Tag Archives academia

Transformative Methodologies | Using a caring approach to equalise research relationships

Transformative Methodologies | Using a caring approach to equalise research relationships

Collaboration between researchers and those they engage with for their research is increasingly promoted as a way to address some of the epistemic injustices arising from the process of producing ...

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

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 ...

17th Development Dialogue | A call to end the ‘social distancing’ of the sciences – in the COVID-19 era and beyond

The chasm that separates the different scientific disciplines remains deep as ever despite the evident need to address pressing global problems through transdisciplinary collaboration. C. Sathyamala and Peter A.G. van Bergeijk in this article show how close and intensive cooperation across the artificial borders between the sciences can be made possible and argue for a methodology acknowledging that only a combination of qualitative and quantitative research can create the type of knowledge that’s required to move forward together.

Hans-Peter Gauster (unsplash)

We start with a proposition: that both social and natural sciences are good at boxing, but not as good at wrestling. They ‘box’ by telling themselves stories about where they and researchers in the respective fields ‘fit’ into the scaffolding erected around the supposedly chiasmic divide of natural and social sciences. We all seem to know what side of this divide we want to be on, and a lot of time is invested in delineation, often drawing distinctions without differences. For too long, specialisation and deeper knowledge, both applied and theoretical, have been seen as the royal road to academic success.

But there are limits to what any science can do on its own. We’ve seen this during the current pandemic. As in any context, COVID-19-related health problems cannot be tackled from a purely medical angle; the exploitative social and economic structures that make people sick must also be challenged. Indeed, the validity of medical solutions to a large extent depends on social and economic conditions of time and place. The pandemic does not provide a new insight – it simply makes it clearer.

The COVID-19 pandemic taught us that by boxing in the disciplines and keeping them apart, we fail in a monumental way to ‘wrestle’ with multi-faceted problems, like global pandemics. We avoid the intellectual battle inherent in engaging with what the other side thinks. To deal with COVID-19 or to understand what is happening, we need less boxing and more wrestling! A mono-disciplinary perspective, however sophisticated, cannot help us design and evaluate policy interventions, or grasp the wider meaning and significance of COVID-19 in specific contexts. A lot of time is now being invested in delineation with other strands and lines of thought based on high principles of epistemology and ontology. Our point is that that energy would be better spend on truly working together.

A physician and an economist…

We write from different sides of a supposedly chiasmic divide, a divide we each try to bridge and straddle in our own ways. C. Sathyamala is a public health physician with a Master’s degree in Epidemiology who opted to do her PhD in development studies at the ISS. In the process, she developed a strong interest in class and state power and in the history of the biopolitics of food and hunger. As a medical doctor concerned with action for social justice, the Bhopal gas leak disaster proved a crucial turning point in her life as corporate interests in collusion with the state effaced people’s lives. The COVID-19 pandemic created similar tendency, displacing the migrant working class across India and subjecting them to what Giorgio Agamben has called ‘bare life’.

As an agnostic Dutch economist, Peter van Bergeijk is the first academic in a family of South Holland-based bakers, carpenters, and farmers. As a policy maker at the OECD, he was frustrated by the impossibility to engage major developing countries in discussions on environment and health. This motivated his move to the ISS, where he is equally happy to employ a neo-Marxist or a ‘empiricist’ framework as a toolkit, depending on what analytical toolbox is most suitable for the problem at hand.

…together critically examining the COVID-19 pandemic

Each of us has written on COVID-19 – on the urgency of communicating our concerns – in the form of  books or a range of Working Papers. Writing from different social and professional positions, we now also write…together. A common interest around COVID-19 has bridged our science-social science divide.

Primarily, we agree that if at all a silver lining is to be found in the COVID-19 situation, it is that we can learn a great deal, especially with mixed disciplinary backgrounds, with science, social sciences, and the arts (we have also worked together artistically: you will find Sathya’s poetry and Peter’s lithography alongside at the exhibition Broken Links).

And we both agree that we will only truly understand pandemics and their consequences, and what to do about protecting human societies from their fallout once social scientists and natural scientists stop practicing social and intellectual distancing by boxing themselves into their own disciplines.

This is more urgent than often recognised: the next pandemic is a certainty, only its timing is uncertain.

The WHO hopes to forge solidarity and encourage the sharing of knowledge across disciplinary and global divides. The purpose is to generate greater consensus around COVID-19.

But while lip service is paid to medical opinion, it is powerful political and economic elites that continue to call the shots.  State interventions provide selective care in the matter of making live and letting die, and even in making die in the Foucauldian biopolitical sense. Academics find themselves struggling to keep up in real time with the pace of the pandemic, with its spread, recurrence, changing pattern, and often its gross mismanagement.

