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3 Postcolonialism and decolonising management research


As introduced in the previous section, one approach to empowering research is to decolonise it from the Western origins of management and organisational thought and practice. In order to do so, it is important to understand that the logic of research as a Western construct is founded on colonial and imperial practices, which persist through taken-for-granted discourses, despite this now being generally considered to be a postcolonial era globally.

This section uses postcolonial theory to critically examine the effects of colonialism on contemporary thought and practices. We will explore how decolonial methods can be used to bring non-Western ontologies and epistemologies to the fore in research.

Postcolonial theory broadly examines a range of social, cultural, political, ethical and philosophical outcomes of the colonisation of the global south by Western nation states and its contemporary consequences (Jack et al, 2011). The past violence of colonialism in the global south remain an ‘open wound’ that is not able to heal because its discourses continue to marginalise and disavow non-Western ways of knowing (Charkrabarty, 2002).

Originating in literary studies, postcolonial theory focuses particularly on those discourses to draw out and problematise issues of language, culture, difference and representation (Jack et al, 2011). Notably, Edward Said in Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (1978) shows through exhaustive analysis of multiple colonial discursive devices how the language of ‘the West’ (the Occident) and ‘the non-West’ (the Orient) were formed, and how they inform contemporary thinking and practices (Jack et al., 2011). Said (1978) shows how those colonial discourses produced the idea of the Orient and ‘the Oriental’ as the Other, which determines how those Others (colonised subjects) are still positioned by this discourse.

However, Homi Bhabha (1994) shows that colonial binary of the Occident and the Orient can be blurred through creating hybrid spaces. Hybridity is a complex concept that shows how – through colonised subjects’ mimicry of the coloniser – cultural identities become obscured as cultures combine. Hybridity theory both dispels the myth of cultural imperialism and shows how the power of the coloniser is obfuscated by the transformation of identities, to the point at which the coloniser no longer recognises the colonised subject (Bhabha, 1994).

Whilst hybridity can be a traumatic space, in which mimicry involves an enactment by the colonised subject to become more like the coloniser, it can also be source of empowerment through contesting the perpetuation of the colonial imaginary (Bhabha, 1994). This is a fine and deeply embodied balancing act. For example, Kothiyal et al. (2018) show how contemporary mimicry of Western academic ideals is enacted in Indian business schools to produce hybrid spaces where epistemological, theoretical, and methodological diversity are embraced by scholars seeking to contest universalist notions of management thought and the globalisation of the business school.

Stories from the field

A third key contribution to postcolonial theory is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ (1988): the outlawing of Indian women’s practice of sati by the British colonisers is examined to find a gap in the historical record. Hence Spivak illustrates a lack of a people’s history of India and argues that the subaltern ‘native’ is thus a creation of the British colonial administration of the time, which is today reproduced by western scholarship that serves to erase specific voices by reinforcing the notion of universal subaltern (Judd, 2014).

Subalterns’ histories have been erased (Pal, 2016), yet Pal shows how contemporary subaltern discourses challenge dominant western neoliberal ideals by asserting more politically-just ways of organising society. This point underpins the central argument in the story from the field that follows. In this short film interview, Dr Vandana Shiva, the renowned scholar and environmental activist, discusses the effects of colonising practices and how her organisation in India is working to challenge them.

Project researcher Avilasa Sengupta: an interview with Dr Vandana Shiva

Download this video clip.Video player: An interview with Dr Vandana Shiva
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Transcript: An interview with Dr Vandana Shiva

