Epistemic Diversity | “I am where I think”: research and the task of epistemic diversity by Marina Cadaval and Rosalba Icaza

Epistemic diversity in research is sorely needed in the academia. But what is epistemic diversity and why is it so important? This post—the first of a series on epistemic diversity— introduces the topic and illustrates the importance of discussions on the political economy of knowledge production taking place in our universities. 


On Monday 7 May, the ISS Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Team organised the first of four Research Seminars taking place at the ISS that will focus on epistemic diversity in research. The main objective of these seminars is to provide a different angle to ongoing discussions about the appalling state of diversity at universities. Often these have remained focused on demographic diversity and the absence of women in higher ranks of academia. [1] To redress this absence we have seen the implementation of individually-based ‘solutions’ in universities (e.g. bias trainings).

But these interventions rarely consider structural and institutional elements behind the lack of demographic diversity in positions of leadership in universities. On the other hand, these interventions remain silent about the intersectional conditions of knowledge production in universities along axes of differentiation based on race, class and gender.[2]

Unfortunately, the emphasis on demographic diversity—who is at the university—also tends to render invisible the political economy of knowledge production at universities: who generates and distributes knowledge, for which purposes, and how?[3] Bringing epistemic diversity to the discussion means opening critical conversations on the geo-politics and body-politics of knowledge at universities. This angle emerges from an understanding of knowledge as contextual and situated: “I am where I think”, as decolonial feminist thinkers insist.

But, of course, we are aware that across time and place, the different models of knowledge generation at universities have responded to a diversity of social, cultural and ecological contexts, and to diverse aspirations. For example, let’s think about the foundation of the first universities in the Americas in the 16th Century. These institutions were founded—literally—over conquered First Nations people’s lands and with the exploitation of the labour of enslaved African peoples.[4] What kinds of aspirations were driving these violent interventions and who has benefited from this?

Another example that we can think of is the 1910 creation of the journal Foreign Affairs—which has a higher impact index in the field of international relations (IR)—under the name Journal of Race Development. Despite this, IR has been considered a “colourblind” discipline due to the neglect of “race” as a critical theoretical lens and research agenda and the absence of women and people of colour in IR curricula.[5] This neglect has been widely documented[6] in current efforts to decolonise IR canons. We wonder in which ways the present context that pushes universities’ regulation and normalisation through international ranking systems produces and reproduces neglect and silencing in our disciplines?

Between epistemic poverty and the decolonisation of knowledge

 In our first D&I research seminar, we ask to our keynote speakers—Dr Olivia Rutazibwa (University of Porthsmouth, UK) and Dr Sruti Bala (University of Amsterdam, NL)—to engage with the following questions:

What does academic research in the social sciences and humanities look like when epistemic diversity is considered? 

Which kinds of questions emerge? 

Which kinds of ethical and methodological challenges are opened?

Dr Bala started her presentation by sharing what epistemic diversity has meant for her in research and teaching. She shared a powerful reflection regarding academia as characterised by epistemic violence, injustice, and epistemic poverty when a translation of embodied experiences and their exposure in academic languages occurs. Bala invited us to think about practices in knowledge production that are critically attentive to the translations we carried on and that encourages coalitional ethics.

Meanwhile, Dr Rutazibwa spoke about the absence(s) and silence(s) in academic research in international development and its articulations with eurocentrism and colonialism. She introduced a decolonial-anticolonial methodology centred on integrity, dignity, intellectual curiosity, and generosity. Their arguments will be presented in future blog entries on Bliss.

For us, one of the most interesting quotes was the statement by Olivia Rutazibwa: “Being in the academy, not of the academy’. Rutazibwa mentioned this when one ISS student asked her how to navigate universities as institutions that do not welcome black women and people of colour in general.

“I am where I think”

 Our title is not accidental, but is rather an invitation to think critically about the implications of positioning our thinking when addressing epistemic diversity in research. This means for us not to suppress the epistemic, political and body locations from where we generate knowledge, but, on the contrary, to consider this as a possibility for enriching our learning experiences. This also means to locate—historically, epistemically and politically—this discussion in the Netherlands, where the ISS is based.

So, how is Dutch society rethought throughout its transatlantic kingdom?

How do decolonial efforts in the academia, the streets, in theory, and anti-colonial consciousness contribute to this rethinking?

Why does this rethinking matter for the study and practice of International Development?

In our next D&I Seminar on June 26th, we will have the opportunity to address these questions with Dr Melissa F. Weiner, Associate Professor of Sociology at The College of the Holy Cross, and Dr Antonio Carmona , President of the University of St. Martin, at Philipsburg, Sint Maarten. They are the editors of the book “Smash the Pillars: Decoloniality and the Imaginary of Colour in the Dutch Kingdom” (Rowman and Littlefield), which will be launched at the ISS on this date.

About the book, Professor Nelson Maldonado Torres (Rutgers University) has commented the following:

“For too long the Netherlands has been considered an innocent and benevolent country, without apparently a significant colonial past or a racist present. This volume not only completely shatters this illusion, but also demonstrates the significance of multiple contemporary efforts to critically engage and decolonize Dutch society, culture, and political life.”

At the book launch Dr Carmona and Dr Weiner will be joined by two contributors to the book: Dr Patricia Schor from Amsterdam University College and an ISS alumnus, and Egbert Alejandro Martina, Queer Activist and Anti-Racist Intellectual and creator of the blog “Processed Life”.

 The event is open to the public and we warmly invite you to attend.


This article forms part of a series on Epistemic Diversity. You can read the other article in this series here

[1] Read, for example, the Bliss article ‘The university of paleness’ by Willem Schinkel, which discusses the author’s discontent following the Erasmus University’s decision not to appoint women professors despite possessing adequate funds to do so.
[2] See: Icaza, Rosalba and Rolando Vazquez “Diversity or Decolonization? Researching Diversity at the University of Amsterdam” Decolonising the University. Pluto Press, 2018 with Rolando Vazquez
[3] “Let’s do Diversity”. University of Amsterdam Diversity Commission Report. Wekker, Gloria; Marieke Slootman; Rosalba Icaza, Hans Jansen, Rolando Vazquez, UvA: Amsterdam, October 2016.
[4] http://www.harvardandslavery.com/
[5] Race and Racism in International Relations: Confronting the Global Colour Line Edited by Alexander Anievas, Nivi Manchanda and Robbie Shilliam, London and New York: Routledge, 2015.
[6] ibid

About the authors: 

MarinaMarina Cadaval is currently a PhD student at the ISS, where she also completed her Masters’ in Development Studies in the major of Social Policies for Development (2015-2017). She works on topics of inclusion of indigenous women in graduate education in Mexico, analysing the processes of formation of educational policies that have taken place in the last twenty years. Before returning to the academia, she worked for more than 10 years in the implementation of the first policy to promote graduate education for Mexican indigenous peoples.Rosalba2.jpg

Dr Rosalba Icaza is Associate Professor in Global Politics, Gender and Diversity at the ISS and Chair of the ISS Diversity and Inclusion Team. Her publications can be accessed at https://ricaza.academia.edu/research

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