.



In an autonomous social science, a research agenda can be determined by its own researchers upon weighing the extent of its relevancy and urgency. It is also very clear about the purpose and the use of the completed research. It is not dictated by exogenous interests, nor subjected to the current academic faddism in this time of a globalised academic order. As such, researchers, especially in the Third World context, will not be in any way timid or embarrassed by their own research concerns and priorities, which may after all be different from the research and knowledge production garnered in the metropolitan centres.

Alatas’ reconstructionist soci-ological-historical repertoire obviously departed from the theoretically loaded discussions which did not have much insights to offer to readers. In the mainstream sociological mantra of objectivity and neutrality, such postures are invariably evaded. Such a stand has no place in Alatas’ autonomous schema of research. The former type of academic scholarship and intellectual commitment beset by (neo)-colonial dominance would not be able to perform its critical task. Instead of delivering their emancipative role, such scholarship becomes a great bane to local intellectual life.

Frederick H. Gareau opines: ‘Social science dependency, like that of technological dependency is only one aspect of the general phenomenon of dependency. Its elimination depends upon the fate of the latter.’13 Ironically, as Claude Ake points out, ‘Many Third World countries continue to look up to their exploiters to maintain exploitative relations, which impoverish them and pull them further behind.’14 But the task of elimination which Gareau calls for needs a combatant, or an ‘intellectual combatant’ in Alatas’ words.

The call for an autonomous social science should not be seen simply as another dexterous academic exercise, but it must begin with a sense of resistance against any regime of knowledge that aims to dominate.

Footnotes :

1. Syed Farid Alatas, ‘Academic Dependency and the Global Division of Labour in the Social Sciences’, Current Sociology 51(6), 2003, p. 601.

2. Mona Abaza, Debates on Islam and Knowledge in Malaysia and Egypt: Shifting Worlds.  Routledge Curzon, London, 2002, chap. 8.

3. Syed Hussein Alatas, ‘The Captive Mind in Development Studies’, International Social Science Journal 34 (2), 1972, pp. 9-25; Syed Hussein Alatas, ‘The Captive Mind and Creative Development’, International Social Science Journal 36(4), 1974, pp. 691-9.

4. Syed Hussein Alatas, The Myth of the Lazy Native: A study of the image of the Malays, Filipinos and Javanese from the 16th to the 20th century and its function in the ideology of colonial capitalism. Frank Cass, London, 1977.

5. Syed Hussein Alatas, Intellectuals in Developing Societies. Cass, London, 1977.

6. Syed Hussein Alatas, ‘The Development of an Autonomous Social Science Tradition in Asia: Problems and Prospects’, Asian Journal of Social Science 30(1), 2002, p. 151.

7. Ibid., p. 154.

8. Edward W. Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism. Columbia University Press, New York, 2004.

9. Syed Hussein Alatas, ‘The Autonomous, the Universal and the Future of Sociology’, Current Sociology 54(1), 2006, pp. 8-9.

10. Renato Constantino, Neocolonial Identity and Counter Consciousness. Merlin Press, London, 1977.

11. Akinsola  Akiwowo, ‘Universalism and Indigenisation in Sociological Theory: An Introduction’, International Sociology 3(2), 1988.

12. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. J. Currey, London; Heinemann, Portsmouth, N.H.,1986.

13. Frederick H. Gareau, ‘Another Type of Third World Dependency: The Social Sciences’, International Sociology 3(2), p. 177.

14. Claude Ake, Social Science as Imperialism: A Theory of Political Development. Ibadan University Press, Ibadan, 1982, p.155.