Decolonizing Methodologies: Some Socio-Political and Poetic Reflections

The Sociological Review Foundation’s Annual Lecture – “Decolonizing Methodologies: 20 Years On” – was given by Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith (University of Waikato, New Zealand) and presented at Goldsmiths, University of London on 16th October 2019. The content featured personal reflections on approaches to undertaking qualitative research informed by decolonial practices two decades after the scholar’s internationally acclaimed monograph Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (1999) was first published.

Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith presenting the Sociological Review Foundation’s Annual Lecture at Goldsmiths, University of London, 16/10/2019. Photo: Carol Dixon.

Structured into three key sections, Linda Tuhiwai Smith opened with commentary about the impacts and legacies of British imperialism and settler colonialism in New Zealand – focusing, in particular, on the effects of the English language being imposed on indigenous Maori communities over several centuries. This was followed by some lines of poetic verse and selected narratives recounted from Maori folklore to introduce and discuss the importance of “relationality” as regards the way scholars should approach the challenges of decolonising knowledge and transforming institutional practices. Thirdly, Professor Smith concluded with some reflections on the principles of pursuing what she termed “slow research methodologies” – i.e. forms of participatory action research that, for example, embrace oral histories, critical race theory and the incorporation of opportunities for “testimonial justice” so as to enable the voices and lived experiences of marginalised peoples to be respectfully and accurately foregrounded.

Language

The most notable aspect of the Professor’s language-focused introduction was her apt reference to the way settler colonialists’ subordination of Maori culture was pursued through the nation’s schooling system as an act of “waging war.” She explained how, over centuries, the combined racist ideologies of settler capitalism, eugenics and the erasure of indigenous and ancestral land rights were actively promoted and reinforced inter-generationally through the infrastructural apparatus and curricula of New Zealand’s Missionary and Native Day Schools. Consequently, the decolonial approach to dismantling such long-standing, embedded racisms was appropriately likened to someone being presented with a vast pile of fragmented egg shells that must then be sorted and reassembled back into the shape of eggs. To further illustrate the enormity and impossibility of such a conundrum, Linda Tuhiwai Smith showed a photograph of broken shells and posed the question: “And, if you didn’t know the shape of an egg, how could you ever put the pieces back together again?”

An image of broken egg shells used by Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith during her lecture at Goldsmiths to comment on the challenges of decolonisation. Photo: Carol Dixon.

On seeing this image, I was reminded of the following lines from the poem No Serenity Here (2009):

“An omelette cannot be unscrambled. Not even one prepared
in the crucible of 19th-century sordid European design.”

Extract from No Serenity Here (2009), by Keorapetse Kgositsile (aka ‘Bra Willie’).

Ever since I read these words by the late South African poet laureate and anti-Apartheid activist Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile (1938-2018), I have remained attentive to their enduring applicability in relation to all aspects of decolonial scholarship, community campaigning and anti-racist cultural activism. The power and prescience of Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s visual metaphor about the egg shells, along with Keorapetse (‘Bra Willie’) Kgositsile’s poetics referencing the 1884/5 Berlin Congress and the (so called) “Scramble for Africa,” both cut to the core of the many complexities that have to be grappled with when striving to decolonise institutional spaces and challenge the continuing entanglements and afterlives of colonialism within contemporary socio-political, economic and cultural contexts.

Photograph of the late South African poet laureate and anti-Apartheid activist Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile (1938-2018). Source: New York Times. Image credit: Victor Dlamini, 2018.

Relationality

Regarding issues of relationality, Linda Tuhiwai Smith spoke passionately about her Maori heritage and cultural values that recognise all people, as well as all living and non-living things, as related – with the latter having the potential to “become animated” and to hold the “status of personhood” on a par with humans. This Maori belief in universal relationality was seen as central to the de-privileging of humans as exceptional beings, somehow set apart from the rest of nature. A recent case in New Zealand’s legislative history, when the Whanganui River that flows across the North Island was legally granted “rights of personhood” in March 2017, was cited to specifically exemplify the relational statement, “I am the river / The river is me.” From a research ethics perspective, this concept of relationality was valued by the Professor as key to the way scholars should reflect their respect for everything in the world – from the local, to the global – and to always strive to approach permission-seeking for engaging in data collection within communities and in the natural environment with great care and gratitude.

Some principles for conducting slow, respectful and socially just research

Lastly, when discussing the design, selection and application of effective decolonial research methodologies across all subject disciplines and phases of education, Linda Tuhiwai Smith drew attention to the following principles and recommendations:

  • Decolonisation should always be seen as a process of “recovery,” not an attempt at “reversal” of the colonial past
  • Decolonisation is an ongoing process that can only function alongside respect for the right to self-determination, as well as the right of individuals/collectives to speak for ourselves/themselves. This is essential to avoid the problematic perception of indigenous, migrant, marginal and/or minoritized communities feeling “researched on
  • Academic disciplines should never be seen as singularities, but rather as part of an institutional apparatus that – by design – has historically reinforced and reproduced the exclusion of individuals and groups falsely designated as “outsiders” (or “Other”). Decolonial research methodologies should, therefore, always be approached as opportunities to forge and sustain collaborative, inter-disciplinary, inclusive and co-produced knowledge networks that blur the traditional boundaries between the academy and the communities in focus.
  • Researchers should recognise and be mindful of the risks that the opening up of decolonial spaces can often only be temporary and, therefore, such openings can (and do) become closed again if continuous efforts are not made to monitor, protect, preserve and extend the progressions fought for and achieved.

