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Illustrated by Adina Maratkyzy

FOMST is Eurocentric. Now, There’s an Alternative.

Introduced as a result of student feedback on Eurocentrism in the social sciences, Modern Social Theory puts traditional Western thought in dialogue with non-Western, postcolonial and feminist sources.

I barely had the time to celebrate having secured a place in a required course for my academic program when I received an email from the Registrar announcing a new class that would satisfy the Social, Political and Economic Thought in Historical Perspective (SPET) requirement in the Social Sciences. The name, Modern Social Theory in Comparative Perspective, did not reveal much about the content; out of curiosity, however, I decided to look into it.
To my absolute surprise, the course description was ambitious and original. “The course focuses on major works that take critical positions vis-à-vis the Western canon,” the description explained. The syllabus indicated that the class would explore feminist and postcolonial authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Mao Zedong, Frantz Fanon and Edward Said.
Together, the title, description and syllabus reveal the approach of the class in deconstructing Eurocentric language and theory. Some scholars have argued that the project of the Modern itself is a European construction. These materials also indicate that the course approaches the developments of liberalism, capitalism and democracy as intimately connected to colonization and the construction of “the Other”.
In that sense, Adjunct Lecturer William Stahl, the course's instructor, further elaborated on the notion of a comparative perspective. “This is a class that puts traditional Western thought in dialogue with non-Western, postcolonial and feminist sources, whether those are within or outside of the Western tradition,” explained Stahl.
In doing so, Stahl hopes it calls into question the construction of the modern itself and serves to point out some of its contradictions, inconsistencies and paradoxes. That is a large part of the dialogue that takes place in the course,” he added.
For instance, whereas most of us have studied the French Revolution, few will have heard of the Haitian Revolution, which started in the same year across the Atlantic. A successful slave insurrection and decade-long struggle against French colonial rule, the Haitian Revolution led to the founding of the world’s first Black-led republic in 1804. Many of the ideals that guided the Haitian Revolution are the same values put forward in the French Revolution.
“The people that are trying to put down the slave revolt are the same people who are making the revolution in France,” Stahl described, pointing out the irony. “That was a great contrast to highlight some of the contradictions at play in the modern project, who is included in this vision of equality and fraternity and who is not.”
For many students, Modern Social Theory fulfilled their desire for a broader class that included ideas that originated beyond Europe. “I chose this course over other SPET courses because it would expose me to modern thought from a much more expansive geography than just Europe,” said Seijin Park, Class of 2023. “The syllabus was much more exciting.”
The idea of a comparative perspective stems from the position that European ideas cannot be removed completely from the curriculum, even with the inclusion of non-Western intellectual traditions.
“For better or worse, those intellectual traditions are still deeply rooted in the conceptual and theoretical legacies of the Western-based Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution,” explained Eric Hamilton, Lecturer and one of the Professors for Foundations of Modern Social Theory. “There are different ways to treat those legacies and their consequences for social science around the world today. FOMST is one way, Introduction to Political Theory is another and the new Modern Social Theory course is yet another.”
Stahl agreed with this sentiment, adding that to critique European thinkers, you still have to refer to and consider their intellectual theories. “You have to have the context to do that work,” explained Stahl. “You need that dialogue.”
Throughout the semester, the course will consider multiple lingering questions. Is this comparative approach, along with the inclusion of historically excluded authors, enough to deconstruct Eurocentric language and decentralize the West? After all, the class does seem to always refer back to Europe.
In a sense, the epistemological knowledge continues to be inevitably informed by Western tradition. It leaves me wondering: can we ever design an introductory class in which the East can stand by itself?
Other students flagged the same question. “Given that the course attempts to address concerns centering around the Western canon, I found it curious that the course still sticks mostly to authors from the West and those critical of it, rather than authors who provide wholly alternative visions of society,” noted Park.
Fortunately, the class emerged from student feedback, so raising the aforementioned questions is, in a way, a reflection of the potential of the class. For instance, dialogue with the student body was essential in designing and constructing the syllabus of the class, with the origins stemming from an article in The Gazelle which questioned the impact of Eurocentric curriculum in such a diverse student body.
“I refer students back to [The Gazelle] article where a lot of these critiques were made,” Stahl said. ”A lot of the readings are directly inspired by that article...It's a good blueprint for building a more inclusive course.”
The attention paid to the collaborative aspect of building a more inclusive course did not stop at its creation. Such dialogue can also be, in future reiterations of the class, a tool for sorting out questions of methodology on how to critically approach the decentralization of Western thought in academia.
“I want to listen to feedback and hear about what can make this course better,” Stahl explained. “What is missing, what’s the right angle; and what are the debates we should be looking at. That is not an automatic process and requires a clear line of communication back and forth.”
For its proponents, the addition of Modern Social Theory in Comparative Perspective is a concrete step towards making NYU Abu Dhabi a campus where the interconnectivity of knowledge production and systems of oppression are taken seriously. Furthermore, it represents the result of effective feedback from students to faculty and administration. It serves as an example of the power of such communication in reshaping the landscape of critical learning and unlearning in the university.
Lucas De Lellis is a staff writer. Email them at
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