Decolonisation and the PhD Thesis

Decolonisation is fast becoming a university buzzword, replacing or sitting alongside other hollowed out and sanitised terms like “diversity” and “intersectionality” in official policy documents, action plans and course module descriptions. The reasons for this are clear. Universities can market themselves as progressive institutions, committed to challenging racism in all its forms, and coup the rewards of prestige, prospective new students and – crucially – the funding that such shows of socially impactful work tend to receive. All the while nullifying the radical potential of the theory and practice decolonisation, in its purest form, actually denotes.  

It is important for PhD students sincerely committed to decolonising the university and their own academic practice to look beyond institutional rhetoric and return instead to the foundational ideas and principles underpinning decolonial theory and activism. In an effort to help with this, I provide below my working definition of decolonisation (informed by various scholars of colour, some of whom I cite) and then offer 4 key ways in which I believe PhD students can critically engage with decolonisation in their thesis and during the PhD programme.

Defining Decolonisation

For me, at its core, decolonisation is about acknowledging the foundational role that colonialism, white supremacy, systems of racial oppression play in society (its structures, systems, institutions and cultural practices) and interrogating how they are perpetuated and intensified by forms of knowledge production; in order to dismantle and transform these power dynamics so that we can ultimately create a just and equitable society for all.

Decolonial Theory is focused on an epistemic challenge to colonialist thinking with an emphasis on radical delinking from the sources of ongoing inequalities that have deep historical roots in European imperialism.

Patricia Noxolo

As Noxolo makes clear in her essay (referenced at the end), decolonisation is less about adding historically marginalised or overlooked narratives into formal institutions (as with postcolonial theory) and more about a direct confrontation with the prevailing systems of racial power that are currently embedded within these institutions.

The foundations of UK and other western universities are rooted in systems of racial oppression. These authoritative sites of knowledge production established and then propagated ideas and theories which legitimated and justified colonialism and white supremacy, whilst then profiting from the consequences of such discourse. It therefore makes sense that the higher education institution is a particular focal point for decolonialists.

The decolonisation movement as a whole questions the integrity of the academy and challenges academics as producers and reproducers of knowledge to consider how that knowledge – and the methodologies adopted for acquiring it – might be exclusionary, exclusive, and indifferent to inequality and justice.

Josie Gill

As Gill indicates above, attending to the methods of knowledge production is as important as attending to the knowledge itself for decolonisation to be successful. In the context of research, this means critically examining the ‘instruments or technologies’ used by scholars to reach their conclusions. In the context of the classroom, this means critically examining how academics teach their subject matter, not just the subject matter itself.

Crucially, decolonisation is not just about intellectual inquiry. It is about action, or praxis. It is about interrogating the intrinsic relationship between systems of power and knowledge production in order to transform them and effect real material change. As decolonial theory becomes further institutionalised within official sites of higher education, there is a real risk that this final radical step will be forgotten and that the theories/ideas revolving around decolonisation will remain within the confines of academic discourse.

We must always keep in mind that social transformation is the end goal of decolonisation.

A Note

There is a growing aspiration amongst academics to address systems of racial oppression in their work, increasingly through a decolonial framework. This is the result of both a sincere desire to effect positive social change and the incentive to produce such work by academic installations like the REF, which essentially provide more money to those institutions demonstrating social engagement and Impact.

PhD students may be motivated to research racial issues through decolonisation for similar reasons.

Those who decide to research race – whatever their prevailing motivations – can often end up believing that this, in itself, is enough to constitute a positive contribution to an important social cause. This is not the case.

Many researchers, academics and project workers may see the benefits of their particular research projects as serving a greater good for mankind, or serving a specific emancipatory goal for an oppressed community. But belief in the ideal that benefitting mankind is indeed a primary outcome of scientific research is as much a reflection of ideology as it is of academic training. It becomes so taken for granted that many researchers simply assume that they as individuals embody this ideal and are natural representatives of it when they work with other communities.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith

It should not be taken for granted that any research or activity focusing on racial issues is generally good for mankind or serves a specific emancipatory goal. Even those who genuinely prescribe to the principles of decolonisation and seek to utilise decolonial theory in their work (or enact it outside the university) can end up reinforcing oppressive racial dynamics. It is important for scholars and students (especially white and non-Black people of colour) to remain attentive to the power they wield and reinscribe when conducting research and/or activist work; critically reflecting on all facets of their process and practice.

In the context of the thesis, three key areas for PhD students to look out for are: citational practice, utilisation of source material, and overall form and structure.

Citational Practice

One clear way in which PhD students can effectively apply the principles of decolonisation to the PhD thesis is by addressing the politics of citation.

