Red de Organizaciones Femeninas del Pacifico Caucano Matamba y Guasa, Andrea García González (former CSECP Visiting Fellow), Adriana Rudling, Sanne Weber y Laura Rodríguez Castro
“The treasure is in the relationships”. This was the key idea resulting from a series of meetings between the co-authors of this post. These meetings, in which we had discussions about possible feminist decolonial approaches to research and social change, were held in the framework of the ESRC postdoctoral fellowship that Andrea was carrying out as a member of SCEP.
Our discussions led to a collaboration with the Red de Organizaciones Femeninas del Pacifico Caucano, a network of Indigenous and Afro-Descendant women in Cauca, Colombia, whose work is presented through two videos included in this blog. Laura had already developed a close relationship with the Network, and knew about their transformative work including the development of an inter-ethnic women’s agenda for and by them.
This collaboration originated from a desire that our discussions would not stay in the realm of academia. As we have witnessed in our connections to Colombia, where we have all lived and worked intermittently, decolonial feminist praxis happens in the territories and particularly in the organising processes of Black, indigenous and campesina women and through oral traditions and popular communication in ways that go beyond the traditional research outputs. This post aims to amplify the process of the Network and promote reflections among scholars on the development of practices of relationality.
The Cauca region of the Pacific, where the Network has been resisting for more than 30 years, is a territory where colonial violence intersects with the continuum of violences, including gender-based violence and the armed conflict. The first video created by the Network for this blog documents the projects carried out in the last years, in territories where women, defending and practising ancestral knowledge, have been developing projects for healing, resistance, subsistence and pervivencia, as well as enacting political impact.
In the second video, members of the Network set an agenda by them and for them, highlighting the importance of reasserting their own priorities and needs over those of external actors and institutions. This evolving agenda, bolstering ethnic, cultural and territorial reaffirmation includes: (1) the creation of a common fund; (2) economic empowerment; (3) security, housing and wellbeing; (4) political influence.
We would like to acknowledge that we were trained, we have been writing, and have been doing our feminist work from Northern academies and institutions. Thus, we have been implicated in the academic and social structures of the North, which have a history of epistemic extractivism and marginalisation of Southern knowledges and ways of knowing. We understand the North and South beyond geographical borders, constituted through the power relations implied in the colonial-capitalist-neoliberal project of the West. This makes it essential to deeply reflect on how we do research and the implications it has to those we converse and work with.
The violence of epistemic extractivism has been a main concern in our discussions. Epistemic extractivism refers to the extraction of ideas following the logic in which natural resources are stolen from colonised territories for the enrichment of the North. Epistemic extractivism utilises and destroys the transformative potential of knowledge, absorbing it into Western cognitive patterns (Grosfoguel, 2016) while delegitimising the spaces it originates from as mere places ‘of experience,’ not theory.
In Colombia we have witnessed how communities organise and struggle against economic extractivism and the continuum of violence that their body-territories are facing. As the Northern gaze was firmly set on Colombia following the historic signing of the Peace Accord with the FARC-EP in 2016, epistemic extractivism has also become an important theme in our conversations with members of different organisations. In conversation with Laura in early 2020, Charo Mina-Rojas (Human Rights Defender and Afro-Colombian leader from the Process of Black Communities -PCN-) explained how the instrumentalisation of women’s memories and struggles continues to operate in ‘peace research and institutions’ under Western parameters of fast-paced and quantifiable outputs to this day:
They [institutions] grab things and adapt them and accommodate them, but ultimately, memory needs to contribute to transform. But the way it has been happening is not really transforming anything, because it is a memory that is left on the bookshelves and not [engaged] in dynamic processes of construction and transformation of realities and of people.
These experiences have led us to question how we do transnational research as feminists committed to social transformation. How do we ground this commitment in genuine and politically grounded alliances? How do we develop research practices that defy utilitarian relationships? What circumstances involve the risk of exploitative practices? These questions have led us to rethink the kind of relationships that we establish with those involved in research, and what methodologies are most appropriate for this.
Methodologies challenging extractive research
The selection of research methods in relation to ethical relationships has confronted us with contradictions. Some of us considered that more traditional interview-based methods could make research a tiring experience for the participants and of little direct benefit. Others in this group have found that interviews can become spaces for dialogue, recognition and shared knowledge creation (elements that we embrace in challenging epistemic extractivism). Participatory methods have been called into question as well, as although they too are far from “the” magic cure, they can also demonstrate enormous potential. Participatory methods require an additional effort, time and special emotional investment from the participants that they may not always be willing to give, even if they want the research to be carried out. On some occasions, with the idea of “giving something back to the participants”, we might have developed participatory activities where involvement was accepted more due to an emotional attachment with the researcher than because of a committed engagement with the project itself. In other experiences (as we will see below in Sanne’s account), participatory methods have brought more direct, tangible results to participants and have made the research process less extractive and more reciprocal.
