Whose Job is it Anyways?: Decolonization as Ethics in European STS

by Jacqueline Ashkin & Efe Cengiz

In our experience, many European STS scholars view decolonial efforts as a good addition to – but not a core value of – their research practice. Reduced to an ethics of check-listing, decolonization remains largely performative, rather than actively collaborative, dizzying, and fundamentally reflexive. In this short essay, we explore who should be responsible and who is held accountable for decolonizing research practices and cultures. We argue that staying with the trouble of decolonization in STS requires an ethics of constant refocusing (your practice) and renegotiating (with collaborators). 

It has now been more than a decade since Tuck & Yang (2012) explained that decolonization is not a metaphor. But if it’s not a metaphor, what exactly is it? It seems to us that most European STS scholars have little, if any, idea. And those that do, are either unable or unwilling to act upon it. We argue that this does not stem from ignorance, but an ethical and knowledgeable choice, to let decolonization stay confined exactly to the metaphor scholars of the Other attempt to break out of. While we know and appreciate that there is no uniform “European STS Scholar”, there is an idea(l) of one, delivered with and by an epistemic culture which struggles to confront otherness as simultaneously an ontological and theoretical condition. 
Decolonization isn’t land acknowledgement – Europe is not land stolen from indigenous peoples (or so the story goes). Is it including more diverse case studies? It could be, so long as it does not require any active commitment to produce an institutional shift which would make ‘doing decolonization’ an uncomfortable endeavor. Is it engaging with thinkers and literature from beyond the English cannon? In a discipline like STS, which prides itself on not really having a set cannon or not really being a discipline, wouldn’t this be easy? It should be. But in our experience as young scholars from the fringes of the colonizing world, we see many of our senior colleagues treating decolonization as an afterthought, a cherry on top of an otherwise complete piece of research. Like the “Best Regards” at the ends of emails containing the really important stuff, the language of decolonization is expressed as a spectacle of niceness. As with the pleasantries in a steadily growing chain of emails, sometimes even this performative act disappears without a thought to whether its dismissal results in the loss of anything valuable.

We think this is in part because scholars do not know where to locate the work of decolonizing. One author was asked by a colleague for suggestions on who to collaborate with in their home country, with little curiosity about why they had chosen to leave that context in the first place. The other author is often asked why they are primarily interested in conducting research in and about their home country and lack interest in other national contexts. You might want to respond by saying these are genuine questions, or that these questions are indicators of casual racism more than anything; but they are not value-free to the receiver of those questions, i.e. the Other scholar, especially when received at regular intervals. We feel obliged to help you understand – more than anything, we want you to understand the complexities through which our existence as both people and scholars emerges. But it is exhausting. The desire of European scholarship operates exactly in the way to place and pin the Other scholar between a rock and a hard place. “They” must be willing and interested in becoming “like” the European scholar, demonstrating their dedicated care-work in institutional and national settings they are often only precariously tied to, yet never to the point that they may act as if they actually belong. An eternal approach is reserved for the Other; but never arrival. Keep becoming but never be. This is what Frantz Fanon already described in the 1960s as the conundrum of the colonized intellectual: they come to mediate the relation between colonizer and colonized, attempting to prove the value of their otherness and, in doing so, reinforcing the colonial project. For Fanon, decolonizing the intellectual begins with re-orienting the knowledge-making endeavor away from oppressive institutions and towards the concerns of the oppressed.

Offhand comments like the above, casual as they may be, reinforce a cherry-on-top mentality towards decolonization, one where scholars of European origin have a choice to engage with international contexts – often to great fanfare and benefit to their personal career trajectories – while those who are coded as Other simply must. It is what is expected of them. To further complicate things (or rather, to begin complicating them), our aversion to a “cherry on top” approach to decolonization specifically comes from the importance we place upon it; a “we” which includes you, until it comes to place your own hands under the rubble and lift. In this division of labor, decolonizing research practices is a choice for some and an obligation for others. It shunts extra labor onto people who are already fighting to persist in a system that is explicitly not designed for them. To rephrase Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s eminent essay, “Can the subaltern decide what to speak about without it becoming a whole thing?” is the new question of our times. In these interactions in the west, our affiliations with the ‘rest’ are casually interpreted as forms of expertise, free of sociopolitical entanglement because, well: you’re here, aren’t you? This is at its core what Sara Ahmed refers to as ‘stranger making’ in her work on diversity in higher education, pointing to the ways in which ‘some more than others will be at home in institutions that assume certain bodies as their norm’ (2012: 3).