Huge as the problem is, we are pleased to have started our own dialogue, right here at the ISS, and based on our own published and ongoing research on the subject. How COVID-19 affects us now, and what kinds of ‘pandemic futures’ we face, are questions all of us can contribute to answering once we learn to wrestle across our disciplinary divides.

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

About the authors:

C. Sathyamala is a public health physician and epidemiologist with a PhD in Development Studies. She is currently a postdoc academic researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies, Den Haag, Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her areas of interest include food security and politics of food, political economy of health, medical ethics, reproductive rights, and environmental justice. She has been active in both the health and women’s movement in India for some decades. She has authored and co-authored books and published in journals, peer-reviewed and otherwise, and in newspapers on wide-ranging topics. 

Peter van Bergeijk is professor of international economics and macroeconomics at the ISS.

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Positioning Academia | Decolonizing academic minds: reflecting on what academics are getting wrong (and right) by Ton Dietz

Positioning Academia | Decolonizing academic minds: reflecting on what academics are getting wrong (and right) by Ton Dietz

When Linda Johnson and I shared responsibilities for the Prince Claus Chair in Development and Equity, we had many discussions that were close to the leading topic of the ongoing ...

Positioning Academia | Development must change in the face of injustice and inequality

Positioning Academia | Development must change in the face of injustice and inequality

Inequality is growing in most countries and deep-seated injustices continue to pervade our world—from the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on minority ethnic groups and the tragic death of George Floyd in the ...

Positioning Academia | Creating a safe haven at ISS for scholars at risk

While most academics can conduct research freely, a number of scholars around the world have been threatened due to the nature of their critical, yet crucial work in the field of development studies. Over the past decade, the ISS has provided institutional support for the Scholars at Risk (SAR) network, helping create a safe haven for five scholars whose lives were in danger. We share here our experience of the value of this programme on the occasion of the retirement of Linda Johnson, who along with her work for the Prince Claus Chair coordinated ISS support for visiting scholars, infusing the link with a special quality.

"Solidarity Mural" by Atelier Teee is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Through this series we are celebrating the legacy of Linda Johnson, former Executive Secretary of the ISS who retired in December last year. Having served the ISS in various capacities, Linda was also one of the founding editors of Bliss. She spearheaded many institutional partnerships, promoted collaboration, and organised numerous events, always unified in the theme of bringing people in conversation with each other across divides. This blog series about academics in the big world of politics, policy, and practice recognises and appreciates Linda’s contribution to the vitality of the ISS.

Both of us first got to know Linda through her support for Sunila Abeysekera from Sri Lanka, a brilliant feminist scholar and internationally known women’s rights defender who was supported by the SAR programme between 2011 and 2013. She had been forced to flee following death threats and found refuge in her alma mater, the ISS. Since Sunila stayed with Amrita through the three years, it was possible to see at close quarters what Wendy immediately perceived when she visited Sunila: a feminist ally. As we sat down for tea, Linda appeared, bearing a large bouquet of flowers for Sunila. It was clear Linda was no ordinary administrator of a programme—Linda was there as a friend and as someone who was providing a rich connection to Dutch life for a woman in exile.

Providing sanctuary for an exiled person involved much more than the necessary organising of the visas, permits, and dealing with bureaucracy. As Edward Said so eloquently wrote, exile “… is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted” (Said, 2002:173). For these scholars who found their lives in limbo, Linda wove together a solidarity network among strangers based on respect, empathy, compassion, and care to create a sense of belonging and a home in another land. Most importantly, she became a friend and a confidant, engaging with their personal and professional lives. Rather than what could be a hierarchical relationship of charitable benevolence, Linda was able to forge deeper horizontal bonds of solidarity and shared responsibility for the wellbeing of others.

Reflecting on her work with SAR, Linda said, “ISS would not have been able to provide a haven for these scholars without the huge efforts of ISS colleagues and of Dutch politicians, diplomatic staff, and human rights lawyers. All of these scholars have become ‘honorary members’ of my own family, spending time at my home and becoming an integral part of the fabric of my life. My family is the richer for these friendships.” (personal communication, 2021)

It is through her generous giving of time and caring attention that it was possible to build a sanctuary at the ISS where, despite trauma and loss, the scholars could feel at home. Their overall wellbeing was paramount to her. She would not only meet them in The Hague for coffee or a glass of white wine, but also invited them to her home in Amsterdam for a quick supper or lunch before she would take them to an art gallery or a theatre. Her own travels and skills in languages made her an important conduit for the cultural and social differences the SAR scholars would encounter. Her ready ear and wide networks enabled her to connect them to services and institutions they required, an intellectual community, and Dutch cultural life.

