Indigenous Research Methodologies

​A number of past posts presented books on decolonization - Fanon on struggles, Ngugi on language, and Smith on methodologies. How might a grounding in decolonization shape research? Margaret Kovach addresses this question in "Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts" (2009). 

In seeking to understand how Indigenous methodologies have been utilized in research, Kovach presents reflections of Indigenous scholars. Their "stories, interwoven with my own reflections, explore how Indigenous researchers have integrated Indigenous cultural knowledges into their research frameworks and the challenges of doing so within academia" (p. 14). Foundational to what makes Indigenous approaches different is a grounding in decolonization: "introducing Indigenous knowledges into any form of academic discourse (research or otherwise) must ethically include the influence of the colonial relationships, thereby introducing a decolonizing perspective into a critical paradigm" (p. 30). This is key because knowledge is "neither acultural nor apolitical" (p. 30).

The author outlines how what constitutes knowledge is a key question, and one that creates challenges in integrating Indigenous methodologies into academia. "Ancient knowledge is still alive in Cree communities. The most sacred form comes through dreams, fasts, sweats, vision quests, and during sacred ceremonies" (p. 66, see also p. 140). But, "Sacred knowledge is not really accepted in Western research, other than in a peripheral, anthropological, exotic kind of way. This can create a difficulty for the Indigenous researcher, for if one chooses to embrace Plains Cree knowledges one must honour all that they are" (p. 67). This includes committing "to its values and demands" (p. 133).

Kovach's books is one step into the direction of broadening what is considered acceptable and accepted within academia. "Creating methodological choice for Indigenous researchers is but one element of decolonizing research, a process that requires depth, breadth, and attention to various aspects of research" (p. 175). "There are also political motivations. Given the assimilative tendency of Western culture, highlighting the tribal-knowledge basis of an Indigenous research framework rather than identifying it as a more generic relational, holistic epistemology, lessens the risk of a qualitative research community assimilating it" (p. 177).

One of the traits Kovach highlights is the relational nature of research and the need for reflexivity. The book does not simply describe these as traits, but exemplifies these traits throughout, as the author explores her own situatedness and journey with Indigenous methodologies. This book is unique - in its style and content - and it is well worth reading.

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Encountering Poverty

The 2016 book "Encountering Poverty: Thinking and Acting in an Unequal World" brings together some of the insights draw from teaching in a critical undergraduate program. Roy, Negron-Gonzales, Opoku-Agyemang and Talwalker offer something between an edited volume and an undergraduate textbook, while also offering critical reflexivity of their own roles and positionality. The target audience of the book was broad, potentially too broad. At times it seems best suited for undergraduate students, and at others educators. Nonetheless, for either of those two audiences, it is a book I recommend. What this book does very well, and I believe uniquely so, is offer critical engagement with international and community development studies, that moves beyond criticism. Far too often I've come across recent graduates of development studies programs who feel hopeless about the sector and disinterested in further engagement with it. About the book, Matthew Sparke wrote: "far from leading us to a place of paralysis and moralistic self-flagellation, the authors advance a more reflective and constructive approach, arguing that we can still take modest steps against massive global inequality even as we navigate its contradictions and complexities."

The point of engagement is elaborated by contrasting the position of anthropologist Li (author of The Will to Improve and Land's End) and their own: "we depart from Li on one significant matter of expertise and politics. Li (2007, 2) argues that the "positions of critic and programmer are properly distinct." She notes that programmers, those who are tasked with implementing development, "under pressure to program better… are not in a position to make programming itself an object of analysis" (p. 46)." To this, they state: "… we are reluctant to conclude such a firm separation between the trustees and recipients of development. Instead, we interpret the mediators and functionaries of development – from star economists to young volunteers – to be engaged in the battle of ideas. Instead of positioning critics as those situated outside of development, we seek to explore how those within the system can participate in such struggles. However, we do not want to overlook the fact that, often, the poor themselves are programmers of development, especially at the interface between bureaucracies of poverty and poor people's movements" (p. 46).

As someone who has written about the problematic nature of short-term, small-scale, donor-determined handouts, this book offers useful insight into whose voices drive the direction of community and international development activities. The authors write: "Dominant frames of global poverty and dominant models of global citizenship do not address the poverty of power. However, the long history of poor people's movements must be read as the insistence for dignity, voice, and power. After all, the impoverished of the world are not mobilizing in mass action to demand malarial bed nets or TOMS shoes" (p. 31).

Much of the book seeks to re-position, re-frame and re-orient the study and practice of international development, first by diagnosing its challenges in clear and concise ways, and then offering alternative paths: "The pull to eliminate poverty is not only insufficient but also misguided unless the attempts to do so are rooted in analysis that acknowledges that poverty is an integral part of the growth of capitalism, that it is mapped onto colonial histories, and that it is connected to global social movements" (p. 10). "What if, instead of the ladder of development, we were to recognize that the prosperity of wealthy places often depends on the impoverishment of other places and peoples? And, what if, following Polanyi, we were to realize that this is not the natural order of things but rather a system of extreme artificiality?" (p. 61-62)