(The practice of citation) is a rather successful reproductive technology, a way of reproducing the world around certain bodies.

Sara Ahmed

Perpetually referencing work produced by the same white men (encouraged by university curricula but also suggested reading lists, library collections and general reverence for certain “star” scholars) means the experiences, perspectives, theories and ideas of one small but privileged section of society become further ingrained as a universal “Truth” that frames our understand of the world and people within it. This is a particularly urgent issue considering how many revered white, male thinkers and writers espouse colonialist ideas from the Enlightenment period.

By engaging with this issue of citational practice in your thesis, acknowledging and then interrogating its relationship with systematic racial oppression, you are taking an important step in decolonising the harmful ‘reproductive technology’ pervading academic research.

It is important to then actively seek out and cite the work of Black and other people of colour.

We must reconfigure (this) politics of knowledge production by engaging in a radical praxis of citation that acknowledges and honours Black women’s transnational intellectual production.

Cite Black Women

This not only diminishes the hold white men have over our sense of reality, but also foregrounds the work of those typically ignored in formal academic spaces.

Attending to citational practice in this way – critically engaging with and challenging the systems of power that affirm the hold of white men over knowledge production and propagation, as well as sourcing and citing texts from people of colour in the Global North and South – will likely require extra work and reflection on your part. Putting decolonisation into practice often does.

But it is vitally important.

Those who strive to help secure social justice through their work will be undone if they simply use the scholarship of white men to inform their findings.

Utilisation of Source Material

Even after working to critically engage with and address the politics of citation, it is necessary to reflect on how you are utilising your selected source material. Scholars and students can use texts, photographs, videos, tweets, data, artefacts etc. centred on and/or produced by people of colour and still ultimately enforce damaging racial discourse that further entrenches systems of racial oppression.

In Christina Sharpe’s In The Wake, the African-American scholar discusses how frequently Black people are framed and fixed as passive victims of natural disasters and other forms of suffering through visual and other discursive media, such as photographs and their captions. She argues that ‘such repetitions often work to solidify and make continuous the colonial project of violence’. For ‘these images work to confirm the status, location, and already held opinions within dominant ideology about those exhibitions of spectacular Black bodies whose meanings then remain unchanged’.

The dominant ideology Sharpe refers to frames Black people as a lowly, ignorant and immobile collective who are unable to help themselves out of desperate social conditions that – this ideology suggests – is predetermined by biological, cultural or spiritual deficit. This is not only used to justify the material conditions Black people are subjected to but obscures the operation of a system of white supremacy; allowing white people to revel in a feeling of superiority (moral, cultural and otherwise) over those who are stripped of agency and, ultimately, humanity. As Sharpe says, mis-use of secondary sources can play into this violent ideology. Constantly projecting images of Black women as the victims of suffering for example – through photos, film, newspaper articles etc. – reinforces negative stereotypes as well as racially oppressive systems and environments.

‘With that knowledge in mind’, Sharpe goes on to ask, ‘what kinds of ethical viewing and reading practices must we employ, now, in the face of these onslaughts?’

This question is vital for those PhD students engaging with secondary source material in their thesis, especially those committed to decolonisation.

 In Wayward Lives, Saidiya Hartman expresses her aim to prise archival material from sociologists and journalists who reduced Black women in the early-twentieth century to degenerate, dangerous and destitute members of society. Immediately after, she asserts an important principle: ‘I had to be mindful not to damage of my own’.

PhD students must be mindful not to do damage by wielding secondary sources without critically reflecting on the harmful narratives they may well be perpetuating.

Form and Structure

Though perhaps less obvious than the previous two points I have made, I also think it is important to critical reflect on and challenge the conventional format and structure of the PhD thesis.

Academic convention compels students to present a reasoned argument, which builds in a sequential, or linear fashion towards a concrete conclusion that is reached objectively and expressed with a detached tone. Unsurprisingly, these characteristics have all been racialised as white, which reinforces white people’s authority over knowledge production.

The long-standing emphasis on linear arguments and concrete conclusions in the PhD thesis encourages students to circumvent the complexity of social issues and systems of power, as well as the real, emotional responses they elicit; simply to find a neat and simple solution or end point to whatever problem is being discussed.

For Black academics to produce legible work in the academy often means adhering to research methods that are “drafted into the service of a larger destructive force”, thereby doing violence to our own capacities to read, think, and imagine otherwise. Despite knowing otherwise, we are often disciplined into thinking through and along lines that reinscribe our own annihilation, reinforcing and reproducing what Sylvia Wynter has called our “narratively condemned status”.

