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The place of race in developing epistemologies and methodologies

Many of us are engaged, or intend to be engaged, in research on matters of race. Some students in ‘Understanding Race’ want to focus on their own and their communities’ experiences of migration, racialisation and belonging. Others want to look at how racialised people have used various art forms to resist their own domination and/or stand in solidarity with those in their homelands who are being met with forms of systemic oppression (in Palestine, Kerala or Borneo). Still others want to privilege how racial injustice is embedded in new digital technologies, for example those increasingly used in policing (profiling and surveillance).

White logicWhether we are closer to or further away from our objects of study, in terms of our own lived experience, we need to interrogate our own assumptions about race, and ‘unlearn‘ many of the ways in which we have come to understand the social world, interpreted often through the dominant lens of what Bonilla-Silva and Zuberi call ‘white logic’ thanks to the primacy of white, Eurocentric thought in our education systems (Bonilla-Silva and Zuberi 2008).

To do our work from a perspective that privileges the margins, emphasising a decolonial, race critical and an account that centres what Barnor Hesse (2014) calls ‘black analytics’, we need to think about how to approach our subjects of research in a way that does not reproduce the oppressions we are trying to unmask. We need also to think seriously about how to privilege the ‘doing’ rather than the ‘being’ of race (Munoz 2006).

This is a topic that cannot be thought about without also thinking about one’s own place in upholding dominant white logics in the academy, privileging (no matter how inadvertently) white knowledges, and simply taking up space in an environment in which white scholars are already  over-represented.  And when I say ‘one’, I mean me. I was recently interviewed by Em Castle from the Thursday Breakfast show on Naarm community radio 3CR (my interview kicks in at 1 hour and 3 minutes). One of the questions I was asked was what I thought was the risk of white people being engaged in antiracist education. I decided not to simply point to my own racialised identity, accepting the fact that I am read as white and that I benefit from structural whiteness.

My response was that it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, white people are over-represented in all areas of the academy, and need to be displaced. I should add that merely diversifying the academic body, while an important first step, is not enough to ensure that we move towards a decolonisation of knowledge and/or a race critical approach to teaching and learning. On the other, I argued, it is problematic to suggest that white scholars are over-represented in antiracist education for two reasons. Firstly, there is a problem when the burden of teaching on race falls on Black, Indigenous and scholars of colour alone. I would qualify this by insisting that I am not saying that it does not matter who is teaching on race; it cannot be done by anyone, and lived experience is important. In that sense, teaching and researching race is not ‘just another topic’ but neither is it right that scholars of colour are assumed to only have interests in the area. Nevertheless, it is also a problem when white scholars occupy spaces that race scholars who are also Black, Indigenous and POC have been purposefully excluded from. In Australia today, there is a significant problem of critical race academics being excluded from positions because they question the dominant status quo which is one, as I have argued, that denies the centrality of race and ‘black analytics’. Who carries the burden of enhancing racial literacy and should it fall on the shoulders of the racialised alone is an important question to discuss. However, if we look specifically at the Australian academy, across the disciplines, a major problem that we can observe is how little attention is given to race as an area of study, let alone to explicitly antiracist education.

Critical Indigenous Studies

Aileen Moreton-Robinson, in an important contribution to her edited volume, Critical Indigenous Studies, entitled ‘Race and Cultural Entrapment: Critical Indigenous Studies in the Twenty-First Century’, notes that teaching race and Indigeneity ‘remains on the periphery of Australian sociology’ (Moreton-Robinson 2016). She cites a review by Maggie Walter and Kathy Butler of ‘Indigenous and Race Units within Sociology Curricula’ (Walter and Butler 2013: 398). They noted that only four units being taught across the country treated race explicitly. As I said during my interview, a major problem for us as educators is even having race put on the agenda, not just as one in an array of ‘add on’ topics (race, gender, sexuality…) that, at best, often come once the main themes have been treated, but as the main lens through which our understanding of all social, political and economic structures in a colonised country such as Australia must be looked at. As Paul Gilroy explains, race is not generally thought of as ‘something that structures the life of the postimperial polity’ (Gilroy 2005: 12). Walter and Butler ‘state that teaching about race should not be the preserve of the Other because it is a symbolic and emotionally violent practice. They note that “such a division of labour also excuses White academics from having to address their own whiteness and its impact on their teaching and practice”‘ (Walter and Butler 2013: 4076, in Morton-Robinson 2016).

