Transformative Methodologies | How emancipatory research can help prevent the misrepresentation of marginalised groups in conflict-prone settings

The misrepresentation of minority groups through research taking place during the colonial period has had lasting effects, impacting not only the way in which such groups are represented and represent themselves, but also how they are seen in academic research and treated by researchers. Delphin Ntanyoma by discussing the case of the Banyamulenge in the DRC shows how social and political settings, as well as historical oversights, errors, and rationalisations are perpetuating harm against minority groups. He proposes emancipatory research based on the co-creation of knowledge as a way to prevent further harm.

I write both in my capacity as a researcher in the field of conflict and peace studies and as a member of a community called the Banyamulenge that for decades has been affected by discrimination and violence. The turmoil caused by their misrepresentation, amongst others through research, has led to a deep-seated identity crisis, causing others to question the place of this minority ethnic group among others in the DRC.

This sorry state of affairs results from the misinterpretation and manipulation of South Kivu’s population migration history in colonial accounts of this part of the DRC. Resulting discrimination has had socio-political effects including physical violence against minority groups, but it has also spilled over into the academia arena. For instance, during my field research, a prominent university professor in Bukavu revealed how members of the Banyamulenge community are absent in academic debates organised to discuss their problems in South Kivu.

Their absence in academic spaces seems to be opening gaps that are being filled by the dominant views of those (un)intentionally reproducing colonial accounts. When reading the following debatable statement, for example, I question the way this conclusion has been drawn: “… the identity Banyamulenge includes every wave of immigrants to Mulenge, including those who came in the wake of the genocide of 1994. They are all Banyamulenge” (Mamdani, 1999, p.56).

Such damaging constructions of the Banyamulenge based on so-called ‘scientific research’ conducted during the heyday of colonialism are still used to this day when speaking of this and other minorities in the DRC. It is in light of this that I have realised how important a transformative research methodology is for ensuring social justice through research itself. Giving voice to marginalised groups by recognising them as participants or co-researchers can largely prevent some of these questionable findings; that is, the use of emancipatory approaches can help prevent not only present, but also past harms from being repeated by researchers. However, my experience during the fieldwork in Eastern DRC has proven that marginalised groups face challenges in accessing field sites and therefore cannot participate fully in research.

The historical misrepresentation of minority groups: pseudoscience?

Back in 1954 and 1955, a few years before the DRC’s independence from colonial rule, Belgian research Jean Hiernaux set out to do research in an area in South Kivu where the territory of Uvira now lies. His ‘anthropological’ research was aimed at explaining physical (dis)similarities between three groups, of which two at that time lived in South Kivu/DRC: the Tutsi of Itombwe (now referred to as the Banyamulenge) and the Bafuliro ethnic groups, and the Tutsi of Rwanda. For this purpose, Hiernaux looked at the diets and physical characteristics of people from each of the groups, including their height and the width and length of their mouths, noses, lips, and foreheads. He based some of his key conclusions on these measurements, linking these characteristics to the origin of the Banyamulenge; ever since, this has constantly been used to exclude them politically.

Such physical anthropological work was not specific to Hiernaux or this region of the DRC. Similar studies conducted in the African Great Lakes region fill colonial archives. These kinds of ‘scientific’ findings raise questions about methodologies that researchers use to conduct research and the responsibility of the researcher towards those they study. In this case, the measuring of physical features contributed to the widening schism between natives and immigrants[1] by trying to confirm that the Banyamulenge are more linked to the Tutsi of Rwanda than closer to their neighbours, the Bafuliro ethnic group.

The same set of binaries still mobilises armed actors in the Kivu region of the DRC today. As Matthys and Verweijen noted for South Kivu, contemporary armed conflicts tend to revolve around the dichotomy reinforced by Hiernaux six decades ago. And this violence unfolds in the form of a slow genocide against the Banyamulenge minority, alleged to be ‘immigrants’ in the DRC. But what’s even more devastating is that these groups are themselves referring to these ‘causal relationships’ in how they relate to each other. Even today, these kinds of colonial writings are regularly referred to when local ethnic communities come into conflict with one another over claims to belonging, power, and resources.

The ‘stickiness’ of research findings

Colonial documents, being written, express the power of written over oral knowledge: ‘written knowledge’ generally dominates oral sources. Yet, whatever the deficiencies of colonial archives, researchers, politicians, activists, and social media users (including myself) continue to refer to these to support their different positions. The blind spots and errors of such documents have in this way been retransmitted and reproduced across generations. Even comparative measurements of noses and lips in the example used above are part of contemporary debate around who can be considered a DRC ‘native’ or not.

Two ways to prevent further harm

As a researcher, I am honestly led to question my ability to write in such a way that my work could not be misused a hundred years from now, as it has been in the case discussed above. Although methodologies in the social sciences have improved and to some extent been decolonised, there remains a tension between the positive outcomes of research and the misuse of the knowledge that was created. Thus, scholars and researchers, regardless of their role in society, must exercise caution in conducting research to prevent it from being used in the future to harm others.

How can researchers do this? Whenever research has potentially damaging effects, especially in contexts characterised by the widespread use of violence, academics should consider sharing the collective responsibility for what happens with their knowledge. After all, by writing up and publishing their findings, they share in a collective sense of honour or achievement. Taking responsibility would mean that researchers and scholars deploy efforts to rehabilitate and educate public opinion on what has been gone wrong, decolonising knowledge in this case.

Second, as Mertens (2010) shows, there is room for transformative methodologies to step in and prevent some of these negative effects of scientific research. Specifically, the argument in this article is that by adopting a transformative emancipatory perspective on research in conflict situations, potential harm can be avoided (Shanon-Baker, 2016: 326). From such a perspective, excluded groups are viewed as important actors in the knowledge production process; this leads to “intentional collaboration with minority and marginalized groups or those whose voice is not typically heard on particular issues”. In this way, the researcher can pay particular attention to issues of power, privilege and those voices mostly unheard and rarely listened to.

The approach can be considered emancipatory in that it provides more space for minority people and marginalised groups to participate in research as participants whose perspective is taken into account. I would argue that there are considerable possibilities for their deeper involvement in processes of knowledge generation, not only as participants, but also as researchers. The more we are open to learn from the contributions of marginalised groups as both participants and co-researchers, the more their voices enhance transformative social change. From my own personal research experience, marginalised groups face competitive and hostile environments, yet have similar innate abilities compared to others. The fieldwork experience revealed that undertaking research while belonging to a marginalised group is not easy.

However, this is not a call for specific attention to specific kinds of individuals, such as the Banyamulenge minority in the DRC. Rather, it is a plea to pay closer attention to how members of given minority groups are constrained in their ability to contribute to research because of what is imposed on them by their social and political settings, and by historical oversights, errors, and rationalisations. Transformative research must go hand-in-hand with the decolonisation of research. Great harm has been done, but researchers through the responsible and careful co-creation of knowledge and the communication and implementation of this knowledge can strive to prevent further harm.


[1] A century and a half ago, the classification of groups and communities across the African Great Lakes region as ‘native’ versus ‘immigrants’ resonated with the racial binaries of ‘Bantu’ and ‘Hamitic’ or ‘Nilotic’ peoples. As in other settings in the African Great Lakes, the colonial ‘native’/’immigrant’ distinction later led to a whole series of violent conflicts and even to genocide. In 1994, it was this categorisation that propelled the Rwandan genocide where the Tutsi population was practically erased in a matter of days.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Delphin Ntanyoma is a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

What do you think?

Your email address will not be published.

No Comments Yet.