This summer we have had the opportunity to read about the campaign to ‘decolonize academia’: the call to improve the representation of non-Western voices in the curricula of Norwegian educational institutions.
The supporters of this campaign justify it on the basis that it will challenge ways of thinking in the sciences and humanities that were formed during the colonial era. The motives behind the campaign are good. An academy consisting of researchers from diverse backgrounds will help boost the competition between ideas that is crucial for scholarly progress.
It is therefore sad to see the campaign now running down a blind alley, by promoting a radical form of epistemic relativism: an attack on scientific objectivity in the guise of advocacy on behalf of marginalized groups.
This can be seen in an article published on 28 July in the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen, where Ida Roland Birkvad claims that Jens Saugestad’s view of scholarship as a quest for objective truth is “provincial”, and based on a “white, male, Western logic”. You have to be pretty ensconced in a postmodern humanities bubble to label the idea of scholarship as a quest for objective truth – a version of “scientific realism” in academic parlance – as provincial: in fact, it is a completely mainstream strand of philosophy of science. Different varieties of scientific realism also have widespread support among researchers in almost all disciplines – both in the social sciences and the natural sciences.
The false accusation of academic provincialism is however less ill-judged than the claim that scientific realism is something to be associated with white, Western maleness. This latter claim would certainly come as new – and no doubt, rather provocative – information to thousands of African, Asian and Latin American women scientists, physicians, physicists, sociologists, economists, geologists and political scientists – as it would to the large majority of those researchers and students from the Global South who have not studied post-colonial theory at the educational institutions of the Western middle class.
In addition to constructing scientific objectivity as something white, Western and masculine, the campaign’s Norwegian initiators (Cindy Horst and Ida Roland Birkvad) claim in an article in Aftenposten (translated into English here) that modern scholarship, as it is practised at Western research institutions, continues to be influenced by ways of thinking dating from the colonial era. They state that much of the field of development studies is founded on the idea that the Global South is ‘backward’, although they do not give any concrete examples to back up their claim.
If the authors are correct, these “colonial” ideas should dominate the least ‘decolonized’ parts of development studies, such as, for example, mainstream research in development economics that adheres to the principles of scientific realism. Does such research neglect the atrocities of the colonial era, and represent people in the Global South as ‘backward’? On the contrary, the leading scholars in this field (mainly Western men), such as Nathan Nunn, or Daron Acemoglu and Jim Robinson, have built their careers precisely on systematically documenting the catastrophic consequences of the colonial powers’ conquests. They are also highly critical of theories that seek to explain poverty, for example, on the basis that some cultures are ‘backward’. And so, when Birkvad and Horst talk about the colonial era’s ‘systematic exploitation of resources’, they find solid support in mainstream, i.e. ‘colonized’, development economics.
The campaign to decolonize academia is correct in stating that our backgrounds shape the ways we think: our powers of rationality are fallible; we take cognitive short-cuts; and we have blindspots that often drive us towards conclusions that serve our own or our group’s interests. However, scholarship that strives for objectivity is precisely an attempt to reduce the effect of these cognitive vulnerabilities on research. Although scholarship founded on objective principles produces results that are far from perfect, it is preferable to the relativism asserted by the decolonization campaign.
When those who want to decolonize academia claim that scholarship’s pursuit of – and efforts towards – objectivity reflects a ‘perspective’ that should be granted equal status with all others, this eliminates the only framework that enables genuine representation of, and dialogue between, researchers from different backgrounds. This will lead to research becoming fragmented along the lines of identity politics, where principles such as objectivity, neutrality and rationality are viewed as ‘Western’ constructs, while arguments advanced by researchers from the Global South will be evaluated only in the light of identity politics. This involves pulling an epistemological straitjacket over the heads of female and non-Western researchers, stating “this is your female perspective” and “this is your Global South perspective”.
In this relativistic version of academic decolonization, there are no guardrails against a destructive fragmentation of disciplines along ethnic and cultural divides. In this scheme, evidence-based medicine can be branded as ‘Western’, and pseudo-scientific varieties of alternative medicine will be granted equal status, as long as they can claim a cultural label (‘Sámi medicine’, ‘Indian medicine’ etc.). This will not bring about the democratization of research that we researchers – in both the North and South – should hope for. We should say yes to more diversity in academia, but not on the premises of relativism.
- Tore Wig is an Associate professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Oslo and senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).
- This article was published in Norwegian in Klassekampen 3 August 2018: ‘Avkolonisering på villspor’