Ma’am, in today’s world, where the whole idea of feminism and matriarchy is seen as a binary opposite of the patriarchal society that we have been living in, how does Navdanya manage the conflict between the social rules that are practised in India and the women who are associated with Navdanya?
Because Navdanya is founded with the philosophy of a living Earth, as well as the recognition that women are the ultimate experts on living with the living Earth. And this work was defined as non-work. Their knowledge was defined as non-knowledge.
To overcome the artificial and violent duality of capitalist patriarchy, that led to, in the early stages, a very reactive feminism, a feminism that wanted to be like the patriarchs. And Maria Mies and I, who have written a book called Ecofeminism, called it the ‘catching-up syndrome’.
It’s a bit like cultures like India – so sophisticated, so rich, so ancient – trying to prove that they can build bigger highways than the West, when building highways was never the end of our civilisation or bigger buildings. It was about letting life flourish. That’s why Tagore called us an ‘Aranya Sanskriti’, that lived from the forest and learned from the forest. And therefore, he started Shantiniketan as a university of the forest, saying the brick and mortar does not create life and will not give you the knowledge of life.
So the old feminism basically was used by capitalist patriarchy. There was this American advertising model, Betty Crocker, who was in advertisements in the ’60s and ’70s on liberation from the patriarchy.
And so women became the first consumers of bad food and promoter of industrial food in the language of liberation. I remember the big global companies got a report written by McKinsey, whose title was called Fayeda [Benefit]. And the first line was, ‘Only 1 per cent of the food in India is processed.’
And that was at the World Economic Forum. And Gupta of McKinsey was coming down the escalator. I’m going up, and he’s complimenting me on my talk. And I’m saying, ‘I can’t compliment you on your report, where you’ve written “1 per cent of the food is processed,” as if women don’t do any work.’
And he said, ‘Oh, you want to keep women in prison in the kitchen.’ I said, ‘No. It’s just that we don’t want you to steal our kitchen and our food.’ And so we need to overcome the division of labour. But with the overcoming of the division of labour, we also need to defend that which is central to life.
And doing that is what Navdanya does. We say men also should be in the kitchen. We don’t say women only should be in the kitchen. We say everyone should be in the kitchen.
The kids should learn how to cook a little bit. We have a little chef’s programme. And boys should learn how to cook. Why only the girls? This is the way we reclaim, both vasudhev katumbakum [‘the world is one family’] and women’s rights in the context of vasudhev katumbakum.
What is Navdanya’s approach to the central idea or the traditional idea of domination and subordination that exists in our country? And how does it work towards promoting justice and social equity?
So India is such a pluralistic society, and particularly in space and time through history, as well as in different parts. I’ve grown up here in the Garhwal Himalayas. Women of these mountains are the ones who created cheap food.
The women of these mountains grow the food. They’re in the field. They are the knowledgeable ones. So I’ve grown up knowing that women can be farmers. My own mother was a feminist before the word ‘feminism’ was created. My father was a feminist. So I have not assumed that we live in a society where domination is inevitable. Yes, it’s true that there is structured domination. And I’ve always said there’s a structured domination of religious patriarchy that created certain roles for women and certain roles for men.
But there’s capitalist patriarchy, which invades into our very bodies with poisons. Capitalist patriarchy doesn’t even allow us to have autonomy over our bodies. It doesn’t allow us to have autonomy over our food, our farms, our knowledge. And therefore, I’ve always looked at the multiple levels of patriarchy, and as I’ve written in my book, Earth Democracy, what we are getting is a convergence of the worst form of religious patriarchy and the worst form of capitalist patriarchy, creating new codes of conduct on what women can do and what women should do and what humans can do and what humans should do and what nature can do. And we have to break out of all of this.
So very, very often, I realise the dualistic mode of thinking has so overtaken our thoughts that if you point out to something that is an unjust domination, a lot of people say, ‘Oh, so you’re justifying religious patriarchy?’ No, I’m not. I will never subject myself to that – but if this is killing us …!
I was at a jury: 2000 women, victims of violence. And I’ll never forget sitting on the stage and the women in the hall, one by one, they are coming, mothers of girls who were killed, all mothers. The mothers are coming after the death of their kids, the children.
And this woman said, I also lived in a patriarchal society. But my husband did not dare lift his hand. Physical violence was not allowed. Division of labour, of course, but not physical violence against women. It was just unheard of in our times.
And now it’s treated as a norm. And the rapes of two-year-olds, two-month-old baby girls, where’s it coming from? It’s coming from a mutation that has taken place in our social norms. And we cannot take the current brutality and make it part of our history throughout, because we are mutating.
And that mutation must be dealt with. The best of our traditions – we are the tradition that has given the world a cosmology of the divine feminine, of Shakti, Prakriti. Go to Odisha, go to Bengal – she’s there, alive, fully, in the hearts of everyone. That is what has to be celebrated.
End transcript: An interview with Dr Vandana Shiva
An interview with Dr Vandana Shiva
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Activity: Dr Shiva interview

