The “objectivity” of knowledge(s)

Objective knowledge or objectivity in producing knowledge and the elements of method, both are myths. It is mythological in the literal sense of the word. Before we untangle this concept, let’s revisit what a myth is. Myth is something non-real, imaginary yet authentic or authoritative. Myth has an intrinsic value that makes it appealing and relevant. It contains an aesthetic core, something of a sort that makes it attractive, and an inner logic that is mostly relatable, due to the fixity in its meaning and utility for everyday praxis. Take the myth of Sisyphus as an example. The structure of the tale provides a strong imagery, the aesthetic part, that is combined or embodied beautifully in the figure of Sisyphus, or more abstractly, in the dialectical forces represented by the body of the man, the stone, the uphill and the top. This story has a direct message, regardless of the fact that it is created as a metaphor. The message is clear, that of defiance, and is relatable for two reasons; first it shows the structure and agency in most discernable way, second it has a utilitarian value. As a thinking being, one can relate to it because it offers respite in the conundrum of fixities one encounters at every second of one’s life. In short, myth has both aesthetic and utilitarian value.

Why objectivity is a myth? As a construct, objectivity defies the very foundation of the activity of producing knowledge. The act of objectification demands the distancing and disentanglement of the subject from the object of the thinking process. Thus created, the binaries ruptures the space and produces gaps in the space in which the object and subject are endlessly interwoven together in a dialectical movement, ever reproducing each other, just like Sisyphus and the stone, as both of them occupy the same uphill and endlessly reproduce the meaning by sharing this space, this uphill.

When I try to situate the discussion on and around objective knowledge, I cannot help but return to Weber’s thesis of “value-free knowledge”. A superficial look might also say that this statement produces itself on a value that is objectivity; hence the claim of being “ value” free does not stand intact. Aside from semiotics, this claim contains serious consequences for human sciences. Normally, the object-subject duality is attributed to Descartes. I contest that the Cartesian duality actually was an act of formalization, an arbitrary construction. In “I think therefore I am” he introduces the duality only to combine it later in “I”. The thinking I has no existential claim outside the existing “I” and vice versa. Hence that duality itself dissolves into a unity, i.e., I. why does it all matter? It matters because the way we have got used to producing knowledge assumes these processes as a given, a belief, and less as a problematic. Since every duality is in a constant state of dissolving in one form of unity or another and every unity is simply disintegrating into duality or multiplicity of small ruptures in space, I see no reason to advocate for objectivity when human knowledge and more importantly human experience is busy structuring itself along dialectical lines and among the intermediary spaces of these dialectical poles, the in-betweens. It seems that objectivity is only one of the two legs on which consciousness rests or moves. I do not deny the existence of this leg but I contest the idea that the whole apparatus, this highly sophisticated mechanism, can walk on this leg, that this leg is enough for mankind to walk on the moon.

So the question  if objectivity is possible becomes redundant. We are always involved and entangled in the phenomenon we study. May be this objectivity is nothing but an illusion. The more we deny that such objectivity is impossible, the more we are involved in the game of justifying that it is. While we are social being, professional aid experts, at last we are still humans with our own set of fears, prejudices, uncertainties and identities. If I pose as an aid professional but lack compassion and am poor at being relatable, there is greater chance that I find all these values lacking in the “other”, outer social groups. Since doubt and insecurity become the motivating factors, the result is an equation that lacks the fundamental human value, i.e., trust. Therefore, one is inclined to take charge of the situation, control the variables in such a manner that they pose lesser threat of uncertainty. These insecurities are deep-rooted, rather veiled beneath the surface of objectivity. Since the inner working is far more complex and demands far greater responsibility and sensitivity, it is better if a short cut is available, i.e., objective knowledge is guiding the decision making processes. This depersonalization reduces humans to non-human objects, to pieces of a puzzle that are to be solved. Human faces thus turn into images and variables that are studied to be made sense of, and the individuals, the agency behind these faces, individuals are rather reduced to targeted needs that should be satisfied. So, may be there is more to knowledges than subjectivity-objectivity dichotomy and may be the primacy of one over the other is nothing more than a matter of professionalism.

Icy waters gush through the rhythmic rivers of imaginations

rest finally and distantly

in the laps of soothing seas

there comes Columbus in his Poseidon robes

unsettles the waters for good

Elderly winters call him home

but he travels far along

streams of thought took me away

to the valleys of words

where every face wears a veil

of semiology, metaphor and some more

let the axe of logic cut through

this heart of imagination

produces some objective and sun-dried pieces and scraps of assumptions

Old like Panini’s grammar

yet purified by the holy waters of new data

Aftab Nasir is lecturer at Foreman Christian College, Lahore, Pakistan. He is a scholar, a writer and a philosopher and one of the most thoughtful and eloquent people Julia knows. 

  • 4

The challenge of epistemic poverty and how to think beyond what we know

by Sruti Bala

Researchers face the challenge of engaging with the topic of epistemic diversity. We know that we should consider diverse knowledges in our research, but how can this be operationalised? This blog post engages with this question and shows us that it first of all means calling into question what we hold dear—the very ground on which we stand as researchers and the means by which we distinguish knowledge from non-knowledge.

I am not sure if I can claim with any certainty that I practice epistemic diversity in my research. At first glance, following from epistêmê, the Greek word for knowledge, one could assume epistemic diversity to mean a diversity of knowledge. Sounds straightforward, for who would not seek a diversity of knowledge? Yet following Michel Foucault, the brilliant innovator of method, an episteme is not literally knowledge (connaissance)—something that is out there waiting to be known—but a historical set of relations or founding assumptions that unite, formalise, and systematise what comes to be regarded as knowledge.

An episteme tends to consist of unspoken, tacit modes of sensemaking that allow us to recognise something as knowledge, i.e. scientific, and therefore distinguish it from what is not knowledge, and call this by other names, like belief, ritual, gossip, superstition, crime. Epistemic diversity, in this Foucauldian sense, implies a diversity of ways of recognising knowledge and distinguishing it from non-knowledge. This is anything but straightforward!

What if my system of knowledge formation has taught me that knowledge must have a name, a language? Then I will try to acquire knowledge by naming the things I encounter, by making them enter an episteme through nomenclature, typology, or categorisation. If it cannot be named or ordered, then it must not be knowledge, but belonging to another realm—that of dreams or fantasies, for instance. What if my system of knowledge conceives of knowledge as something to be acquired, possessed, or accumulated? Then knowledge to which no ownership is attached will not count as knowledge. It may come to be regarded as folklore or rumour. What if the episteme I have been inserted into by way of education gives great importance to empirical verifiability or to linear progression? Then something that defies the rules of empirical verifiability and does not move in a straight line from simple to complex may come to be regarded as superstition or ritual or magic, but not as knowledge.

One might argue that epistemic diversity tends to come to our notice primarily when certain forms of knowledge production are in danger. Foucault’s conception of the episteme in The Order of Things (English translation 1970) points to such moments of rupture, and theorisations following from his, such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s notion of “epistemic violence” in her essay ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ (1988), reveal how certain types of practices and ways of life are criminalised and destroyed, not necessarily through physical violence, but through modes of knowledge production. The extinction of a language or of an art form are instances of epistemic violence. The silencing of certain aspects of history in public memory, such as the history of colonialism and resistance to slavery, is another. To some extent it feels simpler to say that we have to strive to preserve subjugated knowledge forms, because that is a charitable task, undertaken elsewhere, as it were. It is far more difficult to know how we should practice epistemic diversity within the four walls of our own edifices of research and study. It means calling into question what we hold dear, the very ground on which we stand as researchers and the means by which we distinguish knowledge from non-knowledge.

Where Spivak emphasises the issue of epistemic violence done to subjugated knowledges, the challenge I face in my research is better described as epistemic poverty, the loss that accompanies my set of epistemic assumptions and privileges. As a researcher I realise that it is important to listen to articulations radically different from the frameworks that I may be trained in, but more than good listening is required in order for those articulations and insights to translate themselves into what we might call knowledge. Just by desiring epistemic diversity, or proclaiming it, doesn’t mean it will have been accomplished.

Placing ourselves in others’ shoes

The task of epistemic diversity could perhaps begin with persistently training ourselves to recognise how certain epistemic privileges are ingrained in our disciplinary histories, and train ourselves to challenge and revise them. It is about learning to imagine the conditions of knowledge formation differently. One must be able to first imagine that something might be valuable, even if it does not appear valuable to oneself at all. One must be able to break the habitual rejection of something because it appears distant and irrelevant at face value. The absent potential of what one does not yet know can only be recognised when its possible presence can be imagined.

