Working with alternative traditions of thought

This article was written by Robin Dunford, University of Brighton
This article was published on

The Colonial, Postcolonial and Decolonial (CPD) Working Group's 2016 annual workshop took place on 2 September 2016, hosted by the School of Humanities, University of Brighton.

Too often postcolonial and decolonial theories are utilized in IR in a generic or homogenous fashion. For this workshop we will be joined by experts in specific traditions of thought that are under-represented or ill-represented in IR theory. Introduced to their key features, premises and concerns, participants will workshop how these specific traditions might inform or inspire their existing research agendas. Fundamentally, this workshop is designed to enhance the engagement by IR scholars with traditions of thought emanating from various colonial contexts.

Post-workshop report

The annual BISA Colonial, Postcolonial, Decolonial Working Group workshop asked the question of how we can work with traditions of thought that emerged from colonial contexts. Provoked by introductions of postcolonial and decolonial traditions, we reflected on how we might use these forms of thought in our research, teaching, and practice. As always, these reflections are dependent upon patchy memories, and will leave out as much as they reveal.

After introductions, Sanjay Seth and David Martin introduced postcolonial theory and the Subaltern Studies group from which it emerged. They tracked a shift from attempts to restore to accounts of Indian history the role and agency of subaltern subjects, particularly the peasantry, in driving change, towards a more anti-humanistic position which questioned assumptions according to which there was a unified, identifiable subject, subaltern or otherwise. This led to a tension between attempts, on the one hand, to restore the voice and agency of a given subject, and interrogations, on the other, of the ways subjects are constructed, of whether/how and under what conditions particular subjects can be recognised as speaking, and of the deeply ingrained epistemic assumptions of thought more broadly.

The discussion that followed focused on the use of Subaltern Studies for the work of those of us attending, and for those working in the discipline of International Relations more broadly. Part of this discussion took place in groups, where each of us reflected on how we could use postcolonial theory in our own work. Discussions on how we can use postcolonial (and, later, decolonial) theory in International Relations highlighted very different experiences of working in the discipline. Some of us had come to International Relations because it allowed far more scope for working with alternative traditions of thought than did other areas we had worked in. Others found International Relations constraining, and were pleased that working with alternative traditions of thought offered them a way out – a way to work in different areas.

In the discussion amongst the whole group, questions were asked about whether and how postcolonial theory could give rise to a particular form of politics. Where in the earlier work of the Subaltern Studies group, there was a clear commitment to the side of the subaltern, the peasantry, the oppressed, and the marginalised, in the later work, the questioning of humanistic assumptions of clear, defined subjects meant that there was no longer a clear constituency of postcolonial theory’s politics. Where Marxism might clearly speak to the ‘working class’, it is not clear that postcolonial Theory speaks to the concerns of certain groups. Instead, it might better be seen as a toolbox that we might pick up and use, in a variety of ways, in our studies. In the context of International Relations, for instance, this toolbox might be used to interrogate some of the basic categories of thought, be it the state, sovereignty, or anything else.

In the afternoon session, Rosalba Garza and Rolando Vasquez introduced the Decolonial school. The initial introduction focused on three core ideas: modernity, coloniality and decoloniality. There were also discussions of the links between Decolonial theory and some Feminist theory. On the one hand, participants pointed out the productive exchanges that could happen between the two. On the other, some pointed out dangers of appropriation, suggesting that some decolonial theorists had not always been explicit about the way that they were drawing on Feminist thinking. Reflecting back on the earlier part of the day, some participants also pointed out the predominantly male nature of the bibliographies in key texts of Postcolonial theory that had been circulated in advance. These discussions showed the importance of the interconnections amongst different traditions of thought, and reflected on ways to incorporate a feminist perspective in postcolonial and decolonial settings, and of incorporating postcolonial and decolonial perspectives in feminist settings.

The focus of the day was on working with traditions of thought. With this in mind, much of the afternoon session was devoted to group discussion on how we might decolonise our research, our curriculum, and our University. Some discussion focused on how we, as scholars based in the Global North, might work in, on, and with those in post-colonial settings. Does our research reproduce epistemic and other hierarchies between the ‘Western’ researcher and the ‘non-Western’ researched? Or can we use our research as part of a project of decolonisation?

It became apparent that, amongst the participants, there were very different experiences of how one can decolonise the curriculum or University. Some found that they had lots of scope in designing courses, regardless of whether that freedom comes from a lack of concern about what they are teaching, providing certain indicators of ‘performance’ (such as student feedback) hold up, from supportive colleagues, or from being allowed to teach their research. Others found that they were more constrained in what they teach, and could only take small steps to change their curriculum.

There were also discussions of the difficulties that practical issues of time pose to attempts to decolonisie the curriculum. To decolonise a course does not mean adding further voices and ideas and stirring, but making changes right through the course. It means making sure that modern ideas and modernity are not taught without showing the ways in which coloniality is constitutive of them, making sure that courses on development always reflect on the hierarchies that are set up amongst developed and un/under-developed, those with the expertise to bring about ‘development’ and those without it. To change a course radically takes time and effort, and is difficult in the context of heavy teaching loads, precarious contracts, and pressures to generate research ‘outputs’. Turning this into a collective project, with people sharing teaching resources, reading lists, ideas, and lectures, might make it easier for us to make the changes that University curricula desperately need.

Finally, the form of the ‘delivery’ of teaching, as well as the content, was discussed. Some participants reflected on the difficulties of breaking down hierarchies that exist amongst teachers and taught, and of the difficulties of presenting oneself as anything but an ‘expert’, able to provide ‘knowledge’ on a topic. If both postcolonial and Decolonial theory call into question the possibility of a knowledge produced from one perspective, from one, disembodied point of view, then decolonising our teaching also means refusing to present ourselves as possessing a definitive expertise on the material we are teaching. Even if we try to show this in the content of what we say, we often still perform ‘expertise’ through our mannerisms and modes of delivery. Some people highlighted difficulties they have faced in changing these deeply ingrained habits.

After a short break, we had a final session bringing together the two traditions of thought. We discussed how they might speak to one another. Some noted the many similarities between them, suggesting that if postcolonial theory were more explicitly politicised, it might end up being very similar to Decolonial theory.

Two areas where more notable differences were noted them were, first, in their conceptions of modernity. There were some question marks over whether decolonial theory ended up accepting an account of modernity, as starting with the discovery of Latin America, that could only be produced retrospectively after self-awareness of ideas of ‘Europe’ and ‘Modernity’ emerged at a later stage. This led to some suggestions that decolonial theory might benefit from engagements with postcolonial theory in thinking more about the epistemic categories that underlie its thought.

Second, where postcolonial theory emerged from moves away from presenting subaltern voices and histories, decolonial theory explicitly engages with multiple voices (though there were differences around the table concerning whether we should call these voices ‘subaltern’, on the basis that the category already introduces hierarchies). This engagement does link directly to political action, but the cost of this politicisation may lie in the loss of some of the tools, provided in postcolonial theory, with which one can critically interrogate any and all knowledge formations These areas may be indicative of areas where the two schools of thought could be brought into a critical and constructive dialogue.

The day ended with everyone offering some concluding reflections. The ending reflected the spirit of the day; a day where all people spoke and no voices were dominant.