Decolonise everything (together)!

This article was written by Amber Murrey, University of Oxford
This article was published on

In the first annual colonial/postcolonial/decolonial workshop, Zeynep Gulsah Capan questioned the term decolonisation. She asked, ‘what are the assumptions implicit in our decolonisation? Is it the case that we now have pluralism in the periphery but that the centre remains colonised?’ With over one hundred years of ‘disrupting narratives’ and 450 years of the ‘coloniality of power’ what has been or is still being heard at the centre? The group articulated the limitations of the lexicon—including problems inherit with the colonial/decolonial binary—and the continued need for a decolonisation of epistemic authorisation. Part of this means decolonizing the methodology through which knowledges are created.

Mustapha Pasha emphasised the distinction between the colonial gaze and colonial practice. That is to say there is a difference between the deployment of knowledge—e.g. knowledge for the purposes of coercion, control and appropriation in colonial practice—and the instramentalisation of knowledge as a whole—e.g. the colonial gaze through which the world is known. An added challenge is the realisation that our very conceptual language—the pre-existing grammar that we live in/understand—structures everything, including our intellectual endeavours before and after methodologies are engaged. As Olivia Rutazibwa noted, we—intellectuals who do ‘research’—define what we look at before the research begins.

When we ask the question—how does the colonial gaze impact upon methodology?—we see that methodology is an aspect of the colonial gaze and that the two cannot be separated. This is part of the paradox of method identified by Lewis Gordon: ‘To evaluate method, the best methodis the suspension of method. This paradox leads to a demand for radical anti-colonial critique. But for such a reflection to be radical, it must also make even logic itself suspect.’The demand for consistency in method is evident in the basis for the production of knowledge within isolated disciplines. From here then, we need methodologies to decolonise the colonial gaze inherent in methodology. And we need to do these methodologies without privileging one approach over or above another.

Decolonisation within which structures?

Once we’ve established that the colonial gaze is bound up within methodology and constitute of methodology, we see an individual’s struggle for decolonisation only takes us so far. We can work to decolonise the structures of inequality within the particular research (i.e. between the official researcher and the people), but this does not sufficiently engage with the structures that inform the research and produce the researcher. Decolonising this (i.e. the researcher, the institution, the methodology, the gaze, the grammar) is a much larger and necessarily collective task.

This project of collective decolonisation is urgent and difficult in the neoliberalised, corporatised, privatised, NGO-ised university system. These phenomenon are global, albeit with regional and local distinctions. In The Importance of Research in a University, Mahmood Mamdani critiques the shifts in knowledge production within African universities following the implementation of World Bank and IMF neoliberal reforms (structural adjustment) in the 1980s and 1980s, as university funding and professors’ wages were cut or eliminated. ‘Academics’ increasingly turned to corporate or non-profit consultancy work to supplement incomes, or they migrated.

In her article, Love and Learning Under the World BankStacy Hardy notes that, ‘from 1985 to 1990, 60,000 African intellectuals and professionals emigrated to the West’. African immigrants, for example, have the highest level of education of migrant populations in the US.

In African universities today, Mamdani notes,

"intellectual life…has been reduced to bare-bones classroom activity. Extra-curricular seminars and workshops have migrated to hotels. Workshop attendance goes with transport allowances and per diem. All this is part of a larger process, the NGO-ization of the university. Academic papers have turned into corporate-style power point presentations. Academics read less and less. A chorus of buzz words have taken the place of lively debates."

He continues,

"The expansion and entrenchment of intellectual paradigms that stress quantification above all has led to a peculiar intellectual dispensation in Africa today: the dominant trend is increasingly for research to be positivist and primarily quantitative, carried out to answer questions that have been formulated outside the continent, not only in terms of location but also in terms of historical perspective. This trend either occurs directly, through the “consultancy”model, or indirectly, through research funding and other forms of intellectual disciplining…the proliferation of “short courses”on methodology that aim to teach students are ushering a new generation of native informers."

Not only are intellectuals in the academy increasingly pressured to demonstrate measurable impact by increasing their production in specific domains (i.e. in a context where publishing or reporting to NGOs is more important than teaching or other political work), but academics themselves are neoliberal subjects.

Decolonisation within whose selves and whose bodies?

Mustapha Pasha spoke of the neoliberalisation of intellectuals in institutions of higher education as demonstrated in the seemingly never-ending ability to self-manage and entrepreneuralise (yes, I did just make that a word) all facets of our research-life-teaching. This means that, for example, while I might be engaged in critical work to decolonise the theories and methodologies that I employ in my PhD thesis/dissertation, my work practicesthe pathologically unforgiving and enthusiastic entrepreneurial spirit and rigorous individualism I demonstrate in these decolonisations as I sit in isolation in front of my computer screen (at huge emotional costs to myself and my family)—render me a thoroughly effective neoliberal subject.

Indeed, ‘the self without sympathetic attachments is either a fiction or a lunatic’—or, I would add, an ‘academic’.

In effect, neoliberalism has colonised both the academy and the intellectual-self. The latter is evident in the increasing ability of ‘academics’ to

  • produce more and more through overwork(defined as 50 or more hours per week; read Cha and Weeden’s article on how the rise of overwork in the last 25 years disenfranchises women labourers in particular) in a system of ‘publish and perish’,
  • commodify research and measure strictly defined impact, with impact often translating, as Robbie Shilliam aptly critiqued during the workshop, to the ability to demonstrate the value of the intellectual product for business or development (through ‘accountability-speak’) and not for the community where the research occurs,
  • manage and market the academic-self, i.e. the Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, wikipedia pages, podcasts and a plethora of accounts on and,
  • and police ourselves—formally and informally—and each other in our supra-efficient work practices. Alexandre Afonso, for example, argues that academia resembles a drug gang, with many ‘academics’ willing to make enormous temporary sacrifices in emotional labour, health, wellbeing, and labour compensation for an anticipated reward (i.e. permanent position or tenure).

So even if we decolonise the colonial gaze implicit in methodology, we need to decolonise our work practices as well as the structure of higher education. What would this knowledge creation look like? How can we work to make these necessary and interconnected projects possible?

Collective decolonisation?

In this context, the significance of collective action cannot be overstated and the burden lies on us. It requires the subsumption of our egos for collective knowledge. The questions we ask, Shilliam reminded us, are always being asked in grassroots politics

                        can we

                                                if we could

                                                            should we do

Are we—collaborators, co-creators, intellectuals, friends, comrades, people with mutual enemies—going to defer? This is the critical question. Do we distinguish between intellectual and political engagements, adopt an academic false-identity and defer in our collective inaction and disagreement? This requires that we challenge the subordination of intellectual work to other struggles.

Pasha celebrated the workshop as a conversation—not for a target or a measured impact—but as engagement and demonstration of solidarity. The workshop was a coming together of intellectuals—working against the title ‘academics’(and its authority of ‘High Priesthood’)—with the understanding that we must move beyond individual reflection to a transdisciplinary transformation.