Saturday, May 20, 2006

Review: Decolonizing Methodologies

[Linda Tuhiwai Smith. Decolonizing Methodologies: Resarch and Indigenous Peoples. New York: Zed Books, 1999.]

I don't know where exactly this journey of mine is going to take me, but I have a feeling that from now until the day I die it will have something to do with knowledge. The medium may change, the genre may change, the particular goals may change, but I think the work I choose to do will always have something to do with the shape and substance of ideas, words, narratives, "facts", stories -- with knowledge.

Everyone has a theory of knowledge. Most of us don't tend to think of it in that way and don't tend to articulate it explicitly, but in order to function in the world we have to have ways of generating, processing, classifying, judging, and manipulating knowledge. There is personal and political benefit for all of us to try and put our own personal epistemological beliefs into words, I think, as well as opening ourselves to challenge based on how we know the world and how we think the world is/should be/can be known. Personally, I know that I have not read most of the things that I would need to read in order to put forth a theory of knowledge that would sound competent to those who write about such things in academia, but given how much of my productive life revolves around knowledge I believe that articulating my current understanding and putting effort into developing it further are things worth doing. Certainly reading Decolonizing Methodologies has challenged me to be more clear about my own understandings of knowledge, and has pushed me in more critical directions.

I see knowledge as something that emerges from the interplay of extra-textual phenomena (the "real world" that exists beyond the grasp of our sense but impinges upon them), material arrangements of power among human beings, and existing narratives (which can be seen as existing patterns and structures of knowledge which are drawn on to organize "new" knowledge). This is in contrast to some ways of understanding knowledge which seem to reduce everything to text, to narrative. It is also in contrast to positivism, still the dominant understanding of knowledge in the Western commonsense and in Western institutions, despite decades of critique by a few elite academics and some social movements, and its de facto rejection by many of the people treated as Other in the dominant systems of knowing and in the world's power structures.

I would argue that the three kinds of factors I have identified (including our own location with respect to them) shape our knowledge, from our gut-level commonsense to academic journals, from dominant metaphysical mythologies to technical know-how, from the structure of coffee-shop conversation to systems of literary symbolism. There is no single way that these factors work together, and it is through complex shifts in the balance among them in any given context that struggles over knowledge (which is an aspect of every struggle, both those that some might see as purely "material" as well as those that are more obviously at the level of discourse) take place.

Research is any activity which draws extra-textual phenomena into existing narratives. It can happen on a very small scale, as with a child dropping stones from a bridge to see what happens; or it can be very formal and can bring some phenomenon into the grand narratives of (for lack of a better word, and intending it to be read with irony) civilization for the first time.

Any entity in society that can do inevitably generates and shapes knowledge, of course in relationship with the above three factors, and in proportion to its power. The drive for profit and the related imperatives driving the state are among the most powerful and important motive forces that shape the overall field of knowledge in which we exist. Though not associated with a particular institution in quite the same way, other axes of power such as whiteness and white supremacy, for example, function in a more distributed way, often invisibly (for those of us with privilege) woven into many interrelated institutional structures and into the commonsense of those who control them. This kind of pervasive power relationship shapes dominant forms of knowledge, and those forms of knowledge in turn reinforce and legitimate those forms of domination.

Any kind of alternative or challenge that carves out space for itself within this hegemonic field also inevitably has knowledge associated with it, and ways of knowing. It can be a project that is formal and deliberate or it can be a product of necessity initially emerging out of everyday survival, though more likely it is both when resistance is at a stage of being collective and visible. It is not only a process engaged in by communities and movements seeking justice and liberation, either: it is most visible in today's North America in the distinctive epistemologies and related knowledge embedded in the right-wing populist movements in the United States, with all of the enhancement of oppression and hierarchy and domination that their agenda facilitates.

One important feature of the way knowledge works in our society is how easily it can be disconnected from its origins. If knowledge is generated for some local purpose, even one related to resistance, but it is somehow found to be useful by institutions which are driven by capital and the state, then it will be used. And if it already exists as knowledge in some context completely outside of Western domination (if any such still exists on the planet) then it is commonly seen to originate, to come into existence, only at that point in time when it enters this totalizing field associated with liberal-democratic capitalism.

Decolonizing Methodologies is a short, incisive book that sets out to examine ideas of knowledge and research from an indigenous standpoint. The author is a Maori woman from New Zealand and an academic. In the first half of the book, she draws on both indigenous traditions of knowledge and critical thought from the Western academy to draw a brief history of Western knowledge and research and how they have been totally intertwined with imperialism. The so-called Enlightenment and the period of imperial European expansion began at roughly the same time. She describes how the structuring and expansion of knowledge that began with the former and continues today has always been and still is inherently imperial; and how the functioning of the latter has always involved as a major component not just men with guns but also struggles and practices of domination related to knowledge.

