Sunday, January 04, 2015

Review: Research is Ceremony

[Shawn Wilson. Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. Halifax NS and Winnipeg MB: Fernwood Publishing, 2008.]

This book is the latest in my recent spate of reading meant to help me think through how to know and write the world through encounter, relation, and movement. It is a short book by Cree scholar Shawn Wilson based on his PhD work. It builds beyond earlier efforts by indigenous scholars that focused on decolonizing existing methodologies and instead advances at least one take on what it might mean to develop research methods that are indigenous from beginning to end.

One of my favourite aspects of this book is that not only does it do what all books by definition do and present content that builds towards its goals, but it also pushes to reinvent form to reflect its goals. As a way of incorporating the centrality of relationality in indigenous ways of knowing -- more on that below -- he includes sections early in the book that are deliberately personal in character, and that are addressed explicitly to his children. This is meant as a device for building a more human form of relation with the reader than is common in scholarly books. And what begins as a clear division earlier in the book between that personal voice and a more scholarly voice (designated by different fonts) gradually merges into a single voice part way through. He also introduces in brief but meaningfully personal ways the various other indigenous researchers who played the roles of participants-plus-collaborators in the work he presents. There is some defining of terms and laying out of landscape, and lots of attention to tracing in a very lived way the trajectory of the work and the relationships that were the context for its production. There is a short but very useful history of research on and by indigenous peoples. There is a detailed discussion of relationality -- well, there's a chapter focused on it, but really it is central throughout the book. Then there is a chapter presented as a dialogue among Wilson and his participant/collaborators that is a sort of synthesis of the book's ideas. It is presented as one conversation, but it is woven together from notes, transcripts, recollections, and I think a kind of gestalt sense of ideas and the people who discussed them, built over a number of years. And the book concludes with a more conventional (to the eyes of those coming to the book from the mainstream, at any rate) summation of its ideas.

How to take up (or not) the ideas in this book requires a bit of reflection, at least for me. I am not an indigenous researcher, and the work that I'm reading this for makes no pretence at being indigenous research (though it will certainly at times learn from conversation with indigenous activists and published work by indigenous scholars). I am in no position, therefore, to comment on how this work might be applied in the contexts to which it is most directly relevant. So I won't. But I think there is much for me to learn here anyway. The key, I think, is to relate to the work in a way that takes responsibility for context -- to find ways to learn from what he presents, but to avoid anything smacking of appropriation, and not to engage in that form of uptake that white settler folks sometimes do that isn't exactly appropriation but that clearly demonstrates cluelessness about, frankly, our own realities.

Perhaps one useful point of both connection and difference is the central idea of the book: relationality. For Wilson and his participant/collaborators, the fact that it is embedded in a dense relational web is the defining feature of indigenous research and, indeed, of indigenous ways of being and living and knowing more generally. I think this recognition sometimes exists as an empty truism in the understandings of those of us who do not live that reality, but in various ways through the book he builds a richly textured picture of what it actually looks and feels like in practice. I really appreciate that.

The best way for me to relate to that account of relationality is not necessarily obvious, however. Wilson is very deliberate about refusing to contextualize the indigenous research method he elaborates by comparison to dominant approaches. This is a way of making clear that legitimation by Western scholarship is unnecessary, unhelpful, and colonial, and that indigenous ways of knowing are complete and legitimate on their own. It also means that what discussion of Western ways of knowing that the book does contain are extremely brief and not at all detailed, and more focused on describing what is dominant rather than on exploring the fringes where I work and play. Which I think is great and entirely appropriate, given that the vast majority of both formal research and informal knowing of the world in white North America (and other spaces under its sway) are not relational at all in the sense this book describes (though I think maybe I could make a decent case that relationality underlies all knowing and is violently denied and repressed rather than absent in dominant Western frameworks). And yet for me, I think, a key to relating to his presentation of relationality in indigenous knowing is doing so with a clear sense of how relationality is present in and even grounds my own approaches to knowing, which are based on various critical and dissident ways of knowing that exist (to borrow a phrase from John Holloway) within, against, and beyond dominant Western frameworks for producing knowledge. I'm still figuring out what exactly I mean by that, but it includes drawing on work from a bunch of different sources. So, for instance, I'm thinking of heterodox readings of Marx by folks like Holloway, who emphasize Marx's analysis of capitalism as a way of organizing the world which both materially breaks and then ideologically mystifies living relationships among people and our practices, through social relations that prioritize dead things but that still entirely depend on socially organized relationships among people. I'm thinking of Dorothy Smith, who draws both on an anti-reificatory reading of Marx and on feminist theory in advancing her own ways of thinking about how the world exists and how we know it. Of Sara Ahmed's work on encounters. Of, at least in some ways, Emmanuel Levinas' prioritizing of relation and ethics over individualized being, not just in a moralizing way but in his analysis of how the world exists and how we exist in it. Of my own work, however rudimentary, beginning to think in a historical context about how, even if we subordinate this in practices that pretend otherwise, encounter and dialogue and relation across differences in standpoint are really the only basis we have for learning about the social world beyond our own direct experience -- this is my reality, that is your reality, that over there is her reality, so lets figure out how they are materially connected.

