How do we ‘decolonise’ research methodologies?

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by Nora Ndege and Joel Onyango, Africa Research and Impact Network / African Centre for Technology Studies

This blog post is part of the STEPS Centre’s 2021 theme on Methods.


Researchers and the research community are increasingly asked to reflect on various research methods that can have positive outcomes and impacts on society, and challenge existing methods. On a range of questions, old and new, there is also a call to pay more attention to the relevance of research and researchers in the Global South and how they are addressing current sustainability challenges.

Over the past year, the pandemic has focused even more attention on the role of research and evidence in decision making, and the spatial dimensions and tensions of where and how research is conducted by whom and for whom. Covid-19 has accelerated methodological innovations in certain areas, allowing or forcing researchers to conduct various types of research differently: for example, through rapid reviews and synthesis for evidence, remote surveying methodologies, and the use of digital technologies such as online platforms, social media, ‘big data’ and so on. This doesn’t imply that this is the preferred way of engaging with research and these methods are also with their own challenges, but it is a step towards rethinking methods.

The pandemic has also provoked many researchers to experiment with remote methods and to embrace alternative ways of engaging, with the potential of misrepresenting desk research as empirical research. In the Global South, researchers have explored what these (and other) methods mean for their own contexts, while reflecting on the growing agenda for ‘decolonising’ research.

Coloniality and knowledge

Coloniality has traditionally been associated with territorial control. As such, individuals capable of controlling research are the dominant voices setting the research agenda, and thus issues power in research discourses arise.

Coloniality has been used to describe the structural effects of political rule over subordinated countries. Struggles for ‘decolonising’ have evolved from the undoing of colonial rule to the even more fundamental challenge of freeing knowledge, practice and culture from deeper worldwide concentrations of incumbent power. In light of the growing global decolonisation movement, which question various aspects of decoloniality, there are calls to decolonise research and research agendas – which are often detached from local contexts and situations.

This implies having research agendas that are and owned locally, and employ local knowledge, including discussions on what assumptions are held about knowledge, values and beliefs for research in the global South.

To figure out what this means, the starting point would be to ask: What needs to be decolonised?  From the broad spectrum of scientific methods, will the starting point be social science research methods? Is it data, research or researchers themselves who need to be ‘decolonised’?

Exploring the range of perspectives on these questions could inform research ideas and create a momentum for decolonising methods in the global South. Towards this aim, in February 2021 we convened an interactive contextualisation webinar with the Africa Research and Impact Network fellows.

The event explored, with the ARIN fellows, their experiences on the growing momentum around decolonising research and what this would mean for established methods, and for policy processes in Africa (drawing on other experiences outside Africa, North America and the UK). The webinar was attended by partners from the University of Sussex who over time have been central to methodological discussions in ‘opening up’ spaces, to reflect on various methods through the STEPS Centre approach.

The webinar aimed to deconstruct and exploring the overall theme of decolonising methodologies, and what it meant for Africa, and collectively discuss its relevance to global discourses in challenging sustainability research. In this blog post, we reflect on the perspective of ARIN fellows on the emerging themes for framing decoloniality, and decolonising methodologies in the global South and key entry points towards this research agenda.

Decoloniality in our understanding and in the Global South context

Four thematic areas were explored: we unpack them here in our attempt to broaden the discussion on decoloniality in the global South.

Opening up space for free thinking: Decolonising requires that we open up space for free thinking with regard to context, where local knowledge and local experiences in research methodologies challenge the Eurocentric (often dominant) approach to research. This is not to say that the existing methodologies are not fit for purpose, but it means appreciating the benefits and limitations of existing methodologies, and articulating them to fit local contexts.

Opening up spaces to critique positions of power and dominant culture: Decolonisation offers a powerful alternative narrative for those wanting to critique positions of power and dominant culture. By way of its definition around undoing colonial rule over subordinate countries, it implies looking for some level of positionality to counter aspects around incumbent power.

In other words, it means telling a more honest version of events, not from the ‘colonial’ point of view but considering what benefit the participants will derive from the research and forming relationships with them and their community. It is about expanding the current methods and historical perspectives that are studied. The space should ideally promote the potential for researchers to challenge power, through scholarly activism for instance.

Considering the relationship of the researcher with the ‘researchee’ (the main person the research is targeting): These are usually considered as subjects in research. For the researcher to incorporate the researchee and expound the meaning of the methods to them, and more broadly to people who are not researchers, would be one of the ways research methods are decolonised. But researchers should also go beyond seeing the people being researched as mere subjects of the research, but as collaborators and co-designers of research agendas, opening up opportunities for co-producing knowledge. However, on its own, decolonising methodologies may not yield desired results, and needs to be part of a broader agenda in research discourses.

