Carving out epistemic communities: Reading series on decoloniality and CIE

In this write up from Leanne Cameron and Martin Preston, we summarise the conversation from the first in a series of reading group sessions around decoloniality and the field of comparative and international education (CIE). This first session (held 25 June) was focused on the 2017 article “Toward a Postcolonial Comparative and International Education” by Takayama, Sriprakash, and Connell. We were fortunate to be joined by Arathi Sriprakash, one of the authors.

In starting off the discussion, Robin provided some contextual information about the article itself: the article introduced a special edition on “Contesting Coloniality: Rethinking Knowledge Production and Circulation in Comparative and International Education” in Comparative Education Review. He noted that it is rare to have a special edition in CER – they occur about every six years – and since CER is printed through a non-profit press, they have a set number of pages and thus journal space is “a finite resource that people are fighting for.”

CIE can be viewed as a field dominated by white voices and perhaps more conservative viewpoints. He provided the example of AERA (the American Educational Research Association): the theme of social justice runs as a distinct thread through all of their work. Even a casual glance at the website indicates their celebration of Juneteenth, the African-American holiday in celebration of the emancipation of slaves. CIE can perhaps be seen to function as a space of ‘white flight’ away from more progressive, reflexive scholarship.

Robin provided some further context around CIE journals across the field, noting that every other major journal has a white male editor, with the exception of Compare, which has a female co-editor. It was unprecedented, then, for this special edition to be headed by a diverse editorial team. The special edition has become known as the ‘blue issue’ (which Robin noted reminds him of the Beatle’s White Album) and Takayama et al, as the introduction to that issue, is the most downloaded article from CER in 2019 by a factor of three. The second most downloaded article, he noted, was a review of the children’s film Zootopia, where the authors analysed the use of racist tropes for the animal characters. Robin argued that this demonstrated the sort of appetite for critical, decolonial work within the journal and the field at large.

The idea of an ‘appetite’ was also broached by Arathi. Leanne and Martin, as PhD students and early career researchers, asked the more senior academics for advice about taking on work. Especially in the era of coronavirus and economic downturn, what are the ethical concerns in taking contract work or jobs from institutions like the World Bank, whose work may perpetuate the epistemic hierarchies that Takayama et al. (2017) seek to dismantle? Arathi (and several other academics) advised that ECRs take work wherever they can get it, but we can still look to “carve out epistemic communities within your institution.” In these epistemic communities, you can create spaces for discussion and debate – to build coalitions and bring people together. “There is an appetite for it,” she told the group. “Everything begins with ideas.”

Leanne posed a question meant to provoke: in the article, the authors expose the racist viewpoints and expression of CIE ‘father’ Isaac L. Kandel. He was instrumental in pushing the discipline to “provide fully contextual knowledge of other countries’ educational practices, especially because superficial ac- counts of them are often mobilized to justify policy options at home” (Takayama et al., 2017, p. S2). However, he also demonstrated his beliefs of Western superiority, the ‘importance’ of the colonial project, and white supremacy in statements such as “the education of backward or indigenous people in colonial dependencies is beginning to receive attention to a degree never manifested before” (p. S9). So, Leanne asked, what are we supposed to do with this history in CIE? Can we simply argue that Kandel (and others) was a ‘product of his era’, a response favoured by apologists for slave masters and the like?

Arathi pointed to the work of Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal whose recent book Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent demonstrates who is erased when the narrative focuses only on the colonizer – or, in the case of Kandel, on Eurocentric education scholarship. “Who is erased when the narrative is told that way? Saying simply that he was ‘a product of his time’ erases those structures.” It is a question of epistemic politics in deciding who gets included and excluded, and these are active politics: those voices did exist, but who today do we count as ‘knowledge’ from that era? Who is in the room, and who is allowed to be in the room?  Rafael noted as well that “there are spaces to look back at figures [like Kandel] but that kind of history is one that is relevant as far as it is informing what we are doing now. Where are we going?” Looking back to dissenting, ‘hidden’ voices emerged as a concrete step that CIE as a discipline can take in moving the debate forward.

Several other ideas were put forth as ways to move forward as a field. Terra suggested that we continue to focus on writing blogs in multiple languages (as with this example from Julia Paulson’s interview with Arturo Charria Hernández, written in both Spanish and English). We can do small things, Terra advised, in order to “show that we are not comfortable with English dominance and what that says about knowledge.” She also noted the burden that falls especially on American/European researchers and white people in the field: “we have to welcome not being welcome.” As researchers, whilst we can look to work with communities of epistemic resistance, we don’t belong in every space – there are places where we need to sit out. Just as colonialism expertly abused nations and people for raw materials and data, diverse epistemologies are also not simply “data mines for the accumulation of knowledge and the development of theory in the global North” (Takayama et al., 2017, p. S3).

