Decolonisation, applying a decolonial lens conversation

On Wednesday 18 September 2019, the Research Office at SOAS University of London held an important conversation event that aimed to apply a decolonial lens to research structures, practices and norms. Dr Alex Lewis, the Director of Research and Enterprise, in her introductory remarks at the event noted that SOAS has been particularly concerned about the changing funding landscape in recent years, especially in view of emerging schemes that fund international collaborative research, and has been keen to explore how the Research Office might provide better research development to SOAS academics, but also SOAS’s international partners.

Decolonising research has now become a key item in the SOAS Research Strategy, and it is imperative that current practices and procedures be imbued with a decolonial awareness.

Dr Romina Istratii, who has been driving this initiative from the Research Office in the role of Research Funding Officer, and as an active member of the Decolonising SOAS Working Group, noted that decolonisation is not necessarily a term that everyone understands or uses, and that some are suspicious of it due to various appropriations, but she stressed conceptualising decolonisation as reflexive praxis.

romina - decolonisation tweet

In outlining the event premises and structure, she proposed that applying a decolonial lens in the context of research development can mean numerous things, including recognising that:

  • Knowledge production in universities and beyond has been imbricated in colonial histories and politics of power and needs to be re-evaluated in terms of its assumptions, processes and outputs
  • Colonial legacies are not merely epistemological, but also structural and normative and are perpetuated by a matrix of actors and processes simultaneously and in complex ways, not always intentionally
  • Research is always defined by the epistemological positionality, geographical location and institutional affiliation of the researcher, which means that ethical reflexivity must be cultivated by researchers to render these transparent in the research process
  • Research development practices are embedded in regulatory frameworks that can combine with on-going asymmetries in funding and capacity differences among researchers in the world to interfere with a decolonisation of knowledge – this multidimensionality makes individual researchers, research offices and funders all integral in the effort to decolonise higher education and international research.

Professor Lindiwe Dovey at SOAS, who chaired the opening panel, reiterated that decolonisation is not a new term (mentioning the Haitian Revolution and the influence that works such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind have had in the discourse and praxis of decolonisation), and has been contested, but it can prove useful in building momentum for more reflexive and equitable practices in knowledge production. The first panel explored what decolonisation can mean in higher education and research funding in particular, with Dr Meera Sabaratnam, Chair of the Decolonising SOAS Working Group, opening the floor. Dr Sabaratnam outlined from her perspective what a decolonial ethos brings to research and proposed how this may be operationalized in research funding approaches and structures.

Meera - decolonisation of the curriculum

Other members of the panel included Dr Matthew Harris from Imperial College London, who spoke about internal efforts to diversify public health curricula and oppositions within the establishment; Dr Kerry Harman from Birkbeck, who questioned the concept of knowledge and proposed better engagement with indigenous perspectives; and Dr Faye Gishen from the University College London/Royal Free London, who spoke on recent efforts to decolonise and consolidate a patient-centred medical curriculum.

Panel 2 looked more closely at the language, priorities and governance framework of current funding schemes that promote international collaborative research and their alignment with or sensitivity to local research partners’ conditions and the wider objective of decolonising epistemology. Dr Istratii, who chaired this panel, contextualised the conversation by asking: If funding is tied to UK-based institutions is it really conducive to helping our research partners in local societies lead? Moreover, how advanced are research offices in universities with setting up clear guidelines and protocols (e.g. around safeguarding, ethics, gender-sensitivity plan, monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, etc.) to support international collaborative research? The first presenter in the panel was Dr Sarah Plowman, Senior Official Development Assistance (ODA) Project Manager at the UK Research and Innovation, who presented on the UKRI’s recent efforts to respond to such concerns and to evaluate and improve its practices in order to accommodate more egalitarian partnerships. Professor Simon Goldhill, Professor of Greek and Classics at the University of Cambridge and incoming Foreign Secretary at the British Academy, next stressed the vertical accountability of funders distributing ODA-related funding to the British government as one explanation for the rigid structures and tight deadlines they tend to work in.

Simon Goldhill - decolonisation the curriculum

Professor Alex Kaniymba Tubawene, Associate Professor and Deputy Director at the Centre for Research and Publications (CRP) at the University of Namibia (UNAM), and Dr Mulugeta Berihu, previous Director of Research at Aksum University in Ethiopia, both referred to the challenges of international collaborative projects and the disadvantages that local researchers often experience. Dr Jude Fransman, a Research Fellow at Open University and co-convenor of the Rethinking Research Collaborative, in turn, spoke of the multifaceted regulatory framework informing funding structures and funding delivery in the UK, proposing more collaborative approaches between funders in the UK and counterparts in low- and middle-income countries.

Panel 3 scrutinised norms and practices by individual researchers in collaborative global research, especially vis-à-vis partners from low- and middle-income countries.  The panel was chaired by Dr Alex Lewis and was comprised of four speakers: Dr Maru Mormina from the University of Oxford, who spoke of the ethical dimensions of capacity-building for research partners in low- and middle-income countries; Professor Michael Hutt at SOAS, who drew from his publication experience working in Nepal to reflect on unequal practices that marginalised Nepalese researchers twenty or thirty years ago, emphasising the shift to more collaborative co-authorship; Dr Seira Tamang, an international relations scholar in Nepal, who spoke of instrumentalist and ethnocentric partnerships of western researchers with Nepalese counterparts, not crediting Nepalese researchers for their work or restricting them from publishing in local platforms to ensure local impact; and Dr Daniel Hammett, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield, who emphasised the time constraints and career-related pressures experienced by academics, alongside the wider framework of research funding that constrains substantive engagement with local partners and fosters patronising and instrumentalist collaborations.

Michael Hutt - decolonisation curriculum

Together the panels included 13 speakers, who comprised researchers, academics, practitioners, funders, research directors from the natural and social sciences in the UK and internationally. In the spirit of decolonisation, the three international partners from Namibia, Ethiopia and Nepal were greeted in native languages, with Dr. Istratii reading a greeting in Silozi for Professor Kanyimba (courtesy of Gustav Mbeha at the University of Cape Town) and saying a greeting in Amharic and Tigrigna (Dr Istratii’s research working languages) for Dr Berihu, while a Research Office colleague, Mr Sadeep Rai, produced a greeting in his native Nepali for Dr Tamang.

The rich presentations and brainstorming sessions after each panel culminated in a roundtable chaired by Mr Ben Prasadam-Hills, Director of Programmes at the Association of Commonwealth Universities, who summarised key issues and suggestions made on the day.

The full presentations and discussions were live-steamed and can be viewed here.

The event was also tweeted live under the hashtag #DecolonialHE, which can be followed here.

Following the event, Dr Romina Istratii has set up a JISC email listserv (DecolonialHE@JISCMAIL.ac.uk) that aims to serve as a platform to continue the conversation and to link funders, researchers and research offices together to more systematically and collaboratively pursue solutions to the complex issues and challenges identified at the event. All SOAS members and external parties are encouraged to subscribe and to participate in the conversation. The list homepage is available here and new members can join here.

Furthermore, the SOAS Research Office has already held an all-directorate meeting to discuss lessons from the event and what approaches the Research Office will take to provide research development services in a more reflexive manner that enables SOAS researchers to engage more substantively with partnership-building and that responds better to the needs and conditions of local partners and institutions.  A webpage dedicated to Decolonising Research has been set up under the Research Office website, which will serve as an outlet for publishing future outputs and follow-up actions.

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