Watch the interview of Dr Shiva and make your own notes in response to the following questions:

  • Define ‘religious patriarchy’ and ‘capitalist patriarchy’ in your own words.
  • Do you see Dr Shiva’s ‘philosophy of living earth’ as a form of decolonisation? How does this work?
  • What practices with nature can you think of that offer marginalised communities a means of empowerment?

We recommend that you keep notes of your answers to these questions so you can return to them during the course.

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Together, the three pillars of postcolonial thought – Said (1978), Bhabha (1994) and Spivak (1988) – unpin what are understood as the ongoing problems of postcolonialism: the discursive production, subjugation and erasure of the Other to reinforce the dominance of Western thought and practices. These are complex ideas but they are fundamentally important in order to begin to understand how colonialism has created intergenerational traumas that scar current and future generations. With such a theoretical understanding, researchers can empower themselves to identify and develop research methods to decolonise.

It might seem from reading this brief introduction to postcolonialism that colonisation was a thing of the past. It is not. Today, some peoples, particularly indigenous peoples feel colonised by postcolonial governmental and neo-colonial organisational practices that use their powers to gain – or retain – ownership of or access to their ancestral lands and retain policies that continue to erase their histories, subjugate their cultural ways of being and disavow their knowledges. Decolonial research methods seek to empower such marginalised and disenfranchised peoples, bring their knowledges to the fore, and contest the dominations that seek to suppress and potentially erase them.

The key text, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999) focuses on establishing a radical research agenda to engage researchers with indigenous community activists, and to empower indigenous researchers to draw on their cultural knowledges rather than on Western philosophical ideas. This therefore, raises the question of who can and should undertake postcolonial and decolonising research. The award-winning author, Alexis Wright (2016), discusses how, for too long, the stories of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were told by non-indigenous researchers and writers, and with that paternalism came misinterpretation, misrepresentation and mythmaking. As such, the outcome was a sustained disempowering discourse of Australian indigenous peoples’ inability to overcome extreme disadvantages that informed government policies that intervened in their lives (Wright, 2016).

The narrative has begun to shift only recently, with subaltern and indigenous voices being heard in policymaking and academic debates. This is one reason why leading scholars such as Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Aileen Moreton-Robertson call for, and encourage, more indigenous researchers. This is not to the exclusion of non-indigenous decolonial scholars, but any researchers who seek to engage with marginalised communities, whether indigenous or non-indigenous, need to understand the historical and cultural contexts of participants’ everyday lives. This is because the scars of past colonial violence remain unhealed. Research that does not understand and respect this, risks reopening old wounds and perpetuating marginalised peoples’ traumas.

Postcolonial and indigenous management research

The purpose of indigenous management research is to seek to empower people who have survived imperialism and colonialism. It recognises their right to control of their own forms of knowledge, languages and cultures. Here, Emma will set out the postcolonial argument for decolonising social scientific knowledge and discuss some of the ways in which neo-colonial power is exercised in the context of Indian business schools. Finally, she will prompt you to consider how you might decolonise organisational knowledge through your own research.