Surprisingly, despite their attention to dissecting norms in their empirical work, European STS scholars appear less inclined to similar interrogations of their home turf, the university. Both authors have been told that if decolonization is what they wish to bring about, perhaps a doctorate in STS is not the best way to go about it. If the context of European STS scholarship will only speak of, but never begin the task of doing decolonization, perhaps it itself is “not the best way to go about” scholarship. What we hear is that Otherness is what we deal with “out there” in the world rather than “in here” in the academy. We find these comments especially alarming because of the history of STS: countering universalist claims and contesting reductive, essentializing ways of knowing the world have long been at the heart of key contributions from the discipline. Part of the challenge is that, as Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2007) writes, the very conditions for western epistemology are themselves colonial. Practices of collecting, which often set indigenous peoples alongside woven baskets and plant specimens, rendered certain types of bodies as objects rather than subjects of knowledge. To undo this move – to make the Other body as a subject – collapses the project for superiority that justifies the colonial interventions which still order our world today. Indeed, as Edward Said points out, this curatorial work is highly selective, cannibalizing otherness to strategically incorporate it into a teleology of Western knowing that maintains the status of the Other as an object in need of guidance at best, control at worst.

Of course, many of the arguments we make will be familiar to the reader. While we are here more concerned with the practice of decolonization and decolonizing practice (like good STS-ers), we cannot write about decolonization without discussing citational politics. Thinkers such as Achille Mbembe and Boaventura de Sousa Santos have written extensively about how to go about decolonizing Western research epistemologies, pointing to the intricate entanglements between colonial, capitalist, and patriarchal domination. Zoe Todd, in their seminal essay ‘Ontology is just another word for colonialism’ (2016), points out that when choosing to cite white men over thinkers emerging from other histories and geographies, white men become an obligatory passage point in the generation of legitimate scholarly thought. But this is true also outside of the written word. The problem is that in many contexts outside of the west, whiteness and maleness remain important markers of legitimacy and authority. “We” are not granted the same access to “ourselves” without it. We don’t need European scholars to abandon the Other in the name of decolonization; what we do need is an experimental allyship, an ‘ethical relationality’ (c.f. Donald 2012) predicated on thinking-together about how we can best mobilize the prestige and authority of western institutions to decolonial ends.

All this calls into question what exactly it is we mean when we talk about ethics. Ethics Boards still expect the Other scholar to do their work on the Other within the ethical confines set for the context of the European Institution. Checklist ethics of, for example, “not including vulnerable populations” or “people engaged in criminal activities”, do not make sense when producing research on regions where everyone is vulnerable and vulnerable especially to the Law. Rather than just one step in the process, then, we ask STS scholars to incorporate an ethics of decolonizing into their entire research trajectory. We do not need spectacles of decolonization. Spectacles of liberation have served nothing but the interests of those scholars who would like to write about the world as it is. Without an actual interest in refusing the as-is, the European scholar need not contribute to a program that necessitates their loss of power. The mythical position of the neutral observer is no longer – or rather, has long failed to be – an ethical position.  

Building on what Donald (2012) calls an ‘ethical relationality’, we argue that staying with the trouble of decolonization in STS requires an ethics of constant refocusing of research practices and renegotiating with interlocutors and collaborators. It demands a criminal relation (c.f. Moten & Harney 2004) to research institutions and the formation of new lines of solidarity across colonially imposed boundaries. It asks scholars in positions of power to be mindful of the ways they mentor and make space for those most precarious dissenting voices in their networks. Decolonization is by definition most uncomfortable for those with the most power to take definitive action. It will not feel like winning; it will not always be a success story; it will, necessarily, not always benefit you. But just as it is not “our” responsibility to make sure “you” are decolonizing the academy, it is not “your” responsibility to ensure that “we” succeed. The fact that we still have to produce an “us” connected only in our exploitation and otherness speaks volumes (Fanon, again, wrote about this phenomenon some fifty years ago). Decolonization is a practice that needs room to fail. That is part of the beauty and the hazard of genuinely collaborative relations – they don’t always work out. This does not make them any less worthwhile. Demanding immediate outcomes is the perfectionist pitfall, an impediment to the messiness and dizziness of genuine transformation. Decolonization is not a metaphor, but it is a trouble to stay with, a constant effort at reflexively engaging with and restructuring research. Fanon called this the process of replacing concept with muscle (2004[1961]: 157). We must transition from Haraway’s (2016) notion of tentacular thinking into a mode of tentacular doing, the feeling and testing out of ways to do research otherwise. To offer a step-by-step guide would once again make decolonization “our” task and “your” pastime, so instead we ask: if the doing is not your job, then whose job is it anyways? 


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Author Biographies

Jacqueline Ashkin (she/her) is a PhD researcher at the Centre for Science & Technology Studies (CWTS), Leiden University. Her work examines the role of computational practices, especially numerical modelling, in scientific knowledge of (future) coastal environments in the Netherlands. Prior to her doctoral research, Ashkin worked with indigenous communities in Latin America and Southeast Asia, and she maintains a broader interest in engaging varied ways of knowing and confronting environmental change. When not writing her thesis, she writes performance poetry.

Efe Cengiz (he/him) is a PhD researcher at University of Groningen, Campus Fryslan. His work concerns the epistemic, ecological and socioeconomic injustices and more-than-human futures in the making in olive groves of Turkey’s Aegean region. He has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology (Middle East Technical University) and a master’s degree in STS (Goethe University Frankfurt). He’s also a board member of WTMC (Netherlands Graduate Research School of Science, Technology and Modern Culture) and an editor of metapolitik.net; a political theory e-zine.