Ajanaw Alemie Desta, Review of Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and IndigenousPeoples, by Linda Tuhiwai Smith

London and New York, Zed Books, 2012, xv + 240 pp., 2nd Edition, ISBN 978-1-84813-950-3.

Ajanaw Alemie Desta*

Indigenous Peoples mainly in Western societies such as First Nations (in North America) or Aboriginal (in Australia) and other people in Africa, Asia and Latin America who were colonized by Europeans had been exploited and dehumanized. The West had employed research rooted in their own ways of knowing as one tool for oppression and domination of other people. Since the impacts of colonialism still prevails in the form of neo-colonialism and globalization, new world order, and mind-captivity are serving as a new wave of exploitation and appropriation in various countries and societies nowadays, the book entitled as Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Smith (2012) is a great contribution to critically examine the Western ways of knowing and develop appropriate methodologies to study and work with Indigenous Peoples.

The author of the book states that “The word research is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary” (Smith, 2012, p.1). This statement is a powerful statement with a very critical examination of the Western ways of knowing and knowledge from the perspective of an indigenous person. It clearly shows how research is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism and how imperial and colonial practices affected the pursuit of knowledge. Smith posits that research is one of the ways in which the underlying code of imperialism and colonialism is both regulated and realized. Hence, the author concludes that a decolonialization of methodologies is very essential for indigenous research. Smith describes decolonization as a critical understanding of the underlying assumptions, motivations and values which inform indigenous practice and indigenous research style. It is about centering our concerns and world views and then coming to know and understand theory and research from our own perspectives and for our own purposes.

The book is organized into two major parts. The first part of the book focuses on the historical development and impact of Western epistemology, knowledge and research assumptions, values and practices on indigenous research and Indigenous Peoples. It also provides a framework on how to deconstruct/ decolonize Western Scholarship [ Imperialism, Research and Knowledge]-a narration about a history of research and Indigenous Peoples and the way research became institutionalized in the colonies of the West. The second part of the book goes beyond deconstruction to understand the ways in which we- as an indigenous researcher- can ask and seek answers to our own concerns using our own ways of knowing. It examines the various approaches and methodologies that are being developed to ensure that research with Indigenous Peoples can be more respectful, ethical, sympathetic and useful. Smith considers indigenous research as a humble and humbling activity. Indigenous methodologies as opposed to Western methodologies tend to approach cultural protocols, values and behaviors as an integral part of methodology. The chapters in this section of the book provides a serious of accounts and guidelines which map a wide range of research related issues.

In the first part of the book , five chapters provides a critical examination of indigenous research as situated within the larger political, historical and cultural context focusing on imperialism, colonialism, Western research, knowledge and ways of knowing and their impact on indigenous knowledge. The chapter discusses the history of traditional Western research and how it is instituted by the dominant Western colonial cultural assumptions and values. The first chapter discusses and contextualizes four concepts which are often present in the ways in which the ideas of indigenous peoples are articulated: imperialism, history, writing, and theory. Smith (2012) posited that “these four words represent emotion, feelings and attitudes which draw attention to the thousands of ways in which indigenous languages, knowledges and cultures have been silenced or misrepresented, ridiculed or condemned in academic and popular discourses (p.21).”  The chapter critically discusses and challenges the history of Indigenous Peoples and how they have been represented or excluded in the history, writing and theory of the imperial world. The author confers that reclaiming one’s own history is a critical and essential aspect of decolonization.

The second chapter presents a critical perspective towards research conducted from the Western imperial ideas, beliefs and theories about the social word particularly about individuals and community, about time and space, knowledge and research, imperialism and colonialism. Smith (2012) understood research ‘through imperial eyes’ as:

An approach which assumes that Western ideas about the most fundamental things are the only ideas possible to hold, certainly the only rational ideas, and the only ideas which can make sense of the world, of reality, of social life and of human beings. It is research which from indigenous perspectives ‘steals’ knowledge from others and then uses it to benefit the people who ‘stole’ it (p.58).

In this regard, Smith (2012) also posited that:

The West extract and claim ownership of our ways of knowing, the things we create and produce, and then simultaneously reject the people who created and developed those ideas and seek to deny them further opportunities to be creators of their own culture and own nations (p.1) which perpetuates colonialism and imperialism.

The third chapter explains how the Western knowledge was mainstreamed and used to dominate and colonize the knowledge and ways of knowing of Indigenous Peoples. The chapter presents how the Western knowledge was positioned as a superior knowledge to explain the other people, how the Western knowledge colonizes the disciplines and teach a colonized knowledge for the colonized/native intellectuals. The author clearly articulated the relationship between knowledge, research and imperialism, and then discusses the ways in which it has
come to structure indigenous ways of knowing, through the development of academic disciplines and through the education of colonial elites and indigenous or ‘native’ intellectuals.