One way of seeing Western imperialism, most egregiously in the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand, but in other parts of the world as well, is as lands and peoples forcibly incorporated into Western ways of knowing. In this process, the imperatives driving the creation of knowledge were very much rooted in Western imperial expansion. Responsiveness to extra-textual phenomena (what could be simplistically described as "accuracy compared to the real world") was only relevant as it affected imperial interests. That way, European adventurers and travellers and missionaries and soldiers could bring back tales (or even supposedly rigorous research) that created knowledge about indigenous peoples that bore only a very twisted resemblance to what indigenous peoples were actually like and how they saw themselves. This knowledge could then be used to position those peoples as Other -- as either less human or non-human, depending on the peoples in question and the imperial needs at the time. Creation of knowledge was also central to the practical task of exerting European imperial domination over lands and peoples. This was true not only on the practical level of "casing the joint", but such knowledge creation allowed peoples and lands and artifacts of cultures to be completely redefined from the ways that indigenous peoples defined them and into commodities -- "people" became "slaves," land which was integrally and organically connected to a nation of people in spiritual ways became property that could be sold, sacred things became collectible items. Even today this continues, with indigenous knowledges and even the genes of indigenous peoples being pulled into the predatory field of Western knowledge, and appropriated by companies or governments for profit or other kinds of material gain. And cultural traditions are pulled into Western knowledge in ways that profit from bored, disaffected, affluent white people looking for spiritual renewal in a kind of gross consumeristic way. Ultimately, Western ways of knowing have displaced indigenous ways of knowing across most of the territories of the Americas and Australia.

Indigenous ways of knowing, associated closely with indigenous ways of being and doing, have been attacked and undermined for centuries by religious missionaries, government officials, and paternalistic liberals among the settler population. Things like banning ceremonies, stealing the children of indigenous nations and forcing them into residential schools or into non-indigenous homes, banning or otherwise discouraging indigenous languages, introducing mass media with content that is entirely settler-controlled, and a million other things have contributed to colonizing people's minds. The ultimate goal -- and it is seldom claimed explicitly by any but the far-right these days, but it still informs state practice regardless of what state representatives actually say -- is the dissolution of indigenous nations, which contrary to settler commonsense are still often functioning collectives grounded in indigenous ways of knowing and being and doing. This is the goal because cohesive indigenous nations can mount resistance in ways that atomized, isolated people whose nations have been completely dissolved could not. Indigenous nations can be seen as collectives which follow imperatives other than those which dominate settler/Western societies and they provide a basis from which the legitimacy and functioning of ongoing imperial domination, land theft, exploitation of resources, and so on, has been challenged for 500 years and will continue to be challenged. Many indigenous peoples see the recovery, strengthening, and new production of knowledge grounded in their own traditions and histories to be a central part of this project of transforming the existing relationships of domination which oppress them.

The second half of the book articulates a program for indigenous research based mainly in groundbreaking work done by the Maori people in New Zealand. This is a step towards a more deliberate approach to knowledge production that is grounded in indigenous communities, and that serves the goals of decolonization, cultural renewal, and an end to imperial domination. Her vision includes learning from what is useful in Western traditions of research, particularly feminist and critical traditions, but prioritizes indigenous ways of knowing and being and doing, and indigenous aspirations for the future.

So I don't know yet what all of this means for my own journey. On an immediate level, it is relevant to my social movement history project, because 8 of the 50 participants are indigenous people. Of course I have all along intended to be very careful in respecting the voices of all of the participants, but this book gives me a much broader perspective on the oppressive history of well-meaning white guys seeking to build knowledge about/from indigenous peoples. I don't know if this will really change my practice, nor will it prevent me from making mistakes, but it certainly has encouraged me to take extra care in doing things I was going to do anyway -- preserving the standpoints of the indigenous participants as I figure out how to present their stories, and contextualizing their words in other knowledge that has been produced from indigenous standpoints and out of indigenous struggles.

In the longer term, it has given me new ways to think about how I want to spend my energies after my current project is complete (which still feels like it is an eternity away, but I know that there will come a point when I'll blink and then be unable to believe that I have to think up something else to do). Being shown the ubiquity of predation and domination in Western knowledge production really makes me pause. What choices can I make that will allow me to do the writing that I wish to do, both creative and analytical, in ways that contribute to knowledge (and being and doing) that resists predation and domination, in ways reflected not just in the content but also in the ways that the texts thus produced end up functioning when they are released into the world?

I don't know.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


Dr. Dawg said...

