Research by the developed on the developing – View from the “researched”.

Themrise Khan

Sociological research into issues that plague the Global South is largely dominated by research institutions and researchers of powerful developed countries in the Global North. Be it academic or practitioner-based research into poverty in Africa, unequal wealth distribution in Latin America, or gender discrimination in South Asia, researchers from the North mostly define the agendas, narratives and discourses of social inequities in the South.

And while some extremely valuable work is being produced, researchers, and by extension policymakers in the affluent North, provide very limited room to juxtapose their findings with those of researchers in the South. As a result, sociologists and researchers in the Global North, view and study the Global South, with a lens that is wholly designed and hypothesized by them alone, usually using data produced by the North. 

As a female migrant from the Global South, I have worked for over two decades with Northern institutions as a development practitioner and researcher. Having experienced first-hand, the ways in which Northern researchers’ not only approach “subjects of interest” in the South, but also the researchers themselves, it is clear that the decision of “who gets to decide and how” is an imbalanced one.

Using the cases of migration and gender, my two areas of expertise, this blog presents a view from a “subject of interest” herself and how a revolution of voices from the South is needed to equalize research and practise in the developing world.

Migration

The dominant narrative in migration research today, is largely focused on the impact of migration from the South on the North, a narrative dominated by Northern academics and practitioners. Even migration theory was espoused by North American academics like Walzer, Todaro and Carens, who framed international migration as the free movement of labour from the South to address the needs of the North.

These theoretical constructs have ultimately led to framing migrants in the context of “us” and “them” – the Northern academic being the “us” (the researcher) and the migrant being the “them” (the researched). Even the discussion on decolonizing migration research, has been abled by Northern academics, despite the fact that many Southern academics have also been advocating this for years.

At a policy level, my work with international donors has shown, that while Southern governments may call for the need for research across multiple levels, what is eventually undertaken, is decided by the North. And the end result of that research reflects “the values” of the commissioning agency, rather than the actual needs of the South. For instance, my research on female labour migration, regardless of its importance, was prioritized by Northern agencies, but ultimately sidelined by Southern governments, because it was not carried out in consultation with them.

Similarly, my work on “strengthening local capacity” on border management, revealed that the focus was on preventing illegal migration to the North, rather than actually addressing the reasons why those from the South were forced to do so and how this could be mitigated for a more prosperous South, rather than an embittered North.

Portrayals of the migrant as either, long-suffering, good/bad, economically productive, socially disruptive, or criminally dangerous come across as unrepresentative when applied to a internally-diverse group as to be problematic misrecognitions. In fact, the website of the UN Agency for Migration claims that there is no universally-accepted definition of migrant. Even research on “South-South” migration is led by academics of the North and does not necessarily give academics in the South the opportunity to define the issue amongst only themselves[1].

While there is an emerging body of academic work which acknowledges the Anglo/Euro-centricity of migration and sociology, it is still not being led by researchers from the South. Instead, it is more focused on looking at migration within and between countries of the South, as opposed to ensuring that literature on migration from the South is produced by Southern scholars themselves.

These “imagined realities” have hampered my own research in migration, as I try to constantly raise my voice as a researcher rather than as the “researched”. Even my own personal experience as a migrant from the South to the North, has to compete with the voices of millions of others who have been “categorized” by the North into silos based on our perceived skill-sets or administrative status. Our true stories, remain hitherto untold.

Gender

It is no secret that feminism and gender, are constructs that emanated from what bell hooks termed, “a place of racial privilege”. Indeed, if one looks at the multitude of tomes written on gender and sociology, the issues have, like migration, been determined by white Western academics and intellectuals.

Terms such as the “feminization of poverty” and “intersectionality”, currently rife in Northern literature on women’s economic and social behavior, were originally conceived by American researchers to study the racial and economic divide between American men and women.

Instead of contextualizing these terms in purely Southern scenarios, which would mean taking into account a range of different cultures, religions and patriarchal structures, they were instead, co-opted by international agencies, to distinguish the abnormal gap in rights and means between men and women in developing countries, largely as is.    Another of of these terms is the “unpaid care economy”[2]. The context in which such work exists in the North and South differs vastly. Yet, it is one of many terms the North imposes in its language when discussing gender in developing countries.

As a researcher from the Global South, it has been difficult to translate this term which has clearly been developed in the North for deployment the South, illustrating that the North considers this to be a “Southern issue”. But in the South, unpaid care work involves a range of activities from rural women walking miles to fetch water and firewood, to more privileged urban women who can access (low-cost) child-care assistance, but not rights to justice or social security.

This varies the hypothesis and impact of unpaid care work across and within Southern countries. Reconciling these multiple scenarios has been a challenge for my own research where the nuances of women’s lives, both paid and unpaid workers, are effectively ignored in an imported framework which sees them as a collective whole.

Furthermore, in my context, what Western academics call an “economy”, is really the informal sector which includes women in low to no-income scenarios, who have no access to social services. It includes women as informally paid domestic household staff, home-based workers and seasonal agricultural labourers. Each of these women also carries the burden of domestic care work which is not compensated. But for the Global South, the recognition of women’s informal labour as formal labour, is the first step to recognizing and supporting their care burden at home.

These decisions about how we are represented and “studied”, have not been made by us in the South, though in many cases, including in my own, we blindly follow them. This in itself is a serious cause for concern and the reason why we in the South remain largely voiceless.

Conclusion

This is despite the fact that there are a number of practitioners and academics in the South who are developing theoretical and methodological epistemologies for studying social behavior and its impacts within their own contexts.

This is the biggest gap in the sociological study of the developing world by its own scholars, an argument I have been making for many years. Lack of capacity and resources are the main reasons provided for the sheer magnitude of the imbalance between research produced on the South by Southern scholars. In searching for relevant publications as evidence to support the arguments and claims made in this blog, it was extremely difficult to find publications that were authored solely by academics and researchers in institutions of the Global South. Majority of the search hits were by authors (regardless of race) based in institutions of the Global North.

But this “perception deficit” belies the fact that the North due to its resources and reach, also does not provide enough space to us in the South to say our piece.  As a practitioner and researcher who has worked only in the South, the hurdles I must pass through to be published on Northern intellectual platforms such as this, severely diminishes our ability to be heard, let alone being allowed to develop our own research agenda’s and methodologies. And we can only be active in creating an intellectual revolution in the South, if we are heard independently of what the North formulates. If the Global North really wants to understand inequality and social dispossession in the Global South in its true sense, then it will have to provide us with the space, and respect, to do so.

[1] The term South-South migration was originally coined by development agencies, to estimate global migrant flows, as opposed to giving preference to knowledge produced by the South for the South.

[2] This is defined by the OECD, as non-market, unpaid work carried out in households (by women primarily, …) which includes both direct care (of persons) and indirect care (such as cooking, cleaning, fetching water and fuel, etc.).

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