Dr Chelsea Bond
Dr Chelsea Bond

Moreton-Robinson reminds us of the claim by whiteness studies scholars, such as Fiona Nicoll, that ‘teaching about race and whiteness is an epistemologically violent experience for white women because in effect they are usually perceived as race traitors’ (ibid.). However, I think it is important to insist that, whatever violence is certainly meted out to white scholars in the space of race scholarship, it is certainly less than that confronted by scholars of colour and Aboriginal scholars in Australia in particular. As Chelsea Bond and Angelina Hurley pointed out during their radio show, Wild Black Women‘s interview with comedian Trevor Noah, and as Bond reiterates here, Aboriginal women have almost no visibility in Australian society, bear the brunt of state racism and gendered violence, and are generally only ever spoken about in negative terms. So, when we are speaking about violence in the context of speaking race, we need to be extremely careful not to generalise.

Questions on who should study race, and under what conditions, to what extent does research on marginalised and racialised communities further compound inequalities and injustices, and how can racialised people be facilitated by the university to carry out their own research to use in ways that service their own liberation drive ongoing discussions.

Historically, it is impossible to disentangle the development of the social sciences from the context of colonialism and race. Anthropology, as a discipline, earned the monicker the ‘handmaiden of colonialism’ because, not only did European colonisation make it possible for anthropologists to study non-European peoples, but anthropology was at the forefront of developing the conceptual tools of race theory. As Faye Harrison reminds us, ‘anthropology’s early professionalization as a science was associated closely with the elaboration of typologies and techniques for classifying and operationalizing the discrete “races of man”‘ (Harrison 1995: 50). And Aileen Moreton-Robinson states that ‘the study of Indigenous peoples has been tied to anthropology in developing its disciplinary knowledge, which was particularly useful to colonial administrations prior to World War II’ (Moreton-Robinson 2016: 6).

But the birth of sociology too was closely tied to the racial-colonial but there has not been as great a readiness to admit this as within anthropology. As I wrote in this post, the sociologist Zine Magubane has demonstrated the extent to which early US American sociology was founded on pro-slavery positions while at the same time, by developing the discourse of ‘race relations’ (which obscures the questions of power inherent to the operations of race) giving the impression that sociology as a discipline is antiracist. As I wrote,

Despite the fact, as Zine Magubane (2016) shows, that the foundational sociological literature in English is steeped in the defence of slavery, global US dominance over the discipline has led to the creation of the impression that sociology was primarily a non-racist discipline. Magubane, unearthing the work of early sociologists of the Southern United States, such as Fitzhugh, Hughes and Holmes, writing in the mid 1800s, shows how this sociology was primarily the work of ‘pro-slavery imperialists’ (Magubane 2016: 370). Robert Park and Ernest Burgess’ Introduction to the Science of Sociology (the so-called ‘Green Bible’), Magubane observes, uses Park’s ‘race relations cycle’ as ‘the theoretical scaffolding for the entire book’ (ibid. 371). So, US sociology, more than any other discipline, has centred the question of race . Sociology, she writes, following Steinberg (2007: 50), is ‘a discipline evolved out of a racial ontology.’

So, our starting point must be that the Western academy is steeped in race thinking and racial rule. Not only is this an historical fact, but there are myriad ways in which the contemporary academy continues to perpetuate this, from the role of Israeli universities in the arms industry that fuels the occupation of Palestine to the exploitation of international students by universities in Australia and elsewhere leading to critics describing them as no more than ‘cash cows‘. Moreover, while researchers have become more attuned to the power disparities involved in doing research with minoritised and racialised communities, there are significant ways in which the power dynamics of race are obscured by researchers who can benefit from meeting research needs in priority areas such as ‘security and terrorism‘ which often relies on stereotypes about Muslim people.