There is a specifically gendered and sexual politics at play when epistemic diversity becomes a matter of accumulation and possession of difference. I regularly encounter public declarations of the idea that the intimate encounter with difference, especially with minoritised, primitivised others, is full of pleasure and has the capacity to transform and redeem the dominant self. Authoritative claims, for instance, of intimacy with a certain culture on the grounds of one’s spouse or sexual partner being from that culture, are indicative of this stance. Bell Hooks brilliantly reflects the underlying desire for pleasure and their erotic connotations in popular cultural expressions and fantasies in Black Looks (1992). Under which conditions is the longing for and affective appreciation of otherness a move of acknowledgement, when is it a form of ‘imperialist nostalgia’ or primitivism, or fantasy of possessing and claiming the other?

It is my strong belief that the quest for epistemic diversity must be accompanied and guided by what Rolando Vazquez and Rosalba Icaza, following Maria Lugones, call a ‘politics of coalition building’ (Pilgrimages/peregrinajes: Theorizing coalition against multiple oppressions, 2003). I am acutely aware that appropriation, theft, erasure, blind spots, equivocation and over-simplification are real problems in research in the humanities and social sciences. The relationships between researcher and researched or between disciplinary formations continue to remain painfully asymmetrical when it comes to the life worlds of the Global South or of those marked as minorities. Yet we cannot overcome these asymmetries without reaching out and learning from and with each other. Epistemic diversity calls upon us to engage critically with all kinds of bodies of knowledge, even and especially if we don’t (fully) agree with them.

This post was first published on the ISS Blog on Global Justice and Social Change and forms part of a series on epistemic diversity. You can read the other articles of the series here.

Dr Sruti Bala is Associate Professor at the Theatre Studies Department of the University of Amsterdam and Research Affiliate with the Amsterdam Centre for Globalisation Studies and Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis. Her research interests are at the crossroads of theatre and performance studies, cultural analysis, post- and decolonial thinking and feminist theory.


As the World Churns

As the WORLD
so must our stomachs
(deep) space
this no place
is failing
the world churns
the chaff w/o
for all of us
to eat
and yet
there’s meat
to greet, at the feet
of, pot-bellied profiteers
(Oh, what a feast!)
as the world
to yet another


This piece first appeared on

Epifania Amoo Adare is a writer with all her heart and soul. She writes poetry, prose and academic things.  Most recently, she has published “Spatial Literacy: Contemporary Asante Women’s Place-making.”  @EAAdare

  • 9

Why I refuse to rethink development – again (and again, and again…)

This summer I attended several academic conferences, and while I was initially extremely enthusiastic to be given the chance to put my work out for discussion, exchange with and learn from colleagues, by early autumn I am fatigued and disenchanted.

Maybe the reason for this is that several of these events where claiming to be “rethinking development”, yet by the end I fail to recognize what was essentially new in the arguments exchanged and the discussions led and what will move us forward.[1]

The root of my discontent is that while everyone continuously debated “development” and attempted to “rethink” it, not once it was clarified what the (minimum) common denominator of the “development” to be rethought would be. Were we talking about intervention, projects, stakeholders, cooperation? Were we rethinking technical modes of intervention? Ways of studying or researching? Or were we questioning the roots of persistent inequalities, the sources of poverty and the causes of injustices (e.g. the legacy of colonialism, global capitalism and our imperial mode of living)?

The problem (or lack) of definition is not new. In fact, many years ago Esteva (1992) already termed development an amoeba-like concept, devoid of any meaning in itself and ready to be filled with content fitting to any context, making it prone to cooptation, and – very obviously – to misunderstanding. How can we move forward, join forces, share and synergize our knowledges if we cannot be sure we are talking of the same subject? We can continue meeting at conferences and workshops. They will be in nice locations with nice food and we will meet with nice colleagues and have nice conversations, but essentially, we are eternally damned to rethink.

What we need to do is to stop for a moment and reconsider. The term (and its practice) is value-laden and shaped by (post-)colonial power relations, Western narratives of progress and their entanglements with (white) idea(l)s of modernity and civilization. Its usage appears to produce more misunderstandings than solutions. At the same time as we acknowledge how diverse realities are, we adhere to a fuzzy dichotomous concept for defining and framing the subjects and objects of research and debate. As Ziai (2016) controversially poses: Why are we not talking about global social policy or global inequalities, (in-)justice and solidarity instead of adhering to a concept we recognize as flawed? By terming precisely what is meant we were much better able to dissect social, political, economic and environmental dimensions of global inequalities and analyse origins of disparities and their continuations.

And we could stop rethinking and start acting.

[1] A rare exception being Maria Eriksson Baaz’ poignant key note speech at the Exceed/DIE Conference in Bonn (18 -19 September 2018) asking “Rethinking, How?”. We much appreciate that she is sharing her presentation slides here .

Julia Schöneberg is usually a very nice person, but sometimes randomly starts ranting about “development”-related things that annoy her. Usually her partner is the one to suffer most. She would be happy to hear other peoples’ thoughts on the issue: or on twitter @j_schoeneberg.

  • 8

A call for resistance

Republished from Decolonize | Politics, art, decoloniality, autonomous health & feminism | Many thanks to Sat Trejo for sharing this with us here.

In this post I want to share a poem that is a call for collective healing and resistance against the violence of dehumanization racialized and gendered bodies have been experiencing as a consequence of colonization. I wrote this poem as a way to express the essence of my research that focuses on resistance to the erasure of ways of knowing-being and the peoples that embody these in a context of feminicide (erasure of specific bodies) in Chiapas, Mexico. My work looks at the politics of knowledge within the field of development studies. I understand development as a project of coloniality. The latter a form of erasure. Coloniality entails erasure of everything that has its roots outside modern logics-ways. The poem is entitled:

“You don’t break our spirits by breaking our bones”

The colonial difference I inhabit with this body constructed to not fit the category of human, from generation after generation born out of rape and exploitation this mestizaje has left scars in a society that continues to perpetuate this violence of dehumanization. Black hair, dark eyes, disappeared on her way home from work, from school, her body appears hundreds of times abandoned in the desert, broken and tied on a field, in pieces in a plastic bag. This war is on our bodies but is not our battle, is the accumulation of years of dispossession with the racialization and gendering of our bodies that holds as normal the complete destruction of our beings…we are still not perceived as human beings but possessions, disposable objects of pleasure and what is more pleasurable than the power of destruction money can actually buy?

But to you who feel entitled of taking her breath, our words, you who crumble our worlds and fumigate with hate our wombs, I want to say you don’t break our spirits by breaking our bones, to this system of death I want to say you don’t break our spirits by breaking our bones, reality does not lie, we have been dancing this destruction dance for five hundred years now, believe me, we are here, they are here, you don’t break our spirits by breaking our bones. Our bones carry the stories of resistance of every colonized, dehumanized people, of every woman who fought in resistance of her own feminicide, it’s true, you don’t break our spirits by breaking our bones.

If our bodies are the territories where power is being disputed in this system of destruction then we need to shake this ground, turn the violence displayed on this body made into a battlefield and dance until it falls apart, turn our bodies into prayers where none can set foot but everyone is forced to listen to the rhythm that carries the power of holding oneself in relation to life and as an offering to the memory of those whose lives were taken before they could join in this healing dance of resistance where our hearts follow the beat of the drums.

You don’t break our spirits by breaking our bones.

Sat Trejo is  a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). Her work focuses on resistance to the violence of coloniality, intertwined with feminism, visual art, the decolonial option and politics. Please visit her blog, which is about decoloniality and other uncomfortable topics & conversations. 


Multi-layered Selves: Colonialism, Decolonization and Counter-Intuitive Learning Spaces

Republished from artseverywhere | musagetes  by Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti

As I wondered about the best way to write this text, two related events caught my attention. First, I received a call for publications with the title “After De-colonizing…What?” issued after an extremely productive (albeit difficult) 2015 gathering in Portugal on the theme of ‘Eco-versities’. In the same week, in a different context, I was gifted a wooden USB stick with the word ‘decolonized’ hand stamped on it. Both events attest to the fact that the word decolonization is becoming a popular way to describe changes people want to see in society.

Different people use the word to name changes in processes, thinking or institutions that they feel are unjust or are causing harm to themselves or others. Therefore, decolonization has come to mean many different things in different contexts, and, although this is to be expected, Indigenous scholars have taken issue with certain uses of the term [i]. In any case, it is very important to ask questions about what assumptions, politics, and theories of change inform the analysis of colonization and the invocation and desire for decolonization in each context of use.

There are very different understandings of colonial violence, of what the job of decolonization is, and of what it takes to get the job done.

