Tag Archives: decolonisation

Writing about writing about decolonisation


Three privileged white men displaying the normal range of responses to calls for decolonisation of science. Still from 90s classic sitcom Friends.

Who gets to make the case for decolonisation in the sciences? One of the anticipated reactions to our recent paper on decolonising field ecology (written with Kate Baker and Mark Griffiths*, and summarised in this blog post) was that we’re just three white Europeans. What right do we have to comment? Aren’t we part of the problem?

The answer is that yes, we are the problem, and that’s why it’s our responsibility to draw attention to it. Dismissing our argument because we come from a position of privilege is like disputing evidence of a crime wave because you’ve only heard about it from the police. Why aren’t the victims making a fuss? Researchers from developing countries don’t have the same platform. We know that. We’re using our platform to make exactly that point.

Another way of phrasing the critique is: “We like what you have to say, we’d just rather it was being said by someone else.” At best this derives from an assumption that we are stealing attention which should be directed towards academics from developing countries. To which I can only agree, and point out that our main message is to point away and shout “Look over there!” We haven’t silenced or excluded anyone. If our paper opens up space for others to be heard then we will have achieved one of our goals.

We freely acknowledge that our line of argument isn’t novel; the whole point of the paper is to draw attention to how a movement originating in the social sciences hasn’t penetrated far in ecology. There have been powerful statements made in the past, some of which we cite, but it’s fair to say that their impact has been limited. Many appeared as magazine articles or were published in non-science fields, which means that a majority of researchers in ecology will simply never encounter them unless they deliberately go looking. We have instead placed a commentary in the principal journal of tropical ecology, a publication which mostly features conventional scientific papers, which is much harder to ignore.

Was it easier for us to do publish this paper than it would be for others? Yes, without a doubt. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth doing. We gained our current positions through structural inequalities, but the system will only change if those in control of it make an effort to do so. We aren’t demanding action from scientists in developing countries, although we strongly advocate listening to them. The walls aren’t going to fall down just because someone’s shouting outside. We need to start dismantling them ourselves.

At its worst, criticising the profile of the authors instead of the message is a means of deflecting responsibility to act. Throughout history, most movements for social justice have foundered at some stage because those in positions of authority grumble that no-one affected has complained to them directly. It always takes calls from within the establishment to provoke a response.

Also, who’s asking? If your response to the paper is that you agree with the message, but that we’re not the right people to be saying it, then who is? Who gets to judge? This turns out to be another means by which established authorities control participation in discourse. I will gladly accept, and try to learn from, any criticism from those adversely affected by the colonial aspects of science. It’s notable that all the push-back I’ve had so far is from other white people complaining that white people are telling them what to do.

We have been asked why we didn’t invite a developing world author onto the paper. This is a source of regret to us as well, but we didn’t have one. The paper arose out of direct discussions between the authors which took place in the UK and determined the message and outline. Approaching someone post-hoc and asking them to stick their name on a manuscript would have been the worst form of patronising tokenism, merely serving to insulate ourselves from criticism rather than being genuinely inclusive. So no, we didn’t do that. Of course it would have been best of all to have incorporated a broad panel of authors from the start, but it would also be disingenuous to pretend that this happened. To criticise the paper on these grounds is once again dodging the message to score a moral point. I too wish that science was more inclusive and fully collaborative; that’s one of the points we’re making.

Finally, I’m happy to accept that I am not the right person to lead by example. My encounter with the decolonisation literature has come through an awareness and confession of past mistakes, most of which were made through arrogance and ignorance. By all means criticise me for what I’ve done wrong — I’m comfortable with my errors being used as instructive examples. I’m also stumbling into a new field and likely to make further blunders. This will be an iterative process and one I’m entering into with some trepidation. But I firmly believe that this is a necessary direction and hope that others will join us.

* None of my thoughts in this blog post are original; I’ve learnt everything from discussions with the other authors.


Where are the African ecologists in Wytham Woods?


Are Wytham Woods really that special? Photo from https://www.flickr.com/photos/oxox/509238022

*** See end for updates and responses ***

Calls have been growing across many academic fields for the necessity of decolonising science, both as a means of addressing the legacy of imperialism and broadening the scope and inclusivity of the collective human endeavour. Yet these discussions have been slow to take root in ecology. Many ecologists complacently assume that they are above this — we work with international collaborators in countries around the world, often living and working alongside local scientists with whom we interact with as equals (or at least that’s what we tell ourselves). Can we shrug off this latest movement as the well-meaning but unnecessary moaning of pious social scientists?

No. And this ought to be glaringly obvious.