Nevertheless, how to do research in ways that (1) privilege the lived experience of racialised people, working towards their liberation/sovereignty/self-determination and (2) considers how race is intrinsically relational and connected, in that it is a complex and many-headed phenomenon that requires deep engagement with how it plays out in a variety of times and spaces, are questions that have received a lot of attention. These discussion have been led by Black feminist and Indigenous thinkers, unsurprisingly as these two groups in particular have been the focus of so much of the attention of scientists often with extremely detrimental effects (as Dorothy Roberts discusses in relation to medicine in the video below). As Linda Tuhiwai Smith reminds us, Maori researchers in her context of Aotearoa (New Zealand) have often engaged in research in education, health and employment as these are ‘sites of struggle’ with the colonial state: There are sound reasons why we are interested in education, employment, health and history. Each of these domains situates us in crisis. They are more real and more pressing’ (Tuhiwai Smith 2012: 191).

So, in this post, I wish to focus on three issues in particular: the contributions of Black feminist epistemology, the development of  ‘decolonising methodologies’ within a ‘Critical Indigenous studies’ framework, and the question of how to develop relational and interactive methodologies for the study of race, as suggested by David Goldberg.

Black feminist scholar, Patricia Hill Collins, distinguishes between epistemologies, paradigms and methodologies:

‘In contrast to epistemologies, paradigms encompass interpretive frameworks such as intersectionality that are used to explain social  phenomena. Methodology refers to the broad principles of how to conduct research and how interpretive paradigms are to be applied. The level of epistemology is important because it determines which questions merit investigation, which interpretive frameworks will be used to analyze findings, and to what use any ensuing knowledge will be put’ (Hill Collins 2000: 252).

Traditionally, the social sciences have proceeded from a ‘positivist‘ perspective. As Tuhiwai Smith argues, not only is it it difficult for Indigenous researchers to argue for the necessity of research that is grounded in the experiences and knowledges of Indigenous people themselves within univerisities, they also come up against opposition from society in general. There is a strong belief ‘out there’ that research that is good is research that is ‘scientific’ and we have come to see ‘scientific’ as aligned with ‘objective’ – research that is agnostic on the outcome and that is not ‘biased’ by being led by those who might be personally invested in the topic being studied. For Tuhiwai Smith, this belief makes it doubly difficult for Maori researchers who must do battle both with positivistic researchers whose ‘whose regard for Maori is not sympathetic’ (ibid. 189) and with society in general:

‘The problem is not just that positivist science is well established institutionally and theoretically, but that it has a connectedness at a common sense level with the rest of society who, generally speaking, take for granted the hegemony of its methods and leadership in the search for knowledge’ (ibid.)

Patricia Hill CollinsFeminist researchers have long argued the impossibility of true objectivity. The problem is that the subjective viewpoint of the dominant in western society – traditionally, white middle-upper class men – has been obscured by the alignment of their perspective and viewpoint with ‘objectivity’, ‘rationality’, and ‘science’. Black feminists have been at the vanguard of critiquing and exposing this. As Patricia Hill Collins writes in her seminal book, Black Feminist Thought, we cannot subtract the place accorded to Black women, both in US society from where she writes, and globally, from how their experiences and knowledges have been subverted and/or ignored in research:

‘Because elite White men control Western structures of knowledge validation, their interests pervade the themes, paradigms, and epistemologies of traditional scholarship.As a result, U.S. Black women’s experiences as well as those of women of African descent transnationally have been routinely distorted within or excluded from what counts as knowledge’ (Hill Collins 2000: 268).

So, the bases on which research is conducted – or what frames our thinking before we carry out research on a given topic – is of vital importance. This is what we think of as ‘epistemology’, or the framework for our knowledge, the structures in which it develops, including school and home, but also the overarching political context which frames our world view. In Australia, we must take into account ongoing coloniality and the role it plays in structuring and framing questions such as whose lands we live on, who has power and why, what cultural representations we are exposed to and why, why we learn certain histories and not others, why we have particular preferences in style and food, and not others, etc. etc. As Hill Collins puts it, epistemology ‘investigates the standards used to assess knowledge or why we believe what we believe to be true’ (ibid. 252).