For example, in the first event I mentioned, the question “After De-colonizing…What?” can be interpreted by assuming a number of things; for instance, that there is consensus about what colonialism is, what it has done, how it is reproduced, who and where we are within it, how things could change, and when it is over. It seems to assume that decolonization can be a point in time (e.g. I was colonized, now I am decolonized), rather than a lifelong and life-wide process. It seems to assume that we can — and that it is desirable — to articulate and determine what comes after decolonization even before decolonization can happen. And it also seems to suggest that the question itself is located in an already decolonized space, that colonialism is not at work in the question itself, and that it is “time to move on” to more “concrete” things rather than keep on discussing the problems “of the past.” What the question does not convey is that there are very different understandings of colonial violence, of what the job of decolonization is, and of what it takes to get the job done.

Decolonized USBIn the same way, the “Decolonized” USB stick mentioned before works as an icon of past and present colonization while, ironically, announcing its end. On the one hand, it represents an attempt to raise awareness about the endurance of colonialism; it attests to the fact that colonialism is not something that happened in the past, and that there is a need to decolonize “today.” On the other hand, despite using critical language, the USB stick can be interpreted as supporting a colonial economy and way of being, while giving us the stamp of approval we are taught to seek and to consume. Symbolically, it turns decolonization into a brand literally stamped into the wood structure of the stick, associating it with ideas of sustainability and activism mediated by an individualist consumerist techno-culture (that, some would argue, represents colonialism itself). It feeds and is fed by our desires to look, feel and be seen as doing “good”, especially on our Facebook profiles and Twitter feeds, while the business of colonization goes on as usual.

I have tried to imagine scenarios that could have made the message stamped on the USB stick seem reasonable. The manufacturer could have used electronic materials and manufacturing processes not associated with exploited labour, dispossession, destitution, and unsustainable extraction in its production. The files stored in the USB stick could have been developed using open source software and contain everything we need to know about living “off the grid.” The USB could have been laden with a Trojan horse virus that will put a halt to a destructive global economy or reveal data that would compel us to look for different ways of co-existing on the planet. This could be a magic stick that could erase our colonial history or make people not be attracted to consumption. The files could have been created to help us question whether meeting any or all of the criteria described so far would merit the stamp “decolonized.” The USB stick illustrates that, if driven by aspirations for innocence, decolonization is also a colonial desire.

Difficult Learning
Both events indicate that creating learning spaces that require us to move beyond the desire for self-affirmation and engage in difficult, complex, and agonistic conversations is not easy. We tend to want change to happen on terms that do not jeopardize our perceived entitlements, securities and self-images. For example, we may claim we have been “enlightened” in one breath and in the next, reproduce a colonial violence, finally feeling defensive when someone points that out. This is particularly difficult for those of us who are engaged in various forms of activism, critique, and alternative practices, as we would like to be seen as the ones who have risen above the colonial imaginary, becoming the role models of decolonization and able to teach others about it.

We enter debates to “win,” using moral high grounds, self-righteousness, or even self-blame to re-center ourselves in the struggle for voice and for the power to (continue to) define the direction of the process. The claim of awareness of oppression becomes a claim to innocence that re-centers the needs, entitlements and investments of those who are claiming it. We may even say we want to learn from discomfort, but when it actually happens, when we lose epistemic privilege, we feel wronged and fight to re-gain that privilege again.

Facing the magnitude of the task of enabling a world without colonial relations requires more than a change of narratives, convictions or identities. When we protect our personal and collective investments and perceived entitlements, we tend to project our expectations of outcomes and outputs, and when these expectations are not met, we get upset and frustrated with those who got “in the way.” We have been taught to seek consensus and validation and to resent the productive discomfort of learning from dissent. We tend to overlook the complexities and paradoxes in our contexts, as well as our own contradictions. We tend to polarize, to antagonize, to vilify, to victimize, and to romanticize, looking for a moral space beyond critique for those with whom we identify and ourselves. In this context of mistrust, struggle for power, and protection of perceived entitlements, it is difficult to disagree without hurting each other. And since vulnerabilities are not evenly distributed, it is important to remember that people born into non-normative bodies are often (again) made responsible for a heavier load of work in spaces for difficult learning.

So, where do we go from here? Facing the magnitude of the task of enabling a world without colonial relations requires more than a change of narratives, convictions or identities. It requires an interruption of harmful desires hidden behind promises of entitlements and securities that people hold on to, particularly when they are afraid of each other and of scarcity. It requires listening without projecting our ideas of ends and means. In order to take us to the point where we really want to exist differently, we need new, provisional and transitional frames that can help our conversations move in different ways without over-determining its direction: like a bridge that should not be confused with the path itself, which is foggy and does not give us a clear picture of the horizon. These frames should take us to the edge of what is intelligible to us, they should help us de-center, disarm, discern and disinvest in harmful practices and desires. Sitting at that edge, we can look differently at what has sustained us so far, notice the ways in which these things prevent us from ‘being’ differently, and, perhaps, accept an invitation towards what, right now, may seem impossible.

Art can do this. The story I share next attempts to do the same. In proposing a transitional frame, it invites us to move from epistemic certainty (knowing through fixed categories), to epistemic reflexivity (tracing the origins and limits of knowing), then, perhaps, to (onto)epistemic openness (experimenting with other possibilities for being/knowing without grafting them into what we are familiar with). It asks us to consider colonization and decolonization, care and responsibility across four different realms of existence; four different ways we can experience ‘being’; four different layers of ‘sensing’ the world, acknowledging the limitations of ‘sense-making’ in each layer.

Multi-layered Selves
The first layer is where “I” experiences the world as “me”. “I” exists in a temporal and temporary body, with a unique chemistry and physiology, responding to the world from a particular dynamic constellation of affects, desires and narratives that are grounded on particular collective ideas of what is real, knowable, and ideal.

The second layer is where “I” experiences the world through the interface between “me and you”: the in-between spaces and collective imaginaries of common territories, causes, identities, ideologies, and struggles. In this layer, multiple senses and languages are used to negotiate boundaries, belongings, alliances, communities and collectivities. In both layers, “I” is an individual, is separate, but is also interconnected with others.

So far, so good. We are used to these two layers: They are the DNA of our modern institutions and forms of subjectivity. Through our socialization and education, these modern institutions place a grid of meanings, relational practices, sensibilities and aspirations upon these two layers. For example, in our modern experience of these two layers, it is “common sense” to place human agency and cognition at the centre of the world. Therefore, it makes sense to try to engineer identities and societies in the same way that we engineer airplanes. It makes sense to see individuals, institutions and communities as independent, autonomous and sovereign entities. It makes sense to expect human knowledge to drive human evolution. It makes sense to evoke individual or communal interests to create different types of economies. It makes sense to treat the environment as a resource at the disposal of human progress. It makes sense to rely on moral reason to decide how nations should be organized, how we should live together and how cultures should be ranked according to their stage of modern development. It makes sense to identify and eliminate ‘evil’. It makes sense to promise security, prosperity and progress for all through bordered nations, un-bordered capital, and techno-scientific utopias.

(If you are reading this text [using the technology of alphabetic literacy], this must be all very familiar. However, the next layers problematize and set limits to the very act of sense making. As such, they require a stretch of the modern imagination beyond its sensorial and cognitive limits; please bear with me.)

The third layer is where “I” recognizes that her skin does not delimit her body: that the skin is just the outer coating of a body-organ that belongs to a larger conscious body that cannot be known, apprehended or controlled. “I” recognizes that flesh extends beyond the human form and linear time to the air, the land, the sky and everything else around her. This is where “I” recognizes that there is “me in you: that my body is made of other bodies, that the same stuff that makes my body makes your body too, and that the force that animates all these processes and bodies is one and the same. In this layer, “I” sensorially recognizes that we are all viscerally connected: viscerally in the sense that we are part of the same metabolism, that the joy, pain, shame, survival and well being of this collective body affects everything and everyone. Since “I” realizes that she carries the whole spectrum of human ills and wonders within her, she feels infinitely responsible for her participation in balancing this system, and for the well being of fellow participants. In this layer, “flesh”, broadly conceptualized, seamlessly connects everything: I am not separate, I am interwoven.

The fourth layer is where “I” disappears in formlessness, beyond time and space, beyond materiality, experience, or human consciousness. “I” realizes that it also exists in “nothingness”, in the mystery of pure energy and possibility: “I” is also the very formless force that creates everything. In this layer, there is “neither me nor you” and there is all of it at the same time: “I” is one, two, many, all, and none.

