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Thing 16: Decolonising Research

Updated: May 4, 2023

Today’s blog brings you a wonderful 3-for-the-price-of-1. We’ll hear from three expert voices about some of the challenges and opportunities for increasing the accessibility and equality of our research, university structures, and training – in part by acknowledging and addressing the systematic inequalities generated and sustained by the West’s colonial history.


We hear from Dr Rachel Sizemore, Māori Postgraduate Adviser at University of Otago, on “Bringing an Indigenous voice into academic writing”, from Dr Jay Rowe, Race Equality Researcher and co-ordinator of the “Surrey Black Scholars” programme, and Dr Dawn Duke, Head of the Africa Research Excellence Fund on “Why Decolonisation of Research Matters to All Researchers”.


This is a developing and expanding subject area that demands everyone’s contributions and repeated brave conversations. We’d love to hear about your experiences and ideas in the comments; how can we work towards a more equal research future? Hopefully this will also be a fertile discussion in your pods.

A diverse group of people clinking glasses.
Cheers! (Photo by AllGo - An App For Plus Size People on Unsplash)

Bringing an Indigenous voice into academic writing

Dr Rachel Sizemore


“He aha te kai a te rangatira? He kōrero, he kōrero, he kōrero.

What is the food of the leader? It is knowledge. It is communication


Whakapapa of Māori academic Indigenous writing

Indigenous academic writing styles can read differently to other prescribed styles of academic writing such as scientific writing. The reflection that follows focuses on Māori academic writing. For Māori, indigenous writing styles can partly be attributed to te reo Māori being a spoken language. It was not written down until colonisation occurred and missionaries arrived in the early 1900s.


Orators were/are highly skilled at whaikōrero (formal speeches), which are made up of predesignated parts. Being able to deliver whaikōrero on a marae (communal and sacred building(s)) imbibes mana (authority, respect) on the speaker, the mana whenua (people of the land) and manuhiri (visitors). Speeches have transcended into written word and the mana of indigenous writing has emerged as being apart from other forms. Indigenous academic writing started with Māori scholars such as Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck) and continues to this day through the work of Angus McFarlene, Linda Tuiwhai-Smith and others. By the early 2000’s Māori academic research and writing was flourishing. In 2002, Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, a Māori core for research excellence, was established at the University of Auckland. The core publishes Indigenous academic research and writing in their journal MAI. It is a good journal if you are interested in Indigenous writing styles.


Context

Indigenous academic writing can be in te reo Māori or English. If the writing is around Kaupapa Māori research (i.e. drawing on Māori principles and ideas), then it can also contain a combination of both languages. When written in English, words and ideas can be misinterpreted as there are some Māori definitions that don’t have an English equivalent (Barnes, 2013).


When comparing English academic writing with Māori writing there can be differences in the style, structure and tone. Scientific academic writing is often written in the third person, using passive voice and past tense. It never uses the pronouns “We” or “I” and it follows a certain structure for constructing an argument. Here we present three ways of bringing an Indigenous Māori voice to academic writing.


a diagram showing thee ways to bring an indigenous voice to academic writing, including locate yourself, change the tone, and cultural structure

“Locate yourself”

The first way to invoke an Indigenous voice in academic writing is to put yourself into your writing. This is often seen in book chapters, theses and reports where Indigenous scholars write about themselves to give their research context and purpose. We see this as pepeha (introductions) and whakatauki (proverbs) in acknowledgements, prefaces or introductions to give whakapapa (background) and reasons for conducting the research. This is because as indigenous scholars “who we are is what we do, and what we do is who we are” (Matahiki, personal communication 2019). It can be difficult to separate the research from researcher as we are often much invested in the research if it is pertaining to Māori success. Often Māori academic writing works best for Kaupapa Māori research.


“Change the tone”

The second way is to change the tone of the language while keeping the classic structure of an argument, which still needs to contain the claim, argument, warrant and evidence. We can see in the example below in blue text that the tone and style of writing is different. This abstract is by Angus Mcfarlene and Sonja Macfarlene on listening to culture (Mcfarlene and Mcfarlene, 2019). The language is softer, and it doesn’t contain dry or strong wording but is more subtle and descriptive to convey an Indigenous voice about Indigenous research. The argument is story-like and the reader is gently guided through the usual parts of an argument mentioned above.