Activity: Film Focus 4, ‘Postcolonial and Indigenous management research’ – Emma Bell

Watch the film and make your own notes in response to the following questions:

  • Reflect on your positionality and situation in your past and current research. Can you identify any colonising power relations and practices?
  • How might this have influenced your research findings?
  • How could you do things differently in future in order to try to ‘decolonise’ your own research?
Download this video clip.Video player: 03-250624-25-postcolonial-and-indigenous-management-research.mp4
Skip transcript


I’m Emma Bell, and I work at The Open University in the UK. And I’m going to be talking about post-colonial and indigenous management research.

The objectives of the talk are to explain the post-colonial argument for decolonising social scientific knowledge. I’m also going to be sharing the findings from a research project involving Indian management scholars as research participants related to language and meaning and research mimicry. Then I’m going to consider the purpose of indigenous management research. And finally, I want to ask how we can decolonise management knowledge.

So first, the post-colonial argument for colonising social science knowledge. Social science research is based on a European and North American project of domination and subordination. And this imperialist and colonialist legacy dates back centuries.

So in relation to the production of knowledge, this involves a desire to understand the other, a process of constructing Western subjectivities as normal and those in the global south as somehow unusual or strange. So this concept of othering is crucial in post-colonial research.

What this means for research is that the process of doing research is a project of extracting knowledge about those others, those who are different from ourselves. And this process of extraction involves the use of methods that have been developed in the West.

So research is seen as a process of extraction and a means of progressing towards truth. And this notion of truth is founded on the legacy of the Enlightenment and the idea of modernism: the idea that through processes and practises of scientific knowledge production, we can develop better ways of managing and organising.

The problem with this, as Raewyn Connell argues, is that it assumes that all societies are knowable and that they are knowable in the same way and from the same point of view. So to sum up, these methods and methodologies of producing knowledge are tacitly assumed to be universal. They are exported from the West to the rest.

So this process of methodological colonising involves training researchers in Western universities in Western methods, exporting textbooks and research literatures to the rest of the world from the West. And it sets up a relation of inequality.

So how has this colonising logic informed management research? Well, two researchers, Jack and Westwood, in a paper in 2006 looked at this in relation to the subfield of international business. They argue that researchers in international business, including those who use qualitative methods, tend to be prone to ontological universalism, where they assume that knowledge applies independently of context.

They also found that researchers were slow to acknowledge the political nature of knowledge production. What this means is that collecting data in a country in the global south is often done in an extractive way, going out and collecting the data in contexts where the desire is to know how the business and management culture operates in order to be able to translate that knowledge to Western audiences and enable those contexts to be more effectively managed. So a power relation is at work here.

They argue that a hierarchical system of binaries is constructed in a way which positions Western management thought and Western managers as superior to those in the global south. And this is a practice of othering.

So what do international business researchers need to do in order to address these problems? Jack and Westwood recommend that the research reflects on the historical and cultural location, writing and thinking about themselves as well as those whom they are studying. They also encourage much greater reflection on the location of research participants.

They recommend that the researcher considers their own identity, including their cultural and historical location. They also encourage much greater consideration of the cultural and historical context where research participants are located. This includes thinking about the motives of the study and the different stakeholders who would be affected by the outcomes and thinking also about how they will be affected.

A further recommendation concerns local forms of representation working with researchers who are based locally in the context of study. And finally, Jack and Westwood encourage researchers to question their own authority in their writing and to think hard about the ways in which they presume that authority.

To explain how these dynamics unfold, I want to share with you a research project that I was involved in with Nivedita Kothiyal, which involved an interview study of Indian management scholars. The first theme concerns language and meaning. Boussebaa and Brown talk about the process of ‘Englishisation’, whereby business schools, in order to position themselves as international and world class, are increasingly moving towards English as the language of teaching and research. As these scholars have also observed, writing in Indian English is deemed less pure in this context.

This act of subordination has material effects on Indian management scholars as they work in business schools. So what many Indian scholars told us is that because of the pressure to publish, they are driven towards adopting positivist quantitative methods because they’re much easier to write up. Statistical tables and hypotheses that can be tested are easier to write up in a standardised form of language, which is less difficult to accomplish.