Unpacking disciplinary tensions and conflicts: There are various philosophical underpinnings around methods that are often ignored in epistemological debates, especially as a result of the disciplinary positionality. For instance, some researchers tends to have a ‘positivist view’ in research and/or a ‘constructivist view’ whereas others tend to favour ‘quantitative’ methods over ‘qualitative’ methods. Therefore, acknowledging these strands of research disciplines and exploring how to contextually build functional (transdisciplinary) research relationships is instrumental. Decolonising research will therefore bring in different ontological and epistemological perspectives and different disciplines and incorporate them: for instance, the Ubuntu philosophy within the African realities would perhaps be a radical challenge to Eurocentric methodology.

Decoloniality is multidimensional: Considering that different disciplines have variety in methodological applications, which are perceived differently among researchers, it follows that aspects such as funding flows, research politics – including rewards to northern researchers carrying out research in the global south, and the perceived research power dynamics between female and male researcher – are likely to tilt decolonising research into multiple layers of actions.

How do we decolonise research methodologies?

Decolonising methods requires action on a number of fronts, including continuing debates and exploring world views, the need to document concrete examples, and challenges to the funding regimes and wider systems within which researchers operate. Below we highlight and discuss five key entry points:

  1. Contribute, facilitate and convene debates on complexities of decoloniality: In the context of the global south and from the earlier convenings, decoloniality is already complex with various actors, power plays and disciplinary tensions. Continuous debates and critiquing what this implies for research methods is a good starting point. In fact there is more to learn about how methods engage with both the legacy research leaders and those providing alternative and transformational views on research ideas and agendas, and resource allocation and distribution. This then points to the ideas around examining the funding agenda and the research methods that they support.
  2. (Re) evaluate research funding flows: Africa’s research funding is dominated by foreign entities, and it is skewed hugely in favour of agriculture and health sciences. It is not surprising that a handful of institutions and researchers, about 2%, continue to receive such grants. The grant application processes, and the methodology used to assess these, have been challenged and are considered flawed by various researchers. There are proposals around more radical ways of funding that potentially involve lottery or setting a side grant money for longer-term, more complex, less flashy research with potentially enormous social value. Perhaps this is the start of a conversation around decolonising research funding processes and their associated methods, that recognises other players and other ways for advancing research funding that will bring about varied outcomes.
  3. Consider the various world views imprinting incumbency: Research methods are shaped by power. This includes the imprints made by powerful incumbent (mostly Eurocentric) world views and philosophies, which emphasise the current ‘regime’ or ways of working. Decolonising helps shift power imbalances. This is possible through understanding the powerful forces that shape research; and supporting a deliberate and continuous engagement of current dominant views and alternative views. How is this possible? Perhaps by paying attention to indigenous methods and available systems, we can make the first step in shaping how power is redistributed and re-oriented, allowing alternative methods and views to be considered.
  4. Document cases that challenge the normative: While it is true that decolonising methods is a growing agenda, it is also true there is a lack of attention in documenting real practical experiences in the Global South around various methods that exist, are emerging and have been used in practice. The first step is to document what ‘decolonising methods in practice’ means, perhaps through a series of case studies.
  5. Articulate/customise systems facilitating research: Methodologies are part of the system which include actors that have legitimized methodologies contributing to the dominant research practices. The inclusion of cultures, indigenous peoples, and perspectives from non-colonial sources is one way to strengthen the systems facilitating research. Decolonising the policies and political power which emphasise some methods and close down others is also key in the process of articulating methods that would objectively support alternative thinking.

What next?

The work in the Methods Year, under which the online workshop was held, is an initial step towards our work on decolonising methodologies.

Cognisant that there are factors that would take longer to handle (such as funding flows), the Methods Year initiative allows for documenting cases that explore a diversity of philosophical aspects (through the book project), customising systems that facilitate research methodologies (through the summer school), and opening up the space for scholars, practitioners, entrepreneurs, and policy actors to contribute to the ongoing debates on decolonising methodologies.


About the authors

Joel Onyango and Nora Ndege are members of the Africa Research and Impact Network, and Research Fellows at the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS).


Additional resources on decolonising research methodologies in the Global South

Webinar series: Through the webinars, key lessons on decoloniality of methods would be documented for research, policy and practice to illuminate/connect practical examples and reflections, including on ‘qualities’ of methods and how these are used to open up and broaden out pathways to sustainability. See the ARIN website for information on past and future events in this series, or sign up to the STEPS events newsletter to receive updates on all Methods-related events in 2021.

Book project: The book project will document the theory, practice and case studies for Decolonising Methods in Transformation to Sustainability which will be launched at the Annual ARIN International Conference 2021.

ARIN Summer School: The Summer School will provide an opportunity for participants to explore how methods have been (can be) used to inform, impact and transform policies, societies and economies.


Methods – our theme for 2021

methodsMany methods offer ways to link knowledge and action for sustainability. But there are intense pressures to close down and narrow the way knowledge is produced and used for instrumental ends. What methodological assemblages, frameworks, tools and associated ways of being could help challenge these pressures, open up to more perspectives and participation in research, and allow us to pursue more plural pathways to sustainability?

Find out more

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