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Thing 18: Towards decolonising research: Reflections as a white British woman researcher on the good, the bad, and the ugly

Dr Amy Smail, University of Cambridge

a picture of a white and a brown fist side by side, painted on a wall
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

When it comes to decolonising research, I often draw on the words of the Argentinian scholar Walter Mignolo (2018). He writes that decoloniality is about un-learning to re-learn. We are to un-learn the dominant Euro-centric ways of knowledge, truth, and rationality in order to re-learn what exists outside of this. In doing so, we disrupt the colonial and racial domination that still exists in our world, serving the white privilege and power of the Global North, and of course, the gatekeeping in our current academe. This then enables us to re-world.

As a white British woman researcher and socialised in and through the Western episteme, I am not in the position to make any normative claims on how decolonising research should or should not be done in your context. If you self-identify as Black, Asian, dual-heritage, or ‘Indigenous’ to the Global South, of whom Campbell-Stephens (2020:1) describes as Global Majority peoples, I can only offer instead some reflections in contribution to the wider efforts to decolonise. These have come from my own learnings on seeking to enact decolonial praxis through the mundane acts of research as much as the more radical, disruptive moments.


My first thought on decolonising research is about questioning location. What decolonial authors, like Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2017), Mignolo (2017), and Tuhiwai-Smith (2021) speak powerfully of is how the European episteme acts as the centre of all ways of knowing and being across the globe, subsequently entrenched throughout every stage of our research. These authors alert us to how Eurocentric theories are only ever designed to be tested through Eurocentric methodologies and which narrowly impose Eurocentric epistemologies and ontologies onto how the data is then interpreted and analysed. And, what we do with it afterwards.

Re-thinking location can manifest in many ways in our research. One way, for example, is to re-engage with Indigenous knowledges (in other words, knowledges that are not European/colonial). My experiences of researching in schools in several countries in the Global South have certainly taught me the powerful role that methodology can play in particular in ignoring or re-instating local knowledges. Being oral-based cultures and storytelling part of everyday life in schools, participatory approaches were potent in ensuring that the teachers were re-positioned not just as the ‘experts’ of their own social realities but the ‘theorists’ of their own knowledge. In one instance, co-constructing a theoretical model with these teachers helped capture their decolonial praxis in the classroom and used to radically speak into their national policy spaces.

Irrespective as to which discipline you might be in, whether from the STEM subjects or the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, our shared challenge as academics is greater inclusion of those knowledges considered to be epistemically excluded. This might mean diversifying who you work with and from different locations as well as different disciplines, or going after topics in your research that could expose and challenge established colonial norms and hierarchies. Out of this, I wonder what the world might look like if we all dare to question and re-think what is said to be ‘universal’?

Here are some questions to reflect on.... 

Q: How can you diversify authors in your theory, literature review, or methodology, who are writing about and speaking to knowledges that would be considered as epistemically excluded?

Q: Can you find ways to de-centre Eurocentric/white-centric methods to create space for alternative ontologies and epistemologies? Could this mean rethinking the types of methods that you are using to collect the data?


Q: How can you engage with localised narratives of decolonising in your research? What does this mean for enacting praxis, whether in the community or the discipline in which you study? 


Time and ‘Progress’ 

My second reflection on decolonising research is to consider the concept of time and its relatedness to who defines progress. This reflection comes from an experience while undergoing peer-review of a publication. What surprised me was the request to engage with contemporary theorists writing on decolonising/Indigenous modes of thinking instead of the African philosophers (from the era of Independence) whom I had chosen. In our efforts to decolonise, I can’t help but see a paradox in this because ‘time’ which is directly used to measure ‘progress’ is a product of coloniality. In other words, the notion of time is tied to Euro-modernity which, being relatively linear, results in comparing and judging all progress in and through white European existence. The assumption is that as time progresses, research also progresses so we know more including of what we know about decolonising. But I wonder what has been lost in time because of this dominant Eurocentric thinking.  

