Transformative Methodologies | Professional indigenous women acting to transform urban spaces in Mexico: methodological reflections

Transformative Methodologies | Professional indigenous women acting to transform urban spaces in Mexico: methodological reflections

Research practices often still do not adequately recognize the multiple points of views, experiences, and knowledges of those we work with. In the process, the meanings that people give to ...

Transformative Methodologies | Changing minds and policy through collaborative research?

Transformative Methodologies | Changing minds and policy through collaborative research?

Can collaborative research with marginalised communities be transformative, turning around unjust social relations, and supporting solidarity and rights in a practical sense? In this blog post, we (Jack Apostol, Helen ...

Integrated approach to research: Towards transformation of social (gender) injustices: A case of understanding gender-land injustice

This article is a contribution to the transformative methodologies blog series. It argues that employing an integrated approach to research, by equally highlighting status order (such as gender relations, by utilising a gender lens), challenges the focus only on class or political-economic dimensions of research concerns. Hence, an integrated approach to research brings forth the integration of economic (distribution), cultural (recognition), and political (representation) dimensions in knowledge production, thereby challenging the conventional methodological approaches, and elucidating the neglect and invisibility of an equally important research dimension, such as gender relations. 

What is integrated approach and what makes it transformative?

The theory on integrated approach is taken from Fraser’s theory of integrative approach to justice. In this article, the integrated approach is taken and discussed as a methodological approach in knowledge production. This means, taking cognisant consideration of the economic (mal)distribution, cultural (mis)recognition, and political (mis)representation (Fraser, 1999, 2005) in research. As such, these three spheres are considered as equal loci of power structures. Thus, an integrated approach not only challenges power hierarchies, and dominant perspectives and approaches in research, but also explores the transformative potential of undertaking research.

According to Fraser (2005:73), overcoming injustice means eliminating the institutionalised barriers (economic, cultural, and political) that hinder “parity participation” in societal interaction, between and among social classes and status order. Injustice emanates from economic maldistribution, cultural misrecognition (especially women’s subordination to men), and political misrepresentation. Thus, an integrated approach to justice becomes useful in developing a more comprehensive understanding of social injustice, by bringing both gender and class concerns simultaneously to the forefront of research and analysis. In the following sections, I use the case of land injustice to illustrate the utility and challenges of employing an integrated approach towards developing a nuanced understanding of the various intersecting forces that shape and sustain land injustice.

Understanding an integrated approach to research: the case of gender and land injustice

The economic sphere of justice centres on the redistribution of resources, where class structure is the main barrier. When people are deprived of required economic resources to participate fully in societal life, there is a distributive injustice (Fraser, 1999/2005). This subscribes to the Marxian understanding that class is an economic relation between the capitalist and proletariat, and thus focuses on structures of exploitation and domination (Wright, E.O. 2009:60). Examining the agrarian structure, for instance, Borras, (1997/2007) found the link between landlessness and peasants’ socio-economic status in relation to land reform. Borras elucidated, among other factors, that landlessness has a direct correlation with peasants’ poverty and injustice, and landowners’ domination and violence (Ibid). Similarly, feminist scholars have found that women’s landlessness is brought about by both — a lack of land redistribution, and a lack of recognition of women’s equal land rights (see for example, Deere and Leon, 2001, Jacobs, 2013, Deere, 2017 , and Bejeno 2021a and 2021b).

The cultural sphere, which centres on the recognition of status order, posits that status relations (in this case the gender relations) is the main barrier. When people, particularly women, are deprived of required recognition to fully participate in societal life, there is recognition injustice (Fraser, 1999/2005). This gender injustice is produced and reproduced through patriarchy or male supremacy, and is described as “the institutional all-encompassing power that men, as a group, have over women, [along with] the systematic devaluation of all the roles and traits which the society has assigned to women.” (Popkin, A., 1979).  Therefore, under patriarchy, men obtain economic, cultural, and political dominance, on one hand, and maintain women’s subordination and oppression on the other. This divide between hegemonic power of men, and the subordination of women, shapes the societal everyday practices, norms, and public policies, that in turn produce and reproduce gender-based injustice, such as land injustice (Bejeno 2021a).

