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
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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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