Connected Sociologies and Getting Out of the Way

Yasmin Gunaratnam

Drawing from Linda’s highlighting of the duplicitousness of the language of colonialism in Laura Clarke’s statement of regret in Gisborne, I’d like to start with a short story, taking up the theme of the language of colonialism. I’ll then draw out three matters that I’m grappling with as a sociologist who is also a researcher and a teacher of methods.

The story comes from Paul Carter’s book Meeting Place and concerns an early nineteenth century colonial administrator, George Augustus Robinson who was asked to enumerate individual residents of what today is known as the state of Victoria, in southern-eastern Australia. The task was difficult for a number of reasons; one being that whenever Robinson met the residents they came as large groups rather than as individuals. When the Djap Wurrung leaders found out what Robinson wanted, they insisted that he assign them names. So in the colonial record the Djap Wurrung were enumerated as projections of Robinson’s myopic cultural universe, never having had to divulge their own names.

The three points I want to draw from this story centre on sly civility; the stupidity of colonial white supremacy that we often overlook in our analyses; and the value of perhaps not meeting and enumerating indigenous thought when an encounter risks violation.

In thinking about the politics of sly civility, I’d like to draw attention to another side of colonial language and semiotics that Linda has discussed in the first and second editions of Decolonising Methodologies. These are dynamics that we continue to come up against in research and in institutional cultures and constitute what has been thought of as testimonial and hermeneutical injustice by philosopher Miranda Fricker. These are recursive, imbricated injustices, that in colonial regimes result from the violence done to “Place Thought” as the intimate interconnectedness of indigenous lands, bodies, cosmologies and ways of knowing (Watts, 2013). Place thought overlaps with Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s theorisation of a metaphysical empire.

Testimonial injustice devalues the credibility of the speaker, undermining of her “capacity as a knower” (p.17). Hermeneutical injustice is at play Fricker argues, when a speaker’s account is unintelligible due to “a collective hermeneutical impoverishment” (p.7). That is, we don’t have the epistemic resources or vocabulary to recognise the content, form and context of certain accounts. For me, what Linda and other indigenous and anticolonial scholars and activists have been doing is much more than contributing to the dynamic rebuilding of hermeneutical resources as a labour that Margaret Kovach (2012/10, p.12) sees as being critically restorative. For Linda, indigenous knowledges have adapted in the struggle against but also in the midst of a growing knowledge of colonialism and its ongoing effects.  In this doubled work, which following Christina Sharpe (20016) we might think of as wake work, researchers face convoluted struggles.

Picking up on the Gisburn statement it is apparent that it is not only the colonised who have learnt to perform Homi Bhabha’s “sly civility”. Just as Hindu priests in nineteenth century India invented the need for a vegetarian bible in order to resist conversion to Christianity, we are increasingly exposed to what I think of as decolonising disclaimers that shore up hermeneutical injustice. With growing recognition of the need for all sorts of reparation and also through assimilation into decolonising structures of feeling, colonisers are learning to outmaneuver responsibilities from within the terrain of decolonising discourses. One way in which this is happening is through an active recourse to hermeneutical deficits. With regard to Clarke’s not-apology, we have this animation of sly civility:  “I do not disbelieve you, but I do not have the capacity— either due to a lack of knowhow and/or authority—to respond to your claims”. Or a more local version, “I do not disbelieve you, but I do not yet have the research/evidence to respond to your claims”. What results in these discursive repertoires is not so much an outright refusal of responsibility but its deferral, a neo-colonial dynamic that Kwame Nkrumah (1964, p.xi) identified as the exertion of “power without responsibility and …exploitation without redress”.

Such postponement of justice can have deadly effects. As we have seen with the 2013 compensation scheme to those tortured by the British during the Mau-Mau uprisings in Kenya in the 1950s and the recent Windrush cases, people die in the process of waiting for an always conditional justice. With the Mau-Mau compensation, William Hague’s statement of regret was accompanied by the statement: “We do not believe that this settlement establishes a precedent in relation to any other former British colonial administration”. Just as Stuart Hall and others have pioneered methods for decoding race-making in the media and popular culture, we need to develop methods of tracking and deciphering decolonising double-speak and its effects, not just among politicians but in how decolonising is being institutionalised in British Universities. Personally, I don’t believe we can decolonise sociological methods. But we can try to be anti-colonial, linking our work to other cross-cutting emancipatory projects. This is an urgent and very real task for Goldsmiths as we try to respond to the demands of the recent student occupation.

My second point is that as sociologists we have not done enough work to fully recognise the topology of colonialism, including what is withdrawn. Critical theory gives primacy to a kind of slick machinery of colonial brutality and violence. Colonialism did more than extract and violate. It also unraveled and snagged. We know about the colonising arrogance of efforts to try to recreate colonial landscapes and of being wholly unprepared for bacterial and viral contaminations, but I suspect there are lots more stories, like the one about Robinson, of the monumental stupidity of colonisers that have been encoded in indigenous stories and that in tangential ways may also be prompts for us to rethink methods and ethics. As Linda has pointed out, Northern methods, following enlightenment themes are overwhelmingly about disclosing, measuring and ultimately controlling the social and natural world. Indigenous knowledges she asserts also value dissimulation and the keeping of secrets. I am reminded here of verses from Aracelis Girmay’s the black maria: “I, The Living./Which is/my portrait?/The right hand/Bleeding the page/for its marrowmarks/or the silence my left hand/ inherits?”

This brings me to a painful tension that I continually come up against: although with various forms of historical labour we can recover some of the operations of colonialism, we can’t reverse them. This is why Linda’s emphasis on the indelible etching of colonialism into Maori knowledges and practices is so important in fully inhabiting the limits of anti-colonial thought and praxis.

