Decolonising Methodologies – A Review of TSR’s Annual Lecture, 2019

By Carol Ann Dixon

The Sociological Review’s Annual Lecture was given by Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith (University of Waikato, New Zealand). Titled “Decolonising Methodologies: 20 Years On,” the talk featured personal reflections on approaches to undertaking qualitative research, two decades after her internationally-renowned Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (1999) was first published. The lecture was presented in front of a diverse audience of TSR members, academics, students and the wider public at Goldsmiths, University of London, on 16th October 2019.

Structured into three key sections, Linda Tuhiwai Smith opened with commentary about the impacts and legacies of British imperialism and settler colonialism in New Zealand – focusing, in particular, on the effects of the English language being imposed on indigenous Maori communities over several centuries. This was followed by the recitation of lines of poetic verse and selected narratives recounted from Maori folklore to introduce and discuss the importance of “relationality” as regards the way scholars should approach the challenges of decolonising knowledge and transforming institutional practices. Thirdly, Professor Smith concluded with some reflections on the principles of pursuing what she termed “slow research methodologies” – e.g. forms of participatory action research that, for example, embrace oral histories, critical race theory and the incorporation of opportunities for “testimonial justice” so as to enable the voices and lived experiences of marginalized peoples to be respectfully and accurately foregrounded.

Language

The most notable aspect of the Professor’s language-focused introduction was her reference to the way settler colonialists’ subordination of Maori culture was pursued through the nation’s schooling system as an act of “waging war.” She explained how, over centuries, the combined racist ideologies of settler capitalism, eugenics and the erasure of indigenous and ancestral territorial land rights were actively promoted and reinforced inter-generationally through the infrastructural apparatus and curricula of New Zealand’s Missionary and Native Day Schools. Consequently, a decolonial approach to dismantling such long-standing, embedded racisms was appropriately likened to someone being presented with a vast pile of fragmented egg shells that must then be sorted and reassembled back into the shape of eggs. To further illustrate the enormity and impossibility of such a conundrum, Linda Tuhiwai Smith showed a photograph of broken shells and posed the follow-on question: “And, if you didn’t know the shape of an egg, how could you ever put the pieces back together again?”

On seeing this image, I was reminded of the following lines from the poem No Serenity Here (2009):

“An omelette cannot be unscrambled. Not even one prepared
in the crucible of 19th-century sordid European design.”

Extract from No Serenity Here (2009), by Keorapetse Kgositsile (aka ‘Bra Willie’).

Ever since I read these words by the late South African poet laureate and anti-Apartheid activist Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile (1938-2018), I have remained attentive to their truth and enduring applicability in relation to all aspects of decolonial scholarship, community campaigning and cultural activism. The power and prescience of Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s visual metaphor about the broken egg shells, along with Keorapetse (‘Bra Willie’) Kgositsile’s poetics referencing the 1884/5 Berlin Congress and the “Scramble for Africa,” both cut to the core of the many complexities that have to be grappled with when striving to decolonise institutional spaces and challenge the continuing entanglements and afterlives of colonialism within contemporary socio-economic, political and cultural contexts.

Relationality

Regarding issues of relationality, Linda Tuhiwai Smith spoke passionately about her Maori heritage and cultural values that recognise all people, as well as all living and non-living things, as related – with the latter having the potential to “become animated” and to hold the “status of personhood” on a par with humans. This Maori belief in universal relationality was seen as central to the de-privileging of humans as exceptional beings, somehow set apart from the rest of nature. A recent case in New Zealand’s legislative history, when the Whanganui River that flows across the North Island was legally granted “rights of personhood” in March 2017, was cited to specifically exemplify the relational statement, “I am the river / The river is me.” From a research ethics perspective, this concept of relationality was valued by the Professor as key to the way scholars should reflect their respect for everything in the world – from the local, to the global – and to always strive to approach permission-seeking for engaging in data collection within communities and in the natural environment with great care and gratitude.

Some principles for conducting slow, respectful and socially-just research

Lastly, when discussing the design, selection and application of effective decolonial research methodologies across all subject disciplines and phases of education, Linda Tuhiwai Smith drew attention to the following principles and recommendations:

  • Decolonisation should always be seen as a process of “recovery,” not an attempt at “reversal” of the colonial past
  • Decolonisation is an ongoing process that can only function alongside respect for the right to self-determination, as well as the right of individuals/collectives to speak for ourselves/themselves. This is essential to avoid the problematic perception of indigenous, migrant, marginal and/or minoritized communities feeling “researched on
  • Academic disciplines should never be seen as singularities, but rather as part of an institutional apparatus that – by design – has historically reinforced and reproduced the exclusion of individuals and groups falsely designated as “outsiders.” Decolonial research methodologies should, therefore, always be approached as opportunities to forge and sustain collaborative, inter-disciplinary, inclusive and co-produced knowledge networks that blur the traditional boundaries between the academy and the communities in focus.
  • Researchers should recognise and be mindful of the risks that the opening up of decolonial spaces can often only be temporary and, therefore, such openings can (and do) become closed again if continuous efforts are not made to monitor, protect, preserve and extend the progressions fought for and achieved.

It was a pleasure to attend Professor Smith’s insightful, thought-provoking and wide-ranging lecture, and also hear practical advice about pursuing effective decolonial scholarship. Having read several chapters from her monograph, I welcomed the opportunities this lecture provided to revisit that seminal text, and to also engage in follow-on discussions with the author about my own decolonial research in museums and galleries as one of the 15 participants who attended the Sociological Review Foundation’s Early Career Researchers’ Workshop on “Decolonising Methodologies” at Friend’s House, London, the next day.

REFERENCES

Kgositsile, Keorapetse. 2009. “No Serenity Here.” In Beyond Words: South African Poetics, edited by Apples & Snakes, 13-17. London: Flipped Eye.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 1999. Decolonizing methodologies: research and indigenous peoples. London ; New York ; Dunedin, N.Z.: Zed Books ; University of Otago Press.

Dr Carol Ann Dixon is a researcher and education consultant, affiliated to the University of Sheffield (UK), with interests in African and Caribbean diaspora histories, cultural geographies, museology and contemporary visual art. She blogs at https://museumgeographies.wordpress.com/. University of Sheffield Profile here. Recent publication: Dixon, C. A. (2020) ‘Four Women, For Women: Caribbean Diaspora Artists Reimag(in)ing the Fine Art Canon,’ African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal, Vol. 13 (3). https://doi.org/10.1080/17528631.2019.1701810.

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