Decolonizing Methodologies

What are the ways in which research approaches and methodologies replicate colonial attitudes and processes? In "Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples" (1999), Linda Tuhiwai Smith makes these ways clear, while also presenting new pathways for research – not simply a decolonization of research, but a reformation of research that is embedded within a broader struggle about reclaiming control over knowledge and ways of knowing. Despite being written nearly two decades ago, the book remains highly relevant, particularly for graduate students and researchers.

The book starts out powerfully: "the term 'research' is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism. The word itself, 'research', is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world's vocabulary. When mentioned in many indigenous contexts, it stirs up silence, it conjures up bad memories, it raises a smile that is knowing and distrustful. It is so powerful that indigenous people even write poetry about research. The ways in which scientific research is implicated in the worst excesses of colonialism remains a powerful remembered history for many of the world's colonized peoples." (p. 1). The first half of the book continues to advance a critique of research. The second half presents research projects that were emerging at the time of writing, and a list of twenty five 'projects' indigenous people are engaged in. Due to the more context specific nature of the second half, this post focuses on the critical examination of research.

The problem with research is not historical, or the past experience of poor practice. Smith explains that research "within the late-modern and late-colonial conditions continues relentlessly and brings with it a new wave of exploration, discovery, exploitation and appropriation. Researchers enter communities armed with goodwill in their front pockets and patents in their back pockets, they bring medicine into villages and extract blood for genetic analysis. No matter how appalling their behaviors, how insensitive and offensive their personal actions may be, their acts and intentions are always justified as being for the 'good of mankind'. Research of this nature on indigenous peoples is still justified by the ends rather than the means, particularly if the indigenous people concerned can still be positioned as ignorant and undeveloped (savages)" (p. 24-25). Furthermore, even when exploitation is not explicit, there is also "a cultural orientation, a set of values, a different conceptualization of such things as time, space and subjectivity, different and competing theories of knowledge, highly specialized forms of language, and structures of power" (p. 42), which act to reinforce the dominance of one way of knowing over another.

Not only are the means problematic, but also the assumptions about what knowledge and evidence lead to. "For many people who are presently engaged in research on indigenous land claims the answer would appear to be self-evident. We assume that when 'the truth comes out' it will prove that what happened was wrong or illegal and that therefore the system (tribunals, the courts, the government) will set things right. We believe that history is also about justice, that understanding history will enlighten our decisions about the future. Wrong. History is also about power. In fact history is mostly about power. It is the story of the powerful and how they became powerful, and then how they use their power to keep them in positions in which they can continue to dominate others. It is because of this relationship with power that we have been excluded, marginalized and 'Othered' (p. 34).

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Colonial Attitudes in Contemporary Writing

It is not easy to convey the respect one has for the people with whom they work or with whom they conduct research. Similarly, it can be challenging to identify colonial and paternalistic attitudes. "I know it when I see it", a judge famously stated in seeking to draw a line within fuzzy grey areas. Recently I ran into one of these instances. I wanted to learn more about Pakistan, and randomly picked up "Pakistan: A Hard Country" (2011) by Anatol Lieven. The author is a professor at King's College and Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation.

For clarity: I am not arguing that Lieven is a supporter of colonialism or the subordination of the ideas and interests of others. The author describes a deep love for the nation. I use some selected lines of his writing to demonstrate how we can attempt to identify attitudes that do not convey respect, and may contain a sense of superiority. I hope these lines were made in error. Regardless of intentions, 'knowing it when we see it' helps us to critically engage with texts, authors and statements.

In explaining a particular point, Anatol explains: "to judge by my own interviews and those of other Western colleagues, an absolutely overwhelming majority not just of the Pakistani masses but of the Pakistani elites believe…" (p. 47). Note that his own experience and those of "other Western colleagues" are more valuable than any non-Western scholar, never mind a citizen of the nation. One might wonder what the author thinks of the people of the nation about which he is writing and claims to deeply love. Anatol continues, about encountering "more rarely, a sensible Pakistani" (p. 47). They are irrational. Illogical. Untrustable. Best assessed and judged by "Westerners", even by those that, like Anatol, do not even speak local languages.

It ought to come as no surprise, then, that at the outset of the book Anatol describes Pakistan as "divided, disorganized, economically backward, corrupt, violent, unjust, often savagely oppressive" (p. 4). For anyone wondering why such a portrayal is problematic, I encourage you to read Orientalism by Said (1978). For those wondering why valuing "Western" opinions as more logical, rational, true and right than those of the people themselves is problematic, I encourage you to read Chambers' Whose Reality Counts (1997). In our effort to uphold the dignity and respect of everyone, we need to confront paternalistic and colonial attitudes wherever we encounter them. We need not only to be able to recognize them, but to contest and challenge them.

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Post-doc: Comparative Global Humanities (Tufts)

2017-2018 Center for the Humanities Postdoctoral Fellowship in Comparative Global Humanities

The Center for the Humanities at Tufts University (CHAT) invites applications for a one-year postdoctoral fellowship, beginning July 1, 2017. The fellows will be in residence at the Center, and participate in a research seminar on themes in Comparative Global Humanities, a project that reconceives humanities and social science knowledge in relation to histories of global relation, contradiction, and exchange.

We seek a junior scholar whose research investigates the impact and transformation of culture in relation to colonialism, racial capitalism, trade, migration and diaspora. We are interested in work that crosses national and disciplinary boundaries to reconceive the objects, methods, material culture and archives for research. The area of specialization is open and may involve one or more of the following disciplines: anthropology, history, comparative literature, religion, material and visual culture, critical theory, however, the Comparative Global Humanities project is particularly interested in an interdisciplinary scholar with the ability to think broadly and experimentally across conventional geographic, thematic or temporal norms.

The fellow will receive a stipend of $47,500, will be eligible for Tufts University health benefits, and will have an office at the Center for the Humanities at Tufts (CHAT).

More details

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PhD and Postdocs (6): Racialized Lives of Migrants

The Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon (Instituto de Ciências Sociais da Universidade de Lisboa) invites applications for up to six Post-Doctoral Research positions in the project The Colour of Labour: The Racialized Lives of Migrants (ERC Advanced Grant # 695573 - COLOUR), led by Cristiana Bastos.

The multi-track, multi-disciplinary project COLOUR will address the processes of racialization in cases drawn from post-slavery sugar plantations and cotton-mill factories. The cognitive categories of racialization include formal, political, popular, medical and scientific uses of race as criteria for assembling and separating human beings, as well as the medical and popular knowledge about the endurance and competence of bodies in different environments. The processes of embodiment and memory will connect the present and the past and provide a basis to explore the potentialities of combining ethnographic and historical research.

Pre-defined case studies include the flows of Madeiran islanders to the sugar plantations (Guianas, Caribbean, Hawaii) and to African rural settlements; the flows of Azorean islanders to the workforce of North America; their trajectories into further destinations; and the lives and memories of the generations that followed them. The scope of research will be completed by two further cases brought by the hired researchers (from Europe, Asia, Middle East, etc.) with potential for cross-analysis and conceptual development.

PhD Studentships (2) here.

Postdocs (6) here.

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Logan Cochrane

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