Charter of Decolonial Research Ethics

 

 

PREAMBLE

 

Academic knowledge production protects white privilege, and requires of the researcher that she or he inhabits white identity. One of the most salient ways in which this happens is through methodology. Contemporary academic knowledge construction includes long lines of people who are eager to ‘give voice’ to the excluded other. For example, they interview immigrants, they do workshops with sans-papiers, they ‘listen’ to indigenous movements, and they carry out focus-group interviews with Muslim women. They strongly oppose oppression, they are against racism and intolerance, many call themselves ‘decolonial’, and defend qualitative and participatory methodologies to work ‘with’ people. Their methodologies follow an ethical code that requires informed consent, and people’s knowledge about the basic interest of the research. This ethical code is, however, suspended as soon as the information has been gathered.

 

 

In spite of their intentions to work against oppressions and racism, researchers apply research methodologies and ethical guidelines that vigorously defend the white political field.[i] Academic research allows people to become the ‘authority about’ others; the immigrant, the indigenous, the sans papiers, the Muslim woman. Although the suspension of ethics are an important component in the problems with social research, other elements, which are embedded in the colonial power matrix, are equally essential to take into account. All can be formulated in terms of privilege – privileges offered to those who commit to academic research as one of the institutions of the protection of the white political field.

 

 

This charter addresses the privileges offered by academic research to the researcher and offers some principles to work against these privileges. The charter is principally a tool for decolonial social movements to use in their interaction with researchers interested in working with them, but can also be used by decolonial researchers. Far from attempting to universalise research, the Charter is concerned with how to put research in the favour of decolonial processes of change.

 

 

THE PRIVILEGES OF RESEARCH

 

The privileges of research are powerful tools that protect the white political field, and offer important existential value to the ones who commit to them. Of these privileges, three are primary privileges and seven are derivative – but not less important. The primary privileges are the teleological privilege, the privilege of epistemic perspective and the privilege of ontology, respectively. These grant another set of privileges to the researcher, mainly through methodological and conceptual tools. This section outlines the three primary privileges, while the next section addresses the derivative privileges that are operationalized through research methodologies.

 

 

The teleological privilege refers to the ways in which academic knowledge construction – expertise – monopolises the political in terms of projects for the future. This privilege defines what is possible, realizable and realistic, and so allows for a small portion of the world’s population to have the power to define the future of all. Closely linked to the teleological privilege is the privilege of epistemic perspective by which epistemic racism is enacted, and so ‘other’ perspectives can be included in social research only to the extent that they remain ‘empirical’ material. Researchers enact the privilege of epistemic perspective when they do not leave canon of Eurocentric and colonial knowledge construction in order to engage with decolonial social movements’ conceptualisations and critique. The privilege of epistemic perspective is inseparable from the privilege to define what is (exists) and what is not (what does not exist) on the basis of ideas about validity, scientificity and method. This is the privilege of ontology.

 

 

The privileges of teleology, epistemic perspective and ontology carry with them other important privileges that come along in dominant academic knowledge construction as naturalised, scientific, methodological principles. These are, in fact, not scientific principles. Rather, they are requirements to incarnate the colonial politics of being and defend the white political field. The following Charter of principles addresses these privileges.

 

 

PRINCIPLES FOR DECOLONIAL RESEARCH

 

  1. There is a powerful tool that protects white identity and the white political field. It is the false discussion about the researcher’s nearness or distance to the people that she studies. To discuss proximity (solidarity) or distance to research subjects is a privilege reserved to the researcher and covers over the real concern, which regards the researcher’s own political positioning in relation to white identity and the white political field. Decolonial research is not close to decolonial struggles located outside of the academic realm, nor in solidarity with them. Decolonial research is existentially and politically committed to decolonisation.

 

  1. The struggles for decolonization outside the academic realm are important processes of social/political change, and decolonial research must never work in ways that expose nor weaken these struggles. To do so, the decolonial researcher must align herself with these struggles, remembering that her principal site for struggle – the site where she can contribute – is the academic realm. The conditions for the alignment with the struggles outside the academic realm are determined by the actors of the decolonial struggles and not by the researcher. The decolonial researcher hence abandons the privilege to define struggles.

 

 

  1. Any academic enquiry implies an a priori selection and prioritisation concerning the subjects with whom one studies and the problems to be analysed. It presupposes the privilege to choose research subjects. In decolonial research, this choice is not one for the researcher to make, as this would imply that the research is already framed within an imperialist logic. A decolonial researcher requests acceptance of her research to the people with whom she wants to work. The final decision is for the decolonial movements to make. 

 

  1. If the research is accepted, the decolonial movements retain the right to suspend the agreement at any time. If such suspension happens, the decolonial movement has the right to decide whether the researcher can use the information and knowledge gained up to that point. If the research is rejected, the researcher needs to work more in regards to her decolonial positioning and commitment. Decolonial research hence implies abandoning the privilege to subtract information and use it to cover the researcher’s own interests.