Another of these effects is that it encourages the study of research participants who speak English. So what Indian scholars told us is that because of the challenges in accessing and translating meanings from one language to another in a multilingual society such as India, so what Indian scholars told us is that this encouraged them to access research populations that spoke English as a way of dealing with the challenges in a multilingual society like India where issues of meaning and translation are highly complex by confining their studies to often elite, small groups of people who represent the colonial legacy. They were confining their questions and their pursuit of knowledge.

A final effect concerns the relationship between language and thought. Some students I have supervised in PhDs have told me that the way in which they think is framed by the language they’re educated in. So even when they’re studying a context in which they are native speakers, because the language of instruction, the language of education, the language of research is English, they find it difficult to think in their native language for their PhD.

This is something that Indian scholars also spoke about. For example, Dipanker, who is a professor in an Indian university, told us, we only see what our language allows us to see. Our thinking is limited by our exposure and socialisation into English. What this means is that Indian management scholars, including those working in anglophone contexts, are in a situation where they are constructed as the native who is trying to be white in Homi Bhabha’s terms. Almost the same, but not quite.

The second theme that I want to share with you from this research project concerns mimicry in research. Bhabha talks about mimicry as the product of an asymmetric relationship between colonisers and colonised. A narcissistic demand is placed on the colonised subject to emulate the practises, the habits and the culture of the coloniser.

So how does this translate into management research? Indian management scholars spoke about how they were encouraged to emulate Western research practises. As Amrit, a professor, told us, ‘We do whatever the West is doing. Our whole nature of questioning and issues of methodology are being framed elsewhere. That’s how I look at it. We’ve been trained to toe the line.’

And yet, at the same time, scholars told us about their experience of being positioned as not quite good enough in these contexts. So, as Bhabha tells us, mimicry can never be fully realised. The colonial subject is always positioned as a partial presence.

So to think about how some of these problems might be addressed, I want to introduce the concept of indigenous management research. Indigenous research seeks to empower people who have survived imperialism and colonialism, and recognises their right to take control of their own forms of knowledge and their processes of producing knowledge.

An example of this can be found in Warner and Grint’s study of indigenous leadership. This focused on Native American concepts of what a leader is and sought to challenge the norms of Western scholarship, which have produced a very singular concept of what leadership is, which reflects a concept of white masculinity in many cases.

But one of the challenges involved in doing this is a linguistic one. So what the researchers found is that in these contexts, when they were talking to Native American groups, their words for leadership could not be translated into English. So the problem of translation of meaning is a major one in indigenous research.

So in Native American communities, there are numerous terms for leadership, which the researchers found very difficult to translate into English while still preserving the cultural meaning that was embedded in the context. And so what this example highlights is one of the challenges of indigenous research.

We also need to be cautious in using a term like in indigenous because of the possibility of representing a romanticised and singular notion of subjectivity, which actually reproduces a colonising logic. Denzin puts this very well: ‘Indigenous knowledges too often are turned into objects of study. Treated as if they were instances of quaint folk theory held by members of a primitive culture.’ The decolonising project reverses this equation, making Western systems of knowledge the object of inquiry.

So indigenous methodology needs to be combined with a decolonising approach to the production of knowledge, which not only draws attention to alternative ways of knowing within different cultures, but problematises and specifies the cultural embedded of Western management thought.

So how can we try to decolonise management knowledge? What we argue in the paper is that this involves exploring the concept of hybridity as a way of encouraging the flourishing of diverse ways of knowing and producing knowledge, rather than a singular, universal approach. It also involves encouraging more embodied forms of knowing, first-person knowing rather than third-person speaking.

It’s about knowing as sensing, including sensing things that cannot be directly observed. And that involves beliefs, including belief systems, religions and spirituality. Indigenous knowledge has the potential also to enable us, often through these belief systems, to move beyond a human-centric approach to the world and to think about ourselves much more relationally in the context of other matter, including the environment and other living beings.