Those of us who work in the tropics are all familiar with the classic study sites: Barro Colorado Island in Panama, La Selva in Costa Rica, Danum Valley in Malaysia… the list could go on. What unites all these sites is that they were usually established, and are often still run, by white scientists from First World countries (mainly Europe, North America and Australia). They are visited by streams of researchers and students from these First World countries. While the field centres are staffed by locals and include local scientists in their research programs, the funding to support them comes primarily from overseas.

Many ecology programs in First World universities include a glamorous field trip to an exotic location where our students can learn about applied conservation. They travel to Africa, South America or Southeast Asia and spend a few weeks visiting field sites which have been made famous through the published work of mainly white First World scientists, sometimes their own instructors. Often these field courses employ local teachers and guides, but they are based at local institutions. Locals are there to support the visiting experts, not to be celebrated for their own local research programs.

We have our classic field sites in the First World too. But how many visitors from the developing world come to see them? Why are there no Africans in Wytham Woods, studying the dynamics of a temperate woodland? Where are the Brazilians in Hubbard Brook? How many Indonesian scientists make a pilgrimage to see the Daintree Forest in Australia?*

There is one obvious reason why developing world scientists don’t visit these sites for research: money. Yet this is not an insuperable barrier. If we genuinely cared about developing international science, and believed that our cherished major study sites were of international importance, then we could find a way. In the same way as a British forester could develop sufficient expertise to interpret a study site in Africa, surely a Ugandan forester would be able to shed some light on what’s happening in a forest in Oxfordshire. Has anyone thought to ask?

More important is that they probably don’t care. Our favoured locations are much less interesting than we would like to believe, and have little to say to scientists in other countries. The one-way flow of assumed expertise and insight is a glaring failure in the way our entire field operates. In short, we need to decolonise ecology.

In a new paper in Biotropica we draw attention to this problem and suggest three responsibilities that researchers from the developed world need to accept as part of a moral imperative to decolonise our field.**

The first is a recognition of objectivity; ecologists from the Global North bring a set of priorities, paradigms and assumptions that are not always shared by the people living in the countries in which we work. The solution is not to indoctrinate the locals in our way of thinking, but to learn what their own perspectives are, and fully incorporate them in our research programs.

Secondly, we can stop calling our field sites ‘remote’ just because they require a long plane flight to reach and are found in places without reliable running water. To many people they are simply ‘home’. We should recognise and respect their expertise, even though it is exhibited in different ways from our own. If we genuinely wish to support local people then we should seek to arrive as supporting collaborators in achieving their goals, not solely ours. That would be truly impactful research.

Finally, we should start reflecting on our own background and how it inflects our conduct as researchers. Positionality statements are a common starting point in the humanities literature but remain very rare in science. This isn’t just a tick-box exercise for which we need to find an appropriately contrite form of words before carrying on as before. We need to acknowledge that the neutral scientific voice is a myth, one which disguises our own agency while writing out the contributions of others, particularly the locals we rely upon. We need to reflect on and state our potential biases in the same way as we would expect a declaration of conflict of interest or funding sources.

None of these prescriptions are inherently difficult, it’s just that the structures of modern science do not currently provide incentives for achieving them. But we created the structures of science. It’s our responsibility to change them.



UPDATE (22 May): there’s been a lot of commentary on Twitter about this post but no-one has followed through by commenting on the blog itself. Instead I’ll summarise some of the objections and my responses.

A few people were upset by the original title, which turns out not to be strictly accurate (although this was anticipated this in the footnotes). It has been amended slightly but due to WordPress defaults it’s impossible to change the link title without deleting the entire post. I had no intention of ignoring or writing out the contributions of scientists from the Global South to our understanding of Wytham, of which I was unaware. These deserve recognition:

To which I can only say brilliant, and I hope his work gets published. Another one here:

This is great news, and I hope the program is successful and leads to papers. Few people have done more for capacity-building in developing countries than Yadvinder Mahli, and I’m very happy to be proven wrong. We do need much more of this.

Finally, however, this:

I hope this helps clarify where I’m coming from. It wasn’t my intention to single out Wytham Woods for special criticism (#WythamSoWhite) but rather use it to make a general point. I could have chosen to illustrate it using almost any of the classic temperate field sites. Sadly a few exceptions, which I’m still glad to have learnt about, don’t negate the overall story.

This is an updated version of an article I wrote for a newsletter a few years ago. My thinking has been greatly refined through discussions with Kate Baker and Mark Griffiths, my coauthors on our paper in Biotropica.

* To anyone reading and planning a comment saying “I took some African ecologists to Wytham, look, here’s a photo”, please stop and think about whether that either invalidates or reinforces my argument.

** In case you’re wondering how three white Europeans feel that they have a right to weigh in on this, then another blog post on this will follow, but briefly: in cases of inequality, it’s the responsibility of those in a position of privilege to take action, not to wait for someone with less of a platform to tell them that they need to.