How might researchers ‘listen to culture’ in their quest for knowledge that involves Indigenous populations? Many Indigenous groups may argue that the hidden drivers of research activities remain anchored in Western oriented values, processes and motivations. In Aotearoa New Zealand, it is clear that adopting a partnership approach to research is becoming more of the ‘norm’. As Aotearoa New Zealand approaches the third decade of the twenty-first century, culturally relevant and inclusive approaches to research need to be the policy choice and must be the policy of necessity. Equitable research approaches to research must be at the core in the quest for scientific inquiry, social coherence and economic growth. This chapter explores some of the historical realities and a vision moving forward. To guide authentic and grounded approaches to power-sharing research endeavours, culturally grounded frameworks are also shared.


With this change in tone and style, it is more appropriate to refer to the claim and argument as the whakapapa (background information) and the tohe (debate). This also connects the writing to Māori culture, stemming from Māori being an oral language. The writing flows and it is easy to understand the point of the tohe, which still conveys the perspective of the writer with conviction and respect.


“Create cultural structure”

The last approach for bringing an Indigenous voice to academic writing is to use cultural concepts to create structure (Pukepuke & King, 2019). The cultural process of pōhiri (welcoming ceremony involving speeches) has been used to break down indigenous writing into parts. The acknowledgement or preface can be seen as the karanga (call) or purpose for the writing. The Introduction is equivalent to a whaikōrero (following the thread or themes that the previous speaker has said) by Kaumatua (elders) of the whakapapa or background to the research. The main argument or tohe in the writing can be analogous to the discussion that occurs during the hui. Conclusions are like the closing of the pōhiri. Connecting cultural process to writing structure allows Indigenous scholars to convey their ideas clearly and in order, which inadvertently creates an Indigenous voice to Māori academic writing.


In conclusion, these Māori Indigenous ways of writing are steeped in the oratory of te reo Māori and therefore belong to Māori, Māori academics and Māori students. Non-Māori may be able take away learnings or adapt these insights to help them write differently. If you find styles you like, use them. If the writing is easy to read and flows well then it’s well written.


References

  • Barnes A. (2013). What can Pākekā learn from engaging in kaupapa Māori educational research? Working Paper 1. Te Wāhanga, He Whānau Mātau He Whānau ora.

  • Matahiki, P. (2019) personal communication.

  • Mcfarlene, A., Macfarlene, S. (2019). Listen to culture: Māori scholar’s pleas o researchers. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand https://doi.org/10.1080/03036758.2019.1661855.

  • Pukepuke, T., King TK. (2019). Using cultural concepts to teach aspects of academic writing. Project report in Ako Aotearoa national centre for tertiary Teaching Excellance.ww.ako.ac.nz.

“What’s your story” written in neo lights in a shop window
Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Surrey Black Scholars: Year One

Dr Jay Rowe


In January and October 2022, the first fourteen Surrey Black Scholars postgraduate research students enrolled at the University of Surrey (UoS), receiving full 3.5-year Surrey Black Scholar studentships (funded by UoS). The students are studying across our three faculties, four within the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, four within the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences, while six within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Several of these postgraduate researchers attended the pre-registration summer school in August 2022. The summer school involved ‘express’ versions of Doctoral College workshops (to build research confidence and prepare for PhD programmes), a tour of Guildford (to familiarize them with local area) and a visit to the Southbank Centre in London to experience the ‘In the Black Fantastic’ exhibition (to build peer networks), followed by a wellbeing focus group with our Centre for Wellbeing specialist counsellor on race/ethnicity.


Many of the Scholars have also contributed towards the ‘Decolonising Researcher Development Training’ project, another of the principal programme components. This component has been delivered by Dr Neelam Wright, a specialist in inclusive researcher development training. Ten project partners from the UoS postgraduate researcher community took part in the partnership work to redesign and decolonise the material and delivery of researcher development and employability workshops within the Doctoral College. Furthermore, ten additional consultants worked with the Director of the Doctoral College, Dr Kate Gleeson, to redesign the supervision workshop for the Doctoral College. The project team is now developing an Inclusive Supervision Training module to complement and enhance the University’s existing general supervision training software. This new training is being developed in collaboration with postgraduate researchers and supervisors from culturally and ethnically diverse backgrounds.


One of the Surrey Black Scholars studentship holders enrolled in the first wave of the reverse mentoring programme, mentoring an Executive Board member in a six-month programme to build cultural competency and humility. This has already had a positive effect on the Scholar involved through increased confidence, sense of personal agency, and their desire and empowerment to improve the academic culture in UK academia and at UoS. The Executive Board mentee has expressed considerable learning as a result of the mentor sessions with the Scholar and has expressed an interest in scaling up the reverse mentoring programme more widely across our community.