The first and second layers are layers of separability, the third and fourth, of entanglement. Depending on which layer we are operating from at any minute of the day, our relationships to thinking and knowledge can be very different. The first and second layers tend to be oriented towards practicalities of time and space, towards what is known through experience, has been tested and can be predicted with some level of success. In the grid of modernity, in the first two layers, we are socialized to equate thinking with reasoning grounded on separability.

The third layer tends to be oriented towards the weaving of relationships, seeing one’s well being as implicated in another’s as we see ourselves as part of each other. In this layer, we feel each other’s pains, we also feel the pain of the land and any harm done to another is sensed as harm done to oneself. In this layer, reasoning is not only thinking, but sensorial perceptions: we “reason” with multiple organs in multiple spaces.

The fourth layer, the realm of vision and dreaming, is the one that can be accessed intentionally by altered states of consciousness that take us beyond embodiment, space and time. This kind of reasoning often demands practices of discipline and restraint. These practices require individual intellects and identities to be bracketed for sensorial openings to experiences not constrained by normalized rationalizations of self and of the world. Although we see very differently within different layers, we can’t think our way out of a layer into another. The move between layers is not about more advanced thinking, but about a shift of locus (or frequency) of being.

Back to Colonialism
Colonialism is a systemic force inseparable from our modern desires for property, security, control, choice, comfort, affluence, autonomy, and/or progress. It furtively manifests itself even when we are critical of it and when we say we are working against it. Colonization is a theft of layers, an impairment of being where entanglement cannot be sensed or recognized. Within these fences, care and responsibility are dependent on convictions. In practice, these convictions become moral-utilitarian personal choices that are mobilized to affirm colonial relationships and subjectivities, disguised as moral and benevolent behaviour. Colonization strips care and responsibility away from the visceral command that operates before will, a visceral command that is not a rational choice.

Colonization is a theft of layers, an impairment of being where entanglement cannot be sensed or recognized.

There are at least three inter-related dimensions of colonialism. The cognitive dimension of colonialism traps our imagination into singularities, especially a single story of progress, development and human evolution. This entrapment generates epistemic violence and “epistemicide” eliminating other possibilities of knowing/being. The political/economic dimension can be represented as a dynamic grid of inter-locked meanings, aspirations and relational and organizational practices sustained by exploitation, expropriation and destitution. The grid hides the harmful costs and destructive force of its architecture by giving us a deceptive sense of freedom, innocence and autonomy, and by promising unlimited possibilities for knowledge and justice, while severely restricting what seems realistic, desirable, tangible and intelligible. The existential dimension of colonialism manifests as a denial of unbound relationships [ii], fencing our sense of self and community within layers of separability (“me” and, at best, “me and you”). This denial is rationalized through notions of civilization, superiority and/or exceptionality. It generates indifference, de-humanization, and ultimately, can justify genocide.

Tackling all three dimensions of colonialism together results in forms of resistance that are unintelligible within the grid. Similarly, attempting to undo it exclusively through the first two layers of separability results in paradoxical forms of resistance. This is because colonialism: (a) is rationalized as normal, just, and benevolent; (b) is clever, flexible, and adaptive, (c) is insidious, endemic, seductive, and “delicious” (when we are benefitting from it while foreclosing its costs); and (d) it co-opts resistance by over-coding our senses, our ideas of self, our desires, our perceived entitlements, our treasured securities, our possibilities for relationships, going far beyond just defining our “thinking”. Therefore, deeper analyses and shifts of convictions can help in our understanding of it, but ultimately, we cannot simply rationalize our way out of colonialism: when we declare we have achieved “decolonization,” we are often doing that from a standpoint enabled and sustained by colonialism itself. Our disenchantment with colonialism does not translate into disillusionment with or disinvestment in it. This is partly because, in the first two layers, we don’t know how to exist outside of it, and we are afraid of being “paralysed” by the process, afraid of the loss of epistemic and agentic privilege that colonialism provides, afraid of the loss of our sense of bounded individuality and community, afraid of life beyond the fences.

Within the existential fences of colonialism we tend to believe we are autonomous individuals that relate to the world through our thinking and knowledge alone. Language and knowledge cast a net of categorical boxes that capture and rank entities in the world around us, according to the grid. These boxes deprive us from experiencing relationships not mediated by meaning. We get sick within the fences of separability and bored with the categorical boxes, but we can only imagine and desire change within the grid itself: we want different content in the boxes without changing their frames, we want change that is recognizable, affirming and familiar; like saying you want change, but thinking only about a change of clothes: something lighter or warmer, trendier or easier to wash. Only those who have torn their clothes themselves are ready to strip down naked.

Changing frames and fences can be very uncomfortable, since it demands cleaning up, stepping up and growing up. This involves being present (to the collective pain), remaining in resonance (with the call for responsibility), practicing release (of attachments to boxes, false promises and perceived entitlements), and keeping ourselves in balance (with truck loads of patience, humility, compassion, generosity and radical tenderness [iii]). Who would choose to do this? Or . . . can we afford to continue not to?

Jacqui Alexander [iv] refers to the colonial enforcement of separability as a process of dismemberment. This dismemberment happens both at physical and psychic levels. She says that we all feel a yearning for wholeness (which we can find in the third layer), but that we confuse this (in the second layer) with a yearning to ‘belong’. The focus on belonging then makes us build more fences and make more boxes: of citizenship, of political/cultural/sexual orientation, of struggle, of relationships bound by expectations of convictions and identities in the struggle for power and promised entitlements (for voice, identity, recognition, representation, redistribution). This reproduces the very dismemberment that caused the yearning in the first place. New fences and boxes can give us some temporary respite from perceived (and real) threats, but they unavoidably reproduce the void and sickness of separation. Jacqui states that the yearning for wholeness can only be addressed through “that space of the erotic, that space of the Soul, that space of the Divine” (p. 282), all spaces of merger and entanglement.

From this perspective, decolonization is the process of interrupting the satisfaction we have with the perceived enjoyments, securities and entitlements afforded by colonialism. It cannot be done by merely replacing convictions, issuing apologies, performing tokenistic gestures expecting redemption, affirmation or gratitude, or presuming reconciliation through alliance, inclusion or integration on colonial terms. Decolonization requires an expansion of layers of reasoning, of sensing, of being, of visceral care and responsibility. It is a process of undoing that is initially messy and agonizing as it demands that we confront our fears: of facing sanctioned denials; of confronting our own violence; of being overwhelmed by our collective pain; of having our personal dreams, rights and self-images annihilated as we lose our individual selves and moral high grounds in realizing we are one another. The practice of this kind of visceral relations and responsibilities grounds a form of agonistic politics that finds little use for declared convictions. However, having provisional, transitional and precarious vocabularies that can gesture towards these possibilities may be useful, and that is what this story has tried to accomplish.

Learning spaces that can support this process…prioritize de-centering over leadership; disarmament over empowerment; discernment over conviction; and disinvestment over revolution.

Counter-Intuitive Learning Spaces
Rediscovering our capacity to imagine beyond boxes, fences, posturing, certainties, and safety blankets, requires different questions and different vocabularies anchored in the uncertainty and precariousness of our entangled collective vulnerabilities. It requires a move from epistemic certainty (where we hold on to the boxes and fences that sustain colonialism, demanding a language that will “show us the way”), to epistemic reflexivity (where we get disenchanted and, ultimately disillusioned with the false promises and pleasures of our frames and fences), and to a (fleeting) state of onto-epistemic openness (where we experiment with other possibilities for being/knowing without grafting them into what we are familiar with). It is in this state that we learn to align all four layers, and start to perceive ourselves not as either separate or entangled, but as both separate and entangled in a non-dialectical way. In order to do that, changing our relationship to language and knowledge, to boxes and fences, is key: we need to recognize multiple layers of sensing, of reasoning, of knowing, what these layers can do, and how they are all partial and limited, insufficient and indispensible, how they open and/or close possibilities for existence.

Learning spaces that can support this process are counter-intuitive within the grid, as they emphasize the importance of complex existential questions instead of the search for (often simplistic) self-affirming solutions. These spaces prioritize de-centering over leadership; disarmament over empowerment; discernment over conviction; consent over consensus; pluriversality over univocality; and disinvestment over revolution. In these spaces participants are called to recognize that decolonization is a life-long and wide trans-generational multi-dimensional process without guarantees, a process that requires us to keep our eyes, pores, flesh and dreams wide open. These spaces require a commitment to depth of reflection and faith in our capacity to relate, to see ourselves in each other, in ways not mediated by agreements, identities, knowledge or understanding.  Within these spaces precarious vocabularies that “refuse” to tell us the “only right way” are key.  They can help us to clarify different positions (without ranking them), to trace our thinking back and forth (without (self)censorship), to face our paradoxes and contradictions (without shame), and to develop the stamina to walk together differently, welcoming both uncertainty and indeterminacy, without the option of turning our backs to one another. From the perspective of the first two layers, this will seem impossible to initiate or to achieve.

