Decolonising Research Methodology
The start of this blog week coincides with my final week of research as part of the Laidlaw scholarship, and a time when I’m reflecting on my progress as a researcher x leader over the past year.
Whereas last summer I conducted desk-based research, this year I travelled to the US to investigate the securitisation of indigenous communities’ anti-pipeline activism in Minnesota. My time abroad led to many experiences where I needed to practice leadership; to name just a couple of issues my luggage was delayed and arrived a week after I did (which included my laptop charger, clothes, washing stuff etc.), and my phone number was blocked for a further week by o2 who thought it had been stolen… However, I wanted to share the most important thing I’ve learnt throughout this research project, which has been appreciating my own positionality as a researcher and the inherent colonial attitudes of western academic research. Therefore, central to this project has been the need to understand and put into practice ‘decolonising methodologies’, to quote the title of Maori anthropologist Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s seminal work.
Before travelling, my supervisor encouraged me to prepare a self-reflection paper where I could lay out my awareness of my background growing up in a colonial state from a privileged background going to an elite academic institution. I also included my understanding of the history of colonialism’s relationship with academia, and the power imbalances inherent in research. I learnt that ‘research’ (re-search) is considered a dirty word by many indigenous communities, who are aware of it as a process and tool of subordination through misrepresentation. Having this document of self-reflection proved invaluable; I continually referred to it during my time away and it kept me aware of how I could work to avoid this western colonial mindset. Rather than going in with the aim of producing a paper for my own gain and using their situation as a tool for this (an attitude prevalent throughout social science research), I would be conducting these interviews and research in a transparent and collaborative manner- keeping indigenous particpants’ voice central. In this way I was learning what they felt important for me to know about their experiences with police-brutality, media discourse and the environmental racism at play in their situation. It’s important to stress that this is different from a white-savior position where there’s an ’emancipation’ aim; rather it is a case of learning from and working with affected peoples in a manner that does not add to their colonisation.
Learning the importance of this has been far and away the most important thing for me to understand- putting this into practice in interviews has been a vital experience. This ties back to leadership values; writing up this pre-departure self-reflection document was a turning point for me in understanding the role we have as leaders in academic research. Practicing decolonized methodology is practicing an alternate type of leadership, and setting the tone for future research. Whilst this need for decolonisation is something that is not directly taught in the Laidlaw program, the foundations of self-reflection developed in the leadership sessions have proved useful as a starting point for appreciating it’s value.
I couldn’t have conducted this research or learnt these lessons without my supervisor Professor Ali Watson, who has been essential in helping me understand the need to decolonize research methodologies, as well as navigate problems, stresses and worries whilst being abroad. Without the generosity of Lord Laidlaw I couldn’t have this opportunity, so thank you to him and the St Andrews Laidlaw Scholarship team too.