[text based on a talk at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, NL, originally published on July 4th 2018 on their blog]
How do we make sure that our efforts to diversify knowledge production go beyond a window-dressing/Benetton operation? How can we move beyond merely adding some colour and other markers of ‘diversity’ to existing structures—a move that too neatly serves the neoliberal project embedded in our institutions, and their related unquenchable thirst for all that looks new, ‘shiny’ and exciting? I propose that an explicit decolonial engagement with epistemic diversity is one of the ways to productively address and navigate these challenges of co-optation and commodification.
A decolonial engagement draws our attention to the need to foreground at least two important concerns. First, that epistemic diversification needs to explicitly speak to the issue of coloniality. Second, that we need to address the practical and institutional implications of anticolonial epistemic diversity.
The first concern invites us to understand that the (little) everyday institutional progress when it comes to more diversity in colour, gender, faith, ability, and sexuality, is merely the absolute minimal condition for a more just society. Hence, we should not mistake them for sufficient accomplishment. More importantly, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the ‘plussing-up’ exercise of the visible diversification is more damaging than simply not enough. We need to keep in mind that it is also a way through which coloniality can continue with a nicer face; and that that is the real and often most depressing danger.
The second concern points at the importance of moving beyond mere discursive deconstructions on what is wrong with our actual knowledge systems; the aim is to invest our efforts in material and immaterial (re)constructions of what and who has been erased or silenced.
In this regard, we could conceive of decoloniality as a research strategy consisting of three related sub-strategies: (1) the need to de-mythologize, pertaining to issues of ontology; (2) the need to de-silence, which more explicitly relates to epistemology; and (3) the need to anticolonially de-colonize, addressing both the tangible, material and the normative of knowledge production/cultivation.
De-mythologizing: where do we start the story?
In relation to the need de-mythologize, in International Relations and International Development Studies, this invites us to consider how we understand the world. A first question that arises is: where do we start the story? What is our point of departure? For example: many international development courses start with American President, Harry Truman, who in his inaugural address of 1949 declares that the USA will help the world and embark on a new program for the improvement and growth of the ‘underdeveloped areas’. It is a point of departure that systematically sustains the logic of development. If we instead start the story with how these areas became ‘underdeveloped’ to begin with, it becomes impossible to sidestep or minimise the constitutive force of transatlantic enslavement and colonialism in both International Development and International Relations thinking and practices. It becomes even more difficult to sustain the epistemic, technological and moral superiority of the West – the myth par excellence on which much of International Relations and International Development Studies is built.
A second consideration of de-mythology is that of Eurocentrism, be it geographic, imaginary or methodological. The question that arises from this is: what would our research questions or teaching look like if Europe, or the European experiences and knowledges were not the centre of our story? What would it look like when other places and experiences are centred? More importantly maybe, what if the European experiences were no longer cast as universal? It would again jeopardise the natural North-South capacity-building logic that is so central in much of our global knowledge systems and relations.
The third de-mythology consideration has to do with fragmentation. Much of colonial knowledge production is built on chopping up parts of the story that fundamentally belong together. Modernity (with the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, i.e. epistemic and technological (re)discoveries) and Coloniality (with Enslavement and Colonialism, i.e. genocide, epistemicide and ecocide) are hardly ever brought to us as sides of the same coin. So is our understanding and study of the origins of wealth and poverty, which are institutionally fragmented into different departments and disciplines. This allows us to study poverty without systematically engaging with the fact that the wealth in the global North has literally been sourced from the poverty in global South. Consequently, when we seek to explain poverty in, let’s say ‘Africa’, our students and many of our colleagues turn to the issue of corruption; a locally contained phenomenon which becomes the lead character in a tale from which we – the global North – can mythologically write ourselves out.
De-silencing: who are the experts? What is expertise?
If we look at de-silencing, the two main questions that arise are: who are the experts, and what do we consider expertise? Who has the microphone, who has the megaphone, and why? Who/what type of knowledge is (not) around the table and why?
When it comes to types of knowledges, we see that in the hegemonic global Northern canon, rationality is put forward as the one legitimate (i.e. ‘objective’) way to know and understand the world. Both feminist and decolonial scholarship have challenged this, yet the empiricist, linearly incremental, competitive, zero-sum, logic of colonial knowledge production continues to dominate the field – be it in our classroom, what we value and mark, how we teach, or in our own research designs.
When it comes to the ‘who are the experts’ question, we can see the literal silencing of peoples that are supposed to be the protagonists; take for example the systematic absence as experts of Muslim women in debates on the headscarf in continental Europe. Silencing can also manifest itself in binary representation, hierarchized difference, whitewashing or overexposure; think for instance of how whenever crime or terrorism comes up, there is an almost automatic invocation of Muslim men. Silencing also bears on our use of languages, on how some of them (like English) are overrepresented in our systems of knowledge and more importantly, how we forget to remember how little we can actually know about a place when we do not know its languages. So, as a first and minimal step, de-silencing invites us revisit the implications of the incredibly limited pool from which we source our knowledges in our quest to understand the world. In practical terms, but in the classroom and in our own research, it invites us to revisit not only what we include or exclude, but also what we foreground, start with, where we theorize from.
De-colonizing: fighting coloniality through knowledge cultivation
The third and last strategy, to anticolonially de-colonize, invites us to be explicit about the purpose of our knowledge production endeavours and connect it to the material consequences of coloniality. Why am I researching this? Who does it empower? How does this serve or work against the colonial status quo? One way to look at this is by asking ourselves the extent to which our knowledges contribute to, or fight processes of epistemicide, ecocide and genocide. Put differently, we can ask ourselves whether we cultivate knowledges to address the quality or possibility of life (of those denied by coloniality) or feed the colonial status quo; knowledges at the service of the will to power or the will to life?
As such, a decolonial research strategy pushed to its logical implications, invites us to re-consider the purpose and contents of our syllabi, disciplines and departments. In the case of International Development Studies for instance, once we have discursively addressed the myth of white western superiority, colonial amnesia and re-/de-centred/pluralised the logic and voices of knowledges, the decolonial invitation is to revisit the institutions in which we do this. When the logic of ‘aid’ and linear development reveals itself as highly problematic, its will-to-life alternative would rather propose something like a Department of Global Justice and Reparations instead; for instance. It is in our embracing or resistance of such drastic engagements with the implications of diversification that our commitment to dismantling coloniality reveals itself. Maybe we should start the conversation of epistemic justice here.