Now, in the political sphere, which centres on the representation of peoples (in this case of women’s voices and participation), the political structure is the main barrier. When people (such as poor women and men) are deprived of participation, such as in framing policies, there is a representation injustice (Fraser, 2005). The political misrepresentation of women, for instance, in policy formulation and implementation (be it in state or peoples’ organization), may jeopardise women’s advancement and equality, such as in land (Bejeno, 2021a). Thus, by employing an integrated approach to research, the simultaneous scrutiny of the economic, cultural, and political sphere, as discussed above, can result in a more holistic and nuanced understanding of the intersecting injustices at play, thereby pointing to more transformative solutions for societal change.

Barriers in using integrated approach to research in understanding land injustice

In land reform and peasants’ studies, various dimensions of land justice are oftentimes ignored, which render gender (in)justice invisible. Gender justice here means that women are also recognised, for instance, to own land independently, or as co-owners in the event of all agrarian land redistribution (Bejeno, 2021a). Many studies are oftentimes not cognisant of gender inequality and fail to consider the contemporary status relations in the society. Therefore, the land reform discourse remains generally centred on class question, which in turn, continuously neglects gender-based injustice in land reform. Moreover, such a discourse is also bolstered by discriminatory laws and policies, women’s ignorance to their land rights, male dominance in decision-making bodies, directed distribution of land to household heads, (primarily men), and the strong opposition of men, on one hand, and non-assertion of women, on the other regarding their land rights (Agarwal, 1994a; Deere and Leon 2001; Levien, 2017; Morgan, 2017; Leonard, 2015 Bejeno, 2021b:7-8).

This discourse is also rooted in the undervaluation or devaluation of women’s labor and contribution to production, and the equation of reproductive work to ‘unemployment’ (Bejeno, 2021a). Women’s access to, and control over land, is oftentimes determined by the patriarchal households (Walker, 2003:143). And in many cases, women may not necessarily inherit from their husbands in case of widowhood, such as in Sub-Saharan Africa (Doss, 2014) and Asia (Agarwal 1994a and 1994b). A household, therefore, can be a site of women’s oppression (Jacobs, 2002:33, see also Agarwal 1994a) and women’s exclusion from land ownership (Ibid; Bejeno, 2021a; Kieran, 2015; Leonard, 2015, Alano, 2015). In effect, by giving primacy to the economic or productive aspects in research, any other  form of intervention becomes problematic, which, therefore, cyclically places women in less valued, invisible, and marginalised socio-economic and political status, and thus neglects the interconnected root causes of societal inequality and injustice.

Using a gender justice approach, therefore, can illuminate the gender-based power relations and dynamics. Thus, an integrated and transformative approach to land injustice would entail not only ensuring access to and control over land resources for women and other marginalised groups, but also engendering fundamental changes in perceptions of and about women as citizens and human beings (Cornwall, 2016). Transformative approach, therefore, requires an overhaul of social structures and power asymmetries to build a just society, where people, regardless of gender and other status order, have equitable resources, standing, and voice (Fraser 2005).

Paving the way forward for transformative social change

In conclusion, a transformative methodology in research considers both the class hierarchy or economic maldistribution, status relations (such as gender relations) or cultural recognition, and political structure or misrepresentation, to  understand and address societal problems in a more nuanced and comprehensive manner.  The case of land injustice discussed in this article illustrates, for instance, how gender relations, as a form of status order, is often neglected in  more traditional research approaches, and how an integrated approach can offer a more nuanced analysis by taking into account gender relations as a critical dimension of inquiry in agrarian concern. Such an approach, therefore, may result addressing the gendered control of assets, decision-making power within the household and communities, and women’s participation, among others, thereby leading to a more transformative change in the long term.

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

About the author:

Cynthia Embido Bejeno is a PhD and a Guest Researcher of Civic Innovation group at ISS

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Transformative Methodologies | How ‘interactive research’ can foster mutual learning as a first step in transformative research

Transformative Methodologies | How ‘interactive research’ can foster mutual learning as a first step in transformative research

Transformative research is an evolving concept rooted in the conscious action of embedded scholar-activism. Opening up possibilities for mutual learning can be an important first step for interested scholars in ...

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

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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 ...

Transformative Methodologies | On ‘being with’ and ‘holding space’ as transformative research tools in anthropology

Despite advances made in the field of anthropology to address some of its problematic practices, anthropologists still conduct research in the same ways as they always have, their comings and goings based on the amount of data they have acquired. The decolonisation of anthropological studies may benefit from a different approach in which researchers spend time ‘being with’ studied groups, hold space for their stories, and are responsible for the stories they as researchers then put forth, writes Aminata Cairo.

