Students Staff

4 August 2020

Decolonising research: north-south partnerships

Filed under: Latest news, Research impact — Communications, CER @ 4:42 pm

Professor Rajendra Chetty (University of the Western Cape) and Dr Colin Reilly (University of Essex) are currently collaborating on two GCRF@Essex research projects. Here they draw on their experiences and highlight some of the key issues involved when thinking about decolonisation in collaborative research.

There is an increasing awareness of the importance of collaboration in academic research and a range of research funding schemes which explicitly require partnerships between researchers in the Global North and Global South. When taking a decolonial approach to our research, these collaborations can raise a number of challenges and opportunities.

To decolonise the curriculum, we have to also decolonise the research that will inform our teaching, and decolonise how we undertake that research. This involves actively addressing how knowledge is produced and whose knowledge is valued. The priority for the radical intellectual is to reflect seriously on the ways academic practices signify, restrain, or empower decolonial turns not only in the curricula but also in real-life concerns of domination, emancipation, justice, and liberation of the increasing number of poor people globally. When both North and South scholars collaborate in Humanities research, there is always the danger of who speaks for whom, especially research on the lived experience of the subaltern. In many academic endeavours, it is not the voices or intellectual production of the subaltern that is foregrounded, but rather the interpretation and utility of their experience from a scholar’s (both North and South) perspective.

Having collaborators who are from the ‘Global North’ or ‘Global South’ researching collaboratively does not automatically mean that the research is engaging with decoloniality. The current engagement by decolonial activists with the complex context of the North and South has to include the hybrid spaces of the ‘Norths in the South’, and the ‘Souths in the North’, given the colonial history of spatial injustice. Often there’s a tendency to frame the Global North and Global South as clearly distinct entities, which are in themselves also homogenous. So the Global North partners bring ‘x’ to the project, and the Global South partners bring ‘y’. When in reality it’s obviously more complicated than that.

The North-South dichotomy is reductionist and unhelpful. Rather, we should view our commitment to radical humanism, both in the North and South, and focus on how nuances of the historical process contribute to the invisibility of coloniality, as witnessed recently with the Black Lives Matter discourse across the US and Europe. Walter Mignolo reminds us that we always speak from a particular location in the power structures, be it in the North or South, and no one escapes the class, sexual, gender, spiritual, linguistic, geographical, and racial hierarchies of the modern, capitalist and patriarchal world-system. All knowledges are epistemically located either in the dominant or the subaltern side of the power relations and this positioning is related to the geo- and body-politics of knowledge.

The lack of substantive attention to the lived experience and condition of the marginalized other, the subaltern, is construed as a continuation and reinforcement of colonialism. The need for re-thinking knowledge in the Humanities is urgent given the current context of increased mass social resistance, neo-colonial approaches of developing states and student demands for university reform. An important step is to take some distance from the dominant philosophies, discourses and practices and detect its mechanisms of operation, whether it emerges from the North or South and the places where it has effect. Most disciplines in the Humanities lean towards Eurocentric indoctrination that marginalizes Africa and often reinforce patronizing views and stereotypes about the continent.

In disciplines such as English and Philosophy, European and white values may be perceived as the standards on which the curriculum is rooted. Respectful and effective collaboration between North and South colleagues should therefore assume a political position that makes possible an ‘other’ discursive strategy, other philosophical work, and which opens other spaces of theoretical production. Catherine Walsh clarifies that it is these other places, spaces, and positions, other philosophies and other knowledge that challenge not only the definitions and boundaries of philosophy’s continental-analytical divide, but also the geo-political ordering of knowledge and the questions of who produces knowledge, how and where, and for what purposes.

The dilemma in the Humanities is that Western canonical traditions of knowledge production have become hegemonic, alongside the dominance of conservative scholars, this actively reinforces these traditions in the guise of values and standards. This hegemonic notion of knowledge production involves a particular anthropological knowledge, which is a process of knowing about native/ indigenous/ barbarian others – but a process that never fully acknowledges the other as thinking and knowledge producing subjects. The epistemic traditions of the other are disregarded – a form of  cognitive injustice. Cognitive justice as a prerequisite, recognizes the presence of different forms of understandings, knowing and explaining in the world. The commitment from scholars (North or South) should be towards a radical humanism that engages with the voices of the subaltern. This is a crucial foundation for decolonising collaborative research, which will in turn contribute to the decolonisation of the curriculum.

A Critical Resource for Ethical International Partnerships by the Sustainable Futures in Africa Network provides practical advice for developing equitable partnerships.

If you would like to contribute to this ongoing series of blog posts on decolonising the curriculum please get in touch with Hannah Gibson h.gibson@essex.ac.uk

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