“I guess it depends on where you start” – Reflections on the Decolonial

Author: Sudip Sen


Sudip Sen is a first-year part time PhD student investigating the way people talk about race and racism in broadcast media; particularly in radio phone-in programmes in the UK and Australia. Further linked academic interests include aspects of decoloniality, cultural studies and media production. His primary goal is to try and find imaginative new ways to communicate a more critical awareness of the way in which race and racism function.

At the start of the Masters in Social Research Methods in late 2020, we had two philosophy of social science lectures by David Wearing, a writer and thinker I admire. At the end of the module, he told us a story to help us think through our own positionality, inviting us to reflect on what Eurocentrism and decolonising might mean, using his own discipline of International Relations (IR) as an example. This exercise was based on a story that his colleague Mark Laffey tells to his first year IR classes at SOAS. The story is a thought experiment, but I find it still helps me galvanise a certain decolonial sensibility:

You’ve had a hard day at the Pentagon, or perhaps the MoD, and you venture to a nearby bar with your colleagues to unwind. At the next table there are a couple of ‘foreign looking’ chaps chatting quietly away to each other, but who also appear to be listening very intently to your conversation, occasionally taking some notes with puzzled looks on their faces. You notice this and thinking it quite rude, you eventually confront them and ask them what they think they are doing.

‘Sorry, we are from the security studies department at the University of Kandahar’, they say, ‘we are anthropologists working with our colleagues on tour here, to try and understand a bit more about your culture… about why it is that you keep sending drones and people to kill us, year after year. We thought by being embedded with our colleagues here, that maybe we could better understand why you keep behaving in this way. Perhaps it is cultural? …Maybe we can even learn how to get you to stop?’

That story, or a version of it, is of course an inversion of the ‘human terrain’ story of the anthropologists embedded with the US Military during the Gulf Wars. The story is quite crude and the details don’t matter, but the gist does. It is a reversal of the treatment of the Global South as an object for study.

How does the research look from the perspective of those who are being studied? What would they say about the project? What do they say to each other as they see the clipboard approaching (and would they tell you)? And, by the way, why does the clipboard get to stay in that nice hotel, and what happens when it flies away?

I am not claiming these are all new questions, but perhaps they are elevated when thinking decolonially. Of course, decolonial thinking extends not just to the object of the study, but also to the tools used to conduct the study and the type of knowledge that is deemed to matter.

Fast forward to Cumberland Lodge, May 2023, and the promise of a session with an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) focus. Something potentially in danger of inspiring a little quiet cynicism: a small price to pay for a pleasant walk in a grand park, or for some student solidarity over an evening meal. The new South Coast Training Partnership EDI lead, Tamsin Bradley, wanted to hold a session on decolonial thinking and managed to secure two leading academics and speakers, Olivia Rutazibwa and Leon Moosavi. They were great speakers, and also great to chat to at the Lodge; challenging us to think a bit differently about what decolonising means.

The way that Leon and Olivia spoke about decolonising itself was different. Leon did not begin with the definitions but stories designed to put things in perspective. He began with a story about his South African driver’s reverence for a British education, but used it to zoom out to the various kinds of unequal realities on a global scale that we might sometimes forget, juxtaposing them with our surroundings, with its pictures of royal visits on the walls. He also mentioned how universities themselves can feel so alien to some students. At the same time, Leon also never lost sight of the difficulties with taking decolonial theorising forward, lest it become vacated of meaning by being co-opted by institutions using it as a buzzword in funding applications.

One of the main things that struck me as Olivia spoke was her invitation for us to rethink where we start: to rethink from when we start counting, if counting is your game. An example she mentioned from her own research was inviting us to rethink the very concepts of ‘aid’ and ‘development’. As she notes, through a decolonial lens, these can become obscene concepts when put in context. Perhaps studies foregrounding global justice and redistribution might be a better place to start. Better not to start too recently, post-Enlightenment, but further back, say in 1492, and trace through that unbroken history of land ‘settlement’ (stealing), and the ongoing systems of extraction funnelling resources away from the Global South. How does the aid ledger look then?

Of course, much was left unresolved from our session. It is fair, for example, to ask whether and how we build incrementally upon the knowledge that has gone before, when so much of decolonial thinking invites us to reconsider that knowledge as suspiciously embedded in an atomising, Eurocentric mode of thought. How deep should this unravelling go?

Nevertheless, for me the value of the session was to zoom out from my own work. During the session I was reminded that racism is also demonstrated in that map of the world, as John Narayan points out, showing which governments voted against the initiative sponsored by India and South Africa to relax the COVID vaccine patents. Apart from Brazil, which would now vote differently under Lula, it is a pretty stark division between wealthy countries enforcing their intellectual property rights against the global majority.

What does that say about the world in that precarious moment, and the very idea of an ‘international community’? As Olivia mentioned, the stakes of the conversation can be high. As Ruth Gilmore puts it in her book Golden Gulag, racism is no less than a ‘state-sanctioned production… of the vulnerability to premature death’. A decolonial framing of concepts and ideas could include a questioning of the basic idea of state borders and the violence with which they can be enforced, as well as the ongoing systems which maintain the extraction of wealth away from the Global South. For me, these underly just some of the more challenging strands of decolonial thought.

I don’t think anyone else back in 2020 chose the decolonial essay question in my Masters cohort. Admittedly, it can all feel further away from the substance of some projects than others. But at Cumberland Lodge, I hope at least some of us made some connections and reflected upon the sorts of challenges that decolonial thinking might offer. Discussions like these can bring a certain valuable perspective, even as we are all caught up in our own research. Hopefully we have found some great partners to help us and can keep this conversation going within our training partnership.

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