In search of decoloniality – Practical approaches and pitfalls.

What reflective and practical approaches can researchers begin to adopt to contribute to the decolonialization of humanitarian research and practice in the fields of migration, displacement and refugees?  In this blog, the second in a two-part series, Sorcha Daly, Southern Responses to Displacement’s Project and Communications Coordinator, draws mainly on the work of Prof. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Dr Estella Carpi to explore what approaches they have found useful and to problematise some of the approaches that are incorporated within humanitarian research and practice today. 

You can read Part 1 of this 2 part series here.

Part 2. In search of decoloniality – Practical approaches and pitfalls

by Sorcha Daly, Southern Responses to Displacement’s Project and Communications Co-ordinator

Part 1 of this blog series examined how the ‘global North’s’ colonial legacy has shaped global geopolitical structures, migration and refugee research and humanitarian policy and practice.  Part 2 will, again drawing largely on the work of Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Carpi, examine what practical ways researchers can question, challenge and change ways of ‘doing research,’ in turn, challenging the colonial influences on humanitarian practice. 

Nour Abu-Assab and Nof Nasser Eddin argue here that most people struggle with how to operationalise decolonial approaches (read more on their 5 key approaches to decolonising research projects here). In acknowledging the colonial legacy and subsequent racialised (and class based, see Carpi here and here) unequal power structures which humanitarian research and practice builds, maintains and benefits from, how can research practice begin to challenge the global unequal power structures within which it operates?

Questioning frameworks and focus

In her introduction to Migration and Society (an abridged version is available here), Fiddian-Qasmiyeh outlines three approaches that researchers can adopt to begin to address the Eurocentrism in migration studies. These include critically examining how frameworks and concepts conceived in the global North are (or are not) applicable in the global South.  As Dr. Julia Sauma argues, the expectation that certain conceptual marks, pre-determined by Northern research institutions, will be met, essentialises the people whose needs and rights need to be upheld. Southern Responses to Displacement research, Amal Shaiah Istanbouli, provides important insights to how the terminology and categorisations used by Northern research institutions are conceptualised and challenged by interlocutors here.  

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh also advocates a re-focus on migration in the South and South-South migration, rather than the continual and dominant focus on South to North migration, which can serve to reiterate notions of ‘desperate’ Southern migrants continually attempting to reach what is presented as the privileged and desired North. 

In addition, Fiddian-Qasmiyeh proposes a critical engagement with the geopolitics of knowledge production, acknowledging, unpicking and mapping out how the assumed superiority of knowledge and knowledge producers of the global North, causes the exclusion, silencing and negating of different types of knowledge produced in the global South. You can watch Patricia Daley, Juliano Fiori and Elena Fiddian-Qamsiyeh discuss this more here.  However, this is not a mere exercise in inclusion. As Fiddian-Qasmiyeh goes on to argue, it is a process of ‘decentering’ the Northern hegemonic that is required, rather than a ‘recentering’ of the South.

In the Northern academy, an attempt to decenter the production of knowledge has often involved  citing more ‘black’ academics of the global South. However, as Fiddian-Qasmiyeh argues here (drawing on Hester and Squires (2018: 344)) if the citation of ‘black’ academics is little more than ‘diversity management,’ it will do little to address the unequal power structures that continue to maintain the Northern academy, particularly when these citations (most often of prominent ‘authorised theorists of colour’) continue to be either included or excluded by Northern academics. The frame for what is considered relevant, acceptable academic knowledge and by whom it is written, is narrow and the consequences are far reaching.

Methods of co-production  

Examining our own positionality in relation to the unequal power structures between the global North and the global South can include examining the complex relationship between researcher and interlocutors and intermediaries. Researchers often walk a narrow path between the expectations of ethics committees based in institutions of the ‘global North’ and their relationships with communities within which their research is based. For example, questions relating to who gets paid and who doesn’t, whose time has value and whose doesn’t, are difficult to address fairly, when ethics committees and institutions often view financial reimbursement as something that can tarnish and discredit the research process.  Much more focus and training is needed on the complexities of these issues and how not to reproduce extractive knowledge, as Julia Sauma argues here.   

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh argues for a close examination and utilisation of models of co-production in research, questioning usual assumptions of who writes and owns the research, how academic knowledge and its modes of co-production are conceived and analysed. Ethics committees of the global North are often concerned with the anonymity and protection of interlocutors but this can also serve to erase those who have given their time, energy and knowledge to the research.

Some people want to be identified and named, argues Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, as a political act, a statement that they are the owners and producers of knowledge. Others choose a pen name so that they can identify the parts of the research in which they have been involved. A good example of how this can work in practice can be seen in this email exchange, between Israa Sadder and Hannah Schneider, presented without analysis or the filter of a Northern academic institution, on the Southern Responses website, which provides important insight into how intermediaries experience the research process and dominant international humanitarian NGOs.

In contrast to recognising people’s own accounts as valid forms of knowledge in their own right, notions of ‘inclusion’, ‘diversity,‘ participation’ and ‘giving voice’ to ‘local’ communities and individuals are very problematic. As Yousif M. Qasmiyeh argues when discussing the notion of ‘voice’ –   ‘to embroider the voice with its own needle: an act proposed to problematise the notion of the voice; something that cannot be given (to anyone) since it must firmly belong to everyone from the beginning.