Helicopter anthropologists

“For every Indian, there was an anthropologist.” So joked the Native population with me as I was visiting the Navajo reservation to conduct research. There were plenty more jokes about the scientists who, in the name of science, came and went and excavated their stories, only to misrepresent them and never be heard from again. Similarly, when I went to my first national anthropological conference in the US as a graduate student, I attended a session with the Native American cohort where I learned about the concept of ‘helicopter anthropologist’ – those who come and ‘hover’ to extract what they need and then leave without a trace.

Those jokes and lessons have stayed with me. As an anthropologist, I have always felt strongly that in order to do right, we should heed the guidance of those that have been affected the most by these practices. In American anthropology, that would be the Native American population.

I have been trained as an American anthropologist, and as much as I love the discipline, something never felt right. I switched from clinical psychology to anthropology because it was a different way of dealing with people’s stories. Anthropology allowed me to help people give voice to their own stories.  And yet there was something about it…

Anthropology was born out of a very specific colonial history,[1] after all. Yes, it was about people’s stories, but those stories were studied so people could be dominated, exploited, or classified as ‘less than’ in support of white supremacy. I am well aware of its past. The approach has changed since its early beginnings, but the means to extract the stories have basically remained the same. We are still helicopter anthropologists.

Yet things could be different. At that same anthropology conference, I met a Native American elder who told me that “the community should be better off for the anthropologists having been there.” It is the teaching that has stayed with me and set me on my path to study indigenous approaches to knowledge.

Researchers as stewards of knowledge

After reading the work of Linda Tuhiwai Smith[2] and Shawn Wilson,[3] my approach to knowledge and the pursuit of knowledge changed forever. According to Wilson, we can never be owners of knowledge. Knowledge is all around us, and we stand in relationship to it. Ultimately, we can only be stewards of knowledge. This approach brings with it a certain humility, an understanding that engagement with indigenous peoples and the gaining of insights is a privilege, not an entitlement.  Tuhiwai Smith acknowledges the colonial foundation of research practices and advocates for an approach to research that is decolonising and treats research populations with respect.

Reliable accountability and holding space

My approach to research now is totally different from how I was initially trained. Now, I start with the premise that we are all connected and that for a short period of time, I would ‘be with’ and join a community in order to unearth a story or stories that can be a benefit for all of us. I follow Wilson’s mandate of ‘relational accountability’ represented in the three ‘R’s’: respect, responsibility, and reciprocity. In addition, I use my own concept of ‘holding space’ in which I am not entitled to the story or stories, but must earn the right to experience those stories through being with, displaying care, and building trust. Through joining and collectively being touched and transformed by the story or stories, they will come to light.

The key is that this journey is a respectful collaboration, rather than the standard data extraction pursuit of traditional research. Even in anthropology’s method of participant observation, the ultimate goal is for the researcher to walk away informed and enriched. In this endeavour, the goal is for the researcher and the (research) community to have learned something that will be of benefit to both and potentially useful to transform the space.

In our most recent research project, where we joined a marginalised community within The Hague to explore solidarity in the times of the COVID-19 pandemic, we engaged in a journey with the community. What started as a pursuit for counternarratives to the existing negative public stories shifted and became an exercise in holding space for all the stories that existed in this community, whether positive or negative. It was the community members, after all, that reminded us that they didn’t have anything to prove, and that in fact they had earned the right to just be. Through joining and ‘being with’, we then shifted course and learned about how people hold space for each other – a far more valuable lesson.

I understand that some of my colleagues might frown upon my approach to research. However, in my world of inclusion, there are many different approaches to knowledge and the pursuit of knowledge. My way of doing knowledge is just fine. What matters is that I can contribute to knowledge and communities and feel good about what I do. All of it. That is the best reward and my incentive to keep going.

[1] Lews, D. (1973) ‘Anthropology and Colonialism’, Current Anthropology 14(5): 581-602.

[2] Tuhiwai Smith, L. (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London and New York: Zed Books Ltd.

[3] Wilson, S. (2008). Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. Winnipeg: Fernwood.

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

About the author:

Aminata Cairo is the chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Team 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.