"What we are striving to achieve is not just a disruption of the master narrative but a disruption of a kind of poverty action that is about feeling good and keeping everything exactly the same. We must disrupt the politics of benevolence that position the poverty actor as the savior and the impoverished as the lucky recipients of their charitable deeds. We must train young, enthusiastic people to be hopeful but realistic, self-reflective but not self-absorbed, and imbued with a sense of responsibility but no an inflated ego. The challenge for us, then, is to think about how we can prepare a team of poverty actors who will disrupt the old, problematic dynamics of poverty interventions, privilege, and power and who will envision and execute a new kind of poverty politics that focuses on the development of solidarities, not aid, and promotes an honest engagement with the dynamics of power, privilege, and responsibility that come along with this work." (p. 175-176)

Supported by the diversity of disciplines the authors bring to this book, there are discussions that are not common to works of this nature, but add important dimensions to the discourse, such as in philosophy and education:

  • "We could argue that this overwhelming tendency to focus on educating poor people and to ignore poor people's own views of their own problems is a symptom of middle-class paternalism. We could also argue that it is neoliberal, in that it focuses on individuals and personal responsibility and seemingly neglects the larger more long-term causes of inequity and inequality. These are valid and important cautionary points to make. But I want to suggest a related third point (a point bound up in these other two, as they are perhaps all ultimately determined by the current historical moment): that this tendency to focus on educating poor people is (also) a symptom of the widespread utilitarian approach to people and society. For utilitarianism focuses on individuals, and it does so instrumentally." (p. 133)
  • "Praxis posits that learning is not simply about individual fulfillment or deepening knowledge but rather about transformation, not only of the self but also of the world around us. Freire argued that learning without action is empty, and that we learn in order to act in the world around us, and that learning (and therefore also teaching) must be explicitly oriented toward this aim." (p. 163)

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The Making of a Better World

Rosalind Eyben spent a career as a practitioner in international development and then as an academic on the subject. Her 2014 book, "International Aid and the Making of a Better World: Reflexive Practice" is one of the few books that critically self-analyzes a personal trajectory. Unlike some personal journals/journeys of aid workers, this focuses upon teaching the processes of being reflexive and the value it adds. It poses challenging questions to the sector, and of the author, the latter of which provides a powerful way of teaching the reflexive practice. The book's preface opens with: "These people were working in international development to help make a more just and fairer world, yet many of them, like me, sometimes worried we were inadvertently helping maintain the inequities we aimed to reduce. This book is for all such development professionals" (p. xii).

One of the interesting experiences Eyben brings is that of the transitional period between colonial administration and aid, and the similar faces with which those posts were staffed. More broadly, the practice remains heavily influenced by this history: "international aid's colonial roots have continued to shape aid practice, most obviously in the earlier decades through the lived experience of many development practitioners who had started their careers in colonial administration… More contentious is the postcolonial studies argument that the mindset of development agencies has not shifted since colonial times… Is the focus on alleviating poverty a continuation of the colonial discourse of the White Man's Burden in which famine is the consequence of generic poverty and never due to global inequalities and decisions made by the rich and powerful? Development professionals, whatever their origins be it First or Third World, should debate the colonial legacy of development and the implications for practice of a discourse that is alleged to be arrogant, ethnocentric, rooted in European cultures and reflective of a dominant Western world view" (p. 40).

Throughout the book, race, gender and power are explored in critical and reflexive ways. For example, Eyben writes: "When I barged my way to the head of the queue in a Kinshasa hospital by taking advantage of my whiteness to give my child's life priority over the lives of other women's children, it seemed a perfectly natural thing for me to do. Almost, but not quite normal, otherwise I would not have remembered it. I have probably chosen to forget other occasions when I may have done something similar. In the early years of international aid, racism and gender discrimination were more prevalent and most development professionals were white and male" (p. 59).

On participation and human rights:

  • "There was an alternative vision of civil society – the one I liked – associated with people-centred approaches to development in which not everything could be left to markets. Ideas about participation, growing in influence since the 1970s, joined up with a post-Cold-War emphasis on the indivisibility of human rights that by the end of the 1990s led to 'rights-based approaches' to development. I saw understanding participation as a right, rather than as an instrument to greater aid effectiveness, as one of the biggest shifts in donor thinking in recent years. I believe it meant switching from a technical to political understanding of development." (p. 87)
  • "'The long and the short of it,' reflected the chairman of the village development committee, 'is that we used to see some benefits from aid money – a water scheme or a road. Now that you foolish donors are giving all your money to the politicians it disappears into their pockets and we see none of it. Are you from cloud cuckoo land?" (p. 116)
  • "Equally important principles were in conflict – of aid helping people realise their rights and of recipient governments' controlling the aid they receive. Finding this nearly impossible to resolve, I sometimes chose to ignore one of the principles and paint a simpler picture of development practice, where the decisions were either right or wrong in accordance with established procedures and available evidence." (p. 126)

Although it may have been unintended, for me Eyben's book was also a quasi-ethnographic work of an aid workers life that I have not lived. I've not lived in colonial homes or attended expat parties, nor have I lived in gated communities or compounds. I have worked in countries that were not always safe or calm, but my experience, thus far, has been quite different than the one described. In the spirit of reflexivity, this has not always been in the spirit of solidarity. At times it was akin to one of Rosalind's fellow travelers, who started out in the sector that resulted in a particular type of engagement. However, I have also made purposeful choices not to live the 'expat life' when those opportunities did arise.

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Logan Cochrane

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