The exceptional way Linda has built and sustained the SAR program at the ISS shows what working as a ‘professional’ requires: going beyond technical competencies, developing new practices which incorporate empathy, care, kindness, and an ability to connect with others.

As Linda observed:

“One can only stand back in awe at the resilience these individuals continue to show in spite of being cut off from contact with their friends and families at home. Working with scholars at risk is messy, it is tough, it does not fit neatly into protocols and procedures. Yet, it is vital that ISS continues to support such individuals as part of its mission to pursue greater social justice.” (personal communication, 2021)

This same dedication, care for people, and respect for the role scholars from the Global South can play in the Netherlands is equally evident in her work for the Prince Claus Chair (PCC). She has supported all 19 of the PCC holders and 12 postdocs to date, organised two PCC five-year-anniversary events, and from 2010 onwards worked with each awardee and postdoc intensively during his/her term. As Executive Secretary of the PCC, she facilitated the establishment of links between PCC holders’ work and wider networks. For instance, Stella Quimbo’s work on health insurance was connected with HM Queen Máxima of the Netherlands and UN special advocate for inclusive finance Saradindu Bhaduri’s work on ‘frugal innovation’ provided an input for the EU Horizon Europe programme. Besides all of this, she helped them navigate the Dutch milieu, got to know their families, and shared her own family with them, creating a sense of home for the PCC holders during their time in the Netherlands.

As Linda reminisced:

“I tried to create a family feeling among the PCC community members and to facilitate cooperation and collaboration among chairholders. I felt that it was important for the chairholders and postdocs to get to know something about the Netherlands during their time here and saw it as part of my role to make this possible. This led to many concerts, ballets and meals together, both at my home and in restaurants in Amsterdam, Utrecht, and The Hague.” (personal communication, 2021)

Linda’s work with the SAR scholars and Prince Claus Chair holders has contributed to bringing vibrant networks working toward social justice closer to Dutch academia. It is important that we uphold her legacy by ensuring that our university continues to participate in and cherish these small but far-reaching initiatives over the coming decades.

About the authors:

Amrita Chhachhi is Associate Professor at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University, Netherlands. Her research, teaching and publications focus on gender, labour, poverty, inequality and social policy and the state, religious fundamentalisms and social movements.  She is the author of Gender and Labour in Contemporary India: Eroding Citizenship and co-editor of Engendering Human Security: Feminist Perspectives and Confronting State, Capital and Patriarchy: Women Organising in the process of Industrialisation. She is on the editorial board of the journal Development and Change. She is linked with a number of South Asian feminist, labour and peace networks.

Professor Dr Wendy Harcourt was appointed full Professor and a Westerdijk Professor together with an endowed Chair of Gender, Diversity and Sustainable Development at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam in The Hague in October 2017. She is Coordinator of the EU H2020-MSCA-ITN-2017 Marie Sklodowska-Curie Innovative Training Networks (ITN) WEGO (Well-being, Ecology, Gender, and Community) awarded in May 2017. She has published widely in feminist theory with a focus on critical development, body politics, feminist political ecology. She is series editor of the Palgrave Gender, Development and Social Change and the ISS-Routledge Series on Gender, Development and Sexuality.

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.

COVID-19 | How COVID-19 exacerbates inequalities in academia

COVID-19 | How COVID-19 exacerbates inequalities in academia

The COVID-19 crisis has brought to the fore gendered and racialised aspects of precarity that were steeping in academia long before the virus emerged. The increased burden of unpaid care ...

COVID-19 | Will current travel restrictions help academics change their flying behaviour? by Lara Vincent and Oane Visser

COVID-19 | Will current travel restrictions help academics change their flying behaviour? by Lara Vincent and Oane Visser

With drastic restrictions on mobility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, international academic air travel for research, conferences, and defences has largely come to a halt. The sudden inability to hop ...

#MeToo and the need for safe spaces in academia by Brenda Rodríguez, Bruna Martinez and Vira Mistry

We hope this article leads to a larger discussion about sexual harassment in academia and the urgent work of creating a safe and inclusive environment for all of the members of the ISS community.

