Eva Ross thinks back to doing her Masters research in the Cederberg.
”We dream into a future that rests in ancient wisdom—but rearticulated by bright young people; not for self-promotion, consumerism, personal gain, and greed—but for community well-being and the respect and preservation of nature in all its manifestations.
If our research is not doing this, we could ask, “What are we doing?”
– Keane et al, 2017
Barriers to decolonising scholarship
Decolonial approaches to research are not without contradiction and complexity. Early in the conceptualisation process of my research project, which focused on local foodways in communities residing in the Cederberg mountains of South Africa, I questioned whether research undertaken by a white community-outsider such as myself could be considered decolonial. In other words, does the virtue of my own race and privilege allow me to consider my approach ‘decolonial’? Undoubtedly, the decolonial turn in research during the 21st century is one of the most controversial, yet prominent, topics debated by scholars of various ethnic backgrounds such as Keikelame and Swartz (2019), Manning (2018), Simonds & Christopher (2013) and Smith (2021).
Inspired by many great scholars such as Keane et al (2017), Linda T. Smith (2021) and Keikelame and Swartz (2019), the approach (the ‘HOW’) became a priority early during my research process. I put a lot of thought into my approach – even before engaging with the topic (the ‘WHAT’). ‘Decolonising methods’ is increasingly used by engaged scholars with regards to dismantling power dynamics in research, making research more ethical and transparent and, ideally, community-led. Decolonisation is often articulated as a noble dream of a just and liberated world yet the more I read about decolonisation in research the more I began to wonder whether ‘decoloniality’ is increasingly becoming a buzzword that is well-intentioned but vulnerable to misuse and abuse.
Tuck and Yang (2012: 1) emphasise that while decolonisation is about “reparation of Indigenous land and life” it should not be used as a metaphor for “settlers moves to innocence” or “things we want to improve in our societies and schools”, including unethical research. As such, can research be fully decolonised if the researcher studies ‘the other’ from an outsider position? By following the narrow rules of academia, can research redress Western knowledge hegemony and evaluate its own position in terms of the very system it critiques?
I felt confronted by my own positionality, race and privilege throughout the research process. I wanted the research to be community-led, empowering and addressing community needs. Despite these good intentions, I encountered many challenges and limitations to engaged, participatory research.
My positionality is likely to have had impacts on the data collection process and subsequent data interpretation. As a white, European, middle-class female engaging with marginalised communities of colour it was challenging to overcome social position, power dynamics and cultural distances, in particular at the beginning of the research process. During my first field visit I tried to observe and learn about local culture, values and worldviews. Building cultural competence and trust was a vital element for building relationships with community members. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that it is impossible to fully remove Western positionality and class. Critical engagement with positionality may help to reduce the influence of the researcher from the process. Yet, written from the very positionality (‘the settlers perspective and worldview’) decolonial research seeks to address, it is restricted by unjust social structures and by what counts as knowledge and research in the academic sphere.
Relationships based on trust are key to co-creating research that addresses community needs. Trust, however, can only be built over time and with long-term engagement. I had the privilege of undertaking research in a community that had been involved in previous work with the UCT Co-creating Wild Foods team (Prof. Rachel Wynberg, Jaci van Nierkerk, Loubie Rusch) which helped to build trust and relationships with the communities involved. To strengthen trusting relationships I returned to these communities several times, also outside of research visits. Being present at key events such as bread-making and oven- building workshops helped me not only to learn more about the local ways of life but also to strengthen relationships. Trust was moreover earned through learning a basic level of the local language – Afrikaans.
Language is a vital factor for relationship building. The language barrier between me and the communities was a big obstacle. When starting my research I did not speak any Afrikaans, the mother tongue of the communities with whom I worked. Learning a basic level of Afrikaans helped me to engage with community members and was appreciated, especially by elders. I also spent time with translators, explaining my research topics and the questions in detail because I saw their crucial role for my data collection. In these meetings we also had conversations outside of the research. I really enjoyed listening to their stories, dreams, aspirations – and even songs.
