‘Decolonization is not a metaphor’

By Suzanne van Even and Zibah A. Nwako

This piece was originally published on the South West Doctoral Training Partnership’s blog on the 14th December 2020.

Suzanne van Even and Zibah A. Nwako discuss the first session in our Decolonising Social Research Series: Decolonising Theory.

On Thursday 19 November 2020, the SWDTP’s ‘Decolonising Social Research’ series launched with a provocative seminar on Decolonising Theory with speakers Foluke Adebisi (Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Bristol), Mark Jackson (Senior Lecturer in Postcolonial Geographies, University of Bristol) and Arathi Sriprakash (Professor of Education, University of Bristol).

This seminar series came at an opportune time. As doctoral researchers in the Social Sciences ourselves, we find it very important to engage with decolonial critiques and the decolonisation literature more generally. It is of particular importance in the context of co-creation of knowledge whereby social researchers, like us, work closely with participants, community stakeholders and policymakers. For us both, our research seeks change and impact – not just to engage in knowledge translation, but also with the aim of emancipating and empowering knowledge producers and knowledge receivers, respectively.

Foluke’s presentation, Rhodes Must Fall, or Rhodes Must Read More Fanon? (title inspired by a tweet by @fanoniscanon), considered what we mean when we talk about decolonising theory. Are we trying to unsettle the concepts that are the foundational presumptions of our discipline(s) or are we leaving those as they are? Do we add in other concepts which will never reach the eminence of the foundational concepts that we hold dear?

Foluke reflected on how diversifying literature relates to decolonial thought. She argued that there is a difference between including ‘diverse literatures’ (in our research) and decolonial thought. She posited that a major distinction between decolonial thought and diversity is that the latter makes no distinction between epistemic and embodied difference.

Using a table as a metaphor (the table representing colonised space), Foluke briefly discussed the four main schools of decolonial thought:

  1. Settler states (Americas, Australasia, South Africa) – part of the table does not belong to you, can you give it back to us?
  2. Post-colonial states (Africa and Asia) – well, that’s a nice table, can we join you there?
  3. Latin American critical school (Latin America and Caribbean) – is that really a table? What is it meant for? Should we destroy it and think of a table in a different way?
  4. Colonising states – this category of thought is often not mentioned, because some argue that you cannot decolonise empire (Tundama, 2016).

Finally, Foluke questioned what decolonial research can possibly do? Referring to Escobar (2018), hooks (1991), and Mignolo (2016), she contemplated whether decolonising theory can be liberatory.

Mark’s presentation on Decolonizing Theory: Perspectives from Geographies focused on how to reverse the centre-periphery relationship. He questioned whether the vocabularies, categories of thought, and concepts employed by normative social science are suitable and effective means for making sense in, or of, non-Western worlds?

Although 80% of the world is located outside of Europe, European thought (processes) define our view of the world. Yet, non-Western worlds do not use European concepts such as ‘gender’ and colonised notions of ‘nations’. Mark suggested that decolonial critique attempts to unsettle this – by turning Eurocentric assumptions and concepts on their heads.

As researchers, we take people’s lived experiences and transpose them through pre-conceived categories, thereby assimilating them into terms that can then be put to work. We argue that as a result of this, knowledge is formed. Mark postulated that this process of identification, extraction, re-purposing and circulation is a form of commodification.

Mark posited further that there are four main implications for decolonising theory:

  1. Need to enable theorising from the outside.
  2. Give up on the idea of a universal standard and instead embrace ‘pluriversality’ of epistemologies and ontologies (Escobar, 2018).
  3. Regard the decolonial as an option (Mignolo, 2011; Murrey, 2019; Nigam, 2020). It is not a particularly privileged mode of deriving theory but provides a range of possible strategies (Nigam, 2020) that might allow for a necessary preliminary step to reconstitution.
  4. Theorising well is fundamentally about fostering caring. In order to know, you need to care (Dalmiya, 2016).

In her presentation titled Decolonising Theory: The erasures of racism in education and international development, Arathi asserted that we need to ask questions of the theories that we use.  Moreover, she warned us against superficially adopting the term ‘decolonisation’ as it has become a bit of a buzz word. The aim of decolonisation is to unsettle power relations, in real and material ways. Decolonisation should bring about the repatriation of indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things that we want to do to improve our societies (Tuck and Yang, 2012). Using decolonisation as a metaphor, keeps colonial structures in place.