Indeed, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh here, here and here contends that ‘it is essential to reject the violence of projects that take ownership of migrants’ and refugees’ voices.’ At the same time, Estella Carpi warns against what she terms ‘participatory approach fever’, when researchers become so focused on depicting their research as ‘local’ that they overlook the examination of their own positionality in relation to the communities they research

Élisée Cirhuza Balolage and Esther Kadetwa Kayanga write powerfully on the topic of collaboration, highlighting the risks associated with collaboration for local communities and individuals, asserting the importance of open dialogue around the nature of the relationship and what are, and are not, legitimate expectations. This includes acknowledging that the presence of ‘white researchers’ can bring risks and insecurities, particularly when the ‘white researchers’ leave. Support for intermediaries and collaborators should continue. This is why Elisée Cirhuzaargues that ‘it is not just a question of giving Southern researchers visibility in a publication. Their involvement beginning with the design phase of the research is essential.’ 

Julia Sauma also urges against seeing collaboration as some form of panacea for the power imbalances that exist between the researcher and the researched, adding that a clear focus on issues such as gathering feedback from intermediaries and interlocutors, thinking through together what the relationship is going to become, and acknowledging and highlighting the mistakes and messiness of research, can provide important insights and clearer frameworks for moving forward.  Caitlin Ryan writes more on the importance of highlighting failures as well as successes here.   

Ultimately, and particularly in processes of migration which take place within global systems of inequality and violence, Fiddian-Qasmiyeh argues that it is essential as researchers to go much further than merely collecting data or documenting the experiences and lives of migrants and refugees. Through a commitment to critical forms of scholarship, as Fiddian-Qasmiyeh argues here, researchers can challenge and deconstruct the status quo and the structural conditions that restrict people’s abilities to live meaningful lives and equitable forms of knowledge production alike.

This is important, amongst other things, in the area of the production of knowledge and academic funding. As Carpi argues, high quality fieldwork needs to be contextually relevant and culturally appropriate, however this requires generous timeframes. However, as Gauthier Marchais discusses here, ‘academic research on the continent is increasingly funded by short-term competitive grants, which are increasingly incorporated into aid funding’ and this puts greater pressure on universities to produce research results at a much faster pace, ever chasing the next funding round. In turn, this facilitates a greater reliance on the racial inequalities and unequal power imbalances that support and sustain international research projects, and in particular projects led by academics in the ‘global North’ about the ‘global South.’ 

Therefore, although individual researchers can do much to examine their own positionality and adjust their research practice accordingly, Marchais goes on to argue, that ‘the task of addressing racial inequality cannot be left solely to individual researchers or research teams.’ Institutions of the North must stop relying on the racial and geopolitical inequalities that continue supporting their work. This is precisely where critical scholarship can begin to take shape and have an impact, when researchers can turn their eyes to the institutions that fund them and the global structures they operate within, in addition to the communities and individuals they conduct research with.   

You can read Part 1 of this blog here

If you found this piece of interest, please access the recommended reading below:

Carpi, E. & De Souza, M. (2021) The Role of Brazil in the North and South: Discussing Refugee Reception with Dr Mirian Alves de Souza

Carpi, E. (2021) Slavery, Lived Realities and Decolonising Forced Migration Histories: A transcript of an interview with Prof. Portia Owusu – Interview with Dr Estella Carpi and Dr Portia Owusu

Carpi, E. (2021) Slavery, Lived Realities and Decolonising Forced Migration Histories: An interview with Prof Portia Owusu (Podcast)

Carpi, E. (2019) Thinking Power Relations across Humanitarian Geographies: Southism as a Mode of Analysis

Carpi, E. (2018) Humanitarianism and Postcoloniality:  A Look at Academic Texts

Carpi, E. (2018) Teaching Humanitarianism:  The Need for a More Responsive Framework

Carpi, E. (2018) Empires of Inclusion?

Carpi, E. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2021) A Sociology of Knowledge on Displacement and Humanitarianism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. & Carella, F. (2021) The Position of “the South” and “South-South Migration” in Policy and Programmatic Responses to Different Forms of Migration: An Interview with Francesco Carella

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. & Fiori, J. (2020) Migration, Humanitarianism, and the Politics of Knowledge – An Interview with Juliano Fiori

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2020) Introduction: Recentering the South in Studies of Migration

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Exploring refugees’ conceptualisations of Southern-led humanitarianism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Thinking through ‘the global South’ and ‘Southern-responses to displacement’: An introduction.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) The Localisation of Aid and Southern-led Responses to Displacement: Beyond instrumentalising local actors

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Southern Responses to Displacement: Background and introduction to our mini blog series. 

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Daley, P. (2018) Conceptualising the global South and South–South encounters[FE2] 

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) The Localisation of Aid and Southern-led Responses to Displacement: Beyond instrumentalising local actors

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Daley, P. (2018) Conceptualising the global South and South–South encounters

Nasser Eddin, N. & Abu-Assad, N. (2021) Decolonial approaches to refugee migration: Nof Nasser Eddin and Nour Abu-Assab in conversation

Nimer, M. (2019) Reflections on the Political Economy in Forced Migration Research from a ‘Global South’ Perspective

Olliff, L. (2019) Refugee diaspora humanitarianism and the value of North/South distinctions in research on responses to forced displacement.

Omata, N (2018) South-South Cooperation in International Organizations: Its Conceptualization and Implementation within UNDP and UNHCR

Featured image: Wires cross the alleyways of Baddawi camp, Lebanon. (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2018

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