Although the translators did a great job, the language barrier restricted in-depth interaction between me and the participants – and is likely to have affected the data collection.
The very limited timeframe for a Masters project was a major challenge. Building relationships as well as understanding local contexts and needs requires time. Using the metaphor of a tortoise, Keikelame (2017) describes the need for slow pace and gradual movement in research with local communities. Slow pace and time is crucial to observe, witness, embrace and learn from the research process – with all of its unexpected events and details. Knowing that time was a valuable, but limited, asset for my research, I sought to spend as much time as possible with the communities. Yet, I live 3 hours away from the Vleiplaas community and almost 4 hours away from the Moravian Church villages, which are moreover only accessible through a gravel road. Knowing that I would only be able to spend a limited amount of time at and with the communities was a significant obstacle for trust building and for gaining a contextual understanding of local issues.
Engaged research that incorporates reciprocal community engagement practices and benefits for communities requires adequate funding. Costs that need to be covered include multiple field visits, language courses, fair payment for translators and research assistants, as well as materials and food for workshops and creative methodologies. I had the privilege of receiving generous funding from the Bio-economy Research Chair through the National Research Foundation (NRF). Since I was not sure whether funding would be sufficient to cover costs for printing booklets for my feedback process and as a reciprocal gift for participants I collected money via private (online) fundraising.
Within all these frustrating limitations I wanted to find a way to share my findings not only in an understandable but also in an engaging way. The detailed process of creating the booklet is outlined in the article Sharing research findings in a culturally-consonant way: The Breadmaking Booklet.
Coming back to the discomfort of privilege and positionality in research with local communities, my feedback workshop was a key moment for me in realising what my (the European community outsider) role can be in decolonising research. Acknowledging that I (the Westerner) come from a position of power and privilege, decolonisation does not happen in isolation, and it is not to shift the responsibility to those who are marginalised. Rather, it is an ongoing process that requires responsibility and action by ALL OF US, including people in power, to go through the discomfort of giving up power, privilege and wealth. As Tuck and Yang (2016: 7) designate, decolonisation “implicates and unsettles everyone”. We may not yet live in a fully inclusive and just world that ensures equal opportunities for marginalised peoples and equally appreciates different forms of knowledge, but we find ourselves in an ongoing process which we can choose to take part in. The limitations of an academic (Masters) study undertaken from an outsider position may restrict the research to be fully participatory, community-led and decolonial. Yet there are pathways to include communities in decision-making, create a sense of ownership and ground research in reciprocity. Research can play a crucial role in opening a space for critical discussion and alternative pathways as well as to enable the listening and empowering of marginalised voices. This, however, is only the beginning of a decolonisation process that on a broader sphere must include the repatriation of land and relations to land as well as notions of knowledge and solidarity towards human and non-human organisms.
Keane, M., Khupe, C. & Seehawer, M. 2017. Decolonising methodology: who benefits from indigenous knowledge research? Educational Research for Social Change, 6:12-24. https://doi.org/10.17159/2221-4070/2017/v6i1a2
Keikelame, M.J. & Swartz, L. 2019. Decolonising research methodologies: lessons from a qualitative research project, Cape Town, South Africa. Global Health Action, 12:1:1561175. https://doi.org/10.1080/16549716.2018.1561175
Manning, J., 2018. Becoming a decolonial feminist ethnographer: Addressing the complexities of positionality and representation. Management Learning, 49(3):311-326. https://doi.org/10.1177/1350507617745275
Morgan N., 2020. ‘Well-intentioned but vulnerable to abuse’, Postcolonial Studies, 23:4, 579-583, DOI: 10.1080/13688790.2020.1751430
Simonds, V.W. & Christopher, S. 2013. Adapting Western Research Methods to Indigenous Ways of Knowing. American Journal of Public Health, 103:2185-2192. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2012.301157
Smith, L.T. 2021. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. 4th Edition. London & New York: Zed Books.
Tuck, E., Yang, K.W., 2012. Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1.