 

  1. The problems or questions of research must be formulated with the subjects of study. The subjects of study have the right to change the terms, the theoretical frames, and define what is the relevant social context to take into account in the research. This is the only way to start off in a way that erodes the privilege of the researcher to define what is relevant from what is irrelevant of research foci, themes or problems, and hence to direct the research to the problems that the research subjects prioritise.

 

  1. The analyses that the decolonial researcher carries out are not ‘of’ or ‘about’ the subjects of study, but of the problems that they face in their decolonial struggles, and their contributions for decolonial social change. This principle helps also to protect the movements with whom she works from attacks launched at them by the guardians of the white political field.

 

  1. Internal dynamics, strategies and mechanisms of auto-protection developed by the decolonial movements must not be displayed to the public. The movements decide what can be disclosed to a larger public, be it academic or not.

 

  1. Often the movements do not allow the scholar entrance to all their spheres of decision making and action – precisely because history shows that scholars have vast difficulties in conducting proper decolonial research. The decolonial researcher acknowledges these problems and respects the decisions of the decolonial movement with whom she works.

 

  1. The privilege to define relevance is accompanied by the privilege to define context. In dominant academic scholarship the researcher sets the boundaries that define the field of interaction with the “other”, distinguishing relevant from irrelevant in scientific research without discussing the “relevant for whom”, “to what”, and “what for” questions. When social scientists who engage with ‘others’ highlight the importance of context, they at the same time negate the fact that they are the ones that delimit context. In this concern, for example, they typically ignore that an important part of context is the white political field, and that they are part of it. In decolonial research the subjects of study are the ones to define what the context of research is.

 

  1. The decolonial researcher can have a specific analysis of reality that she considers being important. The research starts by bringing these analyses to discussion with the subjects of study. These discussions require that the decolonial researcher reformulates, revisits and nuances her analyses in face of the analyses made by the people involved in decolonial struggles. Discussions can be concerned with finding more precise conceptualisations, and finding how to generate or adjust words and tools in order to approach the research problems in a way that is coherent with the problems faced, analysed and addressed by the subjects of study. This initial part is pivotal to the remaining process of collaboration, that requires a continued revision of analyses, concepts and tools of research in face of what she learns working with the decolonial movements. The researcher must be aware that her academic tools and perhaps also her existential state require of her that she protect her so-called ‘academic/theoretical integrity’ – another privilege naturalised by colonial research. For this reason, she must constantly make sure to work against this integrity when it is defined from within the academic realm and not in favour of decolonial struggles as it then protects the borders of white identity and the white political field. The analyses are carried out in continuous debate with the subjects. Analyses made on behalf of the subjects, or about them, without consultation or debate with them are not valid because they have been made through the exercise of epistemic violence inherent to the white political field.

 

  1. Part of what makes research decolonial is renouncing to the privilege of the last word – a privilege that is fiercely defended by most academics. The privilege of the last word refers to the act of saying things about realities of others without caring for these peoples’ priorities, analyses and struggles. It is a very harmful, and hidden, principle in social and humanistic research. To work against this privilege, the three-fold movement of peer reviewing is pivotal.

 

  1. Nothing that concerns the researcher’s work with the decolonial movements can be submitted to publishing (including congress or seminar presentations, blog entries, op-eds, etc) without previous explicit permission for each intended publication given by the research subjects.

 

  1. Any publication material passes through more processes of peer-review than ordinary publications. The first peer-review is made by the decolonial movements with whom the researcher has aligned herself. The second peer-review is the ‘traditional’ one that takes place with other academic peers. In cases where substantial changes have been made to the original manuscript submitted to the peer review of the movements, there is a third process of peer review inasmuch the text must be approved once more by the decolonial movements before being sent to publication.

 

  1. The ethical codes for social research, such as the code of ethics of the American Anthropological Association[i] are ethics of protection of the white political field under the guise of a ‘humanistic’ social concern. In these ethical codes, the privilege of making ethically informed decisions is given to the researcher, and so all ethics are suspended in the moment the researcher is out of ‘the field’. The logic that the researcher collects information to take to the university to analyse remains untouched, the privilege of the last word is successfully protected, and so is white imperial identity behind it. Decolonial research follows ethical codes that work to demolish the white political field and open up spaces to dismantle the teleological privilege, the privilege of ontology, the privilege of epistemic perspective and the methodological privileges that follow from these.

 

 

 

Decoloniality Europe, May 2013

 

 


 

[i] http://www.aaanet.org/issues/policy-advocacy/upload/AAA-Ethics-Code-2009.pdf

 

[i] See entry “White political field” in section “Decolonial key concepts” in the webpage of Decoloniality Europe: http://decolonialityeurope.wix.com/decoloniality#!key-concepts/c18i9I