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Antiracist Praxis

Decolonizing Research Methodologies by Sarah Trembath, George Koors, and Rachel Borchardt

Library Research

Working decolonizing the research process relies on, as Appleton puts it, “devalu[ing] hierarchies [and] disinvest[ing] from citational power structures.” Citation metrics and impact privilege items and silence others. As Martin and Pirbhai-Illich note, “a decolonising pedagogy for critical interculturalism would go beyond identity politics.” This means that we need to recognize that there are other kinds of items other than research or journal articles that are valid. Ascribing value to the peer-reviewed article means devaluing other means of knowledge communication.

Our work as librarians is to provide education and access. If we center that discussion about “what can be accessed” to just peer-reviewed items, then we miss oral traditions and much more. And simply relying on citations as a way to get work done adds to the problem. When we cite an item we risk being performative. As Mott and Cockayne write, “suggesting that citation is performative means paying attention to it as an echoic doing rather than uncritically reproducing it as something natural and incontestable.” They go on to note that “there has been a tendency for citation to be done in a way that privileges particular voices over others” so by entering into this performative space, our research grants power to certain voices. 

We need to do more than just click through and search for peer-reviewed items. The act of citing research implicitly grants power to the item cited. If we rely on one certain kind of work, for example peer-reviewed research articles, we then are at great risk of allowing racist work to echo through our writing. 

Field Research: Social and Hard Sciences

Social scientists work hard to assure that their research conforms to scientific methods and ethical principles. And peer-reviewed publishing entities vet studies to guarantee that only those of the highest quality make it into circulation in scholarly realms. Yet indigenous, minority, and decolonial scholars have much to say about problematic practices and a long history of racist and colonialist research practices in social science.

The age of imperialism and colonization coincides with the era in which the sciences were growing throughout Europe and the Americas. But with that growth came the decimation and suppression of indigenous cultures, histories, and ways of knowing. According to one decolonial scholar, indigenous “histories were interrupted and radically reformulated by European imperialism . … This collective memory of imperialism has been perpetuated through the ways in which knowledge about indigenous peoples was collected, classified and then represented in various ways” (Smith Loc 593, 245). In the colonizing era, Indigenous people throughout Africa, Asia, the Americas, the West Indies, Oceania, and subjugated parts of Europe were studied, classified, and ordered into hierarchies under the Europeans who colonized them. Their own ways of knowing were suppressed and labelled as inferior.

The “knowledge” gained during this era did not disappear when European colonies collapsed and became independent, and new “knowledge” is often formed in similarly biased ways. “The scholarly construction,” argues Orientalist Eduard Said, “ is supported by a corporate institution which ‘makes statements about it [ the Orient ], authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching about it, settling it, ruling over it’” (Said in Smith Loc 250). Minorities and people of color often feel Othered and misrepresented by social science research. 

As White researchers learn to challenge their Eurocentric biases, non-White researchers commit to conducting their own research. Countering racism in social sciences and humanities ”means struggling to make sense of our own world,” according to Professor of Indigenous Education, Linda Tuhiwei Smith, “while also attempting to transform what counts as important in the world of the powerful” (Smith Loc 1027). ”Part of the exercise, she says, “is about recovering our own stories of the past. This is inextricably bound to a recovery of our language and epistemological foundations” (Smith 1028). As the massive body of work from minority social scientists proliferates--offering a far more accurate lens into the lives under study--majoritarian researchers and the communities of people affected by research benefit from the effort.

For the natural sciences, including health and medicine, methodology is more or less synonymous with the scientific method, so methodology defines the field ("The Scientific Method"). The problematic history of science and medicine is well-documented and ongoing, and encompass many steps of the scientific research process. This includes cases of flawed hypotheses such as the history and recent resurgence of race-based biological research and eugenics (Farber; Hoover). Other examples of the application of colonial beliefs to methodology include the design of the research study and selection of participants resulting in horrifying treatment of non-White medical subjects - the Tuskegee experiments and Henrietta Lacks are two prominent examples (Center for Disease and Control; Coates). More recently, mounting evidence lays bare a pervasive, fundamental flaw in scientific design - that so much medical research has been formulated for white males and incorrectly assumed to apply equally to other populations (Jacewicz). Science has focused primarily on addressing funding-based sources of bias through conflict disclosures, but training in designing ethical methodology is still sorely lacking, with colonial research methodology often not questioned until well after publication (Dunn et al.).
 

Works Cited

Appleton, Nayantara Sheoran. “Do Not 'Decolonize' . . . If You Are Not Decolonizing: Progressive Language and Planning Beyond a Hollow Academic Rebranding.” Critical Ethnic Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, Feb. 2019, http://www.criticalethnicstudiesjournal.org/blog/2019/1/21/do-not-decolonize-if-you-are-not-decolonizing-alternate-language-to-navigate-desires-for-progressive-academia-6y5sg

Tuskegee Study and Health Benefit Program. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2 Mar, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/index.html

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. "Henrietta Lacks And Race." The Atlantic, 3 Feb. 2010, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/02/henrietta-lacks-and-race/35286/.

Dunn, Adam et. al. "Conflict of interest disclosure in biomedical research: A review of current practices, biases, and the role of public registries in improving transparency." Research Integrity and Peer Review, vol. 1, no. 1, 2016

Farber, Steven. "U.S. Scientists’ Role in the Eugenics Movement (1907–1939): A Contemporary Biologist’s Perspective." Zebrafish, vol. 5, no. 4, 15 Jan. 2009, pp. 243–245.

Hoover, Eddie L.  "There is No Scientific Rationale for Race-Based Research." Journal of the National Medical Association, vol. 99, no, 6, Jun. 2007, pp. 690–692.

Jacewicz, Natalie. "Why Are Health Studies So White?" The Atlantic, 16 Jun. 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/06/why-are-health-studies-so-white/487046/.

Martin, Fran, and Fatima Pirbhai-Illich. “Towards Decolonising Teacher Education: Criticality, Relationality and Intercultural Understanding.” Journal of Intercultural Studies, vol. 37, no. 4, July 2016, pp. 355–72.

Mott, Carrie and Daniel Cockayne. “Citation Matters: Mobilizing the Politics of Citation toward a Practice of ‘Conscientious Engagement.’” Gender, Place & Culture, vol. 24, no. 7, 2017, pp. 954–973.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies. Zed Press, 2012. 

"The Scientific Method." Lumen Learning. Retrieved August 6, 2020.