Tag Archives decoloniality

Transformative Methodologies | Listening differently, hearing more clearly: a decolonial approach to fostering dialogue between plural knowledges

Transformative Methodologies | Listening differently, hearing more clearly: a decolonial approach to fostering dialogue between plural knowledges

Recent debates on decolonising research have highlighted the importance of accounting for plural knowledges by seeking to foster a dialogue between them. Yet, a dominant modern rationalist approach informing how ...

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Some steps for decolonising international research-for-development partnerships

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Some steps for decolonising international research-for-development partnerships

While partnerships between researchers and practitioners from the Global North and Global South can be and often are intellectually and socially impactful, they remain highly unequal. Coloniality pervades these partnerships, ...

EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Questioning development: What lies ahead?

Development Studies requires “an epistemological and ontological change”, write Elisabetta Basile and Isa Baud in the introduction to the recent EADI volume ‘Building Development Studies for a New Millennium’. The planned sequel of the book will take this analysis one step further and explore viable ways to build on both the critique of development as such and the growing demand to decolonise knowledge production. During a plenary session titled ‘Questioning Development – Towards Solidarity, Decoloniality, Conviviality’ that formed part of EADI’s recent #Solidarity2021 conference, four contributors discussed the upcoming book. Christiane Kliemann summarised the discussion.

The need to critique development has become urgent as global inequalities increase and the need for the decolonisation of knowledge to redress knowledge production asymmetries becomes greater. “We have been much better at critique than at changing things”, quipped Uma Kothari during a panel session titled ‘Questioning Development – Towards Solidarity, Decoloniality, Conviviality’ of EADI’s recent #Solidarity2021 conference that she recently chaired.

Kothari is also one of the editors of a forthcoming book with the working title ‘Questioning Development Studies: Towards Decolonial, Convivial and Solidaristic Approaches’ that will be a sequel to the already-published EADI volume titled ‘Building Development Studies for a New Millennium’. During the panel session she asked four panellists who contributed to the book to discuss their own practices towards challenging the classical ‘development’ paradigm and possible ways forward. Their diverse and insightful arguments are captured below.

Integrating indigenous understandings of relationality

Yvonne Te Ruki-Rangi-O-Tangaroa Underhill-Sem, Associate Professor in Pacific Studies, Te Wānanga o Waipapa, University of Auckland, New Zealand, started the discussion with an interesting example from New Zealand, or Aotearoa, as she calls it by its Maori name, where the Maori concept of Manaakitanga has even influenced the way in which research is done in the whole country. Manaakitanga, as Underhill-Sem explained, is all around caring for the ‘Mana’ of people we relate to – ‘Mana’ itself being understood as anything we relate to, be it other people, land, or whatever is meaningful to us. “We’ve been working very closely between New Zealand Maori and Pacific scholars to begin to infuse and embed this concept in one of the major research policy platforms in Aotearoa that control the funding of research and the definition of what is excellent research”, she explained.

As a very tangible example for encouraging research based on a much broader understanding of knowledge, she referred to the Toksave Research Portal which has drawn its name from one of the languages of Papua New Guinea and started as a “process inviting a whole range of different knowledge-makers around the region and the Pacific to submit their work”, be it a poem, a thesis, or an NGO report.

Lauren Tynan, Trawlwulwuy woman from Tebrakunna country in northeast Tasmania, who is currently doing her PhD on aboriginal burning practices at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, also views the issue of decolonising knowledge and knowledge production through a lens of relationality. She aspires to hold herself accountable to all relations she has; her recent paper ‘Thesis as kin: living relationality with research’ explored how she relates to her research.

At times, this understanding can be quite challenging to the concept of research she had been initially taught, which she finds “quite a colonising way of researching”. For example, it doesn’t take into account her responsibilities as a mother of small children, which prevent her from traveling back and forth for her research: “Part of that relationality is to see that I shouldn’t feel that as a limitation but as part my responsibilities and obligations to my family and my wider family which is also my research relationship”.

Migration as constitutive dimension of human existence

Samid Suliman, Lecturer on Migration and Security in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science at Griffith University, Australia, brought in another important, but much-overlooked perspective. As he focuses much of his work on the relationship between migration and development, he started from the point that “mobility has been and continues to be colonised through development”, with the “entrenchment and hegemony of the nation state as the primary organising framework of human existence”. Although we are now living in a ‘hyper-mobile world’, he pointed out that the “state-centred way of understanding human mobility continues to be reproduced”, and migrants are looked at with fear and trepidation. One of his research questions therefore is: “How can we better understand migration and mobility as a constitutive dimension of human existence, rather than just an outcome of human activity?”

As one step forward, Suliman suggested to “think critically about the way in which we normalise certain assumptions and certain normative dispositions about the movement of human beings and resist the impulse to settle everyone in their place”. This would require finding new mechanisms, institutions and possibilities for convivial relations and forms of justice that go “beyond the national as the frame of reference for decision making and action on the governance of the moving of people”.

Hospitality as basic principle for societies beyond development

For Aram Ziai, Heisenberg-Professor of the German Research Foundation (DFG) for Development Policy and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Kassel, Germany, it all starts with questioning the term ‘development’. He considers a simple redefinition of the term insufficient, as this could produce misunderstandings and a “beyond-criticism gambit”. If the term development continues to bear different meanings, from democratic industrial capitalisms to any type of positive social change, he said, “we are in fact obstructing the critique of development organisations by saying, ‘if something bad happened out of a development project, it was not really development’”.

He also made clear that ‘development’ cannot be seen independent of its historical context: “Development came into being as a new programme to legitimise a capitalist world order in the Global South at a time when the colonial ideology was losing credibility and a new framing of North-South relations was needed to maintain access to the raw materials of the South and the corresponding division of labour. So, development thinking was a new frame, but it was still linked to colonialism, to the idea of transforming geo-cultural differences into historical stages, so that the self is the norm, and the other is the deviant, deficient, other”.

How to move on? Less data, more stories!

All panellists agreed that big changes don’t occur overnight and that it takes everyone’s efforts in their specific places and fields to contribute to a systemic change that might still take years or even decades to gain full ground. In Suliman’s words, “We need to do all we can within our various roles and positions to push back on the research monoculture imposed from above”.

As one important step in this direction, Underhill-Sem called on the older and more advanced scholars to be much more audacious in their engagement with policy: “Are we seeing that audacity with obligation? Are we seeing active engagement in these key structural places, in terms of reviewing the way in which we do and fund research, the way in which we build ethics around research? Are we reaching in those spaces and doing the work there, or are we leaving these spaces for others to populate them?” According to Ziai, we are already moving in the right direction by “talking more and more about these issues and less and less about economic growth, productivity and other things that are increasingly questioned”.

Suliman thinks that it all boils down to the question of making ourselves known to each other in ways that don’t colonise, and in creating space for multiple meanings and exchanges between us: “I think we need to keep moving towards other ways of seeing and listening and knowing, so in short: less data, more stories.” And, Tynan observes, these stories are already there: “Wherever we are in the world there are peoples who have story and belonging to the land, it’s about knowing these stories and their full implications on ourselves as individuals and communities”.

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

About the author:

Christiane Kliemann Communications European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI)

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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.

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

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— ...