By Syahirah Abdul Rahman
“If you are studying in the UK, you should focus on the UK, Europe, or the US. Why do you want to focus on your home country? You would be branded as an Eastern Researcher!” Before I started my doctoral studies some five years ago, a potential supervisor – a Professor – used these words when scoffing at my conducting research with a focus on my native country, Malaysia. I remember coming home from that meeting thinking that the person was utterly ignorant. Five years later, I think I understand the meaning of his comments.
I never meant to start my academic career by challenging the idea that existing academic theories in social sciences are western-centric. I merely thought of my doctoral research as an important empirical work that would provide additional material to extend existing theories. However, this proved to be extremely difficult as the more I analysed my findings, I felt as if I was making a mistake because existing canonical theories or conceptualisations did not help to explain my findings at all! My study on Malaysia was inspired by popular accounts of the spread of finance in everyday life. I wanted to provide a Malaysian case study, not simply because it had been convenient to do so. I wanted to tell the story of Malaysia as an example of places that had been rare in the pages of thousands of academic articles: there was a need to move past Euro-American accounts.
To give a specific example of this from my research, I had been observing Malaysian elites and their role in policymaking relating to normalising financial activities among everyday life. Elites that I had observed seemed extremely paternalistic, a characteristic rarely discussed in Western-centric literature in my field. I remember discussing this situation with a colleague, and they said; “You might have to write your own theories and concepts.” This seemed rather daunting, especially when you are a doctoral student.
It took a few tries before I was brave enough to write my own article on the subject. I wouldn’t toot my own horn quite just yet though. I know it will take me a few more years before I find comfort in challenging the current status quo of academia; it might take even longer before my work would actually be accepted in general. Nonetheless, I have learned much from conducting research external to the Global North. In small pockets of academia, the interest is there to continue raising the amount of research conducted in the Global South. In my journal article, I found myself justifying the choice of Malaysia as my case over and over again.
Similarly, when you place an “exotic” name and/or geographical focus in the title of your conference proceedings, without fail you will be grouped together in a “development studies” group (and paradigm). I hope that in the future there will be more effort for academic institutions in the west made to be more open to researchers from the Global South. Reducing conference registration fees is a step, but a more inclusive practice is to prepare for Skype presentations, pre-filmed presentations or online networking forums to get over the barrier of financial issues (I have attended a few excellent blog-style conferences using a similar format of pre-filmed presentations with discussions taking form in the comment sections in a limited set of time).
This said, looking for a job has proved to be the biggest obstacle thus far. Having a Global South focus felt like a curse because, for some reason, the geographical focus of my doctoral research meant that no matter how closely aligned my research had been to various academic departments, it simply was not close enough. Regardless of the increasing call to decolonise academia (for example in the Rhodes Must Fall movement and the many other “Decolonise Sociology” movements in universities in Anglo-America including Cambridge, LSE, Stanford, Oxford, among others), there is still very little movement made in making academia more inclusive to sociologists from the Global South.
So, it has been five years since I was told that one day I would be branded an “Eastern” researcher. Today I am no longer afraid of that title. Quite the opposite in fact. It serves as a brilliant reminder for me that what I do is important. I know now, for sure, that my research has already shown that beyond the western-centric visions in academia, the Global South provides a re-imagination of what could constitute as canonical sociological knowledges. And for this, I am truly excited with the possibility that maybe one day, being an ‘Eastern Researcher’ will be celebrated as something positive.
Syahirah Abdul Rahman is a research associate at the Alliance Manchester Business School, the University of Manchester. She has recently completed her doctoral studies which focuses on financial citizenship development as a lens in which to observe the spread of finance in everyday life. She is currently a part of a research group conducting a sociological study on the oil and gas industry in Aberdeen, UK. Syahirah tweets @SheraARahman