Initiated back in 2006 by African-American civil rights activist Tarana Burke, the #MeToo movement exploded in 2017 during the sexual misconduct scandal of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein when actress Alyssa Milano asked her Twitter followers from across the world to share their experiences of sexual harassment. As the hashtag went viral, a number of others also emerged, shedding light on sexual harassment in specific sectors. This included the #MeTooAcademia and #ScienceToo hashtags that highlighted the prevalence of sexual harassment in academic spaces and the need for change.


Gender discrimination and sexual harassment[1] exist in every sector, and academia is not unaffected by this. A report released by UN Women in 2018 titled ‘Towards an end to sexual harassment: the urgency and nature of change in the era of #MeToo’ shows that 55% of women in the European Union have experienced sexual harassment at least once since the age of 15. Amongst these women, 32% identified somebody from their employment context—a colleague, a supervisor, or a customer—as the perpetrator.

Inspired by the #MeToo movement, the Swedish Research Council in 2018 published an international report on sexual harassment in universities. The research analysed 800 publications on sexual harassment during the period 1966-2018. The study concluded that sexual harassment takes place in all disciplines of academia and is reported by students, doctoral candidates, and faculty members alike. Women, especially younger women, women with precarious employment conditions, and those belonging to ethnic and sexual minority groups, are more exposed to sexual harassment than others. Underreporting is also very common.

The study also stated that there was evidence of women who had experienced varied forms of harassment having to deal with physical, psychological and professional consequences such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome, physical pain, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, increased alcohol use, impaired career opportunities, reduced work motivation, etcetera. How this is affecting the overall work environment and organisational culture in academia remains under-researched.

Focusing on our local context in the Netherlands, a recent study commissioned by the Dutch Network of Women Professors (LNVH) showed that unwanted behaviour is prevalent in Dutch academia, with cases ranging from sexual harassment to physical and verbal threats, denigration, and exclusion. Another report by the Dutch unions for the science sector FNV and VAWO pointed out that four in ten university staff members are affected by bullying, intimidation, gossip, and abuse of power. While gender plays an important role in cases of undesirable behaviour, this situation is often exacerbated when gender intersects with other axes of oppression such as race, age, sexuality, religion, and ability.

Fighting sexual harassment at the ISS

Critical academic spaces like ISS are not exempt from cases of harassment (sexual or otherwise), bullying and discrimination that continue to plague academic spaces in the Netherlands and worldwide. In addition, the ISS draws researchers and students from all walks of life. This year, as in many other years, ISS welcomed a batch of approximately 150 MA students from over 50 countries. In such a cross-cultural setting, interpersonal interactions are enriching and exciting; however, they can also run the risk of resulting in different types of undesirable behaviour.

So what are we doing at ISS to address such situations and prevent them from happening? At the institutional level, ISS has set up various organs to provide support and address issues of inequality, discrimination and safety for both students and staff, such as the Welfare Office, the ISS Counselling Team, the Institute Council, and the Diversity and Inclusion Team. Additionally, the student body’s Gender Committee and the Sexual Diversity Committee have been working towards creating a more inclusive and safe community.

It’s worth noting that for the past 25 years, the Welfare Office provides a workshop on cross-cultural communication as part of the orientation programme for MA students, establishing a precedent for what is acceptable—or not—for the ISS community. And ISS is also commissioning experts to help it break out of the cycle of harassment and abuse. During orientation week in September last year, the ISS Counselling Team collaborated with Know It, Name It, Love It, an organization that seeks to build safer, better and truly inclusive communities and organizations through workshops and trainings. They facilitated a workshop for the incoming students on how to build a safe and inclusive environment. By using concepts of positionality, intersectionality and empathy, they provided strategies on how to minimize the potential for unwanted behaviour.

The most concrete goal of the workshop was the creation of the ‘Pillars of Our Community’, a set of guidelines developed by the new batch of MA students that laid the foundation for how to engage and interact with each other in a caring, safe, and respectful way, as well as to create an understanding of a collective responsibility to hold each other accountable when necessary.

Most of our examples are targeted at MA students, and we recognise there is more to be done both at a ground and institutional level, including sensitising work with other members of the ISS community such as PhD researchers and academic and administrative staff. Some of the ways that higher education spaces can confront and improve their response to sexual harassment is the creation and implementation of sexual harassment training programs aimed at students and staff that be conducted over a longer period of time. Additionally, they can review current policies, protocols and reporting mechanisms, promote a culture that discourages all forms of sexual harassment, and hold perpetrators accountable.