When I think about the urgencies of decolonization, I often remember that I don’t know how young people in my family will survive the inevitable crash of this destructive casino economy. I don’t know for how long they might have access to technology, employment, health care, freedom of expression, and/or safe water. I don’t know who they will fall in love and have children with. I don’t know who their great-grandchildren will be seven generations from now: whether their bodies will be normative, where they will fit in the social hierarchies that might exist in their time, whether they will conform or rebel. I ask myself: Seven generations from now, what will I have been responsible for? What do I need to do right now to nurture the possibility of a viable world for this family? What kind of politics, relationships, language and forms of existence are necessary to enact this inter-generational responsibility? And what if the “family” is not just the people I have blood ties with? What if, beyond notions of linear time, these great-grandchildren are already around me?

Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti holds a Canada Research Chair in Race, Inequalities and Global Change at the Department of Educational Studies, University of British Columbia. Her research focuses on analyses of historical and systemic patterns of reproduction of knowledge and inequalities and how these mobilize global imaginaries that limit or enable different possibilities for (co)existence and global change. She is currently directing research projects and teaching initiatives related to social innovation oriented towards decolonial futures ( and

[i] See for example Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang “Decolonization is not a metaphor”, available at

[ii] See Dwayne Donald’s “Forts, curriculum, and Indigenous Métissage: Imagining decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian relations in educational contexts” available at

[iii] Inspired by the “Radical Tenderness Manifesto” available at

[iv] See “Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred”, Jacqui Alexander, 2005.

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Solidarity as Development Practice? – Insights from Volunteering Practices in Global South Communities

by Christopher Millora

The tendency to frame ‘poor’ and ‘vulnerable’ populations as subjects and recipients of development programmes continues to persist today. In international volunteering, so-called ‘global south’ nations seems to be often framed as ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘hosts’ of services delivered by volunteers from the so-called ‘global north’ nations. There is also the widely known “dominant status model” which suggests that those with higher socio-economic status tend to volunteer more as they have a surplus in money, time and expertise. While these narratives do not argue that volunteering is only the domain of the rich, their persistence seems to eclipse the valuable role of volunteering and helping activities by ‘vulnerable’ populations, for instance, within the global south.

In my local development work and ethnographic research in the Philippines, I experienced how grassroots initiatives and movements often blossom in the face of vulnerability. When super-typhoon Haiyan hit in 2013, you hear stories like that of prisoners who volunteered to skip meals to provide relief goods to affected citizens. In highly affected areas, even individuals who, themselves, have been affected by the calamity volunteer to assist other typhoon ‘victims’. I also found in my research with a displaced rural community in the Philippines that the precarity of their circumstance motivates many of the volunteering and helping practices among the members. It seems that the motivations to respond are irrespective of one’s socioeconomic status.

Still, there is also valuable volunteer work in the everyday. A research on volunteer work in Southern Africa described volunteering in the region as ‘the poor helping their fellow poor’ – the volunteers come from the same community they are ‘serving’ and therefore experience similar contextual issues their volunteer work is trying to address. The lived and shared experiences of everyday challenges between the volunteers, and their ‘beneficiaries’ have the potential to build, if not strengthen, community solidarity and, in many ways, resilience. This practice seems to have parallels with the Filipino concept of bayanihan – a system of mutual aid, help and concern among communities in the pursuit of a common goal otherwise difficult to achieve with kanya-kanyang kayod (each one fending for himself). As such, bayanihan seems to be one of the bases of various volunteering practices within Filipino communities.

Increasingly, there has been a recognition – both in academic research and in development practice – of the values of working with local volunteers. This year’s State of the Worlds Volunteerism Report recognises the local volunteerism as a ‘fundamental resilience strategy’ and calls for effective collaboration between local volunteers and external actors that work with them. According to a two-year study on the role of volunteering in sustainable development (cases from Kenya, Mozambique, Nepal and the Philippines), volunteers may serve as brokers and intermediaries between ‘external’ and ‘internal’ knowledge that may encourage new forms of collaboration. These partnerships make projects more sustainable, participative and locally-relevant. However, community-based volunteers are not only foot-soldiers in development work but are also founders, leaders and stakeholders in various community initiatives. For instance, self-help groups of single mothers and women living with HIV/AIDS in Korogocho, Kenya were founded and maintained by local volunteers operating based on mutual aid and reciprocity.

While our discussion so far generally paints an optimistic picture, there exist issues and challenges that need particular attention especially from development workers, institutions and governments. It is often the ‘poor’ and ‘vulnerable’ populations that are affected most by gaps in public services. When the arms of the government and institutions are too short, communities – through volunteerism – organise themselves to respond to each other’s needs. Over-reliance on these helping behaviours – without considering the very real vulnerabilities that these groups face – may lead to exploitation of the energies of the poorest in a given society. In this way, volunteering may contribute to the process of increasing responsibilisation – where citizens are expected not only to be active (as in ‘active citizens’) but responsible for (as in ‘responsible citizens’) their own service provisions. As a Peruvian woman volunteer expressed, “we have a lot of goodwill, but we also need to eat…”

Related here are issues of remuneration and allowances: in environments where income is scarce, and employment is limited, a voluntary job with little remuneration is considered by many as better than no job at all. Therefore, the allowances received from volunteering become necessary for survival. These points are important for institutions and governments to reflect upon particularly whether and how engagement in voluntary service increases and/or challenges the vulnerabilities of these groups.

Then, there is the gender dimension of volunteering. Research on ‘poor’ women health volunteers in Peru and India described the tendency of organisations to recruit women for unpaid work because they are considered to be more self-sacrificing, that their income is only supplementary to the male breadwinner and that their work is an extension of their maternal roles.

Despite the challenges, these narratives support what Arthur Gillette, former Secretary General of the Coordinating Committee for International Voluntary Service, has observed over a decade ago: “excluded people are increasingly forging their own futures and those of their societies at large. In this way, the very people who have been excluded are breaking new ground in voluntary service”. In other words, volunteering by the ‘vulnerable’ – under certain circumstances – continues to be a pathway of challenging stereotypes of exclusion and marginalisation within these populations. Through volunteer work, they become active participants and leaders – not only beneficiaries –  of local development activities and initiatives that respond to issues that concern them.

Note: I place inverted commas for words such as “vulnerable” or “poor” to connote that these terms – although sometimes are attributed with generalised meanings – are constructed and may mean differently for different people and in different contexts.

Christopher Millora is a Filipino PhD fellow at the UNESCO Chair in Adult Literacy and Learning for Social Transformation based at the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at the University of East Anglia. His research is an ethnographic exploration of the learning dimension of volunteer work by ‘vulnerable’ youths and adults in the Philippines. You may contact him on Twitter (@chrismillora) or via

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Development Requires (Epistemic) Justice

This statement is a result of discussions among members of the EADI Working Group on “Post-/Decolonial Perspectives on Development”

As researchers within the realms of development we strife to unify research, practice and the production of knowledges in general to jointly contribute to political, economic, ecologic and social change worldwide. This cannot be neutral: research and exchange, contestation and debate must be value-oriented. Especially in times when in an increasing number of countries academic freedom is under attack, we need to be vocal about injustices and inequalities and defend civil and civic liberties.

There is a fundamental difference between the values of academic freedom and claims to freedom of speech. Worryingly, the latter has increasingly become appropriated and abused to serve as justification for discriminating Eurocentric worldviews, white supremacist arguments and colonial apologetic stances. This contributes to a perversion of the socio-historical development of academic freedom. The right to express one’s views was the result of long social and political struggles. Academics demanding academic freedom, were those who fought social injustice, hegemonic structures and censorship. Academic freedom emerged as a value against oppressive structures. In contrast, contemporary apologetic scholars downplay atrocities and injustices perpetrated by the socio-historical forces such as colonialism. They claim to engage with history neutrally but thereby give voice to oppressive regimes. Their practices demand a legitimate space within academic circles while dismissing critical interventions as an assault on the freedom of speech and academic freedom and refusing to engage with them. They maintain that atrocities and traumatic experiences should be considered purely by the “neutral” logic of reason as an “authentic” tool to revisit history.