Questions of epistemology go to the heart of questions of power and how they are connected to knowledge. As Aileen Moreton-Robinson writes, Critical Indigenous Studies ‘challenge the power/knowledge structures and discourses through which Indigenous peoples have been framed and known’ (Moreton-Robinson 2016). And Hill Collins states, ‘Epistemological choices about whom to trust, what to believe, and why something is true are not benign academic issues. Instead, these concerns tap the fundamental question of which versions of truth will prevail’ (Hill Collins 2000: 252). So, looking at the world from the perspective of those who have traditionally been left out as competent ‘knowers’, even of their own lives, will contribute more complete analyses of a particular topic. Furthermore, Black scholars have argued that being marginalised also gives people the possibility of making more complex analyses because they have exposure both to their own perspective and to that of those in power. Put simply, minoritised people in a society such as Australia, which is dominated by white, Anglo culture, cannot live outside of white frames of reference, especially if they have been through the mainstream education system. They therefore have what W.E.B. described as a ‘second sight’ which allows them to see the world from the perspective of both the periphery and the centre (Du Bois 1903: 23).

Nevertheless, as Patricia Hill Collins makes clear, although some researchers use their position of privilege to stand in solidarity with Black women and other racialised people making their way in the academy, the knowledge production field is fraught with struggles over the intimate relationship between power and knowledge. In trying to introduce interpretive frameworks that are grounded in the experience of African-American women, for example, Black feminist researchers have to do battle with prevailing norms which frame what we know about these women. And there has, and continues to be, a strong alignment between the research produced, political interests, commercial interests and media representations. Hill Collins gives the example of Black single mothers, traditionally maligned by conservative politicians and the mainstream media like:

‘Take, for example, the differences between how U.S. Black women interpret their experiences as single mothers and how prevailing social science research analyzes the same reality. Whereas Black women stress their struggles with job discrimination, inadequate child support, inferior housing, and street violence, far too much social science research seems mesmerized by images of lazy “welfare queens” content to stay on the dole’ (Hill Collins 2000: 255).

So, as Tuhiwai Smith reminds us, scholarship by Indigenous, Black and otherwise racialised peoples has been forged through struggle. African-American researchers, for example, have to expose not only the epistemological frameworks that present the notion that Black single mothers are ‘lazy welfare queens’ as objective fact, but also the poverty of the methodological choices used to make these claims. Positivist science often uses quantitative methods of analysis, but a focus on numbers alone often obscures a large part of the picture, which we may see more of if we actually talk to women about their life circumstances. As Hill Collins writes, the criteria guiding positivist research are ensuring distance between the researcher and the object of research, ‘the absence of emotions from the research process,’ and  removing ethics and values from the research process (ibid.). So, these criteria effectively  ‘ask African-American women to objectify ourselves, devalue our emotional life, displace our motivations for furthering knowledge about Black women, and confront in an adversarial relationship those with more social, economic, and professional power’ (ibid.).

Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth

Black feminist epistemology, against all the odds, is grounded in a profound rejection of the possibility of being cold and calculated about how we go about research. Hill Collins shows that Black women in the US, at least as far back as the anti-slavery campaigner Sojourner Truth, mobilised their own experience and the wisdom garnered through it to ask questions about the social world. “Look at my arm!” Sojourner Truth proclaimed: “I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman?” (Loewenberg and Bogin 1976, 235). By invoking examples from her own life to symbolize new meanings, Truth deconstructed the prevailing notions of woman’ (Hill Collins 2000: 258).

Hill Collins further notes that Black feminist epistemology has been guided by an emphasis on dialogue and on caring. Contrary to positivist aproaches that see it as possible to gain a bird’s eye view of a situation by zooming out and seeing the ‘bigger picture’, often with the help of large-scale studies that privilege the numbers over the details, an approach based in dialogue sees the potential in co-creating the outcome of research. Here, the ‘researched’ are as much a part of the research process as those doing the researching. Of course, even in the cases where Black women or Indigenous people, for example, are carrying out research in the communities from which they themselves come from, there is a power differential in play between the researcher and the researched. Being part of a university – even as a student – may give researchers a status over the people they are carrying out research on/with. Linda Tuhiwai-Smith address this in her discussion of ‘Kaupapa Maori Research‘.