[1] According to UN Women, sexual harassment is “any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favour, verbal or physical conduct or gesture of a sexual nature, or any other behaviour of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected or be perceived to cause offence or humiliation to another.”
References:
FNV and VAWO (2019) “Sociale veiligheid medewerkers universiteiten” https://www.fnv.nl/nieuwsbericht/sectornieuws/fnv-overheid/2019/05/helft-universiteitspersoneel-ervaart-sociaal-onvei
Naezer, Marijke; Van den Brink, Marieke; Benschop, Yvonne (2019) “Harassment in Dutch academia: Exploring manifestations, facilitating factors, effects and solutions”, Commissioned by the Dutch Network of Women Professors (LNVH) https://www.lnvh.nl/uploads/moxiemanager/LNVH_rapport__lsquo_Harassment_in_Dutch_academia__Exploring_manifestations__facilitating_factors__effects_and_solutions_rsquo_.pdf
Purna Sen, Eunice Borges, Estefania Guallar, and Jade Cochran (2018) “Towards an end to sexual harassment: The urgency and nature of change in the era of #MeToo”, UN Women https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2018/11/towards-an-end-to-sexual-harassment
Swedish Research Council (2018) “Sexual harassment in academia – An international research review”, https://www.vr.se/english/analysis/reports/our-reports/2018-11-30-sexual-harassment-in-academia.html

About the authors:

Brenda RodriguezBruna Martinez and Vira MistryBrenda Rodríguez Cortés is a PhD candidate at ISS working on gender and sexuality, ISS MA ‘14 alumna and a member of the ISS Counselling Team. Bruna Martinez and Vira Mistry are co-founders of Know It, Name It, Love It, and ISS MA ‘18 alumnae.

Fighting Climate Change: Is Academia Doing Enough? by Fleur Zantvoort

Fighting Climate Change: Is Academia Doing Enough? by Fleur Zantvoort

Sometimes our research takes us to unexpected places. I spent the last weeks gluing my friends to fossil fuel corporations, getting lifted up and “bureaucratically displaced” by riot police, and ...

Celebrating a year of blissful blogging: ISS Blog Bliss turns 1!

Celebrating a year of blissful blogging: ISS Blog Bliss turns 1!

Bliss, the blog of the ISS on global development and social justice, turns one this week. Although the blog is still in its infancy, it is already showing great promise. ...

Exploring masculinities: being a man in the #MeToo era by ISS Counselling Team members

A recent workshop on masculinities hosted by the ISS Counselling Team focused on ‘being a man in the #MeToo era’, drawing participants from the ISS and beyond. The workshop provided a space for reflection on lived experiences regarding masculinity, for the exploration of the ways in which masculinities have been constructed and performed, and for the examination of some of the ideals of masculinity across different cultures. This article briefly details some of the workshop’s highlights.


The #MeToo movement and its impact in academia

Previous to the workshop, some students at ISS felt the need to figure out how to navigate their masculinities in light of the #MeToo movement. The #MeToo movement is a global movement against sexual harassment and sexual violence that was initiated in 2006 as part of a grassroots campaign led by the African-American civil rights activist Tarana Burke, with the initial purpose of helping young women of color that had previously experienced sexual abuse. In 2017, the hashtag gained widespread visibility and popularity when the Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano asked her followers on Twitter to use the hashtag #MeToo to share their own stories of sexual harassment and assault, amidst the scandal of sexual abuse allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein.

Academia, as any other space in society and like any other industry, is not exempt from sexism, misogyny and sexual misconduct. This is why there’s a need for the ISS community to engage in conversations around the issue of sexual harassment and its connection with hegemonic ideals of masculinity and manhood and prevent this from happening.

Masculinity studies

Within the field of Gender Studies, there has been a steady growth in research on men and masculinities since the early 1980s. The leading proponent in theorizing masculinities is Raewyn Connell (also R.W. Connell in some publications), Professor Emerita at the University of Sydney, who has asserted the existence of plural masculinities, the social hierarchy that exists between them, and the theoretical idea of ‘hegemonic masculinity’. For Connell, masculinities are necessarily plural given the different shapes masculinity takes depending on the different sociocultural contexts where they are constructed. Nevertheless, there is also a modern western idea of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ that prevails over women and other subordinated masculinities.

Recent critical reflections on masculinities have been brought even more into the fore since the advent of the #MeToo movement. The acknowledgement of concepts like ‘toxic masculinity’ have become popular to highlight the negative and harmful effects of certain norms of masculine behavior but also the unattainable expectations that men and boys face. It’s a term often associated with forms of masculinity that end up encouraging misogynistic, homophobic and violent behaviours, while at the same time pushing boys into intense emotional repression.

