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Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples

In this important book, Linda Tuhiwai Smith meets a formidable challenge. In 200 pages she presents a cogent critique not only of anthropology, but of the cultural evolution of the entire Western concept of research. The author describes the devastating effects of such research on indigenous peoples and articulates a new Indigenous Research Agenda which aims to replace former Western academic methods.

Tuhiwai Smith is an Associate Professor in Education and Director of the International Research Institute for Maori and Indigenous Education at the University of Auckland. An indigenous woman, the daughter of a Maori anthropologist, she grew up in a world in which science and Maori beliefs and practices coexisted. The book is fueled by anger in addition to a thorough knowledge of the literature on which rests the Western tradition of classifying and representing the other. The reader may think that this is an `anti-research book on research,' but Tuhiwai Smith's main concern is to inspire indigenous peoples as researchers. As she indicates, "The book is written primarily to help ourselves."

The title of the book echoes Ngugi Wa Thiong'o's 1986 "Decolonizing the Mind." It builds on the Kenyan writer's thesis that colonialism did more than impose control over peoples' lands and resources through military conquest and political dictatorship. Imperialism also dominated the mental universe of the colonized and has continued to do so long after independence was gained. Tuhiwai Smith argues that colonialism is far from being a "finished business." `Decolonization' is a euphemism that only describes the formal handing over of the instruments of government, when in reality it must be a long-term process involving the cultural, linguistic and psychological divesting of colonial parameters. She sketches the history of `the Western gaze on the Other' from Hegel to Foucault. Imperialism acted in a sequence of impacts: military conquest was followed by the destruction or deliberate undervaluing of a peoples culture, and finally the youngest carriers of a non-Western heritage, children, were targeted through colonial education. From the indigenous perspective, researchers gathered scientific data on them in a random and ad hoc manner, not unlike the travelers and adventurers whose early accounts started the Western fascination with `the Other.' Part of this book expresses `research fatigue' on the part of the researched, but it goes further by questioning the authoritativeness of the research.

The ways in which research was implicated in some of the worst excesses of imperialism are still present in the memory of indigenous peoples and continue to offend their deepest sense of humanity. Tuhiwai Smith questions the premise that Western research was collected for the greater good of serving all of mankind: the ways and the spirit in which data were collected around the colonized world, guided by notions of classification and progressive evolution of mankind, reflected less the cultural realities of the colonized, than contemporaneous Western constructions of gender, race and class. Ultimately, the debate is about the unequal power of defining, essentializing, labeling and thus alienating the other.

The second part of the book reflects the deep distrust and suspicion of research in Maori communities today, as colonization has been experienced as a stripping away of mana (`our standing in our own eyes.) The author gives a brief survey of recent initiatives for reassertion of Maori cultural identity. Revitalizing the Maori language (Te Kohanga Reo) and establishing the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975 were the two key steps in this process. The former was organized around the unit of the extended family, the whanau, whereas claims to the Tribunal are made by the iwi, the tribes.

The Western tradition of knowledge is grounded in positivism, the notion that research is an objective and value-free activity that can make sense of human and natural realities. Method is important as it represents a set of conventions on how knowledge is gathered and codified. Tuhiwai Smith introduces the concept of Kaupapa Maori as a new way of thinking about Maori indigenous research. "We have a different epistemological tradition which frames the way we see the world, the way we organize ourselves in it, the questions we ask and the solutions we seek." It is research with a strong anti-positivistic stance, foremost concerned with the issues of social justice and of relevance to the Maori community. Research should set out to make a positive difference for the researched and the participation of non-indigenous researchers is either flatly denied or accepted only under a set of conditions - a conclusion for which Tuhiwai Smith may loose the support of some of her readers.

Recent years have seen a number of ethical research guidelines being established, such as the 1998 AAA Code of Ethics. The additional rules of conduct required by Kaupapa Maori could be internalized by culturally sensitive, nonindigenous persons. It is understood that an indigenous community should require a proper time for naming and expressing grievances inflicted over centuries, and set apart an utterly private time for healing, where outsiders must refrain from interfering. Yet a continuing stance of total exclusion of the non-indigenous social scientist or lawyer might prove to be a detriment to the worldwide minorities of indigenous origin. The relationship should be one of ongoing negotiation, rather than an impenetrable blockade.

As in any enterprise of such scope, the author does not linger on the numerous debates on Western epistemology upon which she touches. The bibliographies at the end of each chapter are, however, a treasure trove for readers who wish to deepen their understanding of the arguments that divide indigenous peoples and their researchers. As some of the comments on the book cover suggest, "Decolonizing Methodologies" should be required reading for all young researchers leaving their university for field work, as well as for teachers who canvas issues of colonialism and indigenous peoples in their classrooms.

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