It was a pleasure to attend Professor Smith’s insightful, thought-provoking and wide-ranging lecture and hear practical advice about pursuing effective decolonising methodologies. Having read several chapters from her monograph, I welcomed the opportunities this lecture provided to revisit that seminal text, and to also engage in follow-on discussions with the author about my own research in museums and galleries as one of the 15 participants who attended the Sociological Review Foundation’s Early Career Researchers’ Workshop on “Decolonizing Methodologies” the following day at Friends House, Euston Road, London (17/10/2019).

My intention over the coming months is to draw on Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s scholarship, and the publications of other leading theorists on decolonisation, to inform my own observations and critical thinking about the way African and African diaspora artists, curators and scholar-activists are positively transforming museums and galleries in the West into more inclusive spaces through their creative, ‘politically aesthetic’ and anti-racist decolonial interventions.

Detail from the sculptural installation “Scramble for Africa” (2003) by British-Nigerian contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare CBE (RA). 14 life-size fiberglass mannequins, 14 chairs, dining table (etched with a map of continental Africa on the surface), and Dutch wax printed cotton garments. Source: Art21 Magazine.

REFERENCES
* Kgositsile, Keorapetse. 2009. “No Serenity Here.” In Beyond Words: South African Poetics, edited by Apples & Snakes. London: Flipped Eye, pp. 13-17.
* Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London ; New York ; Dunedin, N.Z.: Zed Books ; University of Otago Press.

4 thoughts on “Decolonizing Methodologies: Some Socio-Political and Poetic Reflections

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  1. Hi Carol,
    Thank you very much for writing up this reflective and well-articulated piece. I was one of the 15 delegates who attended both the lecture and workshop in London. I am also adopting a decolonizing agenda in my PhD especially in the way I am doing the research in terms of decision-making, ethics and the entire process of it. I felt so much connected to your piece and thoughts, especially a sentence that you wrote, ‘decolonisation should always be seen as a process of recovery’. I am also developing a piece of writing in relation to decolonisation and identity/positionality and your idea inspired me to consider this avenue of ‘recovery’. Indeed, I felt unsure thinking to embrace mainstream knowledge systems and universal research praxis in social sciences when I first started my PhD but decolonisation soothes the colonial and imperial wounds which I have been subjected to, directly or indirectly in academia. This process of recovery which you highlighted has in fact empowered me to resist and find my positionality in the academic arena to move forward and bring justice not only to me as a researcher but also to the community I am collaborating with to speak for ourselves. Thank you very much for the inspiration and I wish you best of luck!!

    Riadh, 2nd year PhD student in education
    University of Exeter

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Riadh. Thank you for your feedback in response to this post, and also for all the additional information you kindly provided in your reply that sheds light on your own scholarly approaches to applying decolonising methodologies within your educational research and teaching practice. May I also take this opportunity to thank you for the information you shared during the SRF workshop about critically examining (deconstructing and actively seeking to ameliorate) the impacts and legacies of Western subalternizing pedagogies on the history of education in Algeria. Moreover, your recommendation to review Vanessa Andreotti’s scholarship on postcolonial education was gratefully received, and I later sought out her book “Actionable postcolonial theory in education” (Palgrave, 2011) to read her excellent chapters on Bhabha, Spivak and “The ‘Other’ who validates our superiority” – in addition to the case study you cited on “Through Other Eyes.” If you would like me to review your forthcoming publication I’d be pleased to do so, as we share similar perspectives on the important issues of identity and positionality that you raised. Like you, Linda’s thoughts and poetics on relationality – and her apposite advice about decolonisation as “recovery” – were the most poignant, inspiring and immediately actionable points that I took away from her lecture. I am also grateful that the 15 of us who had the opportunity to dialogue with Linda on 17th October can continue those discussions within (& beyond) our group. In the spirit of reciprocity, I also wish you Good Luck and hope that you will continue to find Museum Geographies a safe space for discussing decolonising agendas into the future. A luta continua, vitória é certa! Carol

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  2. Hi again Carol,
    Apologies for the tardy reply. I am being caught in my fieldwork; a lot to plan, and to think (and overthink sometimes). But it is all going well at the moment as I do not have to worry a lot about the rigidity of mainstream research methodologies, methods and ethics as well as the Western institutionalisation of research praxis . I fully embrace the socio-cultural aspect of my context and the decolonising agenda in my research which influence the thinking and the doing of the the entire project. Many of the decisions I take are actually shared with the community I am working with and sometimes they’d like to interfere in some of them because they think they could be relevant to the context or to my own research (I think this is where Prof. Smith’s element of doing research with than on the community) . Apart of this little comment, I thank you for your reply and information. I am still writing and developing the blog and I will kindly share it with you once it is completed. I also wish we keep reflecting and questioning our practices and decision making with the whole group and see how our scholarly works progress over time. I was thinking if we could create an online platform or something as such to keep in touch, share knowledge, and connect for the betterment of ourselves and scholarship. I know how busy we are but it would be beneficial and fruitful for all of us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Riadh. I am so pleased to hear that your research is progressing well – although I fully appreciate just how challenging this empirical phase of your work is, as you navigate all the complexities and negotiations inherent within the fieldwork process. I have my fingers crossed for the development of your blog. If this is of any help, Museum Geographies initially started out as a reflective space just for me to share thoughts and ideas that were emerging from the early phase of my PhD research. Now, several years later, it has grown into one of the most rewarding dialogical and conversational spaces where I have opportunities to correspond with readers (often fellow scholars, artists, social justice activists, other creative professionals, etc.) based all over the world. I sincerely hope you experience the same trajectory as you go forward with you blogging…and I, for one, would also be delighted to be part of a new group space initiated by our SRF workshop collective. I will circulate a follow-up email to canvas opinions and let’s see what happens.

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