This blog was written by Emanuela Girei, a Lecturer at the Management School, interested in management and social change, specifically the non-profit sector in the global South.
The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) – a £1.5billion fund set up by the UK Government for research that contributes to the development and well-being in the Global South – represents a unique opportunity for academics from a broad range of disciplines, and will very likely significantly increase engagement by UK-based researchers with the global South.
Investing into knowledge, innovation and research is certainly a laudable choice, especially when there is a clear emphasis, as is the case with the GCRF, on international partnerships and how global South needs should have a role in shaping the research agenda.
Yet, the production of knowledge is hardly a neutral activity particularly in development contexts. There is a rich literature that unfolds how knowledge has often served to justify and legitimize western expansion and domination. According to several critical voices from within and without academia, such an alliance can continue today in the development industry. Such critiques cannot be ignored or denied a priori: northern researchers should take the specificities and dilemmas of doing research in the Global South into serious consideration.
In a recent article I reflect upon some of the epistemological and ethical challenges I have faced in my own research. Below I identify and discuss three of them, highlighting some of the dilemmas which might be worth considering when doing research in the Global South.
Where is knowledge produced and by whom?
Knowledge about the global South is largely produced by scholars and institutions located in high-income countries. In my area of research – Management and Organisation studies (MOS) – the great majority of research is developed in and for North America and the United Kingdom, largely ignoring other parts of the world. The African continent is virtually inexistent in the field, and on the rare occasions when Africa is mentioned it is often with embarrassing superficiality.
This does not mean that academic production in Africa is scarce. Rather, it means that African scholars are under-represented and/or marginalized in/by the main global knowledge production centres, such as for instance top-tier journals or internationally renowned conferences, and that the rich indigenous academic production, often easily accessible, as, for instance, is the case for CODESRIA, or Fahamu, remains largely ignored in northern academic circles.
How is the global South represented?
This question invites one to unfold how a specific country is represented in mainstream narratives within our field of study. If we look again at MOS, previous research has shown that if a non-western organisation does not deploy practices and/or policies considered ‘normal’ in the west, it is considered deficient, lacking and in need of modernisation or innovation. Similarly, if a non-western organisation employs practices or policies unknown in the west, they are considered traditional or ‘ethnic’ and usually, again, in need of innovation. The problem here is what could be called the ‘epistemic violence’ of westocentric perspectives, which continue to approach organisations located outside the West through a comparative lens, enlightening how they differ/resemble the western model. This in turn nurtures and reinforces historically rooted assumptions regarding the superiority and universality of the western standard.
How to build equal partnerships?
The GCRF, and development funding more generally, usually requires beneficiaries to work in partnership with institutions and colleagues from the global South. This is said to be necessary both because research projects should be focused on existing challenges and needs, and because of an overall aim to build capacity in southern partners. While the need for international partnerships cannot be emphasized enough, research has also shown that often these ‘partnerships’ reproduce existing asymmetries between the North and the South. In the academic field, for instance, there is significant evidence of how high income countries are often the prime beneficiaries of international research collaborations, especially with regard to authorship, international profile and influence in the research process.
How can we address the issues highlighted above?
Certainly, the answer cannot lie in a blueprint or in a universal policy: each research project will need to identify its strategy for living up to the main aim of the GCRF – namely that of addressing development and welfare, possibly starting with the research process itself. However, on the basis of my experience of doing research in MOS, I have identified five key factors which might be helpful also for colleagues.
Reflexivity. Decolonising knowledge requires the researcher to recognise that knowledge cannot be neutral: it is necessarily interwoven with ethical and political threads. Requirements for objectivity and neutrality often obscure the political and ethical dimensions of research. It is thus important for researchers to continuously investigate who and what specific research choices and actions they are serving, which truths and worldviews they sustain and their impact on the lives of those involved in the research, as well as the impact of their identities and positionalities in knowledge production.
Unfolding whiteness and other asymmetries. My own experience supports the argument that at all levels of the development industry there persist assumptions regarding the entanglement of knowledge, expertise and race – and it was clear to me that this was partly outside my agency, that is, beyond my stance, choices and acts. Such rooted features of the development and aid sector can be changed, but only by engaging with them, rather than deleting them from the research practice agenda, as is too often the case.
Radical contextuality. Paying simultaneous attention to both the historical and the emergent dimensions of the context in which research takes place can help address some of the limits of comparative, decontextualised and ahistorical approaches that have detrimentally impacted on knowledge about the global South. This also invites a committed engagement with indigenous scholarship.
Micro/meso/macro. The commitment to engaging with local meanings and practices on one hand, and on the other with the wider (academic, political, cultural and economic) context where the research takes place can be sustained by a research strategy that moves back and forth from the macro level (where, for instance, policies are decided) to the meso and micro levels. Continuously switching lenses among these levels might help address some of the main gaps identified with MOS – existing also in other sectors – such as its abstract stance, its epistemic violence in silencing alternative perspectives, and its complicity in sustaining broader inequalities.
Open-ended orientation. This means freeing the research from rigid design or methods, to minimise the risk of imposing categories and of constraining thinking and actions, An open-ended orientation with regard to both empirical investigation and theoretical analysis helps in widening perspectives, learning from the persons involved in the research and avoiding, as much as possible, constraining the variety and unpredictability embedded in human actions and social phenomena.
This list should not be intended as a set of ‘recommendations’, but rather, simply as a summary of the key issues that have guided my journey in search of research strategies and practices sensitive to calls for decolonising knowledge, and my efforts in considering how global and historical power asymmetries shape knowledge production. However, I do hope that these points may stimulate further, much needed reflections on research practice in the global South.