Making sense of the self through decolonisation

Riadh Ghemmour

Once, an individual who took part in my PhD research told me, ‘research is a cure’ and in fact, research should help us understand who we are, why we exist, and what we are living for. Here, I discuss my journey in finding the self in research, through a process of decolonisation. 

I am a doctoral candidate in education from Global South. I came to England to pursue my postgraduate studies in 2017. I did an MSc in educational research and currently doing a PhD in education at the University of Exeter. Before I decided to embrace a decolonising agenda in my research, I believed that mainstream paradigms and sociological methodologies and methods to be universal. In other terms, they are unchallenged as they are the ‘norms’ of conducting research. Although I had such thoughts while doing my MSc, I felt, at times, that some of the research practices and ethics protocols might not be relevant or even welcome in the context where I come from (Algeria), due to some socio-cultural aspects. For example, conducting interviews or labelling the process as ‘interviewing’. The latter has a different connotation in the Algerian culture where interviewing is very much associated with job interview for instance, but not so often with research in social sciences. I remember reading this passage in a book written by Kovach (2010) who states that in Southern and Indigenous cultures, people do not do interviews, they simply have discussions and talks.

But I was immediately caught in the idea that ‘these are the norms and they are widely practiced’. In addition, I was only taught mainstream research praxis which confirmed my assumption that they were the ‘right’ ways to conduct research. However, I knew there was something that maybe ‘bothered’ me or made me feel that there was something not right, but I could not know how to explain it. When I started my PhD, I came across the concept of decolonisation. No one had ever told me about it nor was I taught about, be it back home (Algeria) or in my host institution. After that, I started my self-teaching process to understand what this decolonisation is all about. The scholarship of Chilisa (2012), Smith (2012), Kovach (2010) and Wilson (2008) helped me make sense of the thoughts I had as well as my ambivalent positionality: where do I stand in this knowledge? However, I still had lots of questions and doubts which I could not share with the people surrounding me maybe because we do not share the same stance nor the same experiences, especially since I study and work in a space where decolonisation seems to hover in the background.

The turning point in my story was when I was recommended the annual lecture about decolonising methodologies given by one of the most influential scholars in decolonisation, Prof. Linda Tuhiwai Smith. I decided to attend and apply for a selective workshop hoping to meet her in person and chat to people in order to make sense of this decolonisation as well as understand whether it could be an antidote to cure me from ambivalence. At the same time, would I call myself a decoloniser in this case? Or is decolonisation an agenda more than an identity? I had lots of questions.

I had the privilege to meet Prof. Smith in the annual lecture at Goldsmiths, University of London and I also was part of the selective workshop with great early career researchers and doctoral students, all of whom were as eager and hopeful as me to make sense of decolonisation. I think being in a such safe space where everyone was different but with a shared interest helped me realise that decolonisation is a real project and not only abstract nor an illusion or a dream that is stuck somewhere in my mind. It is real and legitimate.

I had many takeaways from the lecture and workshop. The most prominent ones are: decolonisation aids people from both Global North and Global South to open up a non-coercive dialogue which unpacks colonial pasts, experiences and traumas; not for the sake of blaming or shaming but of critically understanding where we come from, examining the limits of our existing bodies of knowledge and most importantly celebrating the voices, and worldviews of people who have been supressed and silenced for many decades. As someone from Global South, I relate to the mission of decolonisation. It urges me to move forward with confidence, empowerment and hope to represent myself, my community and my (our) knowledge from Global South.

Decolonisation gave a soul to my PhD project and also a meaning to the researcher (me). It awakened me to realise that mainstream ideologies and research praxis in social sciences are not necessarily universal or always relevant in transnational contexts such as Algeria. I understand now the earlier feelings I had at the beginning of my MSc; perhaps the inputs I had did not connect to my own history, experience, and ‘race’. Therefore, I needed decolonisation to challenge mainstream knowledges and research praxis and liberate my mind from them in order to conduct my PhD research with my community to think and speak for ourselves.

The annual lecture and the workshop on decolonising methodologies have been pivotal in forging my identity as a researcher and Prof. Smith taught me that it is important to have an agenda that comes from a place of love and I think this is crucial for researchers who are trying to make sense of who they are and what they are fighting for. Self-love is a first step to define the self in process. Loving ourselves, our ideas, and agencies teach us how to deconstruct taken-for-granted assumptions and challenge them through opening debates to achieve equality, harmony and liberation. I would not have been able to write this reflective piece if I had not encountered decolonisation on my way and benefitted from so many interesting discussions during that lecture and workshop.

Clearly, decolonisation empowered the researcher in me. It saved me from ambivalence and partly answered some of my existential questions (who I was in this arena of academia? and what I am living for?). It also came to save me from oppression, unawareness and colonisation of the mind when research has become institutionalised, when many Global South students doing their PhDs in Global North, including me, might be expected to reproduce some white inputs and standards in their theses and when many university curricula are Western-based, but what about us (the Other)? Where are we in this community of practice? Decolonisation brings those questions up to the surface in order to problematise the familiar and make the strange familiar. This is how decolonisation helped me understand the complexities, and struggles of the self  I had at the very beginning of my PhD. It is still an on-going process filled with more questions, and ambiguities but it has been a healing and recovery process for the self to ultimately connect with people regardless their background, historical and present experiences to achieve social justice, individual/collective liberation and emancipation.

Riadh Ghemmour is a PhD student in education at the University of Exeter. His research areas revolve around decolonising and Indigenous methodologies, postcolonial theory in education, and research methods teaching and learning.

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