Positionality

This topic contains 2 replies, has 2 voices, and was last updated by Julia Julia 5 months ago.

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  • #501

    In a recent discussion with colleagues the question was brought up to what extent it is legitimate, especially as a person from Europe, to do research in the so-called Global South. To what extent do we, through the structures of academia (requirements of research project funding, publication pressures, etc) that guide our research plans, simply perpetuate the colonial continuations that we seek to break, especially if intending to produce knowledge from a decolonial understanding?

    I have shared some reflections on positionality here: https://www.convivialthinking.org/index.php/2018/08/19/entanglements-of-positionality-reflections-on-development-research-practice/ and would be keen to hear other people’s thoughts.
    How do we make sure development research does not obey to exactly the same pitfalls of cooptation, paternalism, hegemonic power relations that we seek to criticize?

    #506

    Thanks Julia for starting the forum and this discussion.

    There is a real risk in this important discussion (a risk of fallacy ‘ad hominem’, specifically) in assuming that the debate applies specifically to non-developing country academics studying development. In fact, the question of ‘legitimacy to research development’, brought to the extreme, would very likely delegitimise anybody to do research on anything beyond their own…positionality. The upper caste doing research of lower cast, the upper class doing research on middle class, the man doing feminist research, and in less banal exaples (but still very banal) the Asian studying Africa, someone of a specific ethnicity doing research on people from a different ethnicity, or an economist talking about indigenous knowledge etc. – all might fit the argument that the professional activity of knowledge creation – particularly once it is institutionalized – carries with itslef and reproduces, through its very own practice, specific power structures.

    Ultimately, however, I would argue this argument takes for granted (rather a-critically, I think) those same categories it aims to challenge and displace through academic practice, and it does so by imposing them (the various ‘being European’, young, white; or upper cast, ‘of fair complexion’, well-off; or ‘male’ and ‘female’and so on) as the defining conditions of this very deontological questioning about the intevitable collateral damage implied in doing development research from within university.

    What I will argue is that reflexivity can loose all transformative power (and become tautological, and even patronizing) if it does not challenge the vality, the usefullness and also the definition of the categories that are associated with power/priviledge along with the very discursive operation of tagging them onto a specific indivduals. Irrespective of whom does this operation, it is ultimately an attempt to challenge/delegitimize intellectual enquiry based on a completely different set of arguments than those applying to research – and the ‘attack’ might or might not be genuine.

    The question I ask back is ultimately: is the dilemma different for a ‘developing country’ researcher studying development? I don’t think so. Are the politics of the dilemma different? Yes, they are, and they need to understood in context.

    I like the way David Mosse talked about this debate: development research as a professional activity implies both entering and exiting the field, and the exit is where ruptures (personal, professional, institutional) are almost inevitable: it is the moment independent and critical knowledge generation (academic work) starts competing and displacing categories/values/power that are otherwise taken for granted ‘in developmenet’. One should of course always engage with one’s own assumptions, but that’s a basic question of research quality, not of socio-economic background, race, sex or nationality.

    Working from an international organization that funds ‘local research’ on ‘global development challenges’ (formulations that deserve a separate critical discussion precisely becayse they exemplify to what extent buzzwords reflect – often unknowingly – interest and power structures) I think the answer to your debate does not lie in deontology, but in the engineering of research funding: ToRs, contracting, M&E frameworks used by donors to fund research ‘on development’.

    (Some) people in funding agencies are very conscious of these quicksands. I have spent quite a bit of time in the last week answering questions of program officers from american philantropic foundations who fund ‘Southern research’ on development re: how can we possibly tilt the balance between Northern and Southern academics in internationally funded research on development. The answer is not necessarily in reflexivity, but to a large extent in the design of funding windows.

    Some ideas include:
    – making it a requirement for the principal investigator to be based in a research institution in a developing country;
    – engaging critically with the notions of research capacity building and research excellence, and how they define the way research is selected and evaluated;
    – expecting that researchers will answet their own questions, not the donors’ – at least in part.
    – engaging with research systems, not just individual researchers, with the vision to making international funding to research redundant where now it is the only source of funding.

    I hope we can continue this discussion.

    #508

    Thanks for joining, Francesco, and for taking the time to respond so extensively.
    First of all, I agree with the points you are making. I can hardly speak on behalf of my peers, why should I be able to speak on behalf of any other group I am not familiar with, regardless of whether I am brown or white or black or else. Hazel Henderson has written about the need for a more engaged science that is less pretentious in claiming truth and more aware of its partiality and subjectivity. Nevertheless, I still think being white (European, well-educated, middle class,…) carries with it some additional baggage in terms of the coloniality of power.
    Also, with regard to your demands made for development research funding: It continues to puzzle me why – specifically in development research, but that of course also applies to all other disciplines – funding structures and requirements continue to reproduce those hegemonic patterns that have been critizised in development practice/projects for decades. I have looked a bit at the official development research funding structures in several European countries and while they promote “research partnerships” the grant is always given to the European researcher/institution, which means these are the people accountable and these are the people writing up the research and eventually publishing it (academic publishing is another huge question to be discussed!).
    Did you make your suggestions to the people from the philantropic foundations and what space do they see putting them into practice?

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