Development Studies is a multi- and inter-disciplinary field of study rather than a single discipline. Seeking to understand the interplay between social, economic, political, technological, ecological, historical, cultural and gendered aspects of societal change in a historical perspective means connecting local, national, and global levels. It is obvious that such research, exchange and rigorous academic contestation cannot remain focused on Europe – unlike much of the European research funding, which currently focusses on the SDGs and thereby fails to acknowledge their many blind spots. It can also not do without other perspectives and perceptions than those guided by European enlightenment, which claims to be universal but simply ignores other perspectives. Holistic knowledge production needs to reach beyond the frame formulated by Agenda 2030. It needs to contest and transform the Eurocentric lens. It should provide spaces for exploring differences through critical pathways of interculturality involving non-Western epistemologies and cosmovisions.

As development researchers we need to critically evaluate and reflect on our ways of doing research, question assumptions that may be inherent in our thinking and strive to de-link colonial biases of knowledge production and sharing from ways of researching, teaching and learning. As scholars we should revisit the basic paradigms of research, especially objectivity. If being value-free means being indifferent to the basic struggles of human and social rights it cannot be part of what it means to be an academic. Epistemic justice is at the very basis of sustainable transformations. We strive to give visibility and voice to attempts to build a just and sustainable future. We do this by serving as platform for critical discussions, contestation and debate that do not seek excuses for, but instead address historical injustices.[1]

[1] We are glad that in this endeavour we are part of a community of critical scholarship that contests and debates. For an important academic intervention on the topic we recommend Farhana Sultana’s recently published open-access article: “The false equivalence of academic freedom and free speech: Defending academic integrity in the age of white supremacy, colonial nostalgia, and anti-intellectualism” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies (2018) 17 (2), 228-57.

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Entanglements of Positionality – Reflections on development research practice

Talk given at the Early Career Researchers Plenary, Development Studies Association Conference, 28 June 2018, Manchester

by Julia Schöneberg

I was enthusiastic to embark on my PhD field research. Ready to observe and to research, to analyse and to understand. The proposal was fully elaborated, I was well into the literature review and the flight tickets for Port-au-Prince, Haiti were booked. I was ready.

And then – my little fluffy idealistic bubble burst just like that. I was sitting in a PhD seminar, a room full of colleagues from various countries of the Global South, when the lecturer asked me, the only German in the room – and for that matter – the only person not to research in her home country, why a white, privileged, Western European girl like me should be able to contribute meaningfully to knowledge production in and about Haiti. I was stunned.

I did not have a response to that question then, but it prompted intense reflections on the entanglements of relationality and positionality, on questions of knowledge and knowledge production and the authority of different knowledges especially in a context dominated by funding guidelines and financial imbalances. And it gave me many sleepless nights, stretching well after the final submission of my PhD.

The day I arrived Port-au-Prince was particularly hot. It hadn’t rained for weeks and the city was covered in a cloud of dust, heat and the fumes of burning garbage. I stepped out from arrivals and was overwhelmed. And I was instantly convinced: There was nothing I would be able to contribute. What was I doing here?

I went through several phases in due course. The first was believing I could make myself invisible, to just be there and be a neutral observer, to observe and try to understand. I failed spectacularly. “Hey Blan!” I was addressed as soon as I stepped out to the streets. Everyday I was continuously reminded of my position as the “Self” in sharp contrast to “the Other”, to speak with Stuart Hall, of my white privilege, of me being part of “the West” that has intervened “the Rest” in so many destructive and unjust ways. Blan in Kreyol means white person, and foreigner, but it is not just a description as a matter of fact. It carries with it all the baggage of violent white supremacy and a binary worldview, of Haitian history and present, of colonialism and development interventions, of projects to civilize the unzivilised and to develop the underdeveloped. My visibility as blan was ever present, no matter how much I tried to be invisible.

Going native was my second attempt. I helped preparing the food and doing the laundry, I swept the courtyard, fetched water from the river and did little messenger tasks around the community. We sat down and chatted about our families, about parents, worries and joys of life. People started to respect me as a person, beyond my role as a blan, but still it was clear that I would always remain one. And it was clear that even through trying to blend in, to adjust to day-to-day life, I would never be able to fully understand but was moving rather too close to a cultural relativist analysis of everything I experienced.

After these two phases I was still struggling with the legitimacy of my presence. Regardless of what I would make of my experiences, in the end, most likely there would be a PhD for me, but what would be the benefit of my whole endeavor for the people who so readily shared their lives and time with me? What would I be able to give back?

So, what was the answer, the way out? Aligning with James Ferguson I decided to “take as […] primary object not the people to be “developed”, but the apparatus that is to do the “developing.” Arturo Escobar has further described this apparatus as a complex set of structures, institutions and “experts”, planers and economists set out to produce knowledge about “the Other” and legitimize a continued colonial project.

Still there was the question of how to go about. I realized that three aspects are at the core of my research: positionality, relationality and reciprocity. Development research cannot be legitimate if one of them is neglected.

Shawn Wilson, a Cree researcher from Canada, in trying to articulate an indigenous research paradigm writes about “research as ceremony” to emphasize the centrality of relationships in the research process. In his vision, a ceremony involves all participants on equal level. From this entanglement of relationality, the specific duty of accountability of the researcher arises. The researched are no passive participants, but co-researchers. Knowledge can never be produced neutrally and detached from the positionality of the researcher and the researched and their interactions.
Research becomes a collective process. Relational accountability requires, according to Linda Smith asking the following questions at the outset of every research process:

“Whose research is it? Who owns it? Whose interests does it serve? Who will benefit from it? Who has designed its questions and framed its scope? Who will carry it out? Who will write it up? How will its results be disseminated?”

How did I do?
Did I fail? Certainly!
I failed those I promised to come back and spend more time with. I failed those who I didn’t keep in touch with once they started asking me about money and projects and visa. I failed those who expected some practical benefit, some concern – to speak with Christine Sylvester – of whether the subaltern is eating, and not just an analysis of discourses, of representations, of positions of power and knowledge.
I was the one who wrote it up, I made the analysis. And the only translation of parts of my work to Haitian Kreyol was published in the journal of the Université l’Etat in Port-au-Prince, where none of the people from the provinces, those I am accountable to, will ever have the chance to read it. Let alone the fact that most of them are not literate.

Did I succeed? Yes, maybe, in parts. Although I had come up with research questions back at home, they fundamentally changed once I started to research the apparatus and look at the machinery, rather than at the people to be developed. It required to shift my mindset to seeing people as co-researchers rather than as respondents, and although I had prepared topics and questions for my interviews this fundamentally changed once my co-researchers gave me insights in their understandings and world views. It required moving away from the Western positivist traditions of knowledge production and accepting story-telling, songs and proverbs as valid and scientific methods for knowing and understanding. And quite often, whenever I attempted a formal interview the situation quickly shifted to people asking me questions rather than vice versa.

And finally, despite all the failings, what gave me this little glimpse of legitimacy after years of doubt was when a non-governmental international organization, one part of the apparatus I had researched, approached me to let me know that after reading my analysis of them they were finally ready to fundamentally change their strategy, to rethink their “intervention”, to reconsider their consultants roles and their positioning in the “apparatus”.

Before I close – I guess you noticed, how many “I” there were in my talk?
I counted: There are 73 in total.
Just recently I had a controversial discussion about this with a colleague. She said: How can you assume it is necessary to put yourself so much in the focus. Aren’t you privileged enough? I had to disagree. I believe that I am not putting myself in the centre to point out my importance, my intelligence, my status. Rather I am putting all the baggage I am carrying with me to “the field”. The big suitcase full of white privilege, my Western education, my protected middle-class upbringing and my gender. Either way, even if I don’t do that, all of that stands in the room like a white elephant. But when I bring my suitcase, and open it, there is the chance to unpack it. To critically scrutinize its contents, discard some items and unfold and refold other pieces.

So if I look back to my 24 year old self ready to embark on field research, I just wish I could tell her all of this. And that’s why I believe that in every PhD programme, right at the start, there should be reflection on: Who am I? Why am I doing this? With what intention and from which position? Back then, the focus of my PhD programme, with that one lecturer’s exception, was to do research aiming to “fix” development, not to contest the concept, the apparatus and the positions of people involved. We were encouraged to improve instruments, not abandon them.
But what is the actual purpose of doing development research?

Development is never neutral. It is full of entanglements of positionality and of privilege in which we are inevitably caught up. The reason why we are researching development should be to question the structures that produce and implement inequalities and injustices, the apparatus that is “doing the developing” and the historical traces on which it is built.