We have identified that the key elements of how to contest extractive research are time and the building of relationships based on mutual trust and transparency. We discussed the importance of establishing conversations with communities where it is vital to raise questions such as whether they really need us there or the material needs to realise social transformation. When we do our research, material needs are often thought as separate from transformation, but they impose limitations on transformative work. We might also want to challenge the hierarchical idea of “you need”/“I have”, while at the same time being aware and accountable in relation to our privileges for being situated in the extractivist global North. Vulnerable listening, respect and care are pillars in the relationships that we develop in the desire to co-create transformative knowledge.
Although we are all aware of the risks of extractive research, avoiding it is not always easy. Sometimes we learn and self-correct by making mistakes. Reflecting on misconceptions and oversights that can happen in the field can then help us to identify what we could do better next time. Sanne shares one such experience:
When I was doing a pilot project for my postdoctoral research, I opted for doing life history interviews instead of participatory research, for lack of time and money. As a result, I found myself in a community with a group of women who came for a focus group organised by one of their leaders – not on my request but because she believed this is what researchers expected. In fact, these women were quite ‘over-researched’ and most of them were reluctant to participate in the focus group. They had told their conflict-era experiences many times, and some of them felt emotionally distressed afterwards. Feeling utterly exploitative, I told them we did not have to do the focus group. Some women indeed left, while others insisted on telling their story. Afterwards, I decided I could not use this data for academic publications only, but that I had to produce something more meaningful for the participants. I attempted to give this project a participatory turn. I obtained financial support, and held discussions with the participants, in which they decided they wanted to create a book with their stories. In further workshops we discussed the contents and format of the book. The book’s physical copies have now been shared far and wide in Guatemala, and it can be found online. Although it took time and energy, my extreme discomfort eventually led to something positive.
This example shows that preventing exploitative research is not necessarily just about the methods we use, but also about the conversations, the recognition of those we are working with, and the process that lead us to arrive at shared goals and expectations.
How do we imagine other ways to carry out social research then? We need to constantly reflect on the expectations we and our participants have of research. We often have a utilitarian logic to our research encounters: projects with set outputs, career goals, and timeframes. This rubs uncomfortably up against the fact that there often is no specified end to our research because there is often no goal post and results are not linear. Furthermore, many of the changes we and our participants would like to see are not within our reach or capacity to control, but are subject to broader political and societal structures. Participants might know this, or intuit it, but we need to be transparent about it. This does not mean research is meaningless. It is all about entanglements, relationships, and unexpected outcomes. Embracing serendipity has been part of how some of us ended up in Colombia in the first place.
Another way to imagine research differently is to think about our research questions. Conflict researchers often ask about people’s experiences of conflict and violence. This can revictimise or retraumatise participants. Instead, or in addition, we can create space for people to ‘speak back to power’ (patriarchal, local, regional, institutional, state, academic, etc.). For example, in one of our conversations, Laura shared how in the epistemic extractivist context of post-Peace Accord Colombia, she asked social leaders about their experience with historical memory processes and institutions, instead of asking them to share once again their traumatic experiences of violence. We can also ask for their everyday experiences and hopes and needs for the future, or what Eve Tuck (2009) calls ‘desire-centred research’. In relation to the Network, they are the ones demonstrating that agendas and projects for social transformation are already ongoing, regardless of researcher participation or interest. It is not about us as researchers making an impact, but it is them making the impact, with the support of a transfer of material possibilities and of knowledge sharing. Social transformation expands through the creation of relationships that are based on care, solidarity, respect, mutual support and generous knowledge exchange.
Grosfoguel, Ramón (2016) Del «extractivismo económico» al «extractivismo epistémico» y al «extractivismo ontológico»: una forma destructiva de conocer, ser y estar en el mundo. Tabula Rasa (24): 123–143.
Tuck, Eve (2009) ‘Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities’, Harvard Educational Review, 79(3), pp. 409–428.
**A Spanish language version of this post can be found here: https://blogs.brighton.ac.uk/secp/2022/05/11/practicas-de-relacionalidad-dialogos-para-imaginar-otras-formas-de-hacer-investigacion/