I’ve not been subject to the same colonising experiences as many. I am a relatively privileged, white, Western researcher. And so what is my role in relation to decolonising knowledge? Some researchers talk about bicultural research where non-Western and Western researchers work together to try to reclaim and foreground non-Western voices and methodologies.

The concept of bicultural research encourages researchers from indigenous cultures and the global South to work together with those in the West in ways that foreground these different perspectives that are enabled by indigenous research. And this could be one possibility for how we might work collaboratively to decolonise management knowledge.

But there are others. And the purpose of this talk has been to problematise some established ways of knowing in management research and to encourage you to think about how things might be different.

End transcript
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Decolonising management knowledge and research practice

Activity: Film Focus 5, ‘Decolonising management knowledge and research practice’ – Emanuela Girei, University of Sheffield, UK

Watch the film and make your own notes in response to the following questions:

  • What parallels and contrasts can you draw between Dr Girei’s experiences in the field and the concept of research as a craft? (See Section 2.)
  • Can you identify any political agenda in your own research? What (in)visible forms does it take?
  • Who has benefited/will benefit from your research?
Download this video clip.Video player: 03-250429-emanuela-clip.mp4
Skip transcript


Why do we need to talk about colonising knowledge? Let me just show you a few slides which show where authors, editors and reviewers come from in management journals. In 2012, we have the results, very interesting results, published in Organisation, written by Murphy and Zhu. And as you can see here, [with] the question, ‘Where is knowledge management produced?’, the great majority – they did the results looking at top-tier journals – and the great majority of authors come from the US and the UK. And from these slides, you can see that there are entire parts of the world like Africa, which are not even present, and India as well.

So this is the authors. But maybe it’s different from the editors? No, if we look [at] the editor’s affiliation, we have a very similar picture. The great majority of them comes from the US and the UK. And there again, we have entire parts of the world that are completely absent.

There is an interesting cartogram which represents their world following these figures. And you can see that Latin America and Africa are almost inexistent. So this is a picture of where does management knowledge come from. And this is also important – I lied – that not only authors and editors come from the US, from the US and the UK especially, but also the organisations that they study are mainly based in the West. So management knowledge is predominantly a Western discipline.

Have things changed in the last few years? We had a few last year, another report published by Publons [based] on the web science database and other data. And, again, here you can see that as the distribution across the world of editors and, again, of editors and of reviewers. And, again, you can see that US and UK and the global north in general, they play definitely a dominant position.

So on the basis of this data, and also more in general, we can if we talk in general about management knowledge, we face three main problems, if we talk about management knowledge and the global south. One is absence. Because, as we have just seen, management knowledge is produced mainly in the West and looking especially [at] Western organisations.

But there are other two key problems that we face when we talk about when we are concerned about the colonising management knowledge. And one is about these pervasive dimensions of orientalism and occidentalism in management and organisation studies. And another pervasive dimension is that of misrepresentations. What do I mean with these three key concepts?

Orientalism, you might be familiar with the work of Edward Said and of many other African scholars, such as Mudimbe, Kebede, which have analysed especially in [an] anthropology context how African and, more in general, the global south, were represented. And what emerged was a binary Manichian thinking according to which there was on one pole, the superior West, and on the other pole, there was the inferior global south, the inferior colonies. And the representations of Africans and [the] South Asian population were mainly developed along this binary thinking where the second pole, that of the colonised, made reference in a sense only with reference to the former. They did not have independent conceptual existence.

Have things changed in management, knowledge management and organisation studies? According to many scholars, not. In management and organisation studies currently, we still find that those dimensions of orientalism and misrepresentation that were part of the anthropology context at the beginning of the century. And on the basis of this, for instance, Prasad talks about the Westocentric nature of management organisation studies, which continues to assume the West as the norm and the lens to which study organisations and workers across the world.