Coming into the workshop, participants had varying degrees of engagement with these concepts, some encountering the critical idea of “masculinitIES” (in plural) for the first time, while others preparing to dedicate their MA or PhD research around such issues. During the workshop, participants engaged in conversations on social expectations and stereotypes of men from around the world, and how attainable they really are in practice. Participants in the workshop also agreed that although men do benefit from unequal gender relations, these benefits are not without a cost. Similarly, there are unequal power relations amongst men given that masculinities are constructed in relation to existing social hierarchies such as class, race, age, disability, sexuality, nationality, among others. Finally, one of the conclusions of this workshop was that there are many ways to be a man and express one’s masculinity.

Way Forward… What’s Next?

As a follow up to the workshop we realize the need to bring these dialogues into our daily conversations and interactions. We must find ways to address everyday experiences of misogyny and violence from an intersectional perspective, both in and outside academia. Men require spaces to reflect on their privileges and the costs of unequal gender relations with its variations across class, race, sexuality, ability and other intersections of power. The struggle towards equality continues, and we believe that discussions around masculinity are also an important part of that struggle.


Also see: Hyper-masculinity: a threat to inclusive community development in fragile environments by Holly A Ritchie


Picture credit: Wolfmann


Brenda RodriguezAbout the authors: 

Brenda Rodríguez Cortés (left) is a PhD candidate at ISS working on gender and sexuality. Ana Fabregas, Angélica Arámbulo and Ahmad Faraz are MA students at ISS. They are all Peer Counsellors and part of the ISS Counselling Team.

Epistemic Diversity| Understanding epistemic diversity: decoloniality as research strategy by Olivia U. Rutazibwa

Epistemic Diversity| Understanding epistemic diversity: decoloniality as research strategy by Olivia U. Rutazibwa

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 ...

Epistemic Diversity | From ‘do no harm’ to making research useful: a conversation on ethics in development research by Karin Astrid Siegmann

Epistemic Diversity | From ‘do no harm’ to making research useful: a conversation on ethics in development research by Karin Astrid Siegmann

Ethical dilemmas are part and parcel of the research processes that researchers are engaged in. This article details a recent conversation between ISS students and staff in which they tried ...

Epistemic Diversity | The challenge of epistemic poverty and how to think beyond what we know by Sruti Bala

Researchers face the challenge of engaging with the topic of epistemic diversity. We know that we should consider diverse knowledges in our research, but how can this be operationalised? This blog post engages with this question and shows us that it first of all means calling into question what we hold dear—the very ground on which we stand as researchers and the means by which we distinguish knowledge from non-knowledge.


I am not sure if I can claim with any certainty that I practice epistemic diversity in my research. At first glance, following from epistêmê, the Greek word for knowledge, one could assume epistemic diversity to mean a diversity of knowledge. Sounds straightforward, for who would not seek a diversity of knowledge? Yet following Michel Foucault, the brilliant innovator of method, an episteme is not literally knowledge (connaissance)—something that is out there waiting to be known—but a historical set of relations or founding assumptions that unite, formalise, and systematise what comes to be regarded as knowledge.

An episteme tends to consist of unspoken, tacit modes of sensemaking that allow us to recognise something as knowledge, i.e. scientific, and therefore distinguish it from what is not knowledge, and call this by other names, like belief, ritual, gossip, superstition, crime. Epistemic diversity, in this Foucauldian sense, implies a diversity of ways of recognising knowledge and distinguishing it from non-knowledge. This is anything but straightforward!

What if my system of knowledge formation has taught me that knowledge must have a name, a language? Then I will try to acquire knowledge by naming the things I encounter, by making them enter an episteme through nomenclature, typology, or categorisation. If it cannot be named or ordered, then it must not be knowledge, but belonging to another realm—that of dreams or fantasies, for instance. What if my system of knowledge conceives of knowledge as something to be acquired, possessed, or accumulated? Then knowledge to which no ownership is attached will not count as knowledge. It may come to be regarded as folklore or rumour. What if the episteme I have been inserted into by way of education gives great importance to empirical verifiability or to linear progression? Then something that defies the rules of empirical verifiability and does not move in a straight line from simple to complex may come to be regarded as superstition or ritual or magic, but not as knowledge.