In 2022, the University of Surrey welcomed two external speakers, Professor Keon West and Dr Emily Zobel Marshall, as part of the external speaker series, to build representation and networking opportunities for the Surrey Black Scholars. Both events were very well received and were attended by Surrey Black Scholars as well as other staff and students. We anticipate at least two more external speaker sessions in October 2023. Moreover, we will be recruiting keynote speakers for the planned Black in Academia conference in Summer 2024 and its associated Black in Industry networking event in Spring/Summer 2025.


Part of our programme is about building the pipeline from undergraduate upwards, therefore we have been looking for opportunities to encourage Black undergraduates to pursue academic careers. These undergraduate widening participation activities include the Surrey Black Scholars undergraduate internships programme starting in 2023, and a mentorship programme where undergraduates from Black and mixed-Black backgrounds are being invited to receive mentorship from Black postgraduate researchers. We are more effectively capturing the demographic and disciplinary interest data for applicants, and we are carefully matching them with positions and mentors based on their specified needs.


To keep up to date with the Surrey Black Scholars programme, follow us at https://surreyblackscholars.surrey.ac.uk/


View of Surrey campus, looking across the lake at academic buildings
University of Surrey. It’s got a lake! (Photo by Sandeep Chitreddy on Unsplash)

Why Decolonisation of Research Matters to All Researchers

Dr Dawn Duke


I work for the Africa Research Excellence Fund, which provides professional and career development opportunities for biomedical/health early career researchers across Africa. The impact of the colonisation of research is an ongoing challenge for the researchers I work with. The bulk of the health research literature was conducted by and on white American/European people. It is therefore not surprising that worldwide, people of colour tend to have poorer health outcomes. There is increased recognition of this problem but shifting the culture of biomedical health research is not easy when the global power balance remains uneven.


In a talk for one of our workshops, an early career lecturer from Africa shared a story about her first experience on an international forum. This forum was making decisions that would directly impact African health research, and she was the only African on the panel. Only one other researcher had any experience of Africa and that was just one study in one African country. In that moment, this young researcher realised she was carrying the voice of a continent as she spoke.

Throughout this collection of experiences in this week’s blogs, there are examples of the strength and richness diversity brings to different research areas. As the next generation of researchers and research leaders in your different fields, it will be increasingly important to recognise the need for diversity of thought, experience and approach to refresh and move all research fields forward. Decolonisation is critical not just for individual researchers but for the future of research fields.

What can you do?


This is a big topic and a big systemic problem, and you are all very busy people balancing quite a bit already. What could you possibly do to work towards decolonising research? I suggest making a difference may be easier than we all think.


1) Observe. It may seem passive but observing is powerful. Look at the key researchers in your research areas. Where are they from? Are there places/people not represented? Think nationally, think globally. Look at the editor list for journals that you publish in. Look around at conferences you attend. Who is there? Who isn’t there? Who is speaking? Think about what voices may be missing. What is your research field losing from those missing voices?


2) Learn. Attend talks/lectures given by researchers from underrepresented groups. Ask questions. If you are able to, ask questions about their experiences. Listen. Expand your literature reviews to try to capture research from a broader range of perspectives including different cultures and different countries.


3) Discuss. Talk about decolonisation. If you are from a less represented group, share your experiences. Talk with people about how these experiences shape your approach to your research. If you are from a majority group, discuss what you have observed and learnt. Speak up for the need for more equal representation and power balance.


4) Be change agents. Decide to support the decolonisation of research and make changes whenever and wherever you can. If you are on a committee, make sure all voices are heard. Hold space for those that may be the minority voices. Speak out about the make-up of committees if they are not representing some groups. If you are organising a conference or a seminar series, include diversity.


5) Lead. As you advance in your career, become a research leader that supports the decolonisation of research. Do so within your own research group and collaborations, insisting on equity and striving for diversity. Do so within your research institutions, through working groups and committees that can influence institutional policy. Do so nationally and internationally.

Researchers are leaders. As you grow in your career, you will be asked to input at various levels, and use your platforms to promote decolonisation in your field. For some of us using our platform may mean stepping back from it so other voices can be heard. For some, like the African researcher I discussed at the beginning of this blog, it will mean standing up, despite being the lone voice in the room, and speaking for the experiences of the many who are absent.

Individually, decolonisation may seem an overwhelming challenge, but if all the people reading these blogs commits to taking some action, change will happen. Your research fields will become bigger and richer. Research is not a pie with only so many slices. Adding more people doesn’t take from any one group. Adding diversity grows the pie. It increases the creativity and innovation of the field. You are the future of your research areas, what you do now matters.


Researcher at the National cancer Research Institute working in a lab.
The future need you! (to carry on doing very complicated and delicate work) (Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash)

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