And the interesting part of orientalism is that if a non-Western – or if an organisation in the global south deploys some practice that is not known in Western management, it is considered traditional, backwards, and in absolute need of modernisation. While if some practice that is taken for granted and widespread in the West is not present in organisations in the global south, then they need training, capacity-building.

My background is in development studies. And so I did a lot of studies regarding capacity-building of organisations and institutions in the global south. And this dimension is very much present. But it is also interesting to see that together with orientalism, management studies also suffers of what is being called occidentalism, which means that despite the fact that management and organisation studies mainly ignores the rest of the world, Western management knowledge is considered universal and valid everywhere in the West – everywhere in the world.

My way of seeing decolonised knowledge is knowledge it is meaningful in the context with where it is produced and that is meaningful for the person and the citizens and the communities that are involved in the knowledge production process. Is it indigenous knowledge, is it Western knowledge? I don’t know. This is not the relevant question for me.

What I try to do in my research is to produce knowledge that is first of all relevant and meaningful for that context where the research takes place. And in focusing on the local context does not mean escaping or neglecting macrodynamics of power, does not mean ignoring what is happening outside our small context of the research. It’s more a way to think continuously between the micro level where the research takes place and the macro level of knowledge production and what can we use – the macro global political economic frameworks to understand what we are observing the fears, but also to use what we are observing the fears to understand what is happening at a more global level.

So with regard to this question, ‘What is decolonised knowledge?’ On the basis of my experience, what I use as a normative principle for my research is that decolonised knowledge is a knowledge that is meaningful for the people I’m working with. And this is the first – one of the first steps. It is also very important to focus on the unit of analysis of the place where we are working.

Because this also helps us to overcome one of the key features of the colonial thinking in management knowledge, which is what we mentioned before, orientalism, and this attitude of studying non-Western organisations through the comparative lens using the West as a norm and the local organisation – to use the West as the lens to study a local organisation. To focus on radical contextuality helps us to go beyond orientalism. Because it helps us to go beyond these comparative lenses. And it helps us to give independent conceptual value to the reality that we have in front of us.

How do we decolonise management knowledge? Through which processes we can decolonise management knowledge? One of the key principles that I try to follow in my research is that of embracing an open-ended stance, which means liberating as much as possible the research from predefined frameworks, or paradigms, or approaches.

It’s something linked to dropping that tool that was mentioned in the opening talk. And this is really important. Because when I started my research, I did my PhD in Uganda. And I started with the aim of doing a critical, participatory action research.

And only through the field, through the work in the field, I have realised how much constraint I was putting on my participants. Because I wanted to have meetings and the cycles of action and reflections, because I wanted to focus on our questions. And it was an enormous constraint on the research setting.

And that was even if I was starting from a participatory critical approach, I was setting the agenda. I was leading the research process. So I had to learn slowly to leave, to really leave the stick and also to sit down and observe and also spend days just participating in meetings, some observing what my colleagues were doing.

And renounced the first few weeks, I tried to organise reflective meetings. But I was the only person interested in those reflexive meetings. They were not important for my colleagues. So this open-ended stance, I think, is a way that might help us to identify ways of working and to identify ways of doing research, which may be innovative and beyond the Western canons.

Another key principle of my methodological approach is what I would call activist research methodologies, which really based recognise negotiation, participation, interaction with the research participants as an epistemological position; which recognise that in order for us to be able to decolonise management knowledge, we need to open the voices and we need to engage with meanings, perspectives that are outside our frameworks. And these can only be done through research settings that leaves the space for the research participants in whatever forms, including resistance to the research process itself. And I will return on this point in a second.

The third point, which I think is really, really important, is in terms of how do we do our research – is that of a political engagement? As we were saying before, value and politics is part of the research. Any research project will serve specific interests. Are we aware of who is benefiting from our research? How are we aware of which interests our research is serving? There is not any level of neutrality or suprapolitical objectivity. All research [has] a political agenda. And, for me, decolonising management knowledge means also making this political agenda clear, making this political agenda and stance of the research process itself, and making it clear who I would like first and foremost to benefit from my research.