Smith explains that Kaupapa Maori research is ‘research for, by and with Maori’ (Tuhiwai Smith 2012: 183). It is ‘research which is ‘culturally safe’, which involves the ‘mentorship’ of elders, which is culturally relevant and appropriate while satisfying the rigour of research, and which is undertaken by a Maori researcher, not a researcher who happens to be Maori’ (ibid. 184). Therefore, it is vital that research that is carried out within the Kaupapa Maori framework is done in the interests and under the guidance of the community concerned. Here there is no notion that the academy or ‘science’ knows best. Rather, she cites Russel Bishop who claims that ‘Maori people should regain control of investigations into Maori people’s lives’ (ibid.). So the ‘whanau‘, or the extended family, has a major role to play in deciding on what to research, how to research it and in carrying out the research.

So, the whanau acts as the research supervisors. Smith says that, in this way, research is part of the overall struggle for Maori self-determination. In that Indigenous people struggle to regain control over their lands, their culture and their languages, they are also engaged in a struggle over how knowledge about them is created and to what ends. Because, as has been made clear, knowledge about racialised and colonised peoples has been traditionally developed in order to better control them, and this continues in many ways (particularly in so-called problem areas such as crime, health and education), it is absolutely vital that minoritised people can determine what and how knowledge is produced about them.

Relational and interactive methodologies?

In her discussion of Kaupapa Maori, Smith asks whether it is possible for non-Maori people to be involved in the research? She writes that while it is not possible for non-Maori to lead research, they can be involved as part of a team: ‘some non-indigenous researchers, who have a genuine desire to support the cause of Maori, ought to be included, because they can be useful allies and colleagues in research’ (Tuhiwai Smith 2012: 184). This introduces questions about the relationship between doing research that contributes to the struggle for self-determination or liberation as described by Tuhiwai Smith and Hill Collins and doing research that is explicitly antiracist and/or seeks to uncover and challenge the workings of race. Clearly the two are interrelated but there are important discussions to be had about the role of the positionality of the researcher in the latter. This returns me to my opening remarks about who does research on race and why. There is an undeniably important connection here between lived experience of racism and what epistemologies are brought to the fore in doing research on what race does. However, at the same time, as Tuhiwai Smith says, this should not mean stepping away from the importance of rigour in research. Too often there has been an assumption that experiencing racism makes people too emotionally invested and unable to ably conduct research, a notion that has been debunked by Black feminist and Indigenous scholars, as I have written.

Nevertheless, because race acts to compartmentalise, working to produce differences between peoples, understood as ‘populations’ under ‘raceocracies’ (Hesse 2012), there has also been a parallel division within research by and for racialised and Indigenous people. As Tuhiwai Smith points out in her talk at CUNY (in the video above) the reality of Indigenous peoples is not ‘neat and tidy’. The contemporary context in which Indigenous people live is in constant flux, it is dynamic. It is impossible, she says to simply ‘stop and Indigenize or decolonize’ in a way that doesn’t take account of the constantly changing and risk-laden terrain in which we all exist. Additionally, she says, Maori people are intertwined with white/Pakeha people through intermarriage, and so while they know their Maori selves, their lives and histories have necessary been messily entangled with those of the colonisers. All of this, she says, means that we cannot go back, we can only move in one forward direction, but we do not have any certainty of what we will find in the future. Research, for Tuhiwai Smith, is mainly about building and sustaining relationships, but relationships should not only be forged for the purpose of carrying out research. As researchers, we need to be open to questions such as ‘who are you to be doing this research?’ ‘Research is not a short term relationship for an instrumental gain,’ she warns. The question of building relationships through research with Aboriginal peoples is the subject of this talk by Inuk Research Methods Specialist, Julie Bull:

So, while it is necessary that research that is led and framed by differently racialised groups has full place in the academy, there is also the need for relational and interactive approaches that look at the patterns of similarity between different processes of racialisation. This is a fruitful discussion entered into by David Goldberg in his paper, ‘Racial comparisons, relational racisms: some thoughts on method.’ As I wrote in this post, in his article on ‘Racial Europeanization‘,  David Goldberg (2006) begins to outline his proposal for a relational approach to race. He suggests that

“the force of race assumes its power in and from the thick contexts of the different if related geopolitical regions in which it is embedded, the specific conditions of which concretize the notion of race representing them” (Goldberg 2006: 332).