A nice piece of writing. I would quibble about "extra-textual phenomena," though. Such phenomena are literally meaningless, Kant's ding an sich in another guise.

Consider this. You observe something. That means that you bring it into consciousness. Actually you observe myriads of things at any moment, but bring only a selected few into consciousness. What governs that selection? And, more importantly, how do you tell others about it without turning it into text, oral or written?

I would argue that the noumenon is not worth pursuing--that intersubjectivity is the key to what you call "extra-textual." And that intersubjectivity, mediated by language, will always be text and/or narrative--Jameson's "prison-house of language."

I found a good quotation from that book, incidentally, that deals with the immediate perception of your "extra-textual realm":

There is a sense in which all sensory perception already constitutes a kind of organisation into language. Imagine the way in which, for a trained naturalist, the disorderly undergrowth of thickets and bushes pressing in upon each other sort themselves out into order, the peculiar outlines of each type of leaf standing as a visible sign and mark of their determinate species; imagine the way in which a wholly unfamiliar landscape would offer itself to such knowledgeable perception as a kind of language the words of which were not yet known, an order already making itself felt through the clear forms of the vegetation, where for the layman there would be nothing but the confused and jumbled vision of space.

None of this is to contradict Linda Tuhiwai Smith's analysis of knowledge generation and its linkages with power. It's a book I've been meaning to read, and I'll get around to it after I've finished with Giorgio Agamben and Deleuze & Guattari's "Thousand Plateaus." I take it she cites Foucault here and there? :)

Scott said...

Thanks for your response!

First off, I should let Smith off the hook...that bit about "extra-textual phenomena" is my words and my way of looking at things. Not sure how she would react to that formulation...she concentrates much more on talking about the role of imperialism in Western knowledge and research. And, yes, she does make use of Foucault. :)

I'm not sure if I agree with what you're saying and just say it a bit differently, or if there is an actual difference. Of course selection of observation is shaped by the ways in which existing power relations and existing narratives have shaped consciousness, particularly our commonsense. And of course you can't communicate to others without putting it into text, which brings it into relationship with all that stuff too.

But I don't think it is meaningless to talk about such phenomena, as long as you're careful -- i.e. by acknowledging that they exist as one contributor to what is observed, albeit one that cannot be teased out in any meaningful way from the influence of narrative precisely because of what you say above. An example (one that is often the basis of "straw person" positivist attacks on anyone who even hints at the social construction of knowledge, but that is still useful): when you drop the stone it falls down, not up. How that gets turned into observation and text could mean lots of different things. It doesn't have to mean a "theory of gravity" as it currently exists in Western science, and certainly we have no way to access some kind of objective reality to let us go "Ah ha! That is the extra-textual phenomenon at the root of what I've observed!" But there is still a consistency of behaviour in the physical world, indicative of something going on out there that is independent of us. Perhaps it is meaningless to talk about when trying to understand knowledge, that's true, but I think it's important to include because it provides the seeds of an explanation as to why positivism is so useful to systems driven in large part by the needs of capital and the liberal-democratic state -- "scientific methodology" may not be enough to give us access to "truth" in the way that positivists believe, but it still gives power to control the physical world in ways sufficiently reliable that it seems to me that you have to acknowledge an input into that system of knowledge that has its beginnings outside of discourse, even if we can only know it and use it via discourse.

Dr. Dawg said...

But there is still a consistency of behaviour in the physical world, indicative of something going on out there that is independent of us.

This is the nub of the thing. To contradict this statement would be to argue for solipsism. Indeed, we implicitly agree that there is something "out there" if we argue for intersubjectivity--other people are "out there" too. I don't want to get into a totalizing theory of discourse as everything there is.

Perhaps it is meaningless to talk about when trying to understand knowledge, that's true, but I think it's important to include because it provides the seeds of an explanation as to why positivism is so useful to systems driven in large part by the needs of capital and the liberal-democratic state -- "scientific methodology" may not be enough to give us access to "truth" in the way that positivists believe, but it still gives power to control the physical world in ways sufficiently reliable that it seems to me that you have to acknowledge an input into that system of knowledge that has its beginnings outside of discourse, even if we can only know it and use it via discourse.

I'm still wrestling with this problem. It can't be argued that science has been unproductive--quite the contrary. I reject positivism as a grand narrative, but it does appear to have its uses! That patterns emerge--the replication of the results of scientific experiments--cannot be doubted, but I'm not yet certain what ontological conclusions to draw from that, if any can be.

Anonymous said...

Ever read The Invisibles?

Anonymous said...

email me at

Anonymous said...

Dawg r u even indigenous ? Weirdo.

Anonymous said...

You cant draw on a tenth of what Linda draws from. So I'm sorry you are just a light weight.