Icaza and Vasquez have proposed the “decolonial option”. An option that is rather not a new grand theory of thinking about and doing development, but a call to question the structures and institutions, the coloniality of power that is inherent in development to try to break the structures of epistemic injustices by listening to voices beyond established realms, to acknowledge their contestations and resistances, to acknowledge the continuations of colonial structures until present, of which, I, as a researcher, far from being neutral, I am part, whether I like it or not.

Julia Schöneberg is Research Fellow at the Department for Development and Postcolonial Studies at Kassel University. Other than writing about things that excite, bother or upset her, she also tweets them @J_Schoeneberg.

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Decolonising teaching pedagogies – Convivial reflections

Introductory Note

The following conversation is a result of a collaborative project initiated by convivial thinkers.

The call for collaboration was shared via the group’s newsletter and through twitter channels of individual members. Through this approach we aimed to reach out to a group of collaborators as diverse as possible and beyond our established networks of scholars. We invited all to share thoughts and experiences and to collaborate on the questions highlighted below. As a result, the contributors, with exception of Aftab and Julia among each other, have neither met nor worked together previously. We did not know anything about each other’s backgrounds before engaging in the discussion, which may have blanked out positionality, yet led to productive ends.

While the initial aim of the initiative was to produce a paper in an academically approved format, in the editing process, we have decided to keep the document in the structure of a conversation in order to take account of the dialogical, open and collaborative process. We felt that not one, or a group of people, should be in charge of drawing conclusions, but, in the spirit of questions discussed, several opinions, possibly contrasting in nature, could be left to stand for itself. Some basic editing was done for clarity. The result is a patchwork that remains inconclusive. We understand our contribution as a living document and invite all to build on it and elaborate further.

Sayan Dey (Department of English, Royal Thimphu College (Affiliated to Royal University of Bhutan), Juan Fernando Larco Guevara (Global Studies Programme (M.A. in Social Sciences), Albert-Ludwigs University, Freiburg (Germany), University of Cape Town (South Africa), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (India), Aftab Nasir (FC College Lahore, Pakistan), Julia Schöneberg (Department for Development and Postcolonial Studies, University of Kassel, Germany), plus one anonymous contributor.

(Julia): Welcome to the conversation. I am wondering: What are ways to decolonize our academic environments? How can we “redo” the classroom?

(Sayan): Conducting classes outside the four-walled room is a good start – in an open environment by citing instances from the natural environment and promoting decentralization of teacher-student discourse.

(Julia): Sayan, can you give examples from your own experience? Do you mean decentralization through tools such as virtual platforms, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter?

(Sayan): Well, Julia yes besides using the social networking platforms for knowledge discourse, what I do is to take my students outside the university campus (where I teach) to an adjacent park outside which during the early morning hours is occupied with aged individuals who may come for a morning walk. Now if that day I am scheduled to deliver a lecture or discuss on “gerontology and urbanization” then I will take my students in that park talk, discuss and then will spare a considerable time in interacting with the aged people.  We ask about their habitual existential experiences within the urban spaces they inhabit and what are the different forms of crisis they suffer from, etc etc.

Now how does it help?

  • It enables the students to relate their textual learning and contextual research.
  • They are able to identify the gaps between the things written in the texts and the ‘felt narratives’ of the individuals.
  • The process of learning and research becomes very creative and enjoyable. In this way, out of 10 lectures in a week, 2-3 lecture plans are designed in this manner.

(Julia): This all sounds very good, but I wonder how quickly are you reaching limitations in practice? In my experience, time is always too limited for the amount of content that is compulsory to be transmitted and that will eventually be tested through exams. In the German context, students’ motivation is very clearly aimed towards collecting the required credit points for reaching the degree, they are specifically demanding to be taught the content needed to pass exams.

I also want to add to your points about exploring gaps between written texts and felt narratives. I believe it is also important to explore how arts and music can be incorporated in teaching environments. However, I am struggling with this myself. Let me illustrate two related points:  Firstly: In a recent course I have been teaching on critical development theory I had planned to let students write a small scene or develop a freeze frame in order to visualize their perceptions towards the term “development” and critically engage with it. Talking to a friend about my plans he said “What do you do if students say they are not in a drama class?”. Eventually I did not do the activity for fear of appearing not “academically” enough.

Second point: In showing students training materials of peasant organisations in Haiti that visualize terms such as solidarity, community and justice through drawings as well as exposing them to local chants and proverbs, I tried to make a point about alternative, indigenous knowledges and their production. The students’ reaction was that “For them, something like this might be important”, implying that this approach to teaching and knowledge transmission was considered too childish and even backward. At this point I felt I should have gone through with the “drama class” to open students’ minds for forms of knowledge not obeying to European ideals of enlightenment and the way knowledge has been produced and transmitted since.

(Aftab): Julia, I want to make an intervention regarding the term “knowledge transmission” that you have used. Let me start by analyzing the opposite. In order to see what should be done, one has to see what should not be done that is being done anyways. So for me the bigger question becomes what should not be the aim of teaching. I think the utmost important thing is to see the students not as tabula rasa, the meager brains that needs to be “taught”. This idea in itself is a product of a certain way of thinking within a certain human experience. Furthermore, the aim should not be to mould the clay in the direction a teacher’s own interests, assumptions etc. took in his or her course of learning.

Learning is not a linear pathway. Let me use an analogy here: If one has to reach the peak, there are different ways of reaching it. For me, the aim of the teaching should not be defined by looking at how knowledge is “transmitted”, an assumption that is based on the belief that there is a transmitter and a receiver. I think the aim should be to do more introspection on the part of the teacher. If the teacher is more self-aware, reflects on his/her own unknown-knowns (to borrow Slavoj’s term, which he defines as things we don’t know that we know), there is a better chance that the exchange of ideas would end somewhere unexplored, which brings me to my second point.

For me, the aim is not to “teach” which roads to follow but to simply learn how to follow. Again, using an analogy, the aim of the teaching should not be to provide the mental image of the whole terrain the teacher explored. I think the role of the teacher is of a figure who teaches a child how to ride a bike for the first time. Once the child learns the basics of balance, coordination and basic rules of traffic and which lane to take, then the territory is not the domain of the trainer. The child then takes all the turns that she/he wants.

Hence, the phrase “knowledge transmission” needs this very basic delinking, that of the role assigned to the teacher and to the student. This very idea that student is an empty container that needs to be filled by the information provided by the teacher, which Freire calls banking concept of education system, has to be eliminated. I see my students as able minds who can think. I tell them they think better than the greatest sociologists or just like them. This very idea gives them more confidence to trust in their own abilities. Abraham Maslow talks about this in his work. He starts with this assumption that the education system actually delimits the human potential for curiosity. The aim should be to fuel the curiosity of the students by providing them positive reinforcements and by building on their interests, by letting them find their own voice, which is my final point. The aim should not be to give students voice but let them find their own voices, which can be raw, problematic, unsophisticated, non-scholarly etc. This should not be a problem as perfection only comes out of imperfection, or rather is a transitory stage between two imperfections. The students should not be taught to be perfect, to give the perfect answer or to be a perfect student. They should simply learn to be, and losing the fear of being one thing or the other.

(Julia): Aftab, again, as with Sayan’s points earlier – I totally agree. Yet, I am still wondering how to put it into practice. Of course, much depends on my own appearance and demeanor. Do I pretend to be omniscient, do I try to put myself on a pedestal, or do I try to be a guide, a companion through webs of knowledge I have entered and crossed before – knowing that there may be several paths and several alternative paths to the ones I have treaded. Nevertheless, I am often confronted with syllabuses outlining exactly what needs to be taught and students asking me “What is the correct answer?”, even when previously stressing that the aim was not to determine right or wrong but to practice critical thinking. That brings our discussion to the next question:

As an educator, how do you “delink” from more mainstream pedagogical traditions and bring these aspirations of decolonialisation into knowledge-sharing, teaching, and learning ?

(Aftab): It is right what you point out, Julia. Power is exercised through grading, studentsare trying to guess the “right” answer, i.e. the lecturers opinion in order to gain good marks. This point has its roots in the psychological makeup of the child. Any institute for socialization provides the list of rights and wrongs, and the agents learn to differentiate the right from the wrong. I don’t think the problem is not to look for the right answer. The problem is to force a certain kind of right answer. If the students are given the confidence that there is no right or wrong answer but an answer that they can justify logically and critically, the job is done.  The job of the teacher should not be to abolish the idea of good or bad marks, but to take away the fear of providing wrong answers and getting bad grades. There will come situations where students, as part of the society, will make wrong decisions, will take wrong turns. The basic aim of the teacher should not be to abolish the concept of failure from the minds of the students. It should rather be to teach the value of failure. Telling students through providing constant support via verbal messages and written feedbacks, in addition to marks, about the value of losing and then trying again is the key to effective teaching. An effective learning can happen if a student does not fear bad marks anymore. This does not mean the concept does not exist. It means that the student is not afraid anymore of falling, but rather prepared to rise up again when she/he falls, hence a basic link between the experience of being a student and being a citizen is created here.