One might argue that epistemic diversity tends to come to our notice primarily when certain forms of knowledge production are in danger. Foucault’s conception of the episteme in The Order of Things (English translation 1970) points to such moments of rupture, and theorisations following from his, such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s notion of “epistemic violence” in her essay ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ (1988), reveal how certain types of practices and ways of life are criminalised and destroyed, not necessarily through physical violence, but through modes of knowledge production. The extinction of a language or of an art form are instances of epistemic violence. The silencing of certain aspects of history in public memory, such as the history of colonialism and resistance to slavery, is another. To some extent it feels simpler to say that we have to strive to preserve subjugated knowledge forms, because that is a charitable task, undertaken elsewhere, as it were. It is far more difficult to know how we should practice epistemic diversity within the four walls of our own edifices of research and study. It means calling into question what we hold dear, the very ground on which we stand as researchers and the means by which we distinguish knowledge from non-knowledge.

Where Spivak emphasises the issue of epistemic violence done to subjugated knowledges, the challenge I face in my research is better described as epistemic poverty, the loss that accompanies my set of epistemic assumptions and privileges. As a researcher I realise that it is important to listen to articulations radically different from the frameworks that I may be trained in, but more than good listening is required in order for those articulations and insights to translate themselves into what we might call knowledge. Just by desiring epistemic diversity, or proclaiming it, doesn’t mean it will have been accomplished.

Placing ourselves in others’ shoes

The task of epistemic diversity could perhaps begin with persistently training ourselves to recognise how certain epistemic privileges are ingrained in our disciplinary histories, and train ourselves to challenge and revise them. It is about learning to imagine the conditions of knowledge formation differently. One must be able to first imagine that something might be valuable, even if it does not appear valuable to oneself at all. One must be able to break the habitual rejection of something because it appears distant and irrelevant at face value. The absent potential of what one does not yet know can only be recognised when its possible presence can be imagined.

There is a specifically gendered and sexual politics at play when epistemic diversity becomes a matter of accumulation and possession of difference. I regularly encounter public declarations of the idea that the intimate encounter with difference, especially with minoritised, primitivised others, is full of pleasure and has the capacity to transform and redeem the dominant self. Authoritative claims, for instance, of intimacy with a certain culture on the grounds of one’s spouse or sexual partner being from that culture, are indicative of this stance. Bell Hooks brilliantly reflects the underlying desire for pleasure and their erotic connotations in popular cultural expressions and fantasies in Black Looks (1992). Under which conditions is the longing for and affective appreciation of otherness a move of acknowledgement, when is it a form of ‘imperialist nostalgia’ or primitivism, or fantasy of possessing and claiming the other?

It is my strong belief that the quest for epistemic diversity must be accompanied and guided by what Rolando Vazquez and Rosalba Icaza, following Maria Lugones, call a ‘politics of coalition building’ (Pilgrimages/peregrinajes: Theorizing coalition against multiple oppressions, 2003). I am acutely aware that appropriation, theft, erasure, blind spots, equivocation and over-simplification are real problems in research in the humanities and social sciences. The relationships between researcher and researched or between disciplinary formations continue to remain painfully asymmetrical when it comes to the life worlds of the Global South or of those marked as minorities. Yet we cannot overcome these asymmetries without reaching out and learning from and with each other. Epistemic diversity calls upon us to engage critically with all kinds of bodies of knowledge, even and especially if we don’t (fully) agree with them.


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

About the author: 

Sruti BalaDr Sruti Bala is Associate Professor at the Theatre Studies Department of the University of Amsterdam and Research Affiliate with the Amsterdam Centre for Globalisation Studies and Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis. Her research interests are at the crossroads of theatre and performance studies, cultural analysis, post- and decolonial thinking and feminist theory.

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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— ...

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Trump’s ‘doublespeak’—why academics should speak out by Jeff Handmaker

U.S. President Donald Trump in January 2018 delivered his first State of the Union Address (SOTU). At first glance, he sounded more presidential than ever following his tumultuous first year in office. However, his careful words hid an agenda that is hostile to most of us, and to academics in particular. As scholars, we have a responsibility to take notice, and to speak out. 


The SOTU Address – Trump’s doublespeak

During much of his SOTU address, Trump made an effort to reach Americans, beyond his more familiar, albeit dwindling ‘base’ of support, composed of evangelicals, the elderly and whites without a university degree. His presentation was peppered by American proverbs and even managed to come across as compassionate.

But gaps and contradictions blatantly revealed Trump’s doublespeak. While Trump refrained from referring to countries as “shitholes” as he had done a few weeks earlier, his contempt for foreign nations was evident. He praised the Iranian peoples’ “struggle for freedom”, while failing to mention the travel ban in place against all Iranians.

Trump also praised his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a decision condemned by most nations in the United Nations General Assembly. Trump said that “friends” of the US would receive support, while “enemies” would not. While these were not explicitly specified, there was a clear reference to how nations voted at the UN concerning Jerusalem.