Arathi argued that it is important to decolonise theory because it doesn’t just operate at an abstract level. Instead, theory emerges from lived experiences that shape how we act and intervene in the world in profound and concrete ways. Theories of development, and specifically theories of modernisation, have worked to divide the world into categories such as ‘developed’, ‘developing’, ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’. This entrenches the idea that people and places need to ‘catch up’, as if they were developmentally backwards. This type of theorising that persists today is based on a deficit model, positioning the problem of poverty with racialised and colonised people and their practices. In doing so, it secures primarily European and Anglo-American epistemologies, industries and interventions as valid and good, forming the material effects of epistemic injustice. In education, this colonial way of thinking makes educational inequality irrelevant whilst it is, in fact, profoundly relevant for understanding educational injustices (e.g. Mills, 2007, ‘epistemologies of white ignorance’).

Arathi ended her presentation with a reading of Abhay Xaxa’s (2011) powerful poem “I am not your data”, reflecting Tuhawai Smith’s (2012) words that “’research’ is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary” (pp. 1).

The presentations resulted in thought-provoking discussions, indicating from this first seminar that there are still a lot of questions to be answered. For example, can we decolonise theory without de-colonising theory? Foluke posited that even after years of decolonising theory – colonial theory is still dominant. When we think about neo-liberal constructions, we are more likely to find validation for decolonising theory than using theory that decolonises. The danger is that we take the path of least resistance. So, it is always important to point out that this is not the destination, this is not where we are headed. Even if we are trying to be more inclusive in our decolonising of theory, we are not just doing that because it is a good thing to do. We are doing it because it brings about a new world. And as social researchers, this is the change and the impact that we seek to achieve through decolonising theory!

The audio-visual recording of the Decolonising Theory session can be watched here: https://t.co/RDVWf7thyT

Suzanne van Even is a PhD student at UWE in Bristol. Her research explores how people of African Caribbean and African ancestry cope with mood disorders associated with having an autoimmune rheumatic disease. Suzanne originally trained as a solicitor in the Netherlands before working as a fundraiser for arts charities in both the Netherlands and the UK. She is now retraining as a psychologist. Suzanne’s research interests include the mental health and wellbeing of African and African Caribbean men and women, community-based research and creative research methods. Twitter: @SvanEven77 

Zibah A. Nwako completed her PhD at the School of Education, University of Bristol. Her thesis is titled ‘In Our Own Voices: A Critical Participatory Study of the Wellbeing of Female Undergraduate Students in Nigeria’ and she researched this topic using a postcolonial feminist lens. Zibah is a speaker, trainer and consultant on women’s personal development and gender justice. Her research interests include the personal welfare and wellbeing of girls in Africa, non-formal education and informal learning, qualitative research methodologies and creative methods. Visit her website and blog here: www.zibahnwako.com

For more information about the SWDTP’s ongoing ‘Decolonising Social Research Series: click here.


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Escobar, A. (2018). Designs for the Pluriverse, Radical Interdependence, Autonomy and the Making of Worlds. Duke University Press.

Escobar, A. (2018). ‘Farewell to Development’. Available from https://greattransition.org/publication/farewell-to-development

hooks, b. (1991). Theory as liberatory practice. Yale JL & Feminism4, pp. 1.

Mignolo, W. (2011). Epistemic Disobedience and the Decolonial Option: A Manifesto. Transmodernity(2), pp. 3-23.

Mignolo, W.  (2016). The communal and the decolonial. Available from http://www.turbulence.org.uk/index.html@p=391.html

Mills, C. (2007). White ignorance. Race and epistemologies of ignorance247, (Sullivan, S. & Tuana, N., Eds) pp. 26-31. State University of New York Press.

Murrey, A. (2019). ‘When spider webs unit they can tie up a lion’. Anti-racism, decolonial options and theories from the South. In: Routledge Handbook of South-South Relations (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. & Daley, P., Eds).

Nigam, A. (2020). Decolonizing Theory, Thinking Across Traditions. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Smith, L. T. (2012). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. Zed Books Ltd.

Tuck, E. and Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society(1), pp. 1-40.

Tundama, N. (2016). You cannot decolonise colonialism. Available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hXJS8d2T1IE  

Xaxa, A. F. (2016). I am not your data. Available from http://adivasiresurgence.com/2016/01/13/i-am-not-your-data/