End transcript
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Working with marginalised communities and decolonising research

Activity: Film Focus 6, ‘Working with marginalised communities and decolonising research’ – Tim Butcher

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Stories from the field

Rohit Shah: learning from the Santal tribe

In the image below, Rohit (a researcher on the project team, on the left) is sharing a meal with research participants. Rohit, who studies in Delhi, travelled twice to visit the Santal tribe, the largest indigenous group in the state of Jharkhand in West Bengal.

Rohit with research participants

Rohit knew from having spoken to tribal elders via telephone before his visits that Santali cultural values are grounded in a deep and longstanding knowledge of working with the land, but that their connections with the land are being eroded through regional development and other progressive practices. So Rohit sought to study the effects of developmentalism on how Santali people organise their everyday lives.

As for all indigenous and marginalised peoples, the plight of the Santal tribe is to sustain their culture despite powerful political and economic forces, which effectively silence or erase their ways of knowing. What Rohit knew from talking with elders in advance was that whilst new developments were being constructed by the regional government to house and support Santali people, they maintained their ways of being through organisational processes such as working the land in traditional ways and providing culturally appropriate early years schooling and healthcare.

Rohit had prepared some semi-structured interview questions before his first visit, but his inquiry remained broad and open because of his unfamiliarity with the context and the Santali culture. It was, in many ways, a learning experience. The Santali elders showed Rohit how they wish to live their lives, and how new housing developments and other external forces counteract those efforts. Rohit learned from his first visit that Santali people do not necessarily resist new developments, educational opportunities or state-provided healthcare, but feel that those systems do not respect their cultural values and do not treat them as equals to non-indigenous people. Rohit was particularly struck by the experiences of young Santali people who had returned to their families after going away to study.

Rohit therefore arranged a second visit to attempt to understand that situation by interviewing those young people. This involved observing cultural norms of gaining permissions from elders. Rohit learned that many young Santali people have experienced Othering and marginalisation whilst living away in major cities during their studies, which negatively affected their wellbeing, their ability to study, their likelihood of gaining good grades and their propensity to pursue work and build lives in urban areas. Hence, many young Santali people return home to their families and tribe, disaffected by having attempted to engage with mainstream, postcolonial society.

Rohit’s research illustrates the complex everyday situations that contemporary indigenous peoples face. Their ways of being and knowing, their everyday experiences, and their historical and cultural contexts are difficult to understand for anyone who does not share their culture. Hence, whilst the Santali people were extremely welcoming of Rohit, he could never fully know their true plight. This is why decolonial approaches to research are necessary. The only people who can understand and speak on behalf of the Santali people are the Santali people themselves. Decolonial research is necessary in order to enable indigenous peoples to tell their own stories, speak out about their struggles and develop their own solutions.

Recommended reading

Jack, G., Westwood, R., Srinivas, N. and Sardar, Z. (2011) ‘Deepening, broadening and re-asserting a postcolonial interrogative space in organization studies’, Organization, 18(3): 275–302. Available at: permalink/ f/ gvehrt/ TN_sage_s10_1177_1350508411398996 (accessed 1 October 2019).

Judd, B. (2014) ‘From Paris to Papunya: postcolonial theory, Australian indigenous studies and “knowing” “the Aborigine”’, in V. Castejon, A. Cole, O. Haag and K. Hughes (eds) Ngapartji Ngapartji – In Turn, In Turn: Ego-histoire, Europe and Indigenous Australia, Canberra, Australia: ANU Press. Available at: permalink/ f/ gvehrt/ TN_jstor_books_chap_oaj.ctt13wwvhn.15 (accessed 1 October 2019).

Wright, A. (2016) ‘What happens when you tell someone else’s story?’, Meanjin Quarterly, 75(4): 58–76. Available at: essays/ what-happens-when-you-tell-somebody-elses-story/ (accessed 1 October 2019).