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what is decolonising methodology?

Decolonisation itself refers to the undoing of colonial rule over subordinate countries but has taken on a wider meaning as the ‘freeing of minds from colonial ideology’ in particular by addressing the ingrained idea that to be colonised was to be inferior. Decolonisation then offers a powerful metaphor for those wanting to critique positions of power and dominant culture.

When it comes to academic research decolonisation takes a number of forms, some mainstream, some more contentious. Decolonisers ask questions such as:

1. How do assumptions about power affect what we select as problems for research; who pays for this research; and what purposes does the research serve? A critique of research practice might take on the neo liberal globalisation agenda in higher education, institutional reliance on private money and an over eagerness to put knowledge at the service of the highest bidder.

2. What relationship does the researcher have with those being researched? An indigenous standpoint is that the researcher is accountable, and those doing the research must give back to the communities they study - as Keane, Khupe, and Seehawer [1] argue in discussing educational research in South Africa. In contrast, dominant research paradigms prize distance from those being research often for reasons of objectivity and bias.

3. Extending the point above, research should have an action orientation, and researchers should work with the communities they study to collaboratively seek change. For example, Zavala [2] argues for a participatory action research in looking at popular education initiatives among Chicano and indigenous communities in North America.

4. Who conducts the research? Decolonising researchers argue that indigenous communities are often un / under represented in academic research communities and hence their voices and concerns are not heard. Non-indigenous researchers can research indigenous communities but this will call for a more critical analysis of their own standpoints and more collaborative way of working. Radical voices would argue that there are limits on non-indigenous researcher involvement and researchers should not ‘talk about what they don’t know’ [3].

5. Are bodies of knowledge distorted? Decolonisation researchers seek to explain how discourse affects the way we look at subordinate groups, as for example Said in discussing dominant, sometimes, romanticised versions of orientalism in the context of Arabic studies [4] or, earlier, Fanon in discussing culture, psychotherapy and violence in the particular context of the struggle for Algerian independence [5] . We should be aware of such distortions and consider alternative or ‘counter-hegemonic’ sources. These counter narratives might have to be actively sought out.

6. How is research methodology itself distorted by a dominant tradition? Here it is argued that methodology is derived from western enlightenment assumptions about individualism, the separation of mind from body and rationalism. This tradition puts positivist or pseudo scientific approaches on top when it comes to carrying out research. Other cultures have different traditions as Smith (1999) discusses in looking at indigenous communities in New Zealand. The indigenous viewpoint is to see view ‘land, body, mind, and spirit as interconnected’ [3] and this poses a radical critique of the assumptions made in dominant research pedagogy.

The value of decolonisation literature goes beyond any insight it offers to the research of indigenous groups. Decolonisation sensitises us to the existence of dominant discourses and the influence of dominant groups in what / who we research. It makes an appeal to be critical and reflexive throughout the research process. It provides a timely reminder that our assumptions about rationality derive from a literature that developed at a particular time and place. However there are some difficulties. How far should academic communities be characterised as representative of dominant groups? Can 'mainstream' research be of value for the issues it throws up (for example measures of inequality that quantitative researchers provide) even when academics removed from the communities they study? In practical terms what should decolonisation methodology look like?

Draw your own conclusions by examining the references below.

[1] Keane, M., Khupe, C. and Seehawer, M. (2017) Decolonising Methodology: Who Benefits From Indigenous Knowledge Research? Educational Research for Social Change (ERSC) 6, 1, April 2017, 12-24 [online]

[2] Zavala, M. (2013) What do we mean by decolonizing research strategies? Lessons from decolonizing, Indigenous research projects in New Zealand and Latin America, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 2, 1, 55-71.

[3] See for example Smith, L. (1999/ revised 2012) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, Zed Books: London. You might find this review interesting Wilson, C. (2001) Decolonizing Methodologies, Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, 17, 214-217.

[4] Said, E. (2012) Edward Said on Orientalism, film clip published on You Tube at

[5] For a discussion of Fanon held on the BBC World service go to:

The Legacy of Franz Fanon [online]

[6] In interesting discussion about student criticism of dominant literature in SOAS can be found in the Guardian here:

Kenan, M. (2017) Are Soas students right to ‘decolonise’ their minds from western philosophers? Guardian, 19 February 2017 [online]