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.

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