Decolonising knowledge production – we should all talk about epistemology

Epistemology is a complex field. Twice a friendly colleague passed on a warning to me that he once got himself: Unless you have a degree in philosophy, beware of epistemology! He probably has a point. Yet I believe that all of us who are involved in knowledge “production”, from student to experienced senior colleague, should engage in some meta-reflection on the knowledge(s) we use and produce.

Why? Because I believe that the key to overcoming colonial patterns in our research methodologies is turning the decolonisation of methodology into a mainstream practice. It shouldn’t be something that some people (in exotic fields of research) do, but that everyone considers in their knowledge production.

What does that mean concretely? Decolonisation, although currently a “hot topic”, isn’t the latest academic fashion with which we decorate our papers, nor is it – as Tuck and Yang remind us – a metaphor to address other shortcomings in educational or social science research. What I suggest is that every person involved in academic work and knowledge production should know about, respect and consider that our planet accommodates not just one (universal), but many epistemologies. That there are many ways of knowing, coming to know, and knowing about knowing. As Leigh Patel writes: decolonisation ‘requires, at minimum, a consideration of how ideologies impact material practices, how practices are always epistemically shaped, and vice versa’ .

Take for example Alvesson and Skjøldberg’s (2009) widely used book Reflexive Methodology. New Vistas for Qualitative Research. The authors suggest the use of several paradigms instead of just one. They apply a four-layer interpretation model, quadruple hermeneutics, to let ‘the different elements or levels … play… off against each other’ (p. 272) for the purpose of reflexivity. Beginning with constructing data from empirical material, moving to interpretation (hermeneutics), critical interpretation (critical theory) and self-critical and linguistic reflection, the authors move from the concrete to the abstract, from the data level to a wider perspective that considers social context and society concerning the collected data and that questions power relationships (e.g. regarding gender or between researcher and researched). However, even Alvesson’s and Sköldberg’s fourth, most critical layer of reflection remains within a Western epistemological frame that regards the rationally thinking individual as the centre of knowledge generation, rather than including ‘stepping back’ and reflecting on knowledge and research as such. I am not suggesting the authors should necessarily have included in their book a layer of reflection on the (de-)coloniality of qualitative research, although they could have. What I am suggesting is that making explicit the epistemological assumptions on which the book is based, for example, by acknowledging this book concerns common strands of Western theoretical thought, would have disrupted the implicit assumption that the included layers of reflection are the layers of reflection. It is the lack of such acknowledgements that continues the automatic silencing of other epistemologies. There are well-established protocols in mainstream social science research regarding ethical considerations, access and sampling and data analysis. Accounting for appropriateness and congruence between a chosen methodology and the epistemologies in a planned study should become part of the same standard social science research procedures. Such practice would help even out the skewed hierarchy between Western knowledge (mostly simply called ‘knowledge’) as the current norm and indigenous ways of knowing as the ‘other(ed)’ knowledge and thereby clear the way for the decolonisation of research on a large scale.

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