De­colonis­ing re­search must in­clude un­do­ing its dirty his­tory, ar­gues Ndlovu-gat­sheni

The East African - - FRONT PAGE -

Maori an­thro­pol­o­gist Linda Tuhi­wai Smith, in her sem­i­nal work De­colonis­ing Method­olo­gies, ar­gues that re-search is a dirty word. Hyphen­at­ing “re­search” into “re­search” is very use­ful be­cause it re­veals what is in­volved, what it re­ally means, and goes be­yond the naive view of “re­search” as an in­no­cent pur­suit of knowl­edge.

It un­der­scores the fact that “re­search­ing” in­volves the ac­tiv­ity of un­dress­ing other peo­ple so as to see them naked. It is also a process of re­duc­ing some peo­ple to the level of mi­cro-or­gan­ism: Putting them un­der a mag­ni­fy­ing glass to peep into their pri­vate lives, se­crets, taboos, think­ing and their sa­cred worlds.

Build­ing on Smith’s work, my con­cern here is the con­text in which re­search method­ol­ogy is de­signed and de­ployed. In par­tic­u­lar, it con­cerns the re­la­tion­ship be­tween method­ol­ogy with power, the im­pe­rial/colo­nial project as well as the im­pli­ca­tions for those who hap­pened to be the re­searched.

Broadly speaking, what is at is­sue is re-search as a ter­rain of pit­ting the in­ter­ests of the “re-searcher” against those of the “re-searched.” The core con­cern is about how re-search is still steeped in the Euro-north Amer­i­ca­cen­tric world­view. Re-search­ing con­tin­ues to give the “re-searcher” the power to de­fine. The “re-searched” ap­pear as “spec­i­mens” rather than peo­ple.

I de­fine re-search method­ol­ogy as a process of seek­ing to know the “other” who be­comes the ob­ject, rather than sub­ject of re-search and what it means to be known by oth­ers.

That is why method­ol­ogy needs to be de­colonised. The process of its de­coloni­sa­tion is an eth­i­cal, on­to­log­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal ex­er­cise rather than sim­ply one of ap­proach and ways of pro­duc­ing knowl­edge.

Whose method­ol­ogy is it any­way?

It was dur­ing the “Voy­ages of dis­cov­ery” that gave rise to colo­nial­ism, that Euro­pean men be­gan to en­counter the “other” and then as­sume the po­si­tion of a “knower” and a “re­searcher” who was thirsty to know the “other,” who emerged as the na­tive In­dian, as Shake­speare’s Cal­iban, as the African, the Abo­rig­ines and the other na­tives.

The other had to be re-searched to es­tab­lish whether they were ac­tu­ally hu­man or not. Here was born the method­ol­ogy as a hand­maiden of colo­nial­ism and im­pe­ri­al­ism.

From ethno­graphic to bio­met­ric state

In his book De­fine and Rule, Ugan­dan scholar Mah­mood Mam­dani ar­gued that ev­ery colo­nial con­queror was pre­oc­cu­pied with the “na­tive ques­tion.” This was about how a mi­nor­ity of white colo­nial con­querors were to rule over a ma­jor­ity of con­quered black peo­ple.

To re­solve the “na­tive ques­tion” the con­quered black “na­tive” had to be known in minute de­tail by the white coloniser. Thus re-search be­came a crit­i­cal part of the im­pe­rial-colo­nial project. The Euro­pean an­thro­pol­o­gist be­came an im­por­tant re-searcher, pro­duc­ing ethno­graphic data and knowl­edge that was des­per­ately needed by colo­nial­ism to deal with the nag­ging “na­tive ques­tion.”

As a re­sult of this de­sire to know the “na­tive” for colo­nial ad­min­is­tra­tive pur­poses, the colo­nial state emerged as an “ethno­graphic state,” in­ter­ested and in­volved in “re-search­ing” the na­tive so as to “de­fine” and “rule” over the “na­tive.”