The conversation also included the concept of intellectual and epistemic reparations as a form of reparative justice. Dismantling existing epistemic hierarchies is, in fact, a form of repair as it corrects what has previously been built on violence and prevents the reproduction of those same damaging dynamics. Material and financial reparations in larger community spaces are gaining some traction in this social moment, but as intellectuals, we can act concretely in our own spaces. Arathi asked that we think about what knowledge has been denied or silenced. How can we give voice – not in a paternalistic sense, but a critical, uncomfortable, and meaningful way – to diverse epistemologies? How can we think differently about dominant knowledge to see where that knowledge has become redundant or not feasible?

In moving forward with this series of reading groups, we discussed the possibility of collaborative writing to consider the future of the field. Terra suggested an approach used in the January TESF workshops, where visual notetakers asked participants three questions: what do you dread? What do you dream? How do you realise that dream? We will take these three questions forward, thinking around our dreads, dreams, and paths to realisation for the field of CIE when we meet again.


Next meeting: Thursday, 9 July from 6:00-7:15pm on Zoom. We will look at the Vickers’ (2020) response to the Takayama et al. (2017) paper. Please sign up here

Vickers, E. (2020). Critiquing coloniality, ‘epistemic violence’ and western hegemony in comparative education–the dangers of ahistoricism and positionality. Comparative Education, 56(2), 165-189.

Colour-blind Racism in University Hiring

By Professor Robin Shields

In Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout, the protagonist laments that his town of Dickens has lost its status as an official city. The fictitious city, based closely on Compton in Southern California, becomes absorbed into the greater city of Los of Angeles. The erased city limits of Dickens come to represent the paradoxical status of race, which is both a ubiquitous feature of life yet also a category that is not officially recognized in a “colour-blind” society.

The weeks following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have witnessed two competing discourses on racism in British Universities. On the one hand, universities have been quick to vocalize their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, advocating racial equality in more assertive and urgent terms than in the past (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4). On the other hand, critical commentators have rightly pointed to their poor record of supporting racial equality in practice (e.g. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11). This is evident in the lack of Black members of staff, who comprise just 2.1% of UK university staff but 13% of the population. Universities that truly value Black lives would ensure that they are well-represented and empowered in the organization, but the online movement #BlackInIvory highlights experiences of persistent marginalization.

In response, most universities would point to hiring policies that specifically promote equality, diversity and inclusion. Such policies protect against discrimination by ensuring data on applicants’ social backgrounds (including race, gender, disability, sexual orientation and other protected characteristics) is processed separately from the application and by specifically welcoming applicants who hold these “protected characteristics.” Universities could therefore claim that the underrepresentation of Black staff is not due to hiring practices, because these practices do not consider race and therefore cannot be racist.

However, these practices also closely resemble what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (15) terms colour-blind racism, spurious attempts to achieve racial equality by suppressing acknowledgment of racialized histories and identities. Like Beatty’s town of Dickens, color-blind racism erases the city limits, but the landscape remains unchanged. While the categories of race are removed from legitimate discourse, the experiences and standards of dominant race groups remain the norm and expectation in public institutions. This means that students and staff at Universities must confront racist and discriminatory treatment, assumption and expectations, but they are also denied recourse to the terms that would articulate their oppression.

Instead of maintaining a “colour-blind” approach to hiring, British universities could do much more to embody and promote racial justice in their hiring practices. The Equalities and Diversities Act of 2010 allows employers to give preference to under-represented groups in hiring, provided that the candidates are equally qualified (Part 11, Ch 2.4, also 16). In practice, universities tend to cite practices such as targeted advertising or statements welcoming underrepresented groups as positive action (e.g. 17, 18, 19, 20), although the Equalities and Diversities Act instead more directly identifies contracts of employment to equally qualified, applicants from under-represented groups (Part 11, Ch 2.5). Thus, it seems that universities are watering down the intentions of “positive action” and also under-utilizing the means to achieve equitable representation of Black staff provided by current legislation.

A better step to addressing systemic racism in hiring would be to embed contributions to diversity as a priority in appointment criteria. For example, requiring candidates to demonstrate their accomplishments contributing to diversity and inclusion, with the same weight and objectivity that research and teaching are considered, through a written statement would give meaningful recognition to the additional work and challenges that most academics from Black and other minority groups have been required to undertake as part of institutional survival (21, 22). Well-evidenced statements of contributions to diversity are already a standard aspect of academic hiring at many elite universities in other countries.

The title of a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute – The White Elephant in the Room highlights the extent to which the colour-blind approach embraced in British higher education is no longer tenable. However, progress against the report’s top two recommendations, that universities should participate in the sector-wide Race Equality Charter and facilitate more conversations about race, is minimal. More than four years after its inception, only 14 universities have received a bronze level award from the Race Equality Charter, with no awards at higher levels. Writing in the HEPI report, Kalwant Bhopal notes “there is little or no imperative to shift the focus to uncomfortable conversations about race and racism in higher education,” because, unlike Athena SWAN certification, the Race Equality Charter is not required by research councils.