Christina Sharpe

In an essay in The Fire Now, Beth Kamunge notes how publishing standards similarly ‘tend to construct detached “objective”, “rational”, inaccessible writing as good writing, with anything that deviates from this norm being likely to get rejected’. She asks: ‘is there room for “messy” writing that calls for speculation? That poses more questions than it does answers? That embodies grief and lament – a dirge of sorts?’

We should pose these same questions in the context of the PhD.

What value might speculative writing bring to the thesis? What issues might it bring into focus? What insights might it provide? What channels of connection might it open? What moments of healing might it offer?

As I grew in confidence during my PhD, I began to ask more questions in my thesis – expressing conflict and uncertainty about my own academic practice as well the social issues being discussed – and stopped trying to answer them all. This felt like a more sincere, accurate and revealing engagement with the issues at hand than any attempt at explanation. I also decided against forming a conclusion at the end of my thesis. Instead, I attempted to leave my final chapter suspended on an idea. In doing so, I felt I captured the sense of potential and uncertainty I was feeling and wanted to leave the reader with.

Such speculative writing is not ordinarily authorised by academic institutions if presented as academic research instead of a creative writing piece. This is due to the particular conventions and constraints imposed by essay guidelines, assessment criteria, marker expectations and REF recommendations. As Kamunge highlights, academics display a deeply ingrained preference for so-called detached, objective and rational forms of discourse when it comes to research. Those of us who feel compelled to write in this way are very aware that it is a point of contention which could threaten our ability to pass the Viva, for empowered academics often deem emotional discourse to be subjective and/or not intellectually rigorous enough.

It is therefore important to proceed with caution. You still have a Viva to pass and cannot hope to subvert and dismantle all its rules and regulations.

Nevertheless, it is important to keep trying to challenge and dismantle the conventions of academic writing practice within and beyond the thesis whenever you can.

Entering into the Community

As I said earlier, decolonisation is ultimately about material transformation. Although interrogating and then dismantling damaging research practice is a worthwhile endeavour, it is not the final goal. Changing the material conditions of society in order to create a just and equitable society is. Working with the local community during your PhD can be one effective way to achieve this.

It took me a while to embrace this idea and, in truth, I did not fully commit until I neared the end of my PhD. Although I had lived in Sheffield for almost eight years, I did not feel I had the right to go into the community and start making changes. This is an important reservation to have. Scholars and students should be conscious of how they reinforce oppressive power dynamics when entering the community as members and/or representatives of an authoritative site of higher education. However, when approaching the community mindfully and from a position of active listening, scholars and students can offer something substantial.

The more conferences, events, meetings I attend in the city, the more I realise that, despite its networks and resources, the university makes very few attempts to engage with local groups and organisations that centre around issues facing people of colour; certainly not over a sustained period of time and certainly not from a position of humble service. In fact, I often find that the university doesn’t even know these groups and organisations exist.

Where circumstances permit, get to know the issues your local community are facing (using discretion to determine when it is appropriate to enter certain spaces and attend meetings/conferences/events), listen attentively to the needs of that local community, amplify (with permission and support) the needs of those communities to the university and try to divert resources (financial and otherwise) whenever possible; keeping members of the community included and informed at all stages.

Of course, the PhD can be all consuming and this was also another reason why I failed to engage until I was nearing the end of my thesis. However, on reflection, I could have found more time to offer support in the early years of my PhD. It could have been as simple as using writing skills to send emails and take care of other administrative duties for local racial justice organisations, attending racial justice protests, volunteering once a week at a book/homework club for young people of colour, donating money to a racial justice initiative or making connections between these initiatives and the university.  

Once I overcame my initial awkwardness, I found that my work in the local community was the most rewarding and stimulating part of my week. It gave me a real sense of purpose that can often get lost when writing the PhD thesis. But beyond that, it felt like the most effective way of enacting the policies and principles of decolonisation and moving towards a more racially just and equitable society.

Further Reading:

  • Beth Kamunge, Mwangi. W. and Ali, O.P., (2018). Writing in the Fire Now: Beth Dialogues with Wambui and Osop. In: A. Johnson, R. Joseph-Salisbury, and B. Kamunge, eds. The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship in Times of Explicit Racial Violence. London: Zedbooks, pp. 189-197.
  • Christina Sharpe (2016). In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. London. Duke University Press.
  • Cite Black Women (2017). Cite Black Women: A Critical Praxis. CiteBlackWomenCollective.
  • Josie Gill (2018). Decolonising Literature and Science. Configurations. 26(3), 283-288.
  • Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999). Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London. Zed Books.
  • Patricia Noxolo (2017). Decolonial Theory in a Time of the Re-Colonisation of UK Research. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 42(3), 342-344.
  • Saidiya Hartman (2019). Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. New York. W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Sara Ahmed (2013). Making Feminist Points. Feministkilljoys.

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