Capping off a dizzying array of international law violations, Trump insisted that the notorious detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, associated with torture and indefinite detention without trial, would remain open. He affirmed that the US military would continue its operations in Afghanistan, ominously, under unspecified “new rules of engagement”.

So how is this all relevant for scholars?

The overall response from media commentators to Trump’s SOTU address was disappointing. Most focused on its tone rather than its content. In the Netherlands, some even referred to Trump’s address as “brilliant” and “politically, very clever”. The NRC Handelsblad offered perhaps the best commentary, emphasising its ‘polarising’ content, but this was an exception.

The fact remains that a significant majority of Americans have consistently disapproved of Trump’s job as president. There has been a public outcry in countries around the world, particularly after Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. So why have there been so few critical analysts, particularly in the mainstream media?

In my own observations at academic gatherings in the US and abroad, since Trump first came to office in January 2017, it appears that most academics tend to dismiss Trump, rolling their eyes, ignoring his statements, mocking him, or even suggesting that he doesn’t really have all that much power. A handful of academics have even openly supported him.

There are, of course, notable exceptions. Those in the immigration law field have written persistently on the Trump administration’s persecution of immigrants. Apart from the alternative media, such as Mondoweiss, Democracy Now and MSNBC, The Conversation has produced in-depth articles by scholars condemning the Trump administration’s policies. But even critical media outlets, such as De Correspondent in The Netherlands have acknowledged that, while news outlets have tended to reflect daily indignation, they have rarely produced sustained resistance to the policies of the Trump administration.

A position of ambivalence in these circumstances is not tenable. As Professor Harris Beider has poignantly observed: “we live in an age of volatility and scepticism … As academics we find ourselves in the dock of public opinion too … we as universities and academics can also be part of the problem”.

Accordingly, with the rise of ethno-nationalist administrations in the USA and the United Kingdom, Beider has issued an appeal to academics to be less self-absorbed and “to question received wisdom and follow the people rather than expect them to follow us”.

What Trump says publicly should matter a great deal to us, if only in view of the vast military and nuclear arsenal at his disposal and the message to other world leaders that Trump’s behavior should in any way be regarded as acceptable.

Trump’s specific threats to academics

Alongside general concerns around Trump’s policies, there are at least three specific examples that are pertinent to academics worldwide.

First, Trump’s travel ban on nationals from specific countries has made it impossible, and even dangerous for academics from these countries, some of whom are regarded as scholars at risk, to share their knowledge and in extreme cases obtain safe refuge in the United States. Several vice chancellors (rectors magnificus) of Australian universities have protested Trump’s travel ban, joining thousands of other scholars worldwide.

Second, while Congress has so far pushed back on Trump’s proposals to slash health research, Trump’s refusal to accept the scientific consensus concerning a link between carbon emissions and climate change is having a devastating global impact in restricting access to crucial research funding. Research funding cuts in other areas are also likely.

Third, the harassment of scholars by right-wing groups has been steadily rising against scholars, particularly following the election of Donald Trump. Such harassment is even described as “becoming normal” by the American Association of University Professors, which has set up an on-line platform for reporting incidents of harassment.

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Picture Credit: Newtown grafitti

This would not be the first time scholars have stood up in protest against regimes whose policies have threatened society at large, and academics specifically. This includes South Africa’s persecution of non-whites and critical scholars in the 1980s, the persecution of scholars by the government in Turkey and Israel’s persecution of Palestinian scholars.

Whether as scholars of climate change, international law, race relations or many other related areas, we should all be shocked. Alarmed. Indeed, appalled at Trump’s SOTU speech. And we should speak out at every opportunity, particularly outside our close-knit community that largely holds the same views we do.


Also see: Scholars at risk: precarity in the academe by Rod Mena and Kees Biekart


Picture credit: DonkeyHotey


JeffHandmakerISS_smallAbout the author:

Jeff Handmaker teaches law, human rights, development and governance and conducts research on legal mobilisation at the ISS. He is also an associate member of the Faculty of Law at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Editor-in-Chief of the South African Journal on Human Rights and a member of the EUR INFAR Project.

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About the authors: Adriaan Ferf coordinated the DRC programme of the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium. He has over 40 years of experience with policy studies and evaluations of development and humanitarian ...

Scholars at Risk: precarity in the Academe and Possible Solutions by Rod Mena and Kees Biekart

Scholars at Risk: precarity in the Academe and Possible Solutions by Rod Mena and Kees Biekart

About the authors: Rodrigo (Rod) Mena is a socio-environmental AiO-PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam. His current research project focuses on disaster response ...