In other words, although race manifests differently in different locations and with respect to different peoples, it is nonetheless to be understood as a global power structure with similar effects across different realities. A question for researchers is how to draw this out without flattening the concrete experiences of different groups of people and, relatedly, how to then make the argument that anyone can research anything because it is all ‘relational’. Like many buzz words in academia, there is always the danger that nefarious conclusions can be drawn. Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang, for example, note that decolonization has become a metaphor in ways that ignore the fact that Indigenous people calling for decolonization are in fact asking for very material forms of redress, principally the return of land. Similarly, we may run the risk of relationality being misconceived to mean that one’s racialised positioning loses meaning when conducting research. To make it clear, pointing out that racial-colonial structures and allied epistemologies weave together a diversity of on-the-ground experiences of racial rule and racialised identities, does not imply that there are no differences in play and that who tells which story is immaterial. These continue to be important questions especially when those who benefit from the racial status quo (white people in white dominated societies) participate in or lead research on race.

So, with these qualifications centrally in our minds, what would a relational methodology look like? I have argued that a relational approach helps us to overcome the dominance of comparativism. Sociology has traditionally been based on comparative methods that have often operated on the basis of a methodological nationalism that assumes that we can think about societies as homogeneous entities, as I show in greater detail in this post.

As David Goldberg puts it, ‘comparativism misses deeper and larger issues about the workings of race and racism fuelled by the relations between racial configuration and racial conditions across times and places.’ Comparing the manifestations of racism across different national territories, for example, falls into the trap of methodological nationalism. It also omits three important points:

  1. If we accept that race emerges out of the conditions of colonial rule, then it circulates as a matter of necessity. We know for a fact that, in no time since the invention of race, were ideas about it generated in absolute isolation from the ways they developed elsewhere. Technologies, rules, and systems put in place to sustain racial rule borrowed heavily from each other.
  2. Secondly, we know that this continues in a very practical sense to be the case. International agencies exist for the ‘better’ management of borders, for example.
  3. Race is given meaning in one place on the basis of its application in another. This works in a variety of ways. For example, debates about the Muslim veil were had in various locations following the decision in France to ban women from wearing it in public schools. ‘Honest and open’ debates about the meaning of veiling are held in places without any significant Muslim populations.
Race works in patterns

In another sense, the ways in which we discuss race from an antiracist perspective are informed by the ways they are discussed in others. In particular, US movements, from civil rights to Black Lives Matter have shaped the ways conversations are had in other places across the ‘west’. While this may at times have the impact of imposing US-specific readings onto very different locations, the conversations and productive solidarities that can emerge also draw attention to similarities. Comparison emphasizes what is different, while relationality emphasises how things are distinct yet continuous. Comparison relies on generalisations, ‘constructivist France’ versus ‘empiricist, realist, pragmatic UK and US’, for example. Comparison also often has the aim of minimisation – it’s not ‘as bad’ here as it is there. So noting that the militarization of the police in the US, as well as the gun culture which leads to so many police shootings is important. There are clear differences with many other countries. But this should not lead to a dismissal of the significance of racist policing, the disproportionate incarceration of Black and brown people, or deaths in custody in these other countries. Nor should it blind us to the global reach of corporatized prisons or for-profit migration detention centres from the US out.

Relationality notes the patterns, overlaps, reproductions, inconsistencies, gaps, samenesses, mistranslations, interpretations, developments on, etc. Seeing these helps us understand race as a doing rather than a being, it helps us go beyond seeing race only in relation to a Eurocentric interpretation of racism, and it helps us build on this to develop globally interactive strategies for resisting.



Alana Lentin