The fourth chapter used New Zealand [Maori people] as a case example to describe how well-intentioned officials, amateurs, missionaries, traders and travelers organize themselves into learned societies and the institutionalization of their ideas and attitudes influenced research on Indigenous Peoples and the knowledge and ways of knowing of Indigenous Peoples. This can be best explained by the author’s words “they came, they saw, they named, they claimed” (p.83). The author presents chapter five as a bridge between the first and the second part of the book and assumed that still imperialism prevails in the 21 st century and hence the decolonization process is an ongoing process to liberate our culture, language and mind from the impacts of colonialism.

In the second part of the book , seven chapters discuss different aspects of indigenous research focusing on various indigenous research projects, methodologies, achievements, goals and future directions. Chapter 6 sets out the framework of the modern indigenous peoples’ project. The author framed a new agenda for indigenous activity that goes beyond the decolonization aspirations of a particular indigenous community towards the development of global indigenous strategic alliances. The chapter discusses two aspects of the indigenous peoples’ project: the social movement/indigenous activism of indigenous peoples and the development of an agenda or platform of action which has influenced indigenous research activities. Chapter 7 articulates the development of indigenous initiatives in research and discusses some of the ways in which an indigenous research agenda is currently being articulated by indigenous communities themselves.

Chapter 8 identifies twenty-five Indigenous Projects initiated by the acts of reclaiming, reformulating and reconstituting indigenous cultures and languages which are very strategic in its purpose and activities and relentless in its pursuit of social justice. Themes such as cultural survival, self-determination, healing, restoration and social justice are engaging indigenous researchers and communities in a diverse array of projects. Chapter 9 and 10 represent a case study of Maori, which demonstrates how many of the issues raised in the previous chapters come together. Chapter 9 discusses the beginnings of a different type of involvement in research by Maori. The chapter examines the creation of a set of more favorable conditions for research involving Maori and raises issues related to research of Maori and to the ways in which research has been employed and/or represented as ‘truth’. Finally, the chapter examines the parameters of ‘culturally sensitive research.’ Chapter 10 discusses the ways in which Kaupapa Maori research has become a way of structuring assumptions, values, concepts, orientations and priorities in research as opposed to the Western ways of knowing which denied the validity for Maori
of Maori knowledge, language and culture.

Chapter 11 and 12 provides the role of research in the struggle for social justice and indigenous activism. Chapter 11 discusses the role of research in indigenous struggles for social justice. It examines the implications for indigenous researchers working with indigenous and marginalized communities as they work the borders, and between institutions and communities, systems of power and systemic injustice, cultures of dominance and cultures in survival mode, politics and theory, theory and practice. Chapter 12 addresses the specific relationship between indigenous research and indigenous activism. The chapter examines about the potential ways in which indigenous activists and indigenous researchers can collaborate to advance indigenous interests at local, national and international levels.

Despite the importance of the critical stance the book brought in decolonizing methodologies, the major critic I had on the book is that the book predominantly focuses on helping indigenous researchers to study indigenous communities as an insider. It did not give value for studying indigenous communities using an outsider perspective. Hence, it may not help as such non-indigenous researchers in researching indigenous communities. Besides, the author did not address the importance of being open to different world views and ways of knowing in understanding a given social reality. The book tends to have a closed eye for other ways of knowing other than indigenous methodologies. Finally, it is also important to think that Western and Indigenous ways of knowing are not totally exclusive to each other. Hence, a balanced view of both the West and Indigenous methodologies is important to have a full understanding of realities. It is important at the same time to discuss the shared experiences and differences between Indigenous and Western as well as between Indigenous Peoples themselves.

The book is a very important contribution in indigenous research methodologies literature which presents research as a significant site of struggle between the interests and ways of knowing of the West and the interests and ways of resisting of Indigenous Peoples. The book acknowledges the significance of indigenous perspectives on research and attempts to account for how and why such perspectives may have developed. It provides a framework that privileges the indigenous presence and that acknowledges the continuing existence of Indigenous Peoples. It is a book which situates research in a much larger historical, political and cultural context and then examines its critical nature within those dynamics. 

The book is intended to benefit more specifically to those researchers who work with, alongside and for communities who have chosen to identify themselves as indigenous. It focuses on how to enhance or empower indigenous researchers to be critical of the Western methodologies and begin to initiate their own indigenous methodologies to study their own people from their own perspectives and ways of knowing. Besides, the book could also contribute to the ways in which social science researchers in general think critically about research methodologies and approaches to research. Finally, even though Ethiopia was not a colonized country, I believe that Smith’s indigenous methodologies is useful to study Ethiopian society since our mind and thinking is fixed with the Western thinking and mind [ what we call it Mind Captivity].

*Ajanaw Alemie Desta is BA, MSW, Assistant Professor of Social Work, Department of Social Work, College of Social Sciences and the Humanities, University of Gondar, Ethiopia. Currently, he is a PhD student in Social Work at University of Gondar.


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