It was un­der the “ethno­graphic state” that colo­nial ide­o­logues such as Thomas Babing­ton Ma­caulay in In­dia, Lord Frederick Lu­gard in West and East Africa, Ce­cil John Rhodes in South­ern Africa used this data to malev­o­lent ends, both to in­vent the idea of the na­tive and to con­trol her. They as­sumed the sta­tus of ex­perts on the colonised na­tives and pro­duced trea­tise such as The Dual Man­date in Africa which as­sumed the sta­tus of mod­ules on how to rule over “na­tives.”

To­day, with the rise of “global ter­ror­ism,” drug-traf­fick­ing and the prob­lem of mi­gra­tion, new forms of sur­veil­lance, and state con­trol have emerged. Keith Breck­en­ridge in his award win­ning book re­flected on con­cepts of “bio­met­ric state” and “doc­u­men­tary state.” Th­ese use ma­chines to ex­tract, cap­ture, and store in­for­ma­tion about all peo­ple, but par­tic­u­larly “Mus­lims” and “blacks,” whose ways of wor­ship, liv­ing and ac­tions do not fit into the Euro­pean tem­plate.

What is the role of re-search in this and what method­olo­gies are used in try­ing to know the “other,” that is, the un­wanted mi­grant and the feared Mus­lim.

Un­mask­ing, re­belling, re-po­si­tion­ing and re­cast­ing

De­colonis­ing method­ol­ogy must be­gin with un­mask­ing the mod­ern world sys­tem and the global or­der as the broader con­text from which re-search and method­ol­ogy are cas­cad­ing and are in­flu­enced. It also means ac­knowl­edg­ing and recog­nis­ing its dirt­i­ness.

Our present cri­sis is that we continued to use re-search meth­ods that are not fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent from be­fore. The cri­tique of method­ol­ogy is in­ter­preted as be­ing anti-re-search it­self. Fear­ing this la­bel, we (mod­ern schol­ars and in­tel­lec­tu­als) have been re­spon­si­ble for forc­ing stu­dents to ad­here re­li­giously to ex­ist­ing ways of know­ing and un­der­stand­ing the world.

No re­search pro­posal can pass with­out agree­ment on method­ol­ogy. No the­sis can pass with­out recog­nis­able method­ol­ogy. There is a manda­tory de­mand: how did you go about get­ting to know what you have put to­gether as your the­sis?

Con­se­quently, method­ol­ogy has be­come the strait­jacket that ev­ery new re­searcher has to wear if they are to dis­cover knowl­edge. This blocks all at­tempts to know dif­fer­ently. It has be­come a dis­ci­plinary tool that makes it dif­fi­cult for new knowl­edge to be dis­cov­ered and gen­er­ated.

In the knowl­edge do­main, those who try to ex­er­cise what the lead­ing Ar­gen­tinian semi­oti­cian and de­colo­nial the­o­rist Whater D. Mig­nolo termed “epis­temic dis­obe­di­ence” are dis­ci­plined into an ex­ist­ing method­ol­ogy, in the process drain­ing it of its pro­fun­dity.

De­colonis­ing method­ol­ogy, there­fore, en­tails un­mask­ing its role and pur­pose in re-search. It also about re­belling against it; shift­ing the iden­tity of its ob­ject so as to re­po­si­tion those who have been ob­jects of re­search into ques­tion­ers, crit­ics, the­o­rists, know­ers, and com­mu­ni­ca­tors. And, fi­nally, it means re­cast­ing re­search into what Europe has done to hu­man­ity and na­ture rather than fol­low­ing Europe as a teacher to the rest of the world. Sa­belo Ndlovu-gat­sheni, Di­rec­tor of Schol­ar­ship at Change Man­age­ment Unit at the Vice Chan­cel­lors’ of­fice; Pro­fes­sor and Head of Archie Mafeje Re­search In­sti­tute, Univer­sity of South Africa -Conversation

Il­lus­tra­tion John Nyaga

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