The white elephant in the room also highlights an important aspect of universities; they tend to think of themselves as neutral rather than white spaces, despite the many signs of white dominance. A first step in moving from colour-blind racism to an anti-racist university will be to come to terms with this whiteness, to listen to the experiences of Black academics and other academics of colour (23, 24), to unlearn current practices and to make universities a space that recognizes and values the experiences of Black academics and professionals and ensures their representation as colleagues in universities.

Thanks to Julia Paulson, Deborah Brewis, Ugbaad Aidid and Lizzi Milligan for feedback on a draft of this post

Unheard voices of climate activism

By Angelika Peplinski, Liz Barrett, Muassua David, Natalia Hayes, Gaukhar Kenzhebayeva and Collet Mweene

This blog is an output from a reading group on climate activism that ran from February to March 2020 as part of the Masters unit ‘Education, Peace and Sustainable Development.’

On the 28th February over 15,000 people gathered in Bristol to hear Greta Thunberg and take part in the Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate. Despite the miserable weather, Greta’s presence inspired thousands of people to join the collective effort to tackle the ecological crisis and hold politicians and leaders accountable for their lack of action.

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Marching up Park Street following Greta’s talk (photo credit: Aminath Shiyama)

Our capitalist economy has often led us to believe that “the structural problems of an exploitative system – poverty, joblessness, poor health, lack of fulfilment – [are] in fact a personal deficiency.” We need to be vegan, we need to reduce plastic, we need to use more public transport, we need to fly less: the list is long. While individual action is important, it is fossil fuel corporations that need to be held accountable. The Guardian reports that “a hundred companies alone are responsible for an astonishing 71%” of carbon emissions since 1988.” Movements like FridaysForFuture or Extinction Rebellion counteract the neoliberal ideology of individualism by collective action as it is “only mass movements that have the power to alter the trajectory of the climate crisis.” However, this idea is not new.

Indigenous resistance is rooted in collectivism. Their “systems of sustainability were destroyed precisely because they were incompatible with systems of exploitation and extraction” (Niheu 2019: 124-125) emblematic of neoliberal ideology.  Via nonviolent collective action, many indigenous communities have sought repatriation: “Indigenous people are the guardians of ancestral knowledge that draws from the environment the solutions of everyday life” (Ibrahim 2019: 56). Therefore, climate justice and indigenous rights interlink. However, this is often not recognised in mainstream media.

Media coverage of the climate emergency focusses mainly on the Global North. It depicts climate activism as led by mainly white, middle class people and thus neglects the experiences of the Global South. Uganda climate activist Vanessa Nakate “was cropped out of a press photo in Davos” when posing alongside white climate activists, including Greta Thunberg. This incident illustrates the connection of climate justice and social justice. Issues of racism need to be addressed as the Global South is experiencing immediate consequences of the ecological crisis. Lake Chad, which used to cover 25,00 square kilometres, now only covers about 2,500. Indigenous communities “have lost 90 per cent of this resource so essential for the life of one of the poorest regions in the world” (Ibrahim 2019: 54). Almost 52 million people in Africa have become food insecure due to the effects of climate change, yet the media often choses to ignore these stories. The irony is not only that the Global South remains unheard while they are the most impacted, but that they also contribute the least amount of the global greenhouse emissions.

The lack of recognition of ethnic minorities and their voices has been an issue for centuries and right now this ignorance poses an immediate danger. With the ongoing disappearance of indigenous knowledge, “it is a part of the memory of humanity that is threatened with extinction” (Ibrahim 2019: 56). More than ever, is it important to include, recognize and represent minorities in discussions regarding climate change and climate activism. Nature is the work tool for many indigenous communities. Hence, their expertise is needed to protect nature. “Indigenous peoples do not want to be silent victims of climate change. They are ready to share their traditional knowledge, and to (re)teach humankind how to live in harmony with nature” (Ibid. 57). It is easy for the Global North to dismiss climate change as an abstract future threat, but activism has the potential to make unheard voices heard: “In the southern narratives, we see how hope, guilt, and anger combine to avert the paralyzing effects of acute fear” (Kleres & Wettergren 2017: 517). The Global North has a responsibility to embrace these feelings in a collective effort to tackle climate change. Activism can pave the way for climate and social justice, but only if we recognise the voices that up to now we have chosen to ignore.



Ibrahim, H. O. (2019). Indigenous people and the fight for survival. In Extinction Rebellion (ed.). This Is Not a Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook. Penguin Books. pp. 54–57.

Kleres, J., & Wettergren, A. (2017). Fear, hope, anger, and guilt in climate activism. Social Movement Studies, 16(5), 507-519. doi:10.1080/14742837.2017.1344546

Niheu, K. (2019). Indigenous resistance in an era of climate change crisis. Radical History Review, 133, 117-130. Available here.