So as you might have intuited, how we respect and work with Southern and indigenous philosophies in teaching research methods and doing research is something I am profoundly unsure of. As Linda pointed out in the 1999 Foreword of the first edition of Decolonising Methodolgies indigenous peoples were most often the exploited objects of research. In a much-quoted passage she wrote, “research is probably the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary” (xi), inciting us to think about histories of research and knowledge making but also their material repercussions. A decolonising framework, she pointed out “provides words, perhaps an insight that explains certain experiences – but it does not prevent someone from dying” (p.3). The critical challenge for British academics then is how to address both the epistemic and the material violence of colonialism, because lives are at stake. “In 2018, Global Witness documented 164 killings worldwide of people fighting to protect their land and ecosystems from destructive industries. Nearly a quarter of those murdered were Indigenous. And more than a quarter of the killings were associated with opposition to mining and extractives industries.” (Brown, 2019). 

I must also admit to being wary of some of the social science and humanities attempts to recognise indigenous cosmologies, by insisting on their compatibility with all encompassing posthuman relational ontologies. I am thinking of those strands of critical thought wherein relationships with bodies, objects, the material world, animals, the dead, or time incommensurable with the linear can be discussed without one single reference to indigenous or Southern cosmologies, practices or thinkers. Here, I have in mind Claire Colebrook’s recent ruminations on the non-relational. In the circumstances of thinking through and supporting imperatives of decolonising methodologies this might mean not recuperating indigenous thought and knowledge by parceling them into separate, be they multiple, ontological realms, which inevitably retains social science authority in the making of such categorisations. One possibility that I take from Paul Carter’s work on meeting points, is that if our relationships to indigenous and Southern thought is damaging, perhaps the best we can do at this time is to get out of the way and actively work towards setting up spaces of non-meeting.

I say this with the awareness that it can be relatively easy to channel our decolonising and anticolonial efforts into certain pedagogical areas such as diversifying reading lists and conceptual resources, although this is also surprisingly rare in British sociology. Global Social Theory, a free to access online archive, initiated by Gurminder Bhambra is a rare example of efforts that go against this grain. It is also the case that too often the pedagogic work that we do in sociology confuses the postcolonial and decolonising, so that more black and brown authors, often educated in Northern thought, might feature in some classrooms, but Southern and indigenous scholars are still marginalised or are absent. As Linda has pointed out, certain knowledge and practices such as stories are more readily assimilated into curricula because of their proximity to Northern epistemes, than knowledge produced in prophesies, songs or as genealogies.

While supporting decolonising and anti-colonial activism, I see my work as a university based sociologist in helping to open up critical engagement with different histories of colonialism and decolonising struggles. More concretely, this means being active in interrogating and also giving institutional power and resources away. We work in profoundly racialised structures, of the 19,000 professors in British universities in the year 2016-17, 90 were Black men, 25 were Black women. Recent research carried out by Leading Routes (Williams et al., 2019), found stark racial disparities for postgraduate students through a Freedom of Information request to a leading research council. Of the total of 19,868 PhD funded studentships awarded by UKRI research councils collectively, 245 (1.2%) were awarded to Black or Black Mixed students, and 30 to those from Black Caribbean backgrounds. 

Working from within this context, I have been trying to demonstrate and encourage a pedagogic and methodological comportment of what I have been thinking of as empirical humility. “If I have one consistent message for the students I teach and the researchers I train”, Linda has written, “it is that indigenous research is a humble and humbling activity” (p.5). An example of what such an orientation might look like is the holistic knowledge system in matauranga Mãori known as ako that Linda and her colleagues have highlighted. As they describe it, “Ako was based on the knowledge that pertained to the interests of the wider group, the knowledge that ensured the physical and spiritual wellbeing, the uniqueness of each iwi.” (Pihama, Smith, Taki and Lee, 2004, p. 16).

What I take from the outward-facing community orientations of ako is that we need to work out and be responsible for the social situatedness and ramifications of our empirical humility. For me, this has meant 3 imperatives: i) trying to pursue slow research by maintaining long term relationships with research sites and participants so that research is less extractive, less of a dirty word; ii) being attentive to how hermeneutical and testimonial injustice plays out in different fields, this includes what Fricker calls “credibility excess” where we can patronise our research participants by taking their accounts at face value and not engaging with them critically; and iii) trying to forge conversations with disciplines outside of the social sciences, particularly with regard to climate politics which those as those such as Heather Davis and Zoe Todd have shown are intimately entwined with colonialism.

So it seems to me that decolonising knowledge and an accompanying turn to recognising the value of knowledge outside of the Global North, what Gurminder Bhambra (2014) has called “connected sociologies” carries a heavy load at this time. I thank Linda for showing us how we might begin to craft better methodological questions, thinking and practices.

Yasmin Gunaratnam is a Reader in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is the author of two books, ‘Researching Race and Ethnicity: methods, knowledge and power’ (Sage, 2003) and ‘Death and the Migrant’ (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013). She is one of the co-authors of ‘Go Home? The Politics of Immigration Controversies’ (Manchester University Press, 2017). She is on the editorial collectives of Feminist Review and Media Diversified and is a published poet. Yasmin’s academic writing has been published in Body and Society, Dark Matter, European Journal of Women’s Studies, European Journal of Social Theory, Mortality, Sociological Review, Subjectivity, The Lancet, Qualitative Social Work, and Poem. She has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, Open Democracy, The Conversation and Red Pepper.

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