Symposium: On “Applicability” of CST to Non-Western Contexts

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Spring 2020, Vol 32. Issue 1

Book Symposium: The Civil Sphere in East Asia (2019, Cambridge)

Sadia Saeed
Assistant Professor of Sociology,
Univ. of San Francisco 

The Civil Sphere in East Asia builds on Jeffrey Alexander’s Civil Sphere Theory (CST) and is part of a broader collaborative effort to assess and assert CST’s applicability to contexts outside the United States. The initiative is certainly welcome. As David Palmer argues in his chapter in the volume, democratic ideals have been an integral part of political discourse in China throughout much of the twentieth century. Indeed, postcolonial states in the Global South cannot be analyzed without examining how ideas about freedom, democracy and rights were deployed to resist European imperialism. Furthermore, these norms continue to animate resistance to authoritarian and corrupt forms of political rule. 

In my comments, I will address two issues: first, the question of “applicability” of CST to non-Western contexts and, second, how CST has been applied to East Asian contexts in the current volume. I would like to note that my comments derive from a broader interest in political sociology of postcolonial states in South Asia and global historical sociology. 

The editors are sensitive to the potential critique that their intellectual endeavor of extending CST beyond the West might appear as a project of advocating US-style civil sphere politics. However, more is at stake than the issue of “diffusion” of Western norms and their overlapping and intertwining with non-Western indigenous values and moral codes. Our current intellectual moment is centrally defined by a broader cross-disciplinary project, including within sociology, that seeks to globalize and internationalize the origins and spread of core modern values such as democracy and rights. The aim is to rethink their supposedly tight coupling with “the West”. In other words, the notion that social and political norms such as those that are central to CST are Western or American is no longer tenable.  

For example, if we accept the conventional definition of democracy that posits universal adult suffrage as a core defining element of democracy, we see that the United States did not become a fully functioning democracy until 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed. In contrast to the United States’ pattern of incremental increase in adult suffrage, India introduced universal suffrage immediately upon gaining its independence in 1947. In other words, India became a democracy before the United States. Consider also another context, one incidentally offered by Julian Go in his call for a postcolonial sociology (Go 2013). If we situate the Haitian and French revolutions in a comparative perspective, we find that the ideals of the Haitian revolution were more radical in their universality than the former. The revolutionaries leading the Haitian revolution against French colonial rule advocated freedom for all races, while French revolutionaries, despite their universalist rhetoric and temporary abolition of slavery across France’s colonies, ultimately engaged in violent repression of human rights of Haitians. For sure anticolonial resistance in both India and Haiti contained “uncivil” forms of resistance, but these were adopted alongside, or after, civil politicking failed. My larger point is that CST must contend seriously with methodological nationalism that underpins it and respond to interventions by postcolonial sociology that takes “the global” as its point of reference.    

The volume offers a number of penetrating analyses of politics in East Asia through the lens of CST. The various chapters demonstrate that civil values such as concerns about corruption and transparency are universal values and can be expressed in various idioms. We see that much politics in East Asia is carried out in idioms that are central to CST. On the whole, the volume wonderfully demonstrates the centrality of civil and democratic moral codes to everyday life and oppositional political discourses in East Asia. 

A striking aspect of the three chapters on South Korea (Choi, Park, Lee) is that all rely on analyses of newspaper debates. Are newspapers in Korea, then, the main vehicle for civil politics and civil repair? Similarly, two of the three chapters on China (Pun and Ng, Tian) focus on non- or extra-national spaces of civil politics – transnational solidarity between Hong Kong students and Chinese activists and online fiction. The latter chapter demonstrates that when an authoritarian state monopolizes the discourse of civility, citizens engage in uncivil social practices, thereby implicitly offering a critique of undemocratic appropriation of civil discourses. It also raises a larger issue about the relationship between civility and authoritarianism, on one hand, and uncivility – perhaps even violence – and democracy on the other. This is to say, civility and democracy do not always go hand in hand. The chapters, taken together, also suggest that different East Asian countries have different sites in which civil spheres emerge. This opens up an interesting line of inquiry about how class and status underpin the structuring of civil spheres. 

David Palmer’s analysis of microspheres offers a conceptual framework for thinking about idioms of politics in different historical contexts beyond China. Palmer argues that there are three distinct codes of civility in modern China: the yellow code (derived from Chinese traditional values), the blue code (derived from Western values), and the red code (derived from China’s revolutionary tradition). In my own work on desecularization in Pakistan (Saeed 2017), I have identified the workings of what Palmer terms the blue code. I have also identified an Islamic moral code that has been deployed in two distinct and contrasting ways – both to justify more traditional, authoritarian forms of rule and to advocate for democratic ideals such as elections, consultation, accountability, justice etc. Palmer’s conceptualization also raises a number of intriguing questions: is there a particular code that is more attractive to Chinese women? To Chinese youth? To urban versus rural dwellers? 

Andrew Junker and Cheris Chan tackle the recent Hong Kong protests and argue that actors within Hong Kong that are advocating for a separatist identity from China are promoting localist ideas and are veering towards particularism, while those that are seeking to build bridges between China and Hong Kong are veering towards universalism and inclusion.  However, one could argue that the demand for an autonomous Hong Kong is not localist, because it is founded on democratic ideals. From this perspective, keeping Hong Kong forcibly tethered to China has the effect of normalizing Chinese authoritarianism. There is a fallacy in seeing imperialistic assemblages as cosmopolitan and nationalist aims as particularistic. This is especially so because cosmopolitanism does not necessarily lead to horizontal equality since cosmopolitan spaces can be organized very hierarchically. 


Go, Julian. 2013. “For a Postcolonial Sociology,” Theory & Society 42(1): 25-55. 
Saeed, Sadia. 2017. Politics of Desecularization: Law and the Minority Question in Pakistan. New York: Cambridge University Press.