Framing challenges

Decolonising research: Some useful strategies

By 01/07/2020

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‘Knowledge without context is in fact no knowledge at all’ This quote from Steve Denning, who used to lead the World Bank’s organisational knowledge-sharing programme, says a great deal about why we should take findings that are the result of studies being conducted remotely in various parts of the global South by Northern based researchers with a pinch of salt.

A lot has been written in recent years about the need to ‘decolonise the curriculum‘, but much less about why we also need to ‘decolonise research’ and how we can go about it. In this post, I draw on my experiences of carrying out ethnographic research on the inclusion of all learners in education in Colombia, Latin America, and I illustrate some strategies that Northern researchers can use to allow southern voices to be heard and to ensure culturally sensitive knowledge production that is not about the South, but from the South.

My particular field, the inclusion of all learners in education, is currently a top global priority and a very popular research topic. UNESCO’s 2020 Global Education Monitoring Report Inclusion and Education: All means all focuses on those excluded from education around the world. In recent months, many Northern researchers have shown a great interest in exploring the impact of Covid-19 on the participation in education of children in global South countries. Given the usual timeframes of the various stages of conducting research, such as obtaining ethical approval prior to data collection, one could question the rigour and ethics of research that was developed or adapted that quickly in response to the opportunities provided by this unprecedented crisis – and that is being conducted remotely due to social distancing rules and international travel bans.

During recent academic events I have been shocked by what seems like many Northern researchers’ inability to accept that people in the global South have unique experiences and perspectives. After presenting my own research, I have been criticised for arguing that dominant Northern-born discourses about inclusion in education might acquire different meanings in societies of the global South. It seems that Northern researchers remotely conducting studies in the global South about Covid-19 (or any other topic) must be reminded of the need for methodologies that prioritise the needs and voices of those living in the global South – even if this means that they must pause and think how best to do this under the present circumstances.

Decolonisation is about challenging the dominance of the North in knowledge production, which the Portuguese scholar de Sousa Santos describes as a ‘cognitive injustice’. In research, this means using approaches that capture the local context and prioritise the needs, experiences, and beliefs of the research participants. To achieve this, first one needs to both value local culture and knowledge and accept that non-Northern theoretical perspectives do exist, rather than dismissing them as outdated or barbaric. Second, one needs to be aware of power relations between Northern researchers and Southern research participants that can be balanced out when local people are involved as equal research collaborators. Third, and this is where most Northern research in the global South fails spectacularly, one needs to be able to directly access the local culture, knowledge, and perspectives, which means being fluent in the local language and using it throughout the research process, for example when accessing local literature and during fieldwork. If interpreters or translators are used instead, then researchers must at the very least reflect on how these methods influenced the research process.

My research focused on inclusive education in Colombia, a country about which very little has been written in mainstream Northern literature. Adopting a flexible ethnographic research design allowed the voices of local people to be heard, rather than reducing them to mere indicators or percentages. Shaun Grech, a leading Critical Disability studies scholar, stresses the need for ‘research unafraid of the ‘uncontrollableness’ of data/life’ (2015: 15). Furthermore, to ensure that my research was ethically and methodologically sound, I collaborated with local academics and school practitioners, who helped shape the research from the beginning rather than having it imposed on them by a Northern outsider. Crucially, these local actors also helped me gain access to extremely hard-to-reach areas and Institutions. Which brings me to the last strategy I adopted, that is spending time in the research setting and interacting with local people in their own language, which proved to be a key to the success of my research.

If we are honest with ourselves, how many local specificities and subtle contextual realities can one capture when collecting data from miles away? How can one understand the influence of complex sociocultural factors through translations of participants’ accounts or remote surveys? Decolonising research is about placing Southern voices at the forefront, and in this article, I have shown some strategies that can help development researchers do just that.

Those interested in the subject, can also read this recent article.


Further reading and resources:

Denning, S. (2001) ‘Knowledge sharing in the North and South’,  in W. Gmelin, K. King, et al. (eds) Development, knowledge, national research and international cooperation (pp. 131–152). Edinburgh: Centre for African Studies.

Grech, S. (2015) Disability and poverty in the global South: Renegotiating development in Guatemala. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kamenopoulou, L. (2020) ‘Decolonising Inclusive Education: An example from a research in Colombia’, Disability and the Global South, 7(1), 1792-1812.

Selection of resources on decolonisation can be found here.

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