(Juan Fernando): Aftab, you bring up the concept of citizenship here. Let me link that back to theory. In my opinion, one important theoretical approach is Critical Literacy (Andreotti), also I think the use of language the mix between vernacular language and English or Spanish (a clear example is at a community level in countries like Ecuador, Bolivia or in Oceania) plays an important role when we talk about ways to decolonize our academic environments.

(Julia): I have read Andreotti in the context of Global Citizenship Education (GCE). While I think that she basically describes the idea of critically reflecting one’s own positionality, it is hard to derive a practical method from the concept. I am still not convinced GCE, or, even as Andreotti differentiates “soft” and “critical GCE”, is a useful framing. With regard to language: I absolutely agree readings used in teaching should not only be sourced from the colonial languages and not only from academic environments. But how do we make it practically work if we only speak those?

(Juan Fernando): I think this is part of the state role and society to restructure the  curriculum in academic terms. It is true that the colonial languages are worldwide spread and used. They might help to create better links, but there is an important difference in the way people can think in the vernacular language than in the colonial language. This is important for the preservation of knowledges and culture. I refer to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the reasons why he keeps writing in his vernacular language and the damage of translation from the vernacular language to English. That happened to the “Sumak kawsay”, which is now called “Buen Vivir” and from the Spanish translation it has been translated to other languages taking away the important root of indigenous knowledge.

(Julia): True. And I can follow much of wa Thiong’o’s argument. Yet, drawing on Spivak, I wonder whether the relevant question is not whether the subaltern can speak, but whether she is read and by whom. Translations make knowledges available to Eurocentric-dominated realms that they wouldn’t otherwise appear in. Also, quite practically in academic terms writings and publications receive less recognition if not published in (mostly) anglophone “high-ranked” journals and publishers. Vernacular language is rarely acknowledged as “academically relevant”. I think the general “business” of publication is also an important aspect in this discussion, particularly the need for more open access.

(Juan Fernando): I agree. One important aspect in this discussion is not only language but also how knowledge is portrayed and for whom. There is a lot of research in India for example that is not yet part of the academic discussion, the same applies to Latin America.

Coming back to the question of decolonising science (be it sociology or development studies, or academia in general) one important thing is to erase the utopian idea behind “EUROPE” and start the construction of knowledges as an organic interactive celulla. Critical Literary would be a starting point for this. The need to conceptualize the North and therefore the South creates the first dichotomy around the role of education. It has been argued that education in terms of development should be understood as global learning and there is a strong reason for that. There is the opportunity to learn from the experience of the South, the connection with nature and indigenous knowledge as a valid system. A clear example of this is the idea of sumak kawsay –well being- but this is not the space to expand that idea.

(Contributor): Let me come in on the question how we can actively promote a provincialisation of Europe and deprovincialisation of other cosmovisions. I would agree with Juan and would like to go a bit further on this. Decolonising sociology (both empirically and theoretically) appears to be an ardent and a bit difficult job. We can agree that colonisation is both temporal and spatial experiences. Therefore, decolonisation discourses, to make ‘real’ difference, also need to be located beyond the geographies of Europe and/or so called ‘west’. I am not referring to the scholarship, which is being produced on the experiences of ‘south’ or by the non-Europeans who happened to be situated in the ‘west’, therefore, produce knowledge through what Julia refers to as ‘high-ranked’ journals. What I think is necessary and, possibly be productive, is the horizontal access to knowledge producing industry (universities, journals, publishers etc). This would, I believe, broaden the sociology i.e. instead of having a north-south divide or people from south and located in north to eventual south-south and south-north. In short, what I am trying to argue is that the knowledge production sites are to be revisited and re-located to decolonize sociology and knowledge in general.

(Juan Fernando): At the turn of the century many things have been discussed about education, this proves that there is a need to bring the topic not only at a local or national level but also into the international sphere. It is important to invest in centres that teach non-western intellectual traditions, to bring back different narratives, not only from the side of the subaltern that lack voice and representation, but also from the intellectual tradition forgotten in indigenous traditions or communities in different parts of the world. I also believe it is imperative to review the discussion around education, not only in spaces like the United Nations or academia, but at spaces like local governments, civil society and social media. The idea of space is not only related in terms of physical space but rather to the conceptualization of education as a model that reflects a unity between theory and practice in an interconnected dialogue with different actors keeping open channels to listen and to be heard. From this point it is important to learn how to unlearn, to learn what to learn and to learn how to listen. The problem around change in education is that there is still this idea that there is a good system and bad system of education. And, as I mentioned earlier, there is also a strong relation between language and education, for there is the strong believe that some languages are more important than others, and that with some languages people will achieve more than with others.

(Aftab): Following up on your point of listening and hearing, especially with efforts for decolonizing teaching and academia I once again would like to return to the idea of undoing or redoing the classroom. Educational institutes, be it schools, colleges, or universities, are parts of the overall social structures of a particular society, hence they become the basic agents of socialization. Doing away with the classroom where a teacher stands in the center, upfront, by the black/white board, one has to get rid of the whole authority figures present in the society, be it parents (in case of the kids) or potential employers (in case of the university students). Since this task is totally out of control of the teachers, I think it might cause visual and/or perceptual incongruence for the students (especially for kids). I think of it as a formalization. For me the spacing does not matter. In my classes I do not stand at a particular point. I keep rotating.

What else can be done? Well, here are few suggestions, coming out of personal experience. I try to remember all my students by their names and address them regularly while asking questions. I tell them to change their seats every now and then. If there is a small classroom and I am sitting with them, I try to rotate my own position within the room and possibly make students change theirs. As audience who are engaged for a considerable amount of time within a specific space, we tend to pick our spot on the table. By rotating those spots, we can create patterns where faces change and that tends to have a positive impact on the otherwise monotonous activity of teaching and learning. I ask questions and award answers in almost every class with an applause for the answers that come from the students. In every class, there are those who always want to speak and the ones who would rather not speak. I encourage all to participate. Having something as non-significant as a 10 second applause for a very small answer gives students a sense of accomplishment. I noticed that some of them were not speaking at the start of the semester but started participating more just as a result of these few changes. Another example is that i gave a student 21 out of 20 marks in one of her assignments as it clearly stood out from the rest of the class, so basically breaking the whole idea of evaluation by toppling the number just by one figure have had a decisive impact on the overall participation of the class as it created an image for the students of a teacher who is not only awarding the marks by the book but the one who goes out of his way to appreciate them.

Lastly, I think the most important question is to revisit the value of objectivity of knowledge transmission and knowledge production. Normally, students are the participants of an activity that is a lecture within a specific time frame. I take a rather subjective stand here. I think students must be seen as mixture of human emotions, thoughts, needs, perceptions, and behaviours. The teacher should not only be concerned with the class performance. The idea is to help students become better human beings, better citizens of the society. Then a teacher cannot remain distanced from the social experiences of the students that they go through. I try to engage more personally by taking interest in their activities. If a teacher sees a student worried or low in tone, she/he can be the ear that hears about the factors that keep the students from performing normally. Such interest creates a human bond that is crucial for disseminating knowledge. For me, a teacher is not an automaton that reads slides, looks at the book pages and churns out the content. This model is objective in nature hence my disagreement. A teacher is a person like students with his/her own experiences of dealing with unsettling thoughts, behaviours and actions. If a teacher can become the person who knows students by their names, gives them value and takes interest in their lives in general, that motivates the students to go out of their way to learn. The idea is to become a role model, a figure one can relate to, but not that the student must always fall back on or mimic. Now these ideas are rejected in the mainstream academic environments, so they need to be revisited if we are talking about decolonizing academia. The catch here of course lies in not establishing a dependent relationship, hence it should be done with great caution.

If we recall our own past, we will see the teachers we cherished most were the ones who paid extra attention and helped us more “humanly” by taking interest in us or our work. This very human dimension of the teacher, stands as a bedrock which can survive any classroom setting.

 (Julia): Thanks gents, for this thought-provoking debate. I believe there is much to be done. What really bothers me though: where were the other female voices in this conversation?

(Aftab): Wait, before we close and submit… I am just a little concerned that the whole piece does not sound scholarly enough to be shared with renowned academics in such a high-level academic setting.

(Julia): I am a little worried too. But: what does “scholarly” mean after all?

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