Thursday, 8 December 2016

Defining Decolonisation!

There have been a number of articles, letters and social media rants whose central critique of the movement to decolonise academia and its institutions revolves around the lack of a coherent definition of decolonisation. As with any emerging discursive niche, however, it is reasonable to expect that such a definition would be a ‘working definition’ that is meant to evolve with the discourse over time, and take shape within different spheres of academia (i.e. disciplinary, institutional, cultural, etc.) in a manner that is relevant and appropriate to each. This piece attempts to formulate a working definition that can be taken up in these different spheres and implemented within them to further define what the specifics of decolonisation would constitute within each of them. It is not an exhaustive or closed definition and neither does it attempt to be; it is an open, working definition of decolonisation that can be further developed and refined or broadened as appropriate.

A Working Definition

As with any emerging discourse or discursive niche, defining the central terminology around which the niche is evolving can be difficult. Not long ago, terms such as sustainability, resilience, disruption, and so forth were new and contested additions to both the popular and academic realms. They are now commonplace in everyday language, and they are deployed differently in different contexts. Even after they have become mainstream ideas, they continue to find purchase in many differing problem spaces, disciplines and practises.

It is therefore only fair to expect that the term “decolonisation” is undergoing a similar evolution, and will eventually demonstrate its usefulness in a variety of different spheres. Hence, any working definition of decolonisation needs to be defined in as broad and abstract terms as possible, so that it can be applied in the different spheres of thought and practise that make up academia and ensures its reproduction.

The departure point for definition, as proposed in this piece, is that decolonisation seeks to bring about systemic change in academia and society; change that helps break with the influence and legacy of the colonial and imperial global projects on the role of knowledge in academia and society. The institutional ‘commons’ underscored by Western academia, in this sense, remains that which can be articulated as a settler enclave, to which access is restricted and where bias towards different forms of knowledge is perpetuated[i]. The persistence of (Western) colonial effects on the role of knowledge and institutions in society have and continue to enable undesirable impacts on the societies and ecologies of the 21st Century. In this spirit, a working definition of decolonisation is proposed as follows:

Decolonisation is (and necessitates) the diversification and critical reappraisal of; (1) the sets of inherited practises that govern academia and its reproduction, and (2) the modalities through which these practises are implemented.

This definition of decolonisation identifies and targets the ‘sets of practises’ and ‘modalities of implementation’ through which academia functions and reproduces itself. In this respect and in simple terms; ‘sets of practises’ can be described as the things we do, and the ‘modalities of implementation’ can be described as how – and why – we do it.

We can, however, go into these in more detail, as shown in the schematic below, and for the purposes of illustration it is perhaps appropriate to do so:

1.       The sets of practises that academia operates by is concerned with how knowledge is produced and taught, and hence includes the full gamut of disciplinary and institutional practises that characterise academia. This includes; (1) disciplinary (and/or inter- and transdisciplinary) formalisms, methodologies, epistemologies, ontologies, pedagogies and historiographies, as well as (2) institutional practises as they relate to (or are influenced by) bureaucracies, cultures, semiotics and aesthetics. Note that these lists are not exhaustive or definitive in the absolute sense and can be broadened or refined as necessary.

2.       The modalities through which these are implemented relate to (or are influenced by); (1) the context of implementation (e.g. historical, current), (2) the intent of implementation (i.e. to what purpose and envisioned future), and (3) the manner of implementation. Taken together, implementation modalities then govern/shape how these sets of practises exist and are experienced both within academic institutions and the societies they inhabit (i.e. the role of knowledge in society).

***Please click on the schematic above to view it in more clarity and detail.

Implications of Definition of Decolonisation

In this formulation, the sets of practises take shape within different implementation modalities. It is self-evident that sets of practises may be more fixed, while their modalities of implementation may vary between different contexts. For example, the formalisms through which abstract scientific disciplines such as mathematics and statistics (as well as natural sciences such as physics, astronomy and biology) are formulated and taught, may be more fixed. However, the modalities through which they are implemented (e.g. to what problems and contexts they are applied, and to what ends) may vary depending on the specific context (i.e. socio-cultural, political, environmental, etc.) within which a particular academic institution is situated or located. For example, mathematical and statistical problem solving may be made more contextually relevant; instead of statistical problems focusing on games of dice and cards – as is commonly the case in statistical textbooks – they could instead be related to problems that are immediately relevant to the social context within which students are located.

In the case of applied disciplines such as economics – which is supported by abstract formalisms such as mathematics and statistics, but are inextricably linked with technological, political, social and environmental systems – the sets of disciplinary practises in economics may need to be broadened to accommodate the complexities of implementation in different contexts. For example, applying economic theory in developed and developing world contexts requires acknowledging and accommodating their differences. Whereas the economics of the developed world can largely be understood and described through economic theory that applies to formal economic systems, the economics of the developing world requires acknowledging the prevalence and importance of dual formal-informal economic systems. In accommodating informal economies, economics may have to draw on softer, more qualitative forms of knowledge production and broaden its formalisms and methodological foundations in order to do so i.e. its sets of practises may need to be broadened to accommodate the different implementation modalities it is deployed in.