Because I'm still in the middle of the muddle in thinking about my own approach to such things, I'm not sure I'm at a stage to say much that's concrete about what and how I can learn from Wilson's work, but a few things come to mind. A key thing to recognize for me in learning from work like Wilson's is that though relationality is present in indigenous ways of knowing and in some dissident ways of knowing that exist within, against, and beyond Western frameworks, it is present very differently in those two contexts. For one thing, in indigenous ways of knowing the world, relationality extends beyond the human and beyond the material as conventionally understood, which I respect and perhaps even aspire to in the longer term, but which I think is not always or even often true in even dissident Western contexts.

Another key point of difference is related to how that relationality exists. My sense from reading Wilson's book is that in indigenous contexts it describes and builds on that which already exists, that which is being strengthened through resurgence, that which is organized by a culture-specific cosmology and sensibility that shape what "harmony" and "living well" are supposed to mean. That is, for all that it cannot help but exist as resistance to dominant Western ways of knowing given the colonial context, it is primarily something positive, something that is and that aspires to be more itself, something evolving and strengthening and dynamic but nonetheless extant. Dissident Western ways of knowing that foreground encounter and relation do not have that. We want to build a social world in which such interdependent existence is valued, in which life and thriving are foregrounded, but we don't have a clear, coherent, shared vision for what that will look like. In many ways, the knowing of the world that we do through encounter and relation cannot help but be negative -- it cannot help but initially be about taking apart the interwoven epistemologies and social organization in which we currently exist, and starts not from some extant whole but rather from aspiration towards building new ways of knowing and new social relations that are not soaked in blood and harm and violence.

Those are very different projects, and I have only begun to figure out what different responsibilities they place on us.

Here's at least one possibility: At a number of points in the book, Wilson talks about how the very relationally situated character of indigenous knowing means that there really isn't any basis, in that framework, for criticizing the ideas of another. You simply cannot assume that you know enough about the place from which that other person is knowing to pronounce them "wrong." You might present your own knowledge, your own take on things, and you might engage in dialogue, but you don't presume you can infringe upon the autonomy of another by telling them what they should think. And there is something alluring about this for me, on multiple levels -- I also think knowing is situated and embodied, I am interpersonally-conflict averse so it appeals to me in that way, it resonates with a political sensibility that prioritizes the autonomy of other people, and it feels like an antidote to the toxic mix of sectarian-grouplet-slash-grad-school sensibility that informs far more of how the North American rad left interacts with people/ideas than we care to admit. But as drawn to that approach as I am, I don't think that I can adopt it directly. Partly, it is because it comes from a cultural context that I'm not a part of, and I'm not sure that respecting autonomy and personhood needs to mean exactly the same thing in the cultural context in which I exist. But more importantly, I wonder whether what I was talking about a couple of paragraphs back, about there necessarily being something negative in critical/radical projects of knowing that are within, against, and beyond Western frameworks, means that embracing that level of non-critique would in some sense be a failure of responsibility. We need to be critical differently; we need to do it better; we need to do it in ways that don't dehumanize; but I don't think we can stop doing it. Maybe. I'm not sure.

Anyway, all of this means that there is no easy "use X, not Y" approach for me to relate to this book. I think it's more a matter of doing things like writing this review, which should help ensure that a sense of the book as a whole stays with me well enough that it can feed into my own later attempts to think through "What do I do now?", via the very sort of learning by taking up stories and applying them to your own circumstances that this book advocates. If anything, it gives me a general push to remember that relationality is always, at least in part, very concrete and real and practical. I sometimes forget that -- again, that isn't purely a failure on my part, as a significant element of unearthing and foregrounding relation in a mainstream Western context requires us to focus on socially organized interrelation that profoundly shapes who we are and how we exist in the world but that does not happen (only) through direct encounter. Nonetheless, the push to keep it concrete and grounded is welcome, and important for me to be reminded of.

As for how to derive learnings from this book for the particular project I'm in the early stages of now, I'm not sure what to say. I think it has encouraged me to think about making self present in the work more directly than is often my first impulse. I think it has encouraged me to experiment with form, particularly in ways that relate craft and form to an understanding of how we know the world. I think it has been a good reminder that, though it won't necessarily look the same for me doing what I'm doing as it does for indigenous researchers doing research in/with their own nations, relationality is in large part about accountability...and I need to figure out what that is going to look like in my context.

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


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this thoughtful, cogent,modest, and open-minded review. It helps me consider how I might read/think/watch/write
more subtly and responsibly.
Jeanne Perreault

Scott Neigh said...

Thanks, Jeanne...glad you found it useful! :)