For each of us coming from our very different disciplines and locations, one way to disrupt this could be, for example, by looking back at our genealogies and histories of our disciplines and interrogating how colonial discourses have distorted who does what, and for whom? And ultimately, whose knowledge counts? I also wonder how we can engage with radical (historical) thinkers who dared to enunciate non-white European existences and processes and practices rooted in these, and some of whom were already theorising what we would now call decoloniality (while maybe not using the word directly). In my own research on Pan-Africanism, I have found historical archiving as a powerful way to re-learn some very radical but forgotten African thinkers (although I appreciate this isn’t the standard way of how we understand this method). I would suggest that the act of engaging with their thinking is a way of us now realising their decolonial imaginations. This is also important for disrupting the colonial tendency to universalise an ‘accepted’ narrative on decolonising which is basically characterised by Global North/Eurocentrism. Anything seen not to fit within this narrative is either questioned or rejected and neglects any decolonial scholars who are writing from within those epistemically excluded spaces. One brilliant paper on this is from Leon Moosavi (2020) and absolutely worth a read.

Here are some more questions...  

Q: What is the history of your academic discipline? How can you interrogate the colonial discourses distort who and what is written about?  

Q: What needs to be acknowledged in your writing about the historical context in which your theorists are writing from? 

  • Were they entangled with, or even upheld imperial ideologies (I’m thinking predominantly about white European thinkers writing at the time of the European Colonial Empire who are still regarded as foundational to many of our disciplines)? 

  • Or were they located, disruptive thinkers who wrote outside of the white European/colonial episteme? How did they view and see the world?

Reflexivity and Reciprocity 

My last reflection on decolonising research is about reflexivity. Speaking again to the words of Mignolo, decolonising should evoke a continuous process in us, as researchers, of un-learning, learning, and re-learning. A starting point is to ask question about our ‘self’ that should prompt deep introspection of our identities. Identity is inherently complex and of course was used as a colonial site for oppression that I acknowledge is still a very real and personal struggle in our current academe. What the exercise can do (whether publicly or not) is help prime us to reflect on where coloniality might be hiding in our epistemological and ontological assumptions about the phenomenon that we are researching and how this might surface from the research questions we ask, what we read and cite, the methods we choose, or even what we are choosing to research.

Reflexivity should also prompt us to think about reciprocity by way of opening up spaces to critique and rebalance power and privilege. This extends to the people we work with in our everyday research environments, whether in the laboratory or the office. As we develop as researchers, might this mean shifting access to opportunity (either stepping in or stepping out of the way)? From once working on a multi-country project (in UK, India and South Africa), I experienced first-hand the lasting impact of a Principal Investigator who worked to create spaces where the research term could continuously un-learn and re-learn from each other and who modelled how to work through the uncomfortable conversations on power and privilege, especially pertaining to gender and ‘race.’

With impact and engagement now being an imperative for our research, we have a prime opportunity to plan for reciprocity from the outset (with those we work with and with those who we seek to benefit from our research) and, as I have found, serves as a constant reminder to practise decolonising and, more crucially, enact it. 

Here are some final questions... 

Q: In what ways can you create spaces with those you work with to embed reflexivity and reciprocity, (and in commitment to un-learning for re-learning) in your everyday research environments?

Q: What opportunities could you create at different stages of your research to ask those whom you are seeking to support what change they seek, want, and why? 

Q: What opportunities can you create in your research for co-developing and co-producing your research, or maybe to partner with other community organisations, or industries outside of academia? 

In conclusion  

Despite its enormity, what makes decolonising research possible is that across our disciplines, our diverse identities and our global locations, we are all being trained to re-search. That is, as Ndlovu-Gatsheni explains, we are called through decolonising to re-think about re-search by ‘shifting the identity of its object so as to re-position those who have been objects of research into questioners, critics, theorists, knowers, and communicators.’ It is to enquire as researchers into what we know and what we don’t know, and collectively expose and learn from the good, the bad and the ugly along the way. 

Suggested Readings. If you are unable to access these, please inform us! 

  • Campbell-Stephens, R. (2020) Global Majority; Decolonising the language and Reframing the Conversation about Race.

  • Mignolo, W. and Walsh, C. 2018. On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. US: Duke University Press.  

  • Moosavi, L. (2020). The decolonial bandwagon and the dangers of intellectual decolonisation. International Review of Sociology.  30(2), 332-354.

  • Tuhiwai-Smith, L (2021). Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Third Edition. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.  

Blogs from ‘The Conversation’ that are worth a read... 


Amy Smail is an academic within the field of Comparative and International Education. She has over twenty years’ experience of working and researching in international and UK-based educational policy and in schools, with specialism in primary education. Amy currently works at the Centre for Teaching and Learning, University of Cambridge on enhancing the evaluation of teaching and learning.  

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