It is worth pointing out that simply applying theories that have been formulated specifically for developed world contexts, to developing world contexts can – and has – had disastrous consequences in many cases (e.g. theories of development, planning, conservation and economics). This can be inextricably linked to the projects of colonisation and ‘neo-colonisation’, but that is a topic for another discussion and would distract from the objective of this piece. Needless to say, the colonial and academic projects have a long and entangled history as co-evolving projects that cannot easily be separated in objective terms.

The working definition proposed here would also prove relevant to studies of English literature, for example, where English language writers from the ex-colonies of the British Empire have made substantive contributions to the evolution of English literature and have played a key role in innovating new and exciting niches. The same can be said of the literature of other colonial empires such as the French, Spanish and Portuguese empires.

In a similar vein, philosophy – as a discipline – is often conflated with Western philosophy, where Greek philosophy is often taught and/or written about as though it is the starting point of philosophy i.e. where the tradition of philosophical thought began. Eastern philosophy, and the philosophies associated with indigenous cultures and knowledge, for example, are rarely taught in conjunction with Western philosophy, and the very obvious historical and other links between Western and Eastern schools of philosophical thought are not adequately acknowledged and/or taught. Instead, they are taught as separate philosophical systems, and as a result, philosophical inquiry remains pigeon-holed into artificial categories that constrain the ability of the discipline to advance as anything more than a Western white male preserve.

A simple example of how the teaching and writing of histories are skewed is worth mentioning. While the travels of Marco Polo to the East are well known – and even mythologised – in Western knowledge systems, little mention is made of the Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta, who undertook extensive journeys in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Why is it that the journeys of Marco Polo are common knowledge in modern society while the journeys of Ibn Battuta little known or taught outside of the Arab/Muslim world? Is it not reasonable to acknowledge these deficiencies in our histories and attempt to address them?

Moreover, if we broaden the concept of colonisation to include more than just indigenous, enslaved and exploited peoples, to include other species and ecosystems, we can then envision the importance of identifying the anthropocentric modalities that have led to large-scale destruction of the environment, the erosion of the natural resource base and ecosystem services upon which human life depends, and the vast influence the industrial era has had on global climate change. In this respect, decolonisation would involve going beyond the false dichotomy between human and natural systems that govern the modalities in which traditional disciplines have been formulated, taught and implemented. It would involve making the systemic links between human and natural systems explicit and considering how they co-evolve as intimately coupled systems. Inter- and trans- disciplinarity become important discursive niches in their own right when this perspective is adopted, and rightly so, as the grand problematiques[ii] of this era (e.g. climate change, natural resource depletion and degradation of life-supporting ecosystems) are densely interconnected and related.

A Rationale for Decolonisation

When considering the illustrative examples provided above, it is self-evident that some level of diversification and critical re-appraisal of academic practises and their implementation modalities hosts potential to make academic practises more relevant to the various contexts in which they are applied. Whether this potential is great or minimal cannot be determined at this stage.

To be sure, there are many who would argue that the need for establishing a discourse on decolonisation is self-evident and very necessary. Others argue that there is no need for academia to undergo any radical change, and that the conventional modalities through which academic reproduction is currently undertaken is good enough. The reality is that only by pursuing the discourse further – generating new knowledge and perspectives on the topic, debating and interrogating them, and subjecting both old and new discursive orientations to broad academic scrutiny – can the usefulness and power of the concept of decolonisation be determined.

This should be self-evident to academics, but it is often the case with new discursive niches that host the potential for radical change that academics respond with fear, suspicion and derision. Change is accompanied by uncertainty and variation. This threatens to destabilise; (1) who is considered important or authoritative in certain fields, and consequently (2) who holds power within institutions and society. When the status quo is challenged in this manner it opens up spaces for innovation and regeneration and a changing of the guard often follows suit. This, more than anything, is what lies at the core of the discontent with the emerging discourse on colonisation; it threatens to destabilise the hierarchies (i.e. disciplinary and institutional) that have governed academic reproduction i.e. especially throughout the late 20th century.

Yet it is fundamental to the academic project itself that it embraces innovation, new knowledge and change. Indeed, without that willingness, academic reproduction runs the risk of increasingly growing out of touch with how society is changing, making its offerings increasingly dangerous – in real terms – to society itself. Old ways of thinking and doing, when applied to new and changing contexts, can result in undesirable and destructive outcomes.

Indeed, merely applying more of the same perspectives and prescriptions to newly emerging and changing contexts constitutes a blue-print for an insanity of sorts. One where problem contexts are straight-jacketed into standard disciplinary frameworks, with potentially disastrous results (e.g. applying steady-state equilibrium models to economic and natural systems that – in reality – occupy stability regimes very far away from equilibrium through strong feedback mechanisms and controls.

It is critical that the entire system of academic reproduction exist in a constant state of reflection upon itself, lest it lose its ability to innovate and engender broader societal relevance by existing in a mode of bureaucratic reproduction that churns out knowledge for the sake of itself and its own survival. The quest for the decolonisation of academia is hence not solely concerned with the political or historical dimensions of academia, but rather can serve as a framing for radically re-envisioning the role of academia within society. For this reason it should be awarded its proper place, alongside other emerging discursive niches, that seek to interrogate and redefine the academic project itself.

When the fears of new knowledge take root within academia, this fear – to some extent – reveals the degree to which old knowledge and systems of reproduction have become sanctified. This is not only anti-intellectual, it runs the risk of ossifying the processes of academic reproduction until the only option for it to evolve necessitates catastrophic release. Sea changes have occurred before in academic and intellectual thought; visionaries such as Galileo, Copernicus and Darwin fundamentally changed the role that religious belief played in intellectual thought and how we envisioned the world. When their ideas were finally accepted, they shattered the status quo, and ended the censorship role that religion played in intellectual inquiry and thought. Can it reasonably be argued that these developments were antithetical to the spirit of intellectual inquiry?

It is beyond doubt that the world would be a poorer place without these contributions. And so we must endeavour to maintain an open-mindedness – and criticality – while entertaining new and novel concepts and ideas. Engaging in a new discursive niche does not necessarily amount to an abdication of all that comes before it; to assert that this is the case is foolish and unreasonable. To attribute the notion of decolonisation solely to the Fallist movement is also ridiculously uninformed and ahistorical. The term “decolonisation” has been around for a long time, much longer before the Fallists of today were born. Perhaps it is only rising to significance now because the time for its germination is ripe and society and academia is more ready to take it up in a meaningful way.

It is a great pity indeed that this emerging discursive niche has been met with such intense – even irrational – opposition, even before it has had a fair chance to develop. It is quizzical that the most intense opposition has emerged in South Africa, a country with a clear historical prerogative to undo the evils and injustices of its past, many of which were conceived of and/or justified and promoted by academia itself. That there can be such resolute pig-headedness towards the notion of decolonisation speaks volumes for the failures of cosmetic transformation of South African society, and should serve as a clear warning to all those within it. In the quest to resist and quell a necessary and inevitable discursive movement that seeks to interrogate how the past manifests in the present, we may achieve little else but to obscure and disrupt the capacity to envision new intellectual and societal trajectories.

Simply put, we may be shackling ourselves to the very systems of knowledge that were used to enslave, oppress and disenfranchise the majority instead of revising them and building upon them to improve how we see the role of academia and intellectual pursuit within our society. We need to be bolder and more open-minded even as we remain critical; to do otherwise is to abdicate from the process of intellectual pursuit itself, it is to sanctify a set of practises as though they should remain untouched forever. This is clearly a ludicrous and ridiculous stance to adopt, given the very clear need that exists to build a new future for South African society, and to locate its systems of knowledge production within that new future.


In conclusion, the emerging discourse around decolonisation should be regarded as part of a set of agonistic engagements with the shortcomings of the academic project in its current state. It sits alongside, and is related to, other discursive movements such as systems theory and thinking, complexity theory, transdisciplinarity and posthumanism; all of which seek to transform the disciplinary and institutional sets of practises in academia, as well as the implementation modalities of academia and its role in society. The discourse on decolonisation should not be regarded as the single panacea to the woes of the modern academic project, but rather a complementary and co-evolving agonistic engagement with the academic status quo.

The definition of decolonisation that is proposed in this piece seeks to directly address the systemic reproduction of exclusionary and biased practises within academic disciplines and institutions. It seeks to help establish a framework that can comprehensively address the role of the academic project in society and in particular, to make it more relevant to the diverse implementation contexts that academic knowledge is deployed in. In particular, it achieves this by enabling transformative actions to be conceived of and undertaken in both the disciplinary and institutional practises of the academic project. It draws on transdisciplinary thinking to establish a definitive framework for decolonisation that enables systems knowledge, target knowledge and transformative knowledge to emerge from the consideration of the (disciplinary and institutional) practises and implementation modalities that dominate traditional academia. There are surely other ways of defining decolonisation, ones that seek to address different, but complementary ends; hence this definition should be taken as a contribution to be read alongside them where appropriate and/or useful.

[i] This articulation of the institutional commons is drawn from “The Undercommons. Fugitive Planning and Black Study” by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, Minor Compositions, Wivenhoe, New York, Port Watson, 2013.
[ii] Max-Neef, M.A. Foundations of transdisciplinarity. Ecol. Econ. 2005, 53, 5–16.