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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Conducting Research in Ethiopia? Read this.

Received ethics approval from your home institution or organization to conduct your research overseas? Great. However, that is insufficient. Authorities in the country where you plan to conduct research have a legal and ethical right to approve the research you plan to conduct in their country. In addition to abiding by legal requirements, researchers ought to respect peoples' right to be protected from unethical research, for whom your home institution or organization has very little practical legal responsibility. If you are a graduate student conducting research, or a professor approving students to conduct research overseas, obtaining ethics consent from national authorities is highly recommended, and should be mandatory. If this is not a standard requirement at your home institution, you should advocate that it become so. The process can slower than ideal. And, it can be frustrating. That, however, does not mean ethics approval from national authorities is not important.

Many academics in my network who have conducted research in Ethiopia have not obtained approval from national authorities. One of the biggest challenges they face is not knowing who to ask and what to do (as well as relying on approval from their home institution as being sufficient). Here is a brief overview of the processes I used to obtain ethics consent from the Government of Ethiopia.

Based on my experience in Ethiopia, there are three ways to obtain ethics consent, each of which have unique requirements. In brief: (1) via the Federal authorities, (2) via the respective regional-state authority, and (3) via an Ethiopian university. Each will be explored below, as it related to my own research (however you may need to interact with different ethical bodies depending on the focus of your research):

  • 1. Federal Approval: For many research projects ethics approval is obtained from the Ethiopian Public Health Institute (EPHI), which has a Scientific and Ethical Review Committee (SERC). There are other federal authorities, although it seems most proposals go via EPHI. You must obtain the research proposal format and prepare your proposal accordingly. Although the form appears brief, the SERC wants a detailed research proposal, something similar to what you would submit to an ethics board at your home institution (i.e. 40-60 pages). When you submit, they want five printed copies for the members of the SERC to review. When the proposal is submitted, there will be an internal review, after which you will be required to give a presentation to the SERC, which will also be open to EPHI staff to attend. Following the presentation, the SERC will provide feedback and most likely request that some revisions / clarifications be made. When SERC is content with your revised proposal, you will be required to print five new copies and submit final versions to EPHI. Members of the SERC committee will approve and sign, as will the Deputy Director. The proposal will be archived at EPHI after being approved and your approval is given. The timeframe of this process greatly depends on the ethical complexity of your research.
  • 2. Regional Authority: This is only applicable if your research is limited to one regional-state of Ethiopia. The process tends to be faster than the federal process. If you opt for this route, the authority you will most likely want to start with is the ethics approval body within the Regional Health Bureau (the exact names of these bodies and where they are located differ by regional-state). However, certain research proposals cannot be submitted to regional authorities. As far as I have been told, all graduate research proposals cannot be approved at the regional-state level, these proposals must be approved at the federal level. These regulations are subject to change and it is best to ask for updates when you engage in the process.
  • 3. Ethiopian University: Ethics approval can be obtained via an Ethiopian university. This, however, often requires university-to-university partnerships and/or memorandums of understanding. For large-scale projects this may be a viable option, for graduate students and smaller projects this is most likely not a practical avenue to pursue.

A few additional notes:

  • Just because you are volunteering with an organization in Ethiopia, or have an agreement with an organization working in Ethiopia, that does not mean you have ethics approval from national authorities to conduct research. There is a grey area for those working within/for organizations obtaining ethics approval. For the most part, organizational activities are approved by Government of Ethiopia authorities that monitor and regulate (I)NGO activity. As a volunteer or quasi-partner of that organization, your research activities may or may not fall within those government-approved activities.
  • It is highly recommended that you obtain ethics approval, not only for the legality of it, but also because this will enhance your research engagement with other governmental authorities, who will be far more likely to support your research when they know it has been approved by federal and regional authorities (i.e. the responsibility is no longer on their shoulders for having research conducted in their area of responsibility, but upon the one that approved it). Having federal or regional support almost always improves relations at the district (woreda) and sub-district (kebele) government levels.
  • If you are conducting research that you feel the government would never approve, and requires some clandestine research activity, due recall that in many countries this is not only breaking laws, but can be considered espionage (or terrorist-supporting activity). Arrests have been made for activity of this sort in Ethiopia, and those thinking of heading down roads